(Qamishli, Syria): The People's Protection Units (YPG) is the main force within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). On 19 January, just outside Qamishli city, I was able to conduct an exclusive interview Nouri Mahmoud, the spokesman for the YPG. We discussed a variety of issues including the situation in Afrin (where Turkey has since launched an operation under the name of 'Olive Branch' against the SDF), relations with foreign powers like the U.S., Iran and Russia, and even the independence referendum held in the Iraqi Kurdistan region in September 2017.
Rather than commenting on this interview at length, I simply present the transcript below (slightly edited for clarity). For the reader's reference:
- Da'esh: Islamic State
- YPJ: Women's version of the YPG.
- PKK: Kurdistan Worker's Party
- AKP: Justice and Development Party of Erdogan in Turkey.
- YBS: Sinjar Resistance Units (Yezidi forces in Iraq linked to the PKK).
- al-Sham: Damascus
- PYD: Democratic Union Party, the main political authority in SDF areas.
The room in which the interview with Nouri Mahmoud was conducted. Featured is the YPG logo with 'general command' inscribed below it. Photo my own.
Nouri Mahmoud. Photo my own.
Q: Firstly as an introduction, can you tell me when the YPG was established, what was the foundational aim for the units, in what areas has it fought, and how many martyrs does it have until now?
A: Concerning the YPG's establishment, since the beginning of the revolution: young men and girls of this society undertook to protect their society, beginning from the streets. We began from the streets, for thus was the security [situation] in Syria. In the beginning we undertook the protection of our areas and our streets. From that time, we brought about from this same opportunity for the community that it should hold its councils, discuss, and build the first project under our protection. That was in 2012 approximately, more or less, until this day. This matter developed from street to city, and from city to the north of Syria.
We can say that after we came out of the framework of the street and reached the city, the society developed its project in order to resolve its affairs and put in place a system in its cities, and they developed the project of the sectors- or the cantons. And after that, we can say that there is another project now: the federal system of north Syria in the framework of the areas that the SDF protects. And we as the YPG and YPJ are a part of these forces. After bringing an end to Da'esh, in particular in Raqqa, there is now another project for all of Syria, and it is a political project: the Syrian Democratic Council, aiming for the democratization of Damascus or Syria generally.
As for the number of martyrs, we can say that we have offered thousands of martyrs. As for our numbers, they have exceeded 50,000: between 50,000 and 70,000 as the SDF.
Q: But the YPG is the main component of the SDF?
A: It is the main force, and not the main component. The main force: the YPG and YPJ since the beginning, waged war or defended. Indeed, we defended in Sere Kaniye [Ras al-Ayn] and Kobani the society and its gains and we managed to destroy the terrorist groups in Sere Kaniye, supported by Turkey in particular. And for the first time, we were the ones able to stop Da'esh in Kobani. Before Da'esh reached Kobani, Da'esh announced itself in Raqqa and claimed that it is the capital of its claimed Caliphate, and despite the existence of all the armies in the region, whether the current regime army, the Turkish army, the Iranian army, the Iraqi army, or even the Peshmerga. All of them were present. Despite that, Da'esh announced its terrorist organization and reached the borders of Baghdad and the borders of Damascus, and likewise it announced itself in many of the countries of the Middle East and undertook terrorist operations in Europe and Asia, and they were expanding until they reached Kobani. In Kobani for the first time we as the YPG and YPJ proved before the world that it was possible to stand in the face of the greatest global terror and afterwards diminish it whenever the time extended. So we have powerful experiences in the global war on terror. And we can say that SDF after the great battles in Raqqa and now Asifat al-Jazeera in Deir az-Zor, the SDF in all its forces inside it has acquired great experiences. But in the beginning we as the YPG and YPJ, we have been the most experienced force in the war against Da'esh. Therefore we have been an important part of the SDF. But now we can say the SDF is a force formed from all the components present in the north of Syria, and is the only force that has been able to protect society and preserve for society the opportunity to develop its projects, protecting their affairs in the beginning, from the house of the people to the sector and today to the federation of north Syria, and the suggestion of a political solution for all of Syria in the Syrian Democratic Council.
Q: What proportion of the SDF is YPG approximately? 80%, for example? Or you don't know the proportion?
