US special forces commander discusses support for Kurds in Iraq and Syria

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General Raymond Thomas, Commander of the U.S. Special Forces Command. File photo

ARA News

General Raymond Thomas, Commander of the U.S. Special Forces Command, said that the next flash point after Mosul is Kirkuk, arguing that Iraq will never accept the Kurds to take Kirkuk without a fight.

“I keep a very close watch right now on Kirkuk, most you know the Kurds picked very awkward time to have referendum on whether or not they should be independent. Kirkuk is absolutely part of their vision of greater Kurdistan,” he said at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday.

“If you pick up a Kurdish tourist map, you can see it there. And its absolutely point of departure of government of Iraq. Whether,  it was Maliki before, or the current administration, I don’t think they going to say sure, take the Khurmala oil fields in Kirkuk and go your way. Its not going go peacefully. You think Iraq all places, we took Mosul, there is still lot of work to do. Hardest part how to finish,” he added.

Disappointment

Moreover, the US general said he was ‘disappointed’ with the Peshmerga. “I spent 15 months in Mosul, so I knew the Kurds very well, they talked a good game, it was a pretty army, it didn’t fight very well when push came to shove. So we’ve had to bring them up to a level of competency that you would’ve have hoped was better beforehand but they are now contributing pretty actively.”

Furthermore, the US general said that the evidence of Iranian influence in Iraq is evident.

“We bump into them [Iranians] everywhere. Humorously, I parked my plane one day right next to [Qassim] Soleimani’s plane in Erbil, we were kind of salivating what we could should do at that moment of time, but we did nothing,” he said about Major General Qassem Soleimani, the chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force.

“I consider him to be my peer competitor.  And he is everywhere. He will be in Manbij Syria one day and (…) he will be in Iraq further afield. So they have laid a sea corridor from Teheran through southern oil fields, through Baghdad, looking for access either through Anbar or through Nineveh, they join hands with Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria, and that transcends into Lebanon, so they got a de-facto crescent as it is now,” General Thomas said.

Evolution of the SDF forces

Furthermore, the US general talked about the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in October 2015, and the evolution of the US-Kurdish alliance in Syria.

“The one that is most discussed, and most misunderstood is the evolution of our counterpart in Syria, the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces. Interestingly came about that name, at one point in time, I’ve dealt with them directly, I was on the formative stage of the relationship with these guys. They formally called themselves the YPG, who the Turks would say equated to the PKK. You are dealing with a terrorist enemy of mine, how you can do that to an ally,” he said.

“So, we literally played back to them: ‘You have got to change your brand. What do you want to call yourselves besides the YPG?’ With about a day’s notice they declared that they are the Syrian Democratic Forces, I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put democracy in there somewhere. But it gave them a little bit of credibility,” General Thomas added.

However, the US military was not able to give the Syrian Kurds a seat at the table at the Syrian peace negotiations.

“I was lucky to have great partner in Brett McGurk out there at the time, because they [Kurds] were asking for things I couldn’t give to them. And it was literally an acknowledgement, that they were the demographic dominant force in northern Syria. They wanted a seat at the table, whether it’s Geneva or Astana, wherever the talks are happening about the future Syria, and because they had been branded as the PKK they could never get to the table. So while we paired with them militarily, McGurk was able to keep them in the conversation and allowed them the necessary legitimacy to be good partners for us. So its was literally something, I dealt militarily, and the diplomat delivered an entrée, from a state stand point,” he said.

Kobani alliance

Moreover, the US general said that the alliance between Kurds and the US-led coalition against ISIS developed in Kobani, after they tripped on them, and the Iraqi Kurds told the coalition to help the Kurds in Syria.

“There was a town called Kobani, I had to find it on the map, I had no idea where Kobani was. But it was identified to us as a town that was just about to be expunged by ISIS. They [ISIS] had massed thousands of troops on it. They wanted it symbolically as it was up on the Turkish border. And other [Iraqi] Kurds introduced us to this problem, and asked if we could help them,” he said.

