Commander of Kurdish FSA brigade: ‘Federalism is not an effective system for Syria’

Within the largely Sunni Arab Free Syrian Army exists a single Kurdish brigade. Taking its name from the renowned twelfth-century Kurdish founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin’s 600 fighters are among the Syrian rebels currently battling the Islamic State near the Turkish border northeast of the Aleppo town of Azaz.

One third of Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin’s fighters are Arabs and Turkmen, in addition to one Christian and one Alawite fighter.

The US-backed Kurdish brigade adamantly opposes the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG, its commander, Mahmoud Abu Hamzah tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed Abdulssattar Ibrahim.

“Kurds are with the revolution, and the PYD represents nothing but itself,” the commander says. In this interview below, Abu Hamzah explains what he sees as the fissures within the Kurdish community, and how he hopes his brigade serves as a microcosm for a new Syria. 

Q: What are you calling for as a military faction?

We are calling for justice and equality between all Syrian people in rights and duties. We want recognition for the Kurdish language and culture, and we don’t want any ethnic discrimination.

I won’t tell you that our orientation is secular, but rather civil and democratic. We aren’t nationalist and we have no problems with any Syrian religious or ethnic group. We have a Christian, an Alawite and 200 Arab and Turkmen brothers fighting with us.

Our problem is with all those who bear weapons against the Syrian people’s revolution, the shabiha from every sect and community.

Q: Where do you stand on the PYD-led declaration of federalism in northern Syria last month?  And federalism in general?

We are Syrians, but we are also Kurds and a Kurdish faction. Certainly, we reject the federalism announced by the PYD, but we agree with federalism were it to come about through an inclusive national agreement between all the social components of the Syrian people.

If we think rationally though, federalism is not an effective system for Syria. There is no single Kurdish area. Rather, there are geographical disparities. The matter is very complicated.

Q: Who supports you?

We are supported by the [US-led] international coalition. This support comes to the 99th Division which comprises two brigades: Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin and Liwa Dhi Qar.

[Ed.: The 99th Division is part of the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program.]

Sometimes support falls short, which impacts the course of our battles with the PYD, the regime and the Islamic State. Weapons and material support hasn’t come for a month. We can’t buy fuel for the vehicles or provisions for the fighters.

Q: Do you have communication with Kurdish political parties?

Yes, we communicate with them, but not the PYD. We do not belong to any political party.

Q: As the sole Kurdish faction in the ranks of the armed opposition, what is your message to Syrian society and the world?

We are Syrians and we are with the Syrian revolution. Kurds are with the revolution, and the PYD represents nothing but itself.

We in Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin raise the flag of Kurdistan and nobody objects to that.

Q: There were reports late last month that Ahrar a-Sham had forced you to take down Kurdish flags you were flying in northern Aleppo. Can you confirm or deny that? Have you had problems with other opposition factions?

These reports are baseless lies, and we categorically deny them. Ahrar a-Sham is a strong ally of ours, and they support our enterprise to be an alternative to the PYD in the area.

No faction can stop me from raising my flag. Just like any Arab, it is my right as a Kurd to raise my flag. In the end we are all brothers under the roof of a single homeland. All of us are equal: Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, Armenians and Alawites, if they do not fight us.

There is a massive media war against us. That is because nobody harms the PYD like we do, because we are Kurdish forces with the opposition. This frightens them a lot, because it is proof that Kurds are with the revolution and that they [the PYD] are with the regime. We support the revolution and we are the only Kurdish brigade in the opposition.

Q: Kurdish YPG forces control the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood, at the northern edge of regime-controlled west Aleppo, which overlooks the Castello road, the main supply route for rebels in Aleppo city. There is intense fighting there right now. What do you know about it?

Those fighting the YPG in Sheikh Maqsoud include Ahrar a-Sham, Division 16, the Northern Division and Harakat Noureddin a-Zinki. 

[Ed.: Coinciding with the battles, rebel shelling of the Kurdish-majority neighborhood has killed dozens of civilians.]

The PYD forces are using civilians as human shields. Civilians are dying, and the PYD is using it to attract international support by claiming that the Syrian opposition is killing Aleppo’s Kurds. They also say that radical Islamist groups are targeting the civilians, but this isn’t true because groups like Jabhat a-Nusra are not present in those areas.

We have put forward an initiative to evacuate civilians from Sheikh Maqsoud, but the PYD refuses. Civilians remaining in the neighborhood are under pressure and armed threat from the party itself.

[Ed.: Syria Direct could not independently verify Abu Hamzah’s allegation that YPG forces are preventing civilians from leaving the district. The Fatah Halab rebel operations room issued an announcement on Saturday condemning the alleged use of civilians as human shields and stating: "We are prepared to secure the evacuation and safe passage for our people, the residents of Sheikh Maqsoud. We pledge to secure their safe arrival to areas where there are no clashes as well as their return to their homes immediately following the end of military operations.”]

Q: You say that the YPG are using civilians in human shields in Sheikh Maqsoud. However, opposition factions are continuing their bombardment even though they know that there are civilians. Why?

Stopping the bombardment of Sheikh Maqsoud means allowing the YPG to cut the sole artery [for rebels] into Aleppo, the Castello road.

The PYD has nothing to do with Castello. It isn’t even a Kurdish area, but they are trying to take control of it. This is proof that they are fighting with the regime and helping it besiege Aleppo. Previously, nobody fought them in Sheikh Maqsoud, but they are helping the regime to block the road and it is the opposition’s right to fight them.

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. Follow Mohammad on Twitter: @mohamma59717689.

Mateo Nelson

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