A: We don't want to define the proportion, nor do we account for each other on this basis. We are Syrian society and we have natural responsibility. This is Syria, our homeland. We are always ready to protect every inch of Syria, wherever it is.
Q: Of course there is the Turkish campaign against the Afrin region. How is the YPG responding to this attack/campaign? For example, have YPG reinforcements arrived from the sectors of Kobani and Jazeera to Afrin? How did they arrive in Afrin if reinforcements have gone?
A: In truth, the Turkish people and Turkey generally were always a strong support for the revolution of Rojava and north Syria. The Turkish people, or the peoples present in Turkey, stood as human shields in Sere Kaniye and Kobani, protecting Sere Kaniye and Kobani for days, weeks and even months, such that it brought matters under control in Sere Kaniye and Kobani was liberated. Peoples present in Turkey have been helping this revolution and undertaking the obligations of neighbours with the revolution of the north of Syria, or all of Syria. But the current authority in Turkey that wants to rule and impose itself on Turkey and all the Middle East: as you know, since the beginning of the undertaking of revolution by the people of the Middle East, the AKP and its head Recep Tayyip Erdogan especially built a palace composed of a thousand rooms in Istanbul, and wanted to return to the Ottoman Sultan way and build an Erdogan sultanate, and they relied on the Muslim Brotherhood specifically, and as you know, in Egypt, Tunisia, there were parties called Justice and Development and the Justice and Nour Party, from these names that were very close to this aspiration. This authority- and not Turkey- the current authority that has exploited and seized all the institutions present in Turkey works for its interest only for the sake of the regime of one man, who is the president of the Turkish Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So he has waged war against us since the beginning of the revolution.
This war is not new. In Sere Kaniye, the Turkish gates were open for Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. And we proved for the first time that al-Qaeda was participating in the war on Sere Kaniye. Whether arms, mercenary gangs, or logistics, all of this was coming from Turkey, and at the same time, their wounded were going to Turkey to receie treatment. In Kobani as well, for the first time, this authority brought down through the borders of Syria and opened the route for the Da'esh terrorists to surround our forces in Kobani in order to bring it down. And as you remember, Erdogan was saying: 'Kobani has fallen, and is about to fall.' It was their slogan in that area. But we as YPG and SDF today were able to thwart these masks whether under the name of the Free Army or Arab Spring, or under the name of religion that Da'esh represents. These are the masks that failed in the matter. And the AKP and its head Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported these forces in all forms. And today, we see that no power or force has remained in these terrorist groups or this terrorist organization Da'esh, so today Erdogan and his party are exploiting the Turkish army/Turkish military establishment whose obligation it is to protect Turkey: they are exploiting it to attack Afrin.
The main reason is the democratic understanding and project being developed in the area, in north Syria and Afrin. He wants to wipe out this project because this project with regards to him is the main reason for the failure of the Erdogan sultanate project he was aiming to organize in the Middle East. He was saying that in the Middle East, each state after another would fall like domino blocks. So the attack now on Afrin is an attack on the democratic understanding that is being developed and will be the only hope for the Syrian people in all its components and creeds. As for how to go, this question is one of intelligence: from where to where, how we go, this is something that concerns us and no one else.
Q: It is not necessary to clarify how to go, but have reinforcements arrived from Kobani and Jazeera to Afrin?
A: Afrin can protect itself. Yesterday we saw, I don't know if you have been following Afrin, the city of Afrin from children, sheikhs, women and youth: all of them were in the streets and shouting that they would protect Afrin with all the force they had, and that they would be going on the path of Kobani, and that the current Turkish authority must understand that Afrin is by no means less than Kobani, and that the battle will be greater than the one for Kobani, and the resistance will be greater than in Kobani. Therefore Afrin has the ability to protect itself. Afrin has its mountains, its people. Also the YPG, Jaysh al-Thuwar present in the area and other factions: all of them will protect Afrin. And before now also, the current authority in Turkey and its mercenary gang from Euphrates Shield tested themselves to Ein Daqna, and their fate was failure.
Q: A former MP for the PKK in the Syrian parliament said today to al-Watan newspaper that is loyal to the regime that the most preferable solution for Afrin is to raise the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic in Afrin, and that the YPG must...