“All we did early on we provided kinetic capabilities to them, and kept them from being wiped out, they were up the backdrop the Turkish border, they had no escape [vow] there. And I was able to walk the dirt in Kobani, seven months later, it was utter devastation,” he said.

“(…) [our] Kurdish allies lost 2000 there, they estimate ISIS lost about 6,000 to 10,000 there. There was a complete devastation of the town. But they were just happy that they survived the experience. And out of that seed corn, that’s when they start saying we have Kurdish cantons, and right away, going to be more representative than that,” he said.

Kurdish magic

“Are there Arabs interested in joining your coalition here, and they would identify folks, and yes we go to this canton and this town, and this thing rolled from just a couple thousand that we knew early on, to now 50,000 person force, when folks want a test: are those ghost numbers? My comeback is that’s the ghost force, that has just taken, half way through Raqqa, and has taken every march objective we had so far,” the US general said, calling it a magic alliance.

“And the real unstated aspect of magic here, luckily, we lost only two service members throughout this whole thing, two half years, fighting this fight with our surrogates, they lost thousands, we lost only two service members, two is too many, but it’s a relief that we haven’t had kind of losses we had elsewhere,. It’s their fight, they got to embrace it more than we do,” he stated.

Future after Raqqa

Moreover, David Ignatius from the Washington Post, who travelled to northern Syria recently with US coalition officials, asked the US general if the US is going to stay after ISIS is defeated.

“I want to spin this in three different directions. So first part to your question, advantageous to us would be to stay there with them as long if there is a CT [counter-terrorism] threat to deal with. They have been our surrogate force maneuverable wise, while we are bringing every aspect, all tools of trade we can, to great effect, so still until less we  stick a fork into ISIS and they are done, very advantageous,” he said about the role the Kurds could play after ISIS is defeated in Raqqa to continue to combat ISIS.

Legal issues

However, the Russians might ask the US forces to leave Syria, after ISIS is done.

“Here is the conundrum, we are operating in the sovereign country of Syria, the Russians are stalwart, their back stoppers, already uninvited the Turks from Syria, we are bad days away from Russians saying why are you still in Syria,” he said.

“And it has come up with comes close calls there, but it will be hard, I refer to the lawyers in the crowd and others, in terms of international law, on basis for us staying there other than our CT writ, we went there for all the righteous reasons, but if Russians play that card, we might want to stay, but have no ability to do it. They could play it out,” he said about the possibility of Russia pressuring US forces to leave.

Branding PKK challenge

However, the US general says the Kurds could ‘help themselves’. “They still have branding challenge going forward, and the Turks remind us every day.  The first time Brett McGurk and I went out to this very old, cold guildhall in Kobani, right on the Turk border, we went in there, a bunch of somber technocrats and military people, and whose beaming face is looking down on us from the front of the guildhall but Ocalan,” he said.

“We said, ‘hey, that’s got to go. You cannot hold on to Ocalan and have any chance of legitimacy in the construct we’re in.  So, you either something different, or. And something that has a legitimacy” he said.

Unique governance

“And you saw part of it. So, Interesting part, we are to close to the problem, you got out there to give different perspective. They are doing something unique to every other surrogate we worked in last decade and their half. They are governing in their wake, they are providing a representative governance,” he said.

Although he admitted it is not perfect, and that it tends to socialism, it at least provides a model. “But socialist [in terms of] when their women are in power, as well as their men.

Actively [women are] fighting, and actively leading throughout their leadership there, but they are governing in their wake. So there is something, McGurk and I discussed this at length, there is something special about this, that whether we can embrace going forward, whether or not can be part of future fabric of Syria, lets see,” he said.

“But luckily they are on table and at least having opportunity to represent themselves.  But they have to work on their own branding.  If they continue to keep linkage to past product, or PKK linkage specifically, the relationship [with the U.S.] is fraught with challenges,” he concluded.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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