‘Afrin is a red line’: Kurdish FSA commander loses his faction after refusing to fight

Reports are circulating that Turkey is planning military operations against Afrin, an isolated, Kurdish-held canton in northwestern Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told supporters in an address on August 5 that "we are determined to push the dagger we drove into the heart of the terrorist formation’s project in Syria deeper with new advances."

Afrin is the most vulnerable part of the de facto autonomous Kurdish territories in northern Syria known as Rojava, or western Kurdistan. Running along Syria's northern border, the Kurdish-controlled areas have long been a thorn in the side of the Turkish government.

The rumored offensive—dubbed Euphrates Sword in a nod to Euphrates Shield, Turkey’s first foray into Syria against the Islamic State—put Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin, the sole Kurdish faction fighting with Ankara-backed rebels in northern Syria, in a difficult position.

Would the Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction participate in a battle against a political party—the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—it opposed, even if it put their fellow Syrian Kurds in danger?

Founded in 2015, Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin's main funding comes from the US-led anti-Islamic State international coalition and the Pentagon. The group participated in battles for a number of Islamic State strongholds in northern Syria alongside other FSA brigades with Turkish backing. But this battle would be different.

After long deliberations, Liwa’s leader Mahmoud Khalo posted a statement on Facebook on July 3 announcing the faction would not participate in any military action against Afrin.

Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin’s stance on possible military action against Afrin came at a cost. Today, the faction no longer exists. In the days and weeks following Khalo’s statement, FSA factions stormed the group’s positions and storehouses, seizing its vehicles, weapons and resources. The group was virtually erased from northwestern Syria.

Mahmoud Khalo in an undated picture. Photo courtesy of Mahmoud Khalo.

On July 14, Khalo himself was arrested at a checkpoint belonging to another Turkish-backed FSA faction, a former ally. He says he was tortured for three days, held for two weeks, and then turned over to Turkish security services operating in Syria for further interrogation.

Khalo says that members of al-Jabha a-Shamiya, his allies-turned-torturers, accused him of belonging to Al-Qaeda and collaborating with the PYD party, a bitter enemy of Turkey that controls Afrin canton in northwest Aleppo province.

Approximately one week after his release, Khalo—now a civilian—tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Ibrahim that while he is “absolutely” opposed to the PYD, an attack on Afrin would be an attack on the Kurdish people.

“There is hatred towards the Kurds,” says Khalo. “I fear massacres and revenge attacks...if these military operations occur.”

Q: Why were you arrested, and what were the charges against you?

I was arrested because I am Kurdish, and the accusation was that I belonged to Al-Qaeda and am collaborating with the [Kurdish] Democratic Union Party [PYD].

[Ed.: The PYD is the dominant political party in a swathe of de facto autonomous, Kurdish-held territories running along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. The PYD—and its military wing, the YPG/J—has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally designated terrorist organization that has waged a bitter insurgency inside Turkey for decades. As such, Ankara considers the PYD a terrorist organization.]

On July 14, I was travelling alone from Qabaseen [northwest of al-Bab] to the city of Azaz when I was arrested at an al-Jabha a-Shamiya checkpoint. They took my weapons and brought me to their headquarters in Azaz. They welcomed me with torture, which lasted for three days. At that time, they had stormed our headquarters and weapon storehouses and seized everything. Jabha held me for 15 days.

Q: What kind of torture did they use and do you have any sense of why this was done?

Al-Jabha a-Shamiya’s torture methods are no different from those used at the Palestine Branch and Saydnaya prison, the human slaughterhouse [Ed.: Two infamous sites of torture and killings by the Assad regime]. They beat me with electric cables on my back, hung me by my wrists and beat me [shabah] and used the doulab [in which a person is forced to fold their body into a tire before being beaten or rolled around the room].

They wanted me to confess, to say that I was from Al-Qaeda or else a PYD collaborator.

[Ed.: Syria Direct reached out to al-Jabha a-Shamiya for a response to Khalo’s allegations. Raafat Juneid, an official with the faction’s media office, provided only the following response: “The FSA has taken upon itself the protection of the Syrian people, in all their ethnicities and sects. The Kurdish component is one of the most important to Syria’s social fabric. They, like us, need to see a united Syria—both its land and its people.”]

Q: When did they turn you over to the Turkish authorities?

In Azaz and the Euphrates Shield areas, there are security branches belonging to the Turkish government. They asked al-Jabha a-Shamiya to turn me over, which they did.

I was not tortured in the 18 days I spent there. On the contrary, they were very respectful. My interrogators there were Turkish.

Q: You deny the charges that were leveled against you by al-Jabha a-Shamiya, and you participated in the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield campaign against the Islamic State. What did your Turkish interrogators say to you?

The main reason for my arrest is that [on July 3] I posted my refusal on Facebook to participate in the so-called Euphrates Sword battle, or campaign, aimed at entering Afrin [a Kurdish-held canton in northwest Aleppo]. I said that openly during the interrogation, and held firm to my position. Afrin is a red line for me. I will not participate in any military action against it.

I clarified my point of view throughout the interrogation. My interrogators apologized and promised to return all of the weapons that were seized.

Q: Why is Afrin a red line for you?

The people of Afrin are my people. They are close to my heart. It is the PYD party that I am absolutely opposed to.

Q: This battle is supposedly against the PYD, not the people of Afrin. Could you expand on your point of view?

If Turkey were to attack Afrin, even the people who are against the PYD would stand with the party. The Kurdish people would prefer them to Turkey. Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin decided not to participate after a long discussion and after surveying the opinions of all the interested parties.

I fear massacres and revenge attacks against the Kurdish people in Afrin if these military operations occur. There are [FSA] factions that will take revenge on civilians under the pretext that they are with the PYD.

We do not want things to reach this level. This is reality; we have noticed it on the ground.  There is hatred towards the Kurds. And war does not discriminate; civilians will be targeted no matter what.

Q: Since you were released, roughly one week ago, have you been under any particular pressure?

Absolutely. All of our storehouses have been raided, and all our weapons stolen. We lost 64 cars, weapons for 600 fighters, heavy weaponry, an oil refinery and four oil tankers. The items seized include private property. I lost my Hyundai car, my land in the Tarheen area—administratively part of Qabaseen—near al-Bab city.

We are civilians now. Fighters harass me at the checkpoints. I am essentially under house arrest—I cannot move around freely. 

If we do not receive the weapons that were taken from us, we will form a political party and fight that way.

Q: Are you afraid you may be detained again? How do you view your future, and the future of Kurdish people in the areas controlled by these factions?

I am not afraid of them. I am a believer, and I have a cause. When I go out, I take some security measures to prevent treachery, but I am not afraid of these people.

Some Kurds from Qabaseen and its surrounding villages have previously faced harassment, but nothing major. Our presence as a revolutionary Kurdish faction was an obstacle [to these factions]. Even if we are civilians now, we will not allow an attack on anyone.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.