A: Don't ask me about people who jest, or jesters, the likes of which you are speaking about. This jester, this person does not concern me.
Q: Not about this person, but...
A: The Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK: it does not concern me what they say...
Q: Sure. But what is your opinion on the suggestion of raising the Syrian flag in Afrin to prevent the Turkish attack on Afrin?
A: The problem for the Syrian people is not with the Syrian flag, but it is the current regime is the regime that must change. The people chanted for freedom and democracy. They did not chant for this regime or this person, this side or this party. The Syrian people want freedom and democracy. We protect this people so that they may attain freedom and democracy.
Q: Are you saying that the solution for the Syrian crisis generally is the departure of Bashar al-Assad from power?
A: Departure or democratization of the regime goes back to the society and its people. And the people rules. This isn't my opinion. I don't want my opinion or that of any party to be applied: I want it to go back to the society, and society's opinion to be applied. If the society wants Bashar al-Assad to rule, fine. But what we see now in Deir az-Zor: the regime boasts that it has liberated Deir az-Zor, Mayadeen, Albukamal and these regions, but all of the Deiri people are with us. More than 500,000 people- nearly a million Deiri citizens- fled to the north of Syria under the control of SDF because of the presence of the regime in Deir az-Zor. If this [the regime] were the most representative solution for the Syrian people, would the Syrian people have been displaced from Deir az-Zor, fled from Deir az-Zor and come to the north of Syria under the control of the SDF? Therefore, we want society's opinion to be applied, and society's aims, which are freedom and democracy, to be realized.
Q: So the only solution must be elections without any problems and the people choose the authority...
A: Yes. Of course Syria has come to have forces like SDF formed from all the components and creeds. So this force has managed to open up the opportunity in the areas in which it has protected society to set up legislative, implementation and service councils, justice [system], internal security, so society has been able to establish its institutions in a form dozens or hundreds of times more preferable than the current regime. Therefore, Syria will realize freedom and democracy.
Q: How are YPG's relations with America and Russia generally?
A: We have previously announced more than once that we- especially with the U.S. and international coalition (Britain is also a part of this international coalition)- had a strategy to put an end to Da'esh. This strategy began from Kobani, and today, as Da'esh is about to come to an end in Deir az-Zor, after the development or the success of this strategy, many of the forces or armies present including that of the regime have parasitically exploited our victories and now it [the regime army] is claiming that they are victorious, but the Syrian people departs towards us. And after putting an end to Da'esh, we are on a new agreement or new strategy: to bring stability to Syria...or establishing stability, or securing stability in Syria.
Q: And do you expect the Americans will remain in Syria in order to help you in this project of stability?
A: Until now, we and the Americans are agreed on the opinions to put an end to Da'esh and terrorism, and keeping oppression away from society, even if some of the authorities present in the region have other opinions. But we are agreed on putting an end to terrorism, bringing stability and keeping away any oppression or attack on this society that resisted the greatest terrorism in the entire world and bore the entire world [burden] in this region. So I consider that we, the Americans and the international coalition have succeeded in great work and we can succeed in much greater matters. But now the current strategy is the stability of Syria, and in the future, whether or not we stay with each other, I am sure that we will undertake very good and very great works for the future of Syria, and that Syria will turn into a model of the Middle East, and will be the starting point for global peace, if God wills.
Q: If tomorrow the Damascus government decided to recognize the federal region of north Syria as an official federal region within Syria, you don't have a problem with that?
A: We don't have a problem. We are prepared to discuss, and we don't want to partition Syria. And we don't want to draw new borders, but rather we are torn apart by the borders present in the region. All the borders constitute a problem for us. These borders that divide a city from another, like Qamishli, which is divided from Nusaybin. I may have my sister or brother there and I am here, and I can't go to Turkey because of the policies of this authority and that authority. So it's not about new borders in Syria, but we want al-Sham to be democratic. We want the society in this state to be a free society, that has free will, and that the assumption for society is that there should be the open field before it to be expressed.
Q: Do you have any relations with Russia, and what is Russia's role in the Afrin events currently?
