A female SDF fighter flashes the victory sign while celebrating the defeat of ISIS near the Omar oil field in eastern Syria, March 23, 2019. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP
AL-OMAR OIL FIELD, Syria – Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) did not die in their thousands to defeat the Islamic State group (ISIS) in eastern Syria only to lose Kurdish-controlled Rojava to invaders, an SDF spokesman told Rudaw Saturday.
Kurdish-led SDF fighters were euphoric
when the US-backed force announced its complete territorial victory
over ISIS in the group’s last holdout of Baghouz, Deir ez-Zor province on Saturday.
But calmer heads have already turned to new impending dangers which threaten to take away the SDF’s hard-won autonomy in northern Syria – known to Kurds as Rojava.
“We would never like to see a war happen in the region. The Syrian nations and the Kurdish nation of Rojava in the past years paid a lot of sacrifices in the fight against Daesh (ISIS). So we are not for a conflict to reoccur,” Redur Khalil, SDF spokesperson and senior official, told Rudaw at the ceremony to mark the territorial defeat of the group’s so-called caliphate on Saturday.
“But … if the geography that is liberated with war and under our control is under threat, we will not remain silent. We will use channels to protect our rights and we do not tolerate threats posed to our nation in this geography,” he added.
Redur Khalil, SDF spokesperson and senior official, answers questions on the sidelines of a ceremony in al-Omar oil field, Deir ez-Zor to mark the defeat of the Islamic State caliphate. Photo: Rudaw
The SDF liberated vast areas of northern Syria from ISIS control during the five-year conflict, including the jihadists’ de facto
capital of Raqqa. Rather than return this territory to government forces, the SDF instead carved out its own self-governing administration.
For the first time in Syria’s modern history, the Kurdish language was freely used in public life and taught in schools. Kurds attained long-denied civil rights.
The presence of US-led coalition forces helped shield this fledgling autonomous administration from attack by the Russian-backed regime in Damascus, which has repeatedly said it intends to reconquer every inch of the country. Although relations are relatively good between the Kurds and Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Rojava administration does not hold a strong hand in negotiations.
Meanwhile, Turkey has repeatedly threatened to invade Kurdish-held northeast Syria, expanding its 2018 ‘Olive Branch’ operation which saw Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies seize Afrin from the SDF-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Ankara views the YPG as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a threat to Turkey’s national security – a charge both groups deny.
Now ISIS has been defeated in northeast Syria, SDF commanders fear the international coalition will withdraw, leaving Rojava exposed to attack.
Khalil admits the Rojava administration has its shortcomings that must be addressed, but insists it will not submit to invaders and relinquish its territory.
“We paid with thousands of martyrs not for a fresh invasion of our territory or to allow their authority over us,” Khalil said.
“Now our nation is organized, the enclave can run its affairs independent of others. If we have a shortcoming, we can solve it gradually. As the SDF, we will protect this land to the end,” he added.
SDF fighters attend a ceremony in tribute to their comrades killed during battles with ISIS near the Omar oil field, northeastern Syria, March 23, 2019. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace / AFP
US President Donald Trump announced in December last year his intention to immediately withdraw all US forces from northern Syria. The decision sparked the resignations of Trump’s defense secretary Jim Mattis and his special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk, who called the move a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies.
Trump has gradually backtracked on his earlier statement, suggesting several hundred US troops could remain longer-term.
During an SDF ceremony
marking the victory over ISIS on Saturday, US Ambassador William Roebuck issued a statement on behalf of the US government offered his congratulations and hailed the coalition’s “unwavering commitment”.
“This critical milestone in the fight against ISIS delivers a crushing, strategic blow and underscores the unwavering commitment of our local partners and the global coalition to defeat ISIS,” Roebuck said.
“We could not have achieved any of this without the unwavering commitment and unity of our coalition and the tremendous sacrifice of our Syrian partners on the ground who have lost thousands of lives, taking back their homeland and helping to protect coalition homelands at the same time,” he added.
With reporting by Viviyen Fatah in al-Omar