Introduction by Roger Annis, Oct 20, 2014
Days after the interview below was published, the US Air Force has begun dropping ammunition and other supplies to the defenders of the Kurdish city of Kobanê (Kobani) in northern Syria and the Turkish government has relented and agreed to allow Kurdish peshmerga forces from Iraq to cross its territory to reinforce the city. Kobanê straddles the Turkish border in north, central Syria.
Until now, Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan has refused to allow military and other assistance to flow to the autonomous forces in Kobanê, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). And the BBC reports, “The U.S. air drops represent a significant shift in Washington’s policy towards the Syrian Kurds.”
The YPG are politically allied with the left-wing PKK in Turkey and its affiliate in Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PKK is proscribed as “terrorist” by Turkey, the United States, Canada and other imperialist countries.
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Interview with YPG commander: ISIS has lost in Kobanê
Published in The Rojava Report, Oct 17, 2014
Mehmûd Berxwedan, a member of the General Command of the YPG, has spoken with journalist Ersin Çaksu in a new interview for Özgür Gündem. Berxwedan told Çaksu that all those who said that Kobanê ‘had fallen’ or ‘will fall’ had themselves be defeated, and that if a corridor is opened to the city ISIS will be entirely cleared from the area. Below is the full interview translated into English.
We would like to thank you for taking some time for us in this very busy period. In the first place I want to ask why Kobanê is so important for ISIS. Why did it attack it with such force?
In our earlier interview, we spent a lot of time around the question of why Kobanê was being targeted. The 19th of July Rojava Revolution began in Kobanê. Kobanê became a symbol of resistance and freedom. Kobanê also became an expression of the will of the Kurdish people in Rojava. The revolution began in Kobanê and spread to the rest of Rojava. For this reason, Kobanê upset the plans of both certain international powers and certain regional powers who did want the Kurds to express their own will. From that day until now, they have expended much effort in breaking and destroying that will.
They did not reach their goal. But they have been targeting Kobanê in particular for over a year and a half. So why Kobanê? Because Kobanê has no connection to the other regions. It has no physical connections to either the Cizîrê or Efrîn [cantons]. It is a region surrounded by the [ISIS] gangs. They thought that they could destroy Kobanê by surrounding it. The attacks that have developed for over a year and half were carried out toward this end. They thought that they could break the will of Kobanê and make it fall very quickly. But they didn’t reach their goal. Finally, they realized that unless they concentrated all of their strength here they would be unable to reach their goals in Kobanê. For this reason, they amassed forces from Derazor, Rakka and as far away as Iraq at the same they were amassing regional forces from Jerablus and Şêxler for this battle. I can say that they brought 70 per cent of their forces to Kobanê.
So was it only ISIS involved in this plan?
Of course behind this plan were also certain states whose names I do not want to mention – in fact most of them are obvious. They want to break the will of the Kurdish people that has emerged here. If Kobanê falls, then also the other cantons which have been established, the will that has emerged, and the YPG which is growing everywhere and which can assume an important role in the Syrian revolution will have been dealt a significant blow. Because this is the group that can play a leadership role and develop along democratic lines. In particular, Turkey and many powers supporting ISIS planned these attacks consciously. They wanted to break our will here. They wanted to be successful here. If they are successful here, they will target the other regions one by one and they will be able to target Cizîrê and Efrîn. Earlier, they wanted to try in Jez’aa, Rabia and Serêkaniyê but they didn’t. Because we have a lot of forces there and they could not suffocate us. But they thought that could surround Kobanê on four sides and break our will here. And this would have been a success for ISIS and its supporters. They wanted to make up here for their defeats in Iraq and Cizîrê. They wanted to boost their morale [by taking] Kobanê.
Until now, there are two forces that have successfully emerged in Syria. One is us and the other is ISIS. Now it is up to who will defeat who. There are two roads. Either it will be the path of the gangs and of the occupiers or the path of democracy. This is a test. For that reason, ISIS amassed all their forces and together with the support of foreign states attacked Kobanê with such strength.
More than a month has passed in this intense battle. What happened in the course of this month? What weapons did they use against you? What kind of battle has been waged? How have you responded?
Well, the fighting that has been going on for over a month here does not resemble other fighting. In terms of its dimensions, its intensity and the form of attack, it has been a different battle from the others. They attacked simultaneously and with force from four or five sides. They operated with offensive and operational forces which they brought from outside. They attacked with the forces with which they had captured entire cities within hours and brought states to their knees. It was with these forces and techniques that they attacked Kobanê. They came upon us with tanks, artillery, mortars and heavy weapons which they captured from Syria, the Free Syrian Army and Iraq. They also used methods such as bombing attacks. Of course, they thought it was going to be like Mosul and other regions which they had captured and that they would take Kobanê in just a couple of days. In fact, they had planned on a week for Kobanê. The Turks and other powers also gave us about a week. We resisted with small arms against attacks with heavy weapons. Because until now no one has given us any aid.
When you say no one…
Neither the coalition forces, not any foreign power, nor any other power has provided any kind of weapons.