A: We consider Russia to be a great state and must play a positive role in Syria and not only consider its interests. It must consider its global centre and deal according to this centre. But what we see now in Idlib and Afrin is that there is a Turkish imposition on Russia as Turkey fears for its interests, and it [Russia] is on the point of accepting that Turkey should intervene in Afrin, especially after the failure of the current Turkish authority in its invasion operations in Idlib days ago. The current authority has imposed itself on Russia to exchange Afrin for Idlib. Therefore what we see now in Russia, despite the fact it is a great state in the world and must be a force of the solution, we see that is more fearful for its interests than what it is developing or offering from opinions, ideas and projects that benefit this society, and benefiting this region. So it is very weak on these points and embracing its narrow interests more than the greater interests.
Q: Has Russia withdrawn from the Afrin area?
A: I don't think that Russia will withdraw from the Afrin area.
Q: They are present in Afrin but there was talk from Turkey that they withdrew.
A: Turkey today: Turkey has a method of special war or method of rumour so it publishes rumours and lies and accusations in order to gain legitimacy to intervene in northern Syria. Turkey accuses us of terrorism as the YPG, but we put an end to the greatest terrorism in the world, and this Da'eshi terrorism, every senior figure of this terrorism we have arrested in the war, bore the passport stamped by Turkey. And they accuse us of terrorism! This authority is the main supporter or is the mother of terrorism that announced itself in Syria.
Q: Does the YPG still want to connect by land the Afrin area with the Kobani area and Jazeera area?
A: After putting an end to Da'esh, after the end of Da'esh, we believe in dialogue. And we will protect our society from any attack or any side. We will protect our society without hesitation and with sacrificial spirit. Relying on our acquired experiences over the past years, we will protect our society to the last shot against any attack. And we do not want to wage war, but rather we want to resolve the cause politically and open the space for society to resolve the Syria issue and attain its aims in a democratic and free manner. So if any side wants to impose itself by means of force and arms on society, we will stand in its way, defending our society and legitimacy of society, the societal council, mutual consultation of society and the societal project. So this will be our stance. And we don't have aims and objectives to open the borders from here or separate this town there from that town, but rather we want Damascus to be democratic, and for all components of Syria to be free.
Q: Do you have any relations with Iran? There are those who hate the YPG and say that through the YBS, it helps Iran to bring in arms to Syria in order to support Iran and its allies in Syria.
A: Iran has opened the route and now has the Shi'i crescent, beginning from Iraq to Lebanon wherein it can take all that it deals in all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, so it does not have a need to build [another route], and Iran is the state that is an impediment before the democratization of Syria. Iran stands in the way of democracy in Syria, in order to protect its interests, and Iran is sowing war, supporting war in Syria in order that the security stability should continue in Iran.*
Q: There is talk that the Americans hope that if they stay in Syria it will be possible to get Iran out of Syria. What do you think of that?
A: You are asking me questions I have nothing to do with. Why are you asking these questions? We work for the sake of democracy and freedom. We do not want hostility of any side towards another. We want solutions that serve society and not authorities only. That is our aim. And we ask that they do not drag us into global politics that our society has no place in. Our aim is as clear as the Sun: we want democracy and freedom, nothing more.
Q: And the interests of the Syrian people.
A: Yes, yes,
Q: Are there currently relations with the Iraqi government?
A: Yes. That appeared from the SDF on the borders and in order to protect the borders, that appeared in the media and general view.
Q: Is there coordination with the Iraqi government in order to protect the borders?
A: Yes, yes. There is coordination with the Iraqi government in order to protect the borders.
Q: Are you not afraid of the Hashd Sha'abi?
A: Why should we be afraid of the Hashd Sha'abi? What are the reasons that should make us fear the Hashd Sha'abi?
Q: If you think it is an Iranian project, possibly it is a problem?
A: We overcame the greatest global terrorism: Da'esh. Iran was present, the Hashd Sha'abi was present, and all the armies were present. All of them lost battles with Da'esh, but we were victorious. And we proved before the entire world that we were victorious before all, and we put a stop to the Da'esh expansion in Kobani. No force can boast that it put a stop to Da'esh. Da'esh reached the borders of Baghdad and al-Sham, and announced itself in many of the countries of the Middle East and carried out terrorist operations in Europe and Asia. For the first time in Kobani, youth and girls of this society: they are the ones who put a stop to Da'esh and put a stop to the expansion of Da'esh, and now we are putting an end to them, on the point of destroying them entirely: that is, geographically we are putting an end to them, and after that, we will work on putting an end to the cells present among society and the mindset* they planted among society. So where was the Hashd Sha'abi?
