Ilham Ahmed is a co-president of the Democratic Council of Syria.
On Tuesday, Turkey bombed the headquarters of Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, killing 20 of our soldiers. Immediately after the strike, the leaders of our forces — known as the People’s Protection Groups, or YPG — rushed from their operations center near Raqqa, where they’ve been working with the U.S. military to push the Islamic State out of its Syrian stronghold, to view the site of the attack. The American colonel and other officers who accompanied the YPG leaders were met by tens of thousands of protesters, including the mothers of soldiers who have died fighting the Islamic State. They asked the Americans a simple question: “How is it possible that our soldiers are fighting with you against ISIS while your ally Turkey is attacking us here?”
This is not the first time that Turkey has attacked us. Turkish planes and artillery have been bombing northern Syria for more than a year, and Turkish forces invaded the country last year. In each case, the Turks have acted under false pretenses. They claim to have invaded Syria to fight terrorism, and yet the groups they support on the ground (Ahrar Al Sham and Nour Eddin Al Zanki) share the same jihadist ideology that the United States has been fighting since 9/11.
The Turks said they bombed our headquarters because they claimed our territory is being used to launch attacks against Turkey, but those accusations are unfounded. Let me be as clear as can be: We have never used northern Syria to launch any attack against Turkey. If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t trust us when we say this, fine. But why can’t he trust the U.S. personnel in our area who assure him of the same?
Erdogan justifies these illegal attacks with the same baseless claim: that the YPG is the same as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is currently fighting the government inside Turkey. This claim is based on the fact that we share a founder and many intellectual values with the PKK — but this is equally true of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a legal political party in Turkey with 58 members in the Turkish parliament. They are no more PKK than we are, and any attempt to equate us with the PKK is disingenuous.
Erdogan knows this. He knows that our political and military leadership is completely separate from that of the PKK. He knows that any attempt to combine YPG with PKK would run contrary to our core value of decentralization of power. He knows we are not using northern Syria to launch attacks on Turkey. He knows all this. He just doesn’t care.
Erdogan is trying to force the United States to choose between us and Turkey. We don’t think such a choice is necessary, but it is worth considering what that choice entails. We, the Democratic Council of Syria, are an alliance of progressive, democratic parties that govern the Northern Syria Federation. Though we are besieged from all sides (by the Islamic State, the Assad regime and Erdogan’s Turkey), our region is more stable than any other part of the country. So much so, in fact, that in addition to our population of 3 million, we have taken in an additional 500,000 refugees (Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Armenians and Yazidis) from across Syria.
Sadly, there is a stark contrast between our democratic, egalitarian and progressive society and that of our neighbor, where Erdogan is consolidating power and turning Turkey into a totalitarian state. This is further shown by his recent “victory” in this month’s constitutional referendum, which he conducted after arresting a vast number of lawmakers, political leaders, journalists, union members and military leaders who do not agree with the Turkish president’s political narrative.
Ironically, in pushing the United States to choose between us and him, Erdogan is only bringing further attention to the fact that Turkey is not a true ally of the United States. Consider this: While we are fighting for our people’s right to freedom from tyranny, Erdogan is tyrannically denying freedom to his own people. While we are fighting and dying side by side with the U.S. military in the campaign against the Islamic State, Erdogan is turning a blind eye to terrorism and supporting groups that overtly espouse jihadist ideals.
If Erdogan were a true U.S. ally, then instead of dropping bombs on the headquarters of the YPG, which currently hosts more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel, Turkey would seek to destroy al-Qaeda, which has set up bases in Idlib, right along the Turkish border. Al-Qaeda in Idlib is among the largest affiliates in the organization’s history. (That’s according to U.S. officials, by the way.) Yet Turkey does nothing.
While Turkey turns a blind eye to terrorism, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which the YPG plays a big role, is only 10 miles away from Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. The SDF also controls 70 percent of another strategic city called Tabqqa and is in full control of its air base that was taken from the Islamic State by the SDF. In the past month alone, the SDF captured dozens of villages around Raqqa from the Islamic State, and we will not stop until the last supporter of the caliphate has been vanquished.
To be clear, we do not want to escalate the conflict with Turkey. Yes, we believe that Erdogan, who is turning a blind eye to terrorism as he aspires to build his totalitarian state, is on the wrong side of history. As he looks outward in his aggression, we look inward, in a spirit of optimism and progress, toward a better Syria.
We do not believe that the United States needs to choose between us and Turkey. With each passing day, however, it becomes clearer who the United States’ true ally in this conflict is.