Ilham Ahmed is a co-president of the Democratic Council of Syria.
The organization I represent, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is the ally of the global coalition against the Islamic State. Our relationship with the United States began in 2014, after the battle of Kobani, when our men and women in uniform astonished the world with their heroic defense against Islamic State jihadists.
I was one of the main advocates for sustaining and improving the relationship between Syrians and Americans. Skeptics warned me: “The U.S has no friends, only interests.” But I rejected such sentiments as an anti-American narrative encouraged by our enemies. Now it turns out that the pessimists were right. I was wrong.
Founded in 2015, the SDF is an alliance of Arab, Kurdish, Syriac and Turkmen groups fighting for a secular, democratic and decentralized Syria. With the support of our coalition partners, we captured nearly all the territory the Islamic State once held in Syria, including Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State.
The forces of the Islamic State see us as their sworn enemy. Yet the Islamic State also used its foothold in Syria and the vacuum created by Turkey to spread its terror to Europe and the United States. It used its guns and considerable resources to create a sharia state. With the comparatively limited resources we received, we successfully defeated the Islamic State and built a system of good governance in northeast Syria, including democratic checks and balances, that replaced both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous oppression and the terrorism of the jihadists. We created the foundations for a stable Syria in the areas under our control.
The United States has not always treated us like a full partner; it refused to listen to our concerns about Turkish intervention, and it excluded us from United Nations-brokered talks on the future of Syria. U.S. officials told us to destroy our defensive fortifications on the border with Turkey, to withdraw heavy weapons and to pull back our fighters. Although this left our families and children exposed to Turkey and the jihadist groups, the United States promised it would maintain border security. We obliged because we desire peace with Turkey and because we trusted the United States to make good on its commitments.
The sacrifices we made to defeat the Islamic State were not just a service to our people but also a service to the United States, Europe and the entire international community, who faced a real and present threat from terrorism. We expected our sacrifice and commitment to be repaid in kind.
The American decision not only puts the lives of countless thousands at risk. It also increases the likelihood of a resurgence of the global terror threat we worked so hard together with the US and its allies to defeat. Thousands of Islamic State fighters are in our custody. Guarding them takes huge amounts of resources. Now that we are forced to fend off a Turkish invasion, we will have no choice but to redirect our forces who are guarding the Islamic State prisoners. Many of them are European passport holders. Their escape would pose a grave danger to Europe and beyond. This is not a threat, merely a reality — we cannot both defend against Turkey and maintain security over the Islamic State prisoners. Our people and our homes must come first. It is our obligation.
We acknowledge Turkish military strength. But we are self-confident and full of resolve. Now that we are under attack, all of us — including me — will pick up our weapons and fight to the end. Self-defense is our right. We are a capable defensive army that has millions of supporters. And we will be protecting hundreds of thousands of people who belong to persecuted minorities: Kurds and Assyrians, Christians and Yazidis.
We prefer to pursue peace. There is still room to prevent conflict between Turkey and northeast Syria and the dire global consequences that will ensue. But success requires the active engagement of the United States and the international community. That will require three conditions: facilitating a resolution of our differences with Turkey so we can coexist peacefully as neighbors; our inclusion in U.N.-led Syrian peace talks so we can secure a viable political future for the whole of Syria; and discussions without procrastination about the Islamic State prisoners in our custody so there can be a safe and sustainable answer on how to process them.
Despite the betrayal we have endured, we still believe in American values and our true friends in U.S. uniform — those who stood shoulder to shoulder with our fighters and who changed widespread impressions here about the United States. We saw how dismayed many of them were after hearing the news about withdrawal and how the United States had opened the way to Turkish invasion.
We hope that our confidence in core American values is not misplaced. We are ready to play our part to achieve progress toward peace with Turkey, peace in Syria and a sustainable solution to the Islamic State prisoners. But it is now up to the United States and the international community to engage with us. The choice is clear: peace and stability — or conflict and chaos that will reverberate around the world.