Q: But there are people who say the YBS is affiliated with the Hashd Sha'abi, but can you clarify that this is not true?
A: I don't represent the YBS. I represent the YPG. You can ask the YBS about this.
Q: But it's difficult to connect with them. But the YBS was affiliated with the YPG...
A: You hear Turkey's opinion more than the opinion of the society in the north of Syria. I criticize you from this angle. The north of Syria has institutions more than the states present in the Middle East. The north of Syria has many societal institutions, whether women's institutions, society institutions, economic institutions, education, health. All these institutions are present. But what we see is that they make accusations against the PYD, claiming [?] it has simple bases, and [inaudible] the citizens of the land. But you know it. What is the role of the PYD in the area? Or they speak of the Kurdish forces, when more than 50% of the SDF is Arab. You can go and see for yourself.
Q: Yes, I have seen Arab fighters even within the YPG.
A: Not just Arabs. There are Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians, Turkmen, Muslims, Yezids, Christians: all of them present within the SDF. But you insist and accuse us of party-[ism] or nationalism...
Q: I am not accusing.
A: Turkey is accusing. But you as journalists are influenced heavily by the policies that Turkey undertakes towards us.
Q: May I ask: are you from Qamishli?
A: I am from Kobani.
Q: Did you study at university?
A: I did not study in university. When I was 16 years old, I was imprisoned in the Palestine branch for more than 6 months despite the fact that I was below the legal age. Since that time, I have been a person of revolution, struggling for the sake of attaining freedom and democracy.
Q: Were you always in YPG? Or were you in the FSA?
A: The YPG is not older than 6 years, but we are from the heart of the revolutionaries.
Q: What is the situation in Sheikh Maqsoud in Aleppo city? Is the YPG present there?
Q: Is there an agreement between you and the Syrian government?
A: We protect Sheikh Maqsoud. The society in Sheikh Maqsoud wants us to protect Sheikh Maqsoud. Sheikh Maqsoud has great importance, and Sheikh Maqsoud proves that we are Syrians, and that we don't have a project like Mas'oud Barzani's: partitioning Syria. Had we been wanting to partition Syria, we would have overlooked Sheikh Maqsoud, Rukn al-Din [Kurdish quarter in Damascus], Zuhr Ava, Ashrafiya and the other areas present.
Q: Does the Syrian government offer public services for Sheikh Maqsoud?
A: The people of Sheikh Maqsoud protect themselves by themselves, while the regime army and the mercenary gangs connected with Turkey- or the terrorist groups: all of them attacked Sheikh Maqsoud. Despite that, Sheikh Maqsoud displayed the greatest resistance. The resistance of Sheikh Maqsoud was greater than Kobani, but in media not much was said about it. But Sheikh Maqsoud has been resisting from the first day until now without stopping, against this group or that group, defending itself in order to protect our Syrian identity.
Q: Yes. I ask because there has been talk of raising the Syrian flag in Sheikh Maqsoud. Do you know about this?
A: They said we have sold Sheikh Maqsoud, or bought, or we have become businessmen...As a result of our presence in Sheikh Maqsoud, and we are Syrians, and Sheikh Maqsoud is a part of Syria, just as the north of Syria is a part of Syria. And we have a project of democratic federalism: it is a societal project, discussed by Syrian society in north Syria and now suggesting it for all of Syria.
Q: What was your opinion on the Kurdistan referendum? Was it a mistake?
A: It is something that has passed. What we can say is that it harmed Iraq. It was an adventurous risk not for the Kurdish people or the Iraqi people, but rather for a party or person.
Q: For Barzani's interests, you mean.
A: Whatever it was. It was an adventurous risk not in accordance with the current mentality or democratic mentality* and freedom in Iraq. Therefore, it planted fitna [strife] among all. Iraq has lost a lot by this referendum.
*(26 January 2017): Minor corrections to transcript and resolution of a seemingly inaudible part.