The co-leader of the autonomous, Kurdish-led administration in north-east Syria has urged the UK government to put pressure on the Turkish government to end its “negative role” inside Syria.
Elham Ahmed also spoke about the changing relationship with the coalition forces that helped defeat ISIS territorially – one that has shifted from fighting the terrorist group, to building a foundation and infrastructure in the region that would prevent extremism flourishing.
Turkey has backed Syrian rebel groups, currently in the north-west of the country, and sent in its military to attack and contain the Kurdish-led fighters in north-eastern Syria that function as the armed forces of Ms Ahmed’s administration. Ankara regards the Kurdish troops, the People's Defence Units (YPG), as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Turkey and the UK are both members of Nato. The UK, US and other countries allied with Kurdish-led forces to defeat ISIS territorially in north-east Syria in 2019.
The Turkish-backed rebels in Syria have been accused of carrying out a litany of human rights abuses on Kurdish civilians and soldiers.
“We want for the UK Government to play an important role, a positive role inside Syria and to put pressure on Turkey to give up its negativity and interference with Syrian policy and Syrian territory,” Ms Ahmed, president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, told The National during a visit to London.
“We and the UK armed forces fought together against ISIS in one front and we gave thousands of martyrs. We have thousands of injured fighters. Today Turkey is attacking us. We agreed a ceasefire, but Turkey is using drones on a daily basis.”
Ms Ahmed accused Turkey of wanting to occupy and destroy the Kurdish people and its territory, citing how her home city of Afrin in north-west Syria is currently controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.
She said her administration wanted and hoped the UK could play a positive role in Syria, and “support the Kurdish cause and to finish ISIS”.
The message on Turkey is similar to the one Ms Ahmed gave on a visit to London nearly two years ago when Turkish-backed groups launched an assault on north-east Syria after the then-US president Donald Trump announced American troops would be withdrawn from the region – only to partially walk back that decision.
Ms Ahmed said the US had promised they have no intention to leave north-east Syria and said their presence was important to maintaining stability, as the search for a political settlement to the Syrian civil war continues.
While the view on Turkey has not changed, the relationship with the Coalition forces has in some ways shifted since 2019.
“For example, before we used to fight on against ISIS. But now, our perspective and our work with the coalition is to build an infrastructure for Syria, in order for people to not be radicalised or not join ISIS.”
She said support would be welcomed to help build institutions in the region, giving solar, water, agriculture and electricity projects as examples. Conversations are under way with some companies, Ms Ahmed said, although she gave no further details.
Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and their families, of which a sizeable minority are not from Syria or Iraq, are being held in camps in north-east Syria. While a handful of foreign fighters – including prominent ISIS members El Shafee El Sheikh and Alexander Kotey – have been removed, most governments have washed their hands of their citizens and refused to repatriate them.
The local authorities have repeatedly told of the security threat the extremists in the camps hold.
Ms Ahmed’s administration has, with foreign support, plans to rebuild additional and more secure detention centres. The population continues to increase because of newborn babies.
“There is no indication that they want their people back,” she said.
The hope is that, by running deradicalisation programmes, the threat level will decrease and perhaps countries may even be prepared to take their citizens back.
“What can we do? They don't accept their people, but we at least want to open centres and to rehabilite them. Possibly in the future, maybe they will accept [them back] but at least we achieved something.”