Top SDF Commander: Turkey Blocking Kurds’ Retreat; Urges Trump to ‘Stop This War’

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and Kevin Baron

October 19, 2019

Turkey is continuing its assault into northern Syria and blocking the SDF’s attempts to withdraw, the commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, said on Saturday. Mazlum Abdi called on the Trump administration to intervene, arguing that the United States is not enforcing Turkey's adherence to a ceasefire agreement. He also said that the SDF is not working with Russia or the Syrian regime.

I would like to inform the American public that what is happening is very bad and this is leading to destroying the Kurdish people in Syria and ethnic cleaning in front of the American administration,” Mazlum told Defense One today by phone.

Mazlum said that the SDF turned to Russia and the Syrian regime in Manbij and Kobane, in a bid to keep Turkish-backed forces at bay in the absence of any other protection. But now, he said, there are no ongoing discussions with either Russia or the Syrian regime, and it is clear to him that the SDF will not find safe harbor with those forces.

Mazlum urged Trump to help enforce the deal, reached with Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday, to pause the fighting for five days. Mazlum spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this week and said he worked to impress upon the president the urgency of the situation.

Related: US Agrees to Lift Sanctions on Turkey in Syria ‘Ceasefire’ Deal
Related: The Syrian Democratic Forces Chief Just Called Me. Here’s What He Said.

He told me that he will do his best to stop this war. And he told me that he is going to talk to Erdogan, and I believe he received some commitments from Erdogan, but what is becoming clear now is that Erdogan is not listening to Trump and is not abiding by his commitment to him,” Mazlum said. “I am asking President Trump right now to fulfill his promise to us and stop this war.”

Mazlum said that in the two days since the ceasefire agreement was reached in Ankara, his forces have taken more casualties than in the previous days leading up to the deal. He said about 50 of his fighters have been killed and 100 wounded in Turkish air strikes.

The Turkish Army and their [Turkey-supported opposition] mercenaries have placed a full siege on the city of Ras al-Ain [Serekaniye, in Kurdish], and we have our people and our soldiers surrounded inside the city. We agreed to a ceasefire and to a safe corridor to pull out our people and our forces,” Mazlum said. “The Turks aren’t agreeing to open the safety corridor and they are not removing the siege of the city.”

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Mazlum also said Turkey is purposefully preventing the SDF from withdrawing so that after the ceasefire expires on Tuesday Ankara can claim justification to resume their attacks.  

They are besieging the city and they will not allow our forces to move out,” he said.  “They are going to keep killing us for these five days and then, at the end, they will say, ‘the Kurds will not withdraw from the city’ and they will exercise ethnic cleansing of our people. This is happening in front of America’s eyes.”

Mazlum said his side had agreed to a ceasefire and a withdrawal from the limited area between Serekaniya and Tal-Abyad, east of Kobani, but Turkey will not allow his side to withdraw.

Mazlum also said that the Kurds will not give up the entirety of the border with Turkey.

We only agreed to withdraw between Ras al-Ayn to Tal-Abyad and we didn’t discuss other areas,” Mazlum said. “The other areas are Kurdish areas and these people will have no place to go — where are the Kurds going to go?”

The Syrian Kurdish commander urged the United States to reconsider its withdrawal, leave a partial force inside northeastern Syria.

If full withdrawal happens from Syria, the Russians and the Turks will implement their plan jointly,” he said.  “This will undermine all we have achieved with the Americans these past five years and it is harming America’s credibility with the Syrian Kurds who have worked and fought and died with the Americans.”

He argued a U.S. military presence could be a buffer to political negotiations with Turkey.

America should abide by its commitment and impose this ceasefire, and then they can help address the Kurdish matter in Syria,” Mazlum said. “Saying that the Russians and Syrian regime are going to help the Kurds— this is not true. The Russians and the Syrian regime’s position toward the Kurds is a hostile position.” 

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon and Kevin Baron // Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a regular contributor to Defense One. Lemmon is the author of Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. // Kevin Baron is the founding executive editor of Defense One. Baron has lived in Washington for 20 years, covering international affairs, the military, the Pentagon, Congress, and politics for Foreign Policy, National Journal, Stars and Stripes, and the Boston Globe, where he ran investigative projects for five years at the Washington bureau. He is a frequent on-air contributor and previously was national security/military analyst at NBC News & MSNBC. Baron cut his muckraking teeth at the Center for Public Integrity and he is twice a Polk Award winner and former vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. He earned his M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University, his B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond, and studied in Paris. Raised in Florida, Baron now lives in Northern Virginia.

October 19, 2019