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SDF Chief: 'Our Trust in the United States is at Its Lowest'

SDF general commander Mazloum Abdi, center, speaks during a press conference in Kobani, Syria, July 22, 2019. (S. Kajjo/VOA video grab)

In an interview Monday, Mazloum Abdi, the commanding general of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told VOA's Sirwan Kajjo that the United States made a strategic mistake by withdrawing its troops from northeast Syria. He said SDF "has not agreed to the U.S.-Turkey cease-fire agreement in its entirety." He added that SDF's trust in the United States is at its "lowest," but stressed that the alliance with Washington continues in the fight against the Islamic State terror group.

Days after U.S. President Donald Trump's Oct. 6 announcement that U.S. troops would withdraw from a border area in northeast Syria, the Turkish military and its allied Syrian militia groups began an offensive against SDF fighters. Last week, a temporary cease-fire, set to expire Tuesday, was brokered by the U.S. after a delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence met with Turkish officials in Ankara. Per the cease-fire deal, SDF Kurdish fighters and remaining civilians evacuated the city of Ras al-Ayn.

Below is a transcript of VOA's interview with Abdi.

Question: You have accepted the U.S.-Turkish deal that was announced last week. What do you say about it?

Abdi: "We haven't accepted the U.S.-Turkey deal in its entirety. We have only agreed to the cease-fire. Our forces have already withdrawn from Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad. In return, Turkey would commit to a permanent cease-fire in those areas with the U.S. being a guarantor. As for other details of their agreement, nobody has discussed them with us. Therefore, we do not accept them. We have relied on the U.S. narrative of the agreement, which says that the [Turkish] operation will be limited to those two towns. We will never accept the Turkish narrative, which says that Turkish forces will enter all areas in northern Syria along the border with Turkey."

FILE - Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels gather outside the border town of Ras al-Ayn on Oct. 12, 2019,during their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria.
FILE - Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels gather outside the border town of Ras al-Ayn on Oct. 12, 2019,during their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria.

Q: In light of recent events, do you still consider yourself a U.S. ally?

Abdi: "President Trump's decision to pull out U.S. troops from the border area led Turkish forces to occupy a large part of Syria's territory. It has caused a major displacement of civilians. It has allowed an ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people. Our trust in the United States is at its lowest. However, our alliance with Washington to combat IS still continues. The U.S. has not abandoned this partnership. But allowing the Turkish military to invade Syria has largely damaged this partnership. We still want this partnership to continue. We want the remaining U.S. forces in Syria to make an international balance in this region and to prevent one side from taking control over our people. We still are of the belief that keeping U.S. forces in Syria is in the interest of the Americans and the Kurds."

Q: What is going to happen to the 11,000 IS prisoners in your custody? Will Turkey be in charge of them, as President Trump has suggested?

Abdi: "Turkey has nothing to do with [IS] prisoners. There aren't any prisons in areas that Turkish forces recently have occupied. We have evacuated all prisoners in those areas and moved them to prisons under our control. Turkey has no right to be involved with these prisoners, because it was Turkey who facilitated the entry of these fighters into Syria in the first place. All [IS] prisons are still under our control. There is no risk yet, but if the war continues, guarding them will be difficult. Therefore, we want U.S. troops to stay here to work with us on the IS prisoner dossier so that these people won't be a threat to global peace anymore."

Q: Would you seek Russian help to prevent Turkey from seizing other areas under your control?

Abdi: "Russia is allied with the Syrian regime and it also coordinates with Turkey. We have a previous experience with Russia in Afrin [in northwest Syria], when Russia paved the way for Turkey to carry out an ethnic cleansing in Afrin. That's why we cannot count on Russia in this regard. President Trump keeps saying that Kurds have struck a deal with the Russians and the [Syrian] regime to protect themselves. But that's not accurate. Russia's policy and its alliance with the Syrian regime are not for the protection of Kurds. It is quite the opposite; Russia coordinates with Turkey and has paved the way for attack against Kurds in Syria. It's not appropriate to leave Russia in charge of this region. What we need at this point is a balance of powers on the ground that will also be a guarantee for a long-term solution to the Syrian crisis."