In this Interview with Rudaw, Polat Can, Head of the Information Center of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), says that Islamist groups are attacking from many fronts in order to include the Kurdish areas in their proposed Islamic state.
However, says Can, the YPG has withstood the attacks and killed hundreds of fighters from these groups. According to Can, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is waging its war on Rojava with the support of the Syrian regime.
First of all, can you tell us of the latest situation of the ongoing fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), especially around Kobane (Ain al-Arab) and other towns?
Polat Can: As you know there have been fierce clashes between the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) and ISIS gangs. Their purpose is to occupy the Kobane Canton and putting an end to the freedom Kurdish people are enjoying in Rojava. They wanted to include Kobane into their Islamic state. That is why they launched broad attacks against Kobane from the east, west and south. They attack us with the support of the Assad regime, and also Turkey is turning a blind eye. However, thanks to the heroic resistance of the YPG and people of Kobane, the intensive attacks of the ISIS were repelled and they were defeated.
During those attacks the ISIS suffered more than 400 causalities some of whom were senior leaders. In clashes around Girkendal, Ashme and Dilkino villages as well as the town of Sirrin, ISIS gangs suffered big losses, and could not reach their strategic goal which was separating the Kobane Canton from Jazira and Efrin Cantons. In order to isolate Kobane and prevent the YPG from receiving reinforcements from other regions, those gangs wanted to open another front in Jazira in Tirbespi (Qahtaniya), Derik (Malikiyah), Jaz’a and Sarekaniye (Ras al-Ain). In Jaz’a our forces killed number of senior ISIS commanders of the Hasakah region including Abu Maria, Abu Yousef, Abu Ma’az al-Ansari, Abu Faruq Omar al-Turki.
Also, on the Sarekaniye front, they suffered severe casualties. They wanted to attack some villages—that the YPG had previously liberated—to open a new front there, and prevent the YPG from advancing towards Kobane. As a result, they launched a huge attack on Manajir and Tal Khanzir Xinzir regions. Not only did the YPG successfully repel their attacks, we also liberated some more villages. The ISIS’s intense attacks against Rojava were defeated by the YPG and I can clearly say that Kurdish people’s resistance has gained a strategic victory.
You said that over 400 ISIS members were killed by the YPG. Some say that this number is exaggerated. Did you really kill that many ISIS members?
Polat Can: It is our principle to avoiding exaggeration or misinformation. When a comrade gets martyred, we declare it publicly. We will openly announce the true number of our losses and publish their photos. We hold official public funerals for our martyrs. As for the mercenary groups we kill, we decided not to publish any pictures of their dead bodies. But, if any media wants to see those photos, we are willing to share the photos we have with press. Besides, the ISIS and others also announce the death of their members on their websites and via Facebook and Twitter. They also publish pictures of their own casualties through the Internet. There is certainly no exaggeration in our figures.
I want to remind you that these mercenary groups came to Kobane from other regions such as from Latakia, Idlib, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqah. They come from a wide range of countries including Chechnya, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Libya, Tunisia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. So, the figure of 440 is not an exaggeration. It is precise and certain.
What about YPG losses?
Polat Can: In these clashes 35 of our comrades got martyred. We declared them all with their names and pictures. Our martyrs are the children of the people of this region. Their deaths are publicly known and cannot in any way be hidden.
You mentioned that ISIS members come from other regions to fight the YPG with the help of the Assad regime. Some experts are not convinced that Assad is supporting the ISIS. Also, there is a common notion that Turkey is no longer actively supporting extremist groups as it used to. How do you comment on these two points?
Polat Can: We should, first, look at who is benefiting from those attacks against Rojava? The answer is the ISIS and the Syrian regime. The Assad regime does not want the Kurds to make any advances. As you know, numerous units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were defeated by the ISIS. These days, many FSA fighters have taken refuge in the Kurdish regions. In many fronts the YPG and FSA forces are fighting side by side against extremists. It is not in the regime’s interests that Kurds are powerful and that Rojava remains safe. Furthermore, the regime wants to play Kurds and the FSA-related groups off against each other. We have some certain intelligence in this regard.
