It was announced on 15 November that Talal Ali Silo, the official spokesman of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), had fled to the EUPHRATES SHIELD zone in northern Aleppo, run by rebels operating under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brand that are dependent on Turkey. The SDF is the partner force in Syria for the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS). Though the SDF presents itself as a multi-ethnic coalition of Kurds and Arabs, it was initiated as a front for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). By attaching non-Kurdish units to a PKK core and using the SDF banner, it circumvented various legal and political obstacles for Coalition states. But all real power has remained in the hands of the PKK, which has systematically purged all genuinely independent power centres within the SDF. Silo, a Turkoman, helped further the narrative of the SDF’s ethnic inclusivity, and his defection underlines the reality of the organization’s political exclusivity.
TALAL SILO AND THE SELJUK BRIGADE
When the SDF was publicly announced in October 2015—a branding operation for the PKK, acting under American tutelage—it had one Turkoman unit, Liwa al-Salajiqa (The Seljuk Brigade), led by Silo, a defector from the Bashar al-Asad regime’s army. Silo’s unit was not very large, probably no more than four-hundred men—and, after the grinding battles in the two years since, especially in Minbij, that number is thought to have at least halved—but the group served a very important political purpose for the SDF. Silo was made into the SDF’s spokesman, a visual representation of the organization’s narrative that it was an ethnic mosaic.
Directly following the Minbij operation, two new bodies, the “Jarabulus Military Council” and “Al-Bab Military Council”, were announced, expressing the clear intent of the SDF/PKK to use Minbij as a springboard to expand west and control the entire Syria-Turkey border. Silo’s group was part of the council for al-Bab. This was in total defiance of the promises the PKK had made to the Americans, and through the U.S. to the Turks, that the PKK would withdraw from Minbij after IS was gone, and the city would be left to local rule. Turkey intervened with Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD on 24 August 2016 to block the PKK’s maximalist program, taking Jarabulus in a few hours and taking al-Bab by February 2017. Al-Bab was one of the most well-defended of the IS-held cities and the headquarters of amn al-kharji, the intelligence branch that orchestrates the foreign terrorist attacks.
After the Turkish intervention, Silo was part of the PKK’s political warfare against Turkey. Silo gave interviews in which he reliably toed the PKK propaganda line—namely that rebels allied to Turkey (the ones he has just joined) were “gangs” that collaborated with IS in a project to exterminate Kurds. The Seljuk Brigade, Jaysh al-Thuwar, and Kataib Shams al-Shamal (Northern Sun Brigade)—all non-Kurdish SDF groups—gave public statements about their determination to fight the Turkish-backed forces in northern Syria. It appears that this rhetoric was taken seriously. On 10 September 2016, a Seljuk Brigade commander, Hani al-Mulla, was assassinated near al-Bab. Turkey was held responsible by many. A month before, on 22 August, another Turkoman commander in the SDF, Abdulsettar al-Jaddir, was struck down hours after being announced as the leader of the Jarabulus Military Council.
Silo gave the official announcement of the SDF/PKK offensive to evict IS from its “capital”, Raqqa, in June 2017.
There was considerable initial confusion about what had happened on Wednesday morning—whether Silo had left the SDF, and if he had whether he chose to or was kidnapped. It soon became clear Silo had turned himself over to Turkish intelligence around Jarabulus. The SDF released a statement after this referring to the “disappearance” of Silo, and claiming that Turkey had threatened Silo’s family to force his defection.
Turkish intelligence has recently been active in northern Syria. Through a mix of direct military intervention, covert assassinations, and the leak of incriminating audio files, the Turkish government has been weakening Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria, over the last few months, inciting divisions and politically discrediting HTS as part of a long campaign to dislodge a deeply entrenched insurgent force. And in just the last few days, after it was revealed that the PKK cut a deal that let thousands of IS jihadists and family members leave Raqqa, some of them into Turkey, it was almost certainly Turkish intelligence that leaked the conversation of the PKK mediator who said he was prepared to help IS members—local and foreign—get to anywhere in Syria or beyond, so long as they kept the accord secret. Still, there is, as yet, no evidence for the claim that the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) engineered Silo’s defection, and many indications that Silo left of his own volition because of the stifling environment imposed by the PKK.
In September, four SDF commanders were assassinated near Tel Rifaat, the Arab town the PKK snatched from U.S.-backed rebels with the help of Russian airstrikