Galbraith: Turkish-backed extremist groups should not enter northeast Syria

The United States should protect northeast Syria and not allow Turkey to invade the region, a former US diplomat said in a recent interview.

In an exclusive interview with Kurdistan 24, Peter Galbraith, the former US Ambassador to Croatia, spoke about the situation and developments in Syria’s northeast.

Turkey continues to threaten Syria’s Kurdish-run northeast and has amassed troops on the border of areas the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated and defended from the so-called Islamic State.

According to Galbraith, allowing Turkey to overrun these areas would be counterproductive to US interests because some of the groups Ankara supports are “more criminal than anything else.”

Galbraith used to work for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and advised the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from 2003 to 2005. He was also a supporter of the Kurdistan Region’s historic independence referendum in September 2017.

The former American diplomat has traveled to northeast Syria several times over the last few years. He was also involved in attempts to improve relations between Syrian Kurdish parties.

Negotiations between Turkey and the US, and between the US and the SDF over the creation of a safe zone are ongoing.

Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US Special Representative for Syria and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, has played a key role in these talks. So far, the sides have failed to reach a solution.

Safe Zone

SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel previously told Kurdistan 24 the Kurdish-led forces are working to reach an agreement to support the stability and security of Syria’s northeast in coordination with the US-led coalition.

Galbraith noted that the security situation in northeast Syria would be enhanced through whatever measures are decided that deter a Turkish attack.

“If there are issues that are consistent with the SDF’s security priorities that still can reassure Turkey, well it is fine – I am quite sure they could not agree to Turkish troops to be stationed in northeast Syria, it is not possible for them [the SDF] to agree to withdrawal from the cities. But there might be other steps they can take, like moving heavy weapons.”

No Threat to Turkey

The former US diplomat added that the SDF securing northeast Syria provides no security threat to Turkey.

“Spending too much time on substituent security measure for a place that is not a security threat, does not make a lot of sense,” Galbraith told Kurdistan 24.

“But if the idea is to send a signal to Turkey, then I think it is worthwhile. Turkey does have legitimate security concerns, but they come from both insurgents operating inside Turkey and from Iraqi territory, but not from Syria.”


Galbraith also thinks the US owes some debt to their “allies, the Syrian Kurds” who provided the ground troops to fight to eliminate the Islamic State.

“The SDF took thousands of casualties fighting for the Syrian Arab territory and not only the Kurdish territory. I think there is a great debt to the Kurdish allies.”

He added that if Turkey were allowed to attack the northeast, there would be chaos. “It is also not in the US interest for these areas to be recovered by the Syrian government or Iran’s ally to be there.”

Afrin’s Bad Example

Since March 2018, Turkey has occupied the former Kurdish enclave of Afrin. According to human rights organizations, Turkish-backed groups have carried out several human rights abuses.

Galbraith said Turkey’s occupation of Afrin harmed Turkish diplomacy.

“It ought to be a reason that the US and Europe would be alarmed if Turkey was to go to northeast Syria,” he told Kurdistan 24. “Will they bring the extremist Islamic factions? Will the situation in northeast Syria be so chaotic?”

The former American diplomat said the situation in Afrin speaks for itself. “They are not allowing international observers; instead, they are replacing Al-Nusra and HTS factions, making the region a magnet for extremist groups. There is not much of international access to Afrin.”

Kurds Should Unite

Moreover, Galbraith emphasized the need for Kurdish parties in Syria, such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish National Council (KNC), and others to present a united front.

So far, both have been unable to bridge their differences, despite earlier unity agreements in Erbil and Duhok between 2012 and 2014 that eventually failed due to political disagreements.

Galbraith said that since Syria is currently unprepared “to offer a series of arrangements that would satisfy the Kurdish ambitions,” the Kurdish parties “have the prospect of having a separate self-governing entity for the indefinite future.”

“I would think all of that could be achieved in a way that is going to be durable, and you can have an agreement because the Syrian Kurds are not separatists,” he added.

Galbraith noted that the administration in northeast Syria is not going away, so it would be unrealistic for the KNC to demand the creation of a new administration without the PYD.

“So, it is not realistic to say, let’s create a new administration. What is realistic, is to participate in the administration, to share power and to talk about changes that might be made into the administration and the constitutional structure within northeast Syria – that is possible.”

The KNC has so far refused to join or recognize the administration set up in 2018 which represents the county’s northeast.

“The other thing is if you keep insisting on starting again and come up with new institutions, well it is not going to happen,” Galbraith explained. “I believe in the possibility of inclusion, something that is negotiated.”

He said that although the KNC and PYD continue to disagree on when to negotiate, they have “bigger areas of agreements on what the outcome should be: a significant level of autonomy for a locally-elected administration in the Kurdish areas.”

“In fact, there are agreements on what that autonomy should involve, like local security forces, local economy, infrastructure, some share of the national budget or the oil revenues, they want a voice in Damascus, Kurds to be equal people with the Arabs, and recognition of official languages. These are areas of agreement, and my view is to focus on these areas of agreement.”

Comparing the KRG to Syrian Kurds

Galbraith witnessed both the growth of the KRG and the autonomous administration of northeast Syria. He said there are many similarities between the two.

“Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and Gulf War I and the subsequent uprising and the safe area; all, which everybody assumed is going to be temporary, developed into, through the acts of the Iraqi Kurds who held elections in May of 1992; the first free elections ever held in Iraq – created the KRG,” he told Kurdistan 24.

“People did not think it would last, but the longer it lasted, the stronger it got, established its own laws and administration, developed its own military, and by 2003 [it] was a significant Coalition partner. [The KRG] took more casualties than any other force in the war against Saddam Hussein.”

According to Galbraith, a series of unexpected developments, which included the uprising in Syria and the Islamic State attack on Kurds in Iraq as well Yezidis (Ezidis), led the Obama administration to get involved.

“What I have to say is the fastest response to genocide I have ever known. The attack on the Ezidis was on Sunday, the US [intervened] on Thursday, it was amazing.

“And that, in turn, meant when the Islamic State was attacking Kobane, the US intervened very remarkably, over the objections of its NATO allies, and with support for a group that was basically allied with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. But it was the right decision.”

As a result, on both sides of the border, there is now a safe area. “Because when you have lots of territory and people, you have to set up an administration, and this has been done.”

Damascus Agreement Unlikely

One of the major differences between Syrian Kurds and those in the Kurdistan Region, however, is that Kurds in Iraq fought very hard against the Iraqi regime. The SDF has not engaged in any significant fights with Damascus.

“There is much more interaction; there is trade with Damascus. There is greater chance for negotiating some sort of political arrangement, but the possibility is not great.

“Damascus feels it is on the war, they do not want to make concessions that might be a precedent for other parts of Syria, runs against their ideology of a unified Syria—so, they cannot accept what Iraq accepted; Iraq accepted the idea of federation, almost did Hungary and Austria,” he said.

Galbraith concluded that for Damascus, the mentality is “whatever you give the Kurds, you have to give everybody else. And [Bashar al-Assad] sees concessions to the Kurds as a sign of weakness at the moment of victory, and he does not want to send that signal.”

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