It has been several months since the ISIS forces have not fired a shot against the regime forces. Plus, regime warplanes have bombed so many civilians in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and other places, yet not raided any of the ISIS military bases. The public should know that most of the ISIS fighters attacking us came from Deir ez-Zor, Shaddadeh, and Markadeh, passing through Kawkar Mountain in Hasakah. If the regime forces wanted, they could have easily shelled and exterminated them all. But, they did not.
As for Turkey, the leaked tapes of [Ahmet] Davutoglu and other Turkish officials revealed their plan to invade and occupy Rojava. What the ISIS is doing serves Turkey. Ankara thinks it is not in its interests that its neighboring Kurds establish their own government, make progresses, and run their own affairs. They continuously use a negative rhetoric against us. Besides, Turkish soldiers, sometimes, evacuate their border outposts to let ISIS pass through and attack Kurdish villages. We have proof in our hands about this.
Now, on the border between Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan, some trenches are being dug and some demonstrations are being held against it. However, the Kurdistan Democrat Party (KDP) officials say that the trenches are to prevent terrorists from crossing into the Kurdistan Region. How do you comment on this statement? What do you think these are trenches for?
Polat Can: Those trenches are disgrace! After the Sykes–Picot Agreement was signed and Kurdistan was partitioned into four parts, no trenches were dug. Between the state of Syria and Turkey there were no trenches dug. They planted mines and fenced the borders. Similarly, even when the Baath regimes in Iraq and Syria were on worst terms, they did not dig any trenches; they had just raised the soil on the border.
Today in the Jazira Canton, there is a Kurdish administration. On the other side, there is another Kurdish administration. It is a pity that the KDP is building such a thing. KDP’s statements about these trenches are not convincing at all. On the Rojava side of the border, there are YPG forces, so the border is protected. Until now, no one has ever witnessed any terrorists crossing into Zakho from Derik! Such statements are baseless allegations. Terrorists they are talking about use Sunni Arab regions while crossing the border!
In the region where trenches are dug, poor Kurdish villagers cross the border in order to buy some basic needs such as food, medicine, gasoline and necessary stuff. Digging these trenches is a political decision which aims at deepening the existing embargo and further isolating Rojava.
My last question is about YPG’s call for support against the ISIS attacks, and reactions to this call. It was widely reported in the media that people have actively responded to your call, but what about the political parties, especially those who are in the Syrian Kurdish National Council (SKNC)?
Polat Can: First of all, I would like to mention that Murat Karayilan made an appeal in Newroz and asked the Kurdish youth from Northern Kurdistan (Bakur) to support Rojava. We want to thank him for that stance. Many Kurdish parties from Northern Kurdistan and other parts made statements in support of Rojava, but not much in terms of direct help. But, many youth from northern, southern, and eastern parts of Kurdistan arrived Rojava, and they are now active within the YPG ranks.
From the North, especially from Urfa some youth joined YPG. People in Kobane and Urfa belong to same tribes and they are relatives. Also, the proximity makes it easier for the youth of Urfa to cross to Rojava. Some grab their guns and cross from their villages into Kobane villages and fight with us. Some others support us by bringing medicine and other things. The Kurdish people have shown their support for Rojava and responded positively to our call and stood with us.
What about political parties?
Polat Can: The stance of political parties in Kobane or their regional organizations in Kobane was brave and deserves appreciation. Many party members joined the resistance although their parties did not have central decisions on this. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYDKS) which is a KNC member positively responded to our call for support. Party leader Mohieddine Sheik Ali’s call was very meaningful when he asked his party members to actively support the YPG and defend Kobane. Jamal Sheikh Baqi’s Kurdish Democratic Party also actively responded to our call. Their members are currently fighting with us. Some members of the KNC parties were disappointed that their party headquarters were insensitive to the attacks against Kobane. This was the case with the Al-Party whose members left the party and KNC and joined the resistance. Such decisions clearly showed that, not only we were disappointed about the stance of the KNC to the recent events, but that their own members were disappointed too.
We want everyone to know that the YPG is the protector of Rojava, and the success of Rojava is the success of all four parts of Kurdistan. With the help of our people we are sure that we will succeed.
Special Debate on Geneva II Round II
Guests: Co-chair of People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) Abdulselam Ahmed and Secretary of Yekiti Party from SKNC Ibrahim Biro
Rojava (Kurdistan of Syria) Panel at the Kurdish Conference in Washington, DC
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.
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 defense 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.