A female member of the Kurdish People's Defense Units (YPG). Her units have been locked in fierce clashes with members of the radical Jabhat al-Nusrah near the border with Turkey. Photo: AFP
Sipan Hemo, commander of the controversial People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Syria, is adamant: “We are not a military wing of any party,” he says in an interview with Rudaw. Hemo denies that the militia is part of the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has taken control of Syria’s Kurdish areas and has friendly ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PYD has been accused by some of shady ties with the Damascus regime, and of heavy-handed rule over the Kurdish regions. Hemo, whose fighters have been recently involved in deadly clashes with the radical Islamic Jabhat al-Nusra, says that Turkey has nothing to fear from the YPG units. “We see radical Islam as a threat not only to ourselves, but also to the Turkish people and the world as well,” he insists. Here is his interview:
Rudaw: Some of the clashes between the YPG and the radical Jabhat al-Nusra group are taking place outside Kurdish areas. Do the people in those areas support you?
Sipan Hemo: Some of the Arab villagers support YPG. Actually, it was upon their request that the YPG went there. The Jalagha and Jiburi tribes support the YPG. Most of the region supports the YPG. I have to point out that in the recent clashes we have been fighting against many foreigners, who are entering Syria from Turkey. For instance, the ones killed in Serekaniye were the citizens of other countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. One of the jihadists was a US citizen! Many of the militants killed in Tel Kochar were carrying Iraqi and other passports.
We Kurds are a democratic, progressive, and tolerant people in the region.
Rudaw: What do you think about the presence of Al-Qaeda in Syria? Some experts believe that the more secular Kurds are a blessing for the US and the West against these groups.
Sipan Hemo: We Kurds are a democratic, progressive, and tolerant people in the region. Look at the Kurdistan Region! It is the best example of what I am saying. None of the Arab nations have reached such an advanced level. Kurdish people have potential to even create better than this. Therefore, it is in the interest of the US and the West to acknowledge the Kurds (in Syria) and their potential.
Rudaw: How do you think the West should approach the Kurds?
Sipan Hemo: It was the West that divided Kurdistan into four parts, leaving Kurds under the governance of chauvinistic states that have denied us and carried out assimilation policies. Unfortunately, they are still doing the same thing, and continue to ignore the Kurdish struggle. They should talk with Kurds, and take them into account on issues related to the region. If Kurds gain status in the Middle East, it will certainly benefit the US and the West as well.
Rudaw: The Syrian crisis has arrived at an impasse. What do you think is the way out?
Therefore, it is in the interest of the US and the West to acknowledge the Kurds (in Syria) and their potential.
Sipan Hemo: The Syrian Revolution has reached a critical point. In other words, radical Islamists are seen in the forefront. This poses a threat to the US and the West. The conflict between the Alawites and Sunnis has reached an irreversible point. This issue can only be resolved through recognizing the Kurds and granting their rights. Nobody other than Kurds can remedy this problem. If the US and the West do not take Kurds into account, radical Islamists will take over, and that will cause Syria to break up.
Rudaw: You just mentioned there are many foreigner fighters in the Jabhat al-Nusra and that they enter from Turkey. How would you say Turkey is letting these radical Islamists into Syria, while Ankara is involved in a peace process with the Kurds in Turkey?
Sipan Hemo: This is indeed a very striking situation. Although Turkey is in the middle of a peace process with its Kurdish population, it is uneasy about the situation of Kurds inside Syria. This might seem like a contradiction, but we know that it is not. Kurds in the other three parts of Kurdistan (Turkey, Iran and Iraq) have never achieved such gains in a short period of time. The gains achieved in western (Syrian) Kurdistan happened very fast, and these gains already have and will have some results in the region.
As Kurds, our position has been from the beginning to remain neutral and not take the side of the regime or the opposition. We know we cannot do anything for the rest of Syria, but on every occasion we have emphasized that we can protect our own Kurdish region in Syria. But Turkey got uncomfortable with our stance. What discomforts Turkey is the fact that Kurds govern the Kurdish region. Turkish officials recently announced that they will not stay indifferent to the development alongside their borders and will interfere. The main reason for this announcement is the gains of Kurds alongside the Turkey's border.
Although Turkey is in the middle of a peace process with its Kurdish population, it is uneasy about the situation of Kurds inside Syria.
Rudaw: Do you really pose a threat to Turkey? Are Turkey’s concerns justified?
Sipan Hemo: Contrary to what has been said we, as the YPG, see ourselves as friends of the Turkish people. We side with those who can contribute to the advancement of democracy in the region. If the region gets under the control of radical Islamists, that would be a disaster for the Middle East. We see radical Islam as a threat not only to ourselves, but also to the Turkish people and the world as well. Our achievements in Syria will be beneficial to the Turkish people and the people in the region.
Rudaw: Raising the YPG flag at the Serekaniye border gate has made some Turkish officials uneasy.
Sipan Hemo: This should not be seen as a problem at all. We raise the YPG flag in the areas where we take under control to mark our achievement. But, I need to stress that the Kurdish region is under the control of the Supreme Kurdish Council (SKC). It is the SKC that governs the region. After military success, these areas are handed back to SKC and the SKC flag will be raised. In other words, no flag other than SKC will be raised at the border gate.
Rudaw: Kurdish parties say that the YPG is the military hand of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). What is your answer to this?
Sipan Hemo: Unfortunately, this issue is raised a lot. When we decided to form YPG, we not only visited PYD, but also other parties as well. We visited the president of the Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani too. We have knocked on the doors of many parties, people and leaders.
If the US and the West do not take Kurds into account, radical Islamists will take over, and that will cause Syria to break up.
We told all these people that we were planning to form a military power in Western Kurdistan. As you may remember, there were some attacks against the Kurds in Qamishlo in 2004 and in Raqqa in 2007. To prevent similar incidents, we felt it was a must to form a military force. Yet, all parties and people we had spoken with rejected the idea of forming a military force. They said that it would be difficult to form such a force. Nevertheless, we continued our efforts to form the YPG despite their discouragement. Definitely, PYD helped us out. There are within the YPG, members of other Kurdish parties along with PYD members. Democratic Progressive Party, Kurdish Democratic Union Party, Kurdish Leftist Party, Syrian Kurdish Democrats Party as well as Assyrians and Arabs are also part of YPG units.
I want to repeat once more that we are not a military wing of any party! We are under the command of the SKC. We struggle to defend the Kurdish region. YPG will exist as long as there are security problems regarding western Kurdistan. In fact, this is the first time I am officially stating this to the public through you. We met all parties in March 2009. They may have not mentioned this for their party interests!