SDF spokesperson Redur Khalil delivers a statement following a meeting of the General Military Council in Hasaka, February 17, 2019. Photo: Rudaw video
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Once the Islamic State group has been defeated in eastern Syria, the “liberation of Afrin” from Turkish and armed Syrian opposition control will become a priority, the General Military Council of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Sunday.
Following its meeting in Hasaka on Sunday, the council issued a statement setting out its strategic priorities for the period ahead.
The Kurdish-led force will restructure, train and deploy its forces to eliminate ISIS sleeper cells by “drying the social, intellectual and economic ground” on which the jihadists depends for the continuity of their existence, it said.
The statement comes as the SDF and coalition forces close in on the last ISIS holdout in Deir ez-Zor and US troops prepare to withdraw from Syria.
It also comes as Turkey threatens to attack Kurdish forces in northern Syria and as Rojava authorities consider their relationship with the government in Damascus.
“The meeting considered that the liberation of Afrin and the return of its original inhabitants to their homes and stop the processes of demographic change [among] their priorities in the next stage,” the council said in its statement, published by the ANHA Hawar news agency.
Turkish forces and Syrian armed opposition groups took over the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria in mid-March 2018. Kurdish residents who fled Operation Olive Branch have been prevented from returning to their homes, leading to accusations of ethnic cleansing.
Turkey has threatened to march east from Afrin to push Kurdish forces back from its border, claiming the SDF poses a threat to its security. Such an operation appears more likely once US forces withdraw.
“The Military Council discussed the position of the Turkish state and its incorrect claim that our forces pose a danger to its security and vice versa,” the council said in its statement.
“The Turkish state is the actual and direct occupation of the Syrian territories in Afrin, al-Bab, Jrablos and Idlib. The meeting affirmed its desire to solve problems with the Turkish state through dialogue and mutual respect.
“At the same time, we stressed the full readiness to protect our areas in the event of any aggression and welcome the establishment of the buffer zone under international supervision in order to establish security and peace on our northern border,” the council added.
On the future of relations with Damascus, the council said it hopes to “find a solution through dialogue within the framework of a unified Syria,” including “the constitutional recognition of the Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria.”
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers urged the Kurds on Sunday to negotiate a settlement, warning the US would not protect them from Turkey.
“If you don’t prepare yourselves to defend your country and resist, you will be nothing but a slave to the Ottomans,” Assad warned in a televised speech.
“No one will protect you except your state. No one will defend you except the Syrian Arab army,” he added.
On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershinin said: “The Kurds are a part of the population of Syria ... We know about the problems between Damascus and the Kurds but I think there is a solution through dialogue.”