The PM of the KRG Neçirvan Barzan* made a statement in which he said that they had sent us weapons. But no help came from anyone including the government of the KRG. Not weapons can from any state or any Kurdish power. No one gave us weapons. We responded to this attack with our own small arms and with things we had prepared using our own resources. We waged a conscious and tactical battle.
What kind of tactics?
ISIS had planned to destroy the majority of our forces in the villages before they arrived to the city. They were going to finish off our forces in the village and come into the city waving their arms. We developed tactics that took these [plans] into account. There was no village in which we did not fight. We fought in every villages and hamlet and protected them with our existing forces. We suffered losses and we had our martyrs. But generally we preserved our forces. This both prolonged the days of the resistance and allowed us to hit back at ISIS. We took as a basic principle conserving our forces and hitting back at ISIS. We did not allow ISIS, which had planned to destroy most of our forces in the villages within a week, to even enter the city for almost three weeks. We planned to put up our real fight in the city. We wanted the turning point to be here.
Your strategy made it appear as you were losing while really it was ISIS and its supporters.
That is true. We didn’t do what they thought we would. We didn’t gather our forces in the villages and let them be destroyed there. We took as a basic principle the preservation of our forces and hitting back at ISIS. We responded to them with very different tactics. However, for a period the battle was continuing inside the city. They were assuming, as Erdoğan had said, that Kobanê “had fallen and will fall.” They were assuming that they would be able to perform their Eid prayers in the city. They were going to take the city and perform the prayers. In fact, many different states had come to the conclusion that Kobanê would fall. Everyone made this assumption and meanwhile we broke ISIS.
A month has passed and we are in the second month. This was an historical resistance. A new legend was written with the blood of the many heroes who fell as martyrs in Kobanê. This legend was formed with the resistance of many of our friends who are fighting now on the fronts. The dreams and hopes of those who said Kobanê had fallen were broken here. Over the last three days, they have not been able to advance a single step. Over the last three days, we are no longer pulling back and going forward step by step. ISIS is finished. They are tired. They decreased in strength. There power has been destroyed and their operation strength broken. The force which they brought up has also been destroyed. I am saying this without exaggeration. On every street of Kobanê are the corpses of ISIS fighters. Under the rubble of every destroyed house is an ISIS fighter. We have collected hundreds of weapons over the past three days. ISIS has been broken in Kobanê over the past three days. That is during the first month we resisted and carried out tactically. In the second month, we are aiming to destroy ISIS in Kobanê. Now we are not only aiming at resistance but at victory.
Many of the ISIS fighters who were killed are reported to have been quite young and did not yet have beards or long-hair. What does this say?
Seventy per cent of their offensive and professional forces have died. They still want to bring up some forces located in the area. We can’t know if they will bring more from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Azerbaijan. The forces which they brought up before have been diminished. We saw many children into whose hands they had placed weapons. Recently they have been bringing up women in what they call the Women’s units (Ketibe-i Unsa). Now they want to get results by bringing up forces from far away. However the last three days have been a breaking point for their morale, their initiative and their advance. ISIS has understood that it will not be that easy to take large parts of Kobanê. Of course we are not only fighting in the city. We are also fighting outside of the city. There was a great resistance to get to this phase. That is ISIS has understood that its strategy of going and taking any place in three-four days will not work in Kobanê. The area around Kobanê is not like the area around Mosul, Iraq and or some other zones in Syria. Kobanê does not resemble some Syrian army base that they can take in three days. Neither their truck bombs nor their other weapons were of any use. Of course, this city is our city. We know it street by street, avenue by avenue. We know where they are going to come from and where we are going to hit them. Following a month of resistance we are now advancing. Since yesterday, we have taken five-six neighborhoods from them. In fact, on the Western front we are fighting outside the city. This will continue step by step until victory.
You spoke about the Ketibe-i Unsa. What are they doing and do you know their numbers?
They have brought them up more to carry out bombings. They are given the bloody, dirty work. They are also brought up to increase morale and numbers. They have also been brought up to say “look our women’s units are here.” But until now they haven’t gotten any results from them.
Recently, they have been randomly shelling the city with mortars and artillery and attacking with truck bombs. How does one need to understand this?
If ISIS is blowing up truck bombs somewhere, attacking from a distance with mortars and broadcasting news like “you see we have come and are coming and will come with even great forces”, one should know that they have been dealt a serious blow. This is a particularity of theirs. When they cannot do anything they employ all kinds of methods. When they start broadcasting news saying one group has arrived from Rakka, one from Minbic and one group from another place one needs to understand that it ISIS has not gotten results.
They are also employing these truck bombs as a form of psychological warfare. Of course we have taken precautions. How many times have they attacked and yet not one of our comrades has even gotten a bloody finger. They are trying to stay on their feet using such methods. Of course, by now ISIS is defeated. They did not reach their goals in the time they planned. Their aims were to take [the city] in a week. But a month has passed and they haven’t taken it. Those who said “Kobanê has fallen and will fall” and their supporters have been defeated. Fundamentally it is they who have lost.
Mr. Berxwedan, yesterday ISIS targeted a TMO Grain Silo belonging to Turkey with a rocket. Later they hit Turkey with a lot of mortars. What do you think is the goal of all of this?
If we had fired even a single bullet into Turkey, Turkey would have made hell. Their losses are increasing. I do not think that they are consciously targeting Turkey. It’s a rocket. Once you fire it you cannot control it. Mortars are the same. But even if this is how it is when someone’s lands are under attack, there needs to be a response. However, Turkey has shown no response. They are not asking “why are your mortars hitting our territory?” ISIS would not consciously strike its partner.
According to you, how much of the city does ISIS control? Is the public very concerned about this?
In fact on the western side they are not in the city. To the south they have entered just slightly. Just the last houses, and over there doesn’t really count as part of the city. That is to say those houses are part of the village of Memîdê not the city. To the east they are in the city. That [part] corresponds to about 30-35 per cent of the city.
Let me ask about the coalition powers airstrikes against ISIS. Is there any coordination between you and the coalition? What is the effect of the airstrikes on the struggle against ISIS?
The truth is that in the first days there was no help. If they had given support in the first days like they have over recent days ISIS would not have reached the city. For the first 15-20 days there was no help from the coalition that had been formed to fight ISIS. But over the past ten days they have played an important role. They are playing an important role in coordination with the YPG. They are working with great care. Up until now there has been no confusion or mess ups.
But there are claims that civilians and YPG fighters have been hit by coalition airstrikes?
The claims on certain television [channels] that a civilian has died and some YPG fighters were hit is not correct. Until now, not a single civilian has died from the planes bombs nor have they hit any YPG fighters. In all of their attacks, they have targeted ISIS with great care and high level of coordination. In fact, there are no civilians left in areas where ISIS controls and therefore no deaths. Until this day, the coalition planes have worked with great care and we can say that they have been successful. And we thank them through you for both their partnership with us and for the great care they have shown. They have struck a great blow against ISIS and this continues.
So it is possible to push ISIS out of Kobanê with only airstrikes?
Up until a certain point there are advantages of airstrikes. They have dealt them a severe blow. But the force that will get the real results are our land forces. We have been saying this from the beginning. If the coalition which has been formed against ISIS wants to break them, they need to provide weapons to those fighting on the ground. And the force fighting on the ground is the YPG and YPJ. This possibility needs to be developed. It should be made possible for fighters to come to us from outside. Turkey is not allowing this. Right now we are encircled.
A formal route needs to be opened to those youth who want to come and join the struggle. Weapons and ammunition should come through this route. It is us who are already struggling. And we are not doing it wrongly. There are also some groups from the Free Syrian Army that are operating with us. We declared the Burkan el-Firat joint command. That joint operations center is still with us. They have lost around ten fighters. This is a potential. There is thus a common force of Arabs and Kurds. However, no one is helping us. The coalition needs to consider this. They have not done for us what they have done for the Peshmerga in South Kurdistan. In the South, when air operations began, they also provided heavy weapons. For that reason there have been advances. We will continue to resist with our own forces but if one really wants ISIS to be defeated then they need to do this. This is one of the conditions to defeating ISIS. A route needs to be opened. Pressure needs to be put on Turkey to open a formal corridor.
Is there a date by which you can say you will have pushed ISIS out of Kobanê?
We are not going to give any dates but victory is close. Now we have passed onto a new phase. We are going to weaken ISIS with different steps and tactics and we will break them. Kobanê does not resemble other places. In the same way that they want to break our will in Kobanê we will have our greatest success here. We will proclaim real freedom here.
We want to ask about the resistance which was started along the border by the people of the North. They have been on guard since the beginning. What kind of effect did this action have?
When the attacks first started here three-four months ago, our people of North Kurdistan in particular have made a great sacrifice. They have not only increased our morale but provided us with support. Many Northern youths climbed over fences and crossed borders to come to Kobanê and join the resistance. They have actually joined the struggle. But more recently, the entire people of the North showed an even greater resistance. The actions in East and South Kurdistan and in Europe were also a big boost in morale. They also showed us that we were not alone. The whole of Kurdistan once again showed that they are behind us. In truth, this also increased our responsibility. We thank everyone who gave support. Once more we bow with respect before those who were martyred in the North and Rojhilat (East) during the actions of our people. We consider them to have resisted and been martyred in Kobanê. We consider them to be martyrs of the Kobanê resistance. We thank everyone who supported us once more and affirm that these resistances need to continue. Every youth of North Kurdistan should actively participate in the Kobanê resistance. The youth of Kobanê should also return and take responsibility for their land. In particular, the youth of Kobanê should do everything to return to their lands and defend Kobanê.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Let know one imagine that we will abandon Kobanê. We will never, never back away from Kobanê. Let the world fall and let not one of us remain, we will not abandon Kobanê.
* Nechirvan Barzani was appointed in June 2014 Prime Minister of the eight cabinet of the Kurdistan Regional Government [Iraqi Kurdistan].
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