A Kurdish fighter from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) fires towards Syrian government forces inside a building in the majority-Kurdish Sheikh Maqsud district of Aleppo, on April 21, 2013. Photo: AFP
Sipan Hemo, commander of the Kurdish Peoples Defence Units (YPG) in Syria, says that attacks by extremist Islamist groups against the Kurdish areas of Syria have not ceased in the past two months, but that his forces have repelled the attacks and defeated the jihadists. He said in an interview with Rudaw that, despite the exodus of refugees from Syrian Kurdistan, “80 percent of the people have not gone anywhere and are supporting the YPG.” Hemo said that Kurds in Turkey should dramatically increase their political support for Syrian Kurds in their struggle for self-rule. “Showing affection or pity for us does not work,” he said. Hemo added that leaders in the Kurdistan Region should also – once and for all – declare how they feel about “the Kurdish revolution in Rojava.” Here is an edited transcript of the interview:
Rudaw: You last spoke to our newspaper in July, what has been happening since then in the Kurdish areas?
Sipan Hemo: The Islamist groups plan to attack the Kurdish region in new ways, such as suicide attacks. They have threatened the Kurds with suicide attacks and they have attempted 18 suicide attacks but failed. The YPG has checkpoints and has tried to prevent such attacks. War has never been a priority for Kurds, yet the attacks forced us to take up arms. These radical groups are the affiliates of foreign forces, and they cannot tolerate Kurds gaining power. These attacks are targeting the Kurdish gains.
These radical groups are the affiliates of foreign forces, and they cannot tolerate Kurds gaining power. These attacks are targeting the Kurdish gains.
Rudaw: Despite your efforts to confront these groups, how long do you think these attacks will continue?
Sipan Hemo: Some of them are trying to end the fighting in some areas. But groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insist on staging attacks. We will never let them into the Kurdish region, no matter how insistent they may be. But if they insist on continuing their attacks, it is they who will suffer, not us! The source of our power is the support of the people, and we trust ourselves, too. With that support and confidence we can counter anything. We have paid a high price and we have had martyrs for the last 64 days, but we did not let anyone cross our region. On the contrary, we have expanded our defence field in Derik and Serekaniye. They tried to defeat us in Aleppo, but did not succeed. They even keep away from our forces. In short, we are better off both in tactical and military skills.
Rudaw: Some argue that people do not support you as they did before, and that most people are said to be fleeing to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Sipan Hemo: As you all know, the war in Syria and the struggle for revolution took longer than expected and people suffered a lot. There is an economic crisis, health problems, people cannot get treatment. For all of these reasons people tried to survive and find new ways. Migration is one of these ways. Some people migrated to north (Turkish) Kurdistan, and some to south (Iraqi) Kurdistan. We cannot tell these people not to leave. For instance, children need immunization and here we are out of vaccines. When a person comes and says that his child will have a stroke without vaccines and you cannot provide vaccines, there is not much left to say. We cannot oppose migration related to these kinds of problems. There are also some who migrate for business reasons. Yet, 80 percent of the people have not gone anywhere and are supporting the YPG. If people weren’t left here we would not exist. YPG is the people itself.
Rudaw: In our last interview you said that Turkey was not an enemy and that you wanted to improve relations with Ankara. Have you seen any change in Turkey's attitude? Do you think Ankara continues to support radical groups?
These radical jihadists come from Turkey. Even if they come from other countries, they enter Syria through Turkey.
Sipan Hemo: Unfortunately, the attitude of Turkish officials on that matter is very negative. They might think their current stance will benefit them in the future, but their stance will have huge negative results. These radical jihadists come from Turkey. Even if they come from other countries, they enter Syria through Turkey. They have direct connection with them, and they operate together. We know that during the clashes in Kobane these forces brought ammunition from Turkey. These groups have even met with the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT) several times. It is with Turkey’s support that these forces fight with us, and that reflects the position of the Turkish state very clearly. The Turkish people should not accept this and should react.
Rudaw: Turkey does not accept your allegations. Also, why do you think it supports such groups, for what purpose?
Sipan Hemo: A war between Kurds and Islamists would be in Turkey's interest. Turkey has relations with the EU and US. For that reason it cannot accept these allegations. If Turkey accepts them, this would harm its international interests. But if the USA wants it can send experts and ascertain these allegations. These radical groups cross the Middle East through Turkey. Who could think that these radical groups cross Syria without the information of the MIT and the Turkish military? Everyone knows that without the knowledge of these two, even a bird cannot fly over the border. We have seen these radical groups get treated in Turkish hospitals. If they really want to know this, they can go to Ceylanpinar and see with their own eyes. Most of the radical Islamists are treated in this city. If this is not a proof of support, what other proof could I put forward to prove these facts? Maybe the whole world sees that Turkey helps these radical groups, but they all keep quiet.
Rudaw: Does Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) get any support from Kurds in Turkey?
Sipan Hemo: Kurds in Turkey tried to provide humanitarian aid such as food, vaccine, medicine. But I really think that north Kurdistan should approach Rojava in a revolutionary sense. Furthermore, the attacks in Rojava were staged from north Kurdistan by these radical Islamist forces. For instance, these groups had meetings in Gaziantep where they planned to attack Afrin. Could they not find just four people to go and protest in front of the hotel where they had these meetings? We find the reactions and approaches of north Kurdistan to Rojava inadequate. The support they provided does not go beyond humanitarian aid. They have been inadequate in demonstrating a revolutionary and political support. You can provide humanitarian aid to any people, but the support that you give to brothers and sisters in Rojava should have been different and from heart. They can support us in every field, and they should increase their political support. Showing affection or pity for us does not work.
I really think that north Kurdistan should approach Rojava in a revolutionary sense.
Rudaw: What would you say about the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)?
Sipan Hemo: I would like to thank our people in south Kurdistan. From the very beginning they have pursued a positive approach towards our revolution. Yet, Kurdistan officials have also pursued politics in their interest, similar to Turkish officials. I said that before -- when clashes took place in Afrin – the Kurdistan Regional Government closed the border crossing. We could not even pass a wounded child through the gate. The Turks kept all border gates open for the (Jabhat) al-Nusra front and such radical groups. The Kurdistan government's attitude was very wrong and inflicted harm. Unfortunately, this attitude still continues. We would like to know this: What do Kurdish officials really think about the Kurdish revolution in Rojava? I have never heard any clear statement. Sometimes, we hear some positive statements, but only on a personal level which has no effect. I really ask them, what do Kurdish officials think politically of Rojava? There are times that they act very negatively towards our military units.
Rudaw: Recently, there has been more news in the American press about the presence of al-Qaeda in Syria. And retired former CIA deputy director Mike Morell has said that the biggest threat against America’s national security is al-Qaeda in Syria. What do you think about this?
Sipan Hemo: In our view, the United States has responsibilities towards us and the region. America has been fighting al-Qaeda for many years now. Yet, what we have achieved against al-Qaeda is much more than the United States has done. Of course, we do not fight with these groups for America. We fight against these people for the sake of humanity and ourselves, as we see these groups being a threat to humanity and enlightenment. America has responsibilities on that matter and should fulfill these responsibilities. The American people face the same threats that we face at the hands of these radical Islamist groups. American people should be concerned about Kurds in Syria. Just in the way that these radical Islamist jihadists attacked America on 9/11, they tried a similar attempt to attack us. I cannot see a difference between the attack on the Twin Towers and an attack on Serekaniye. It is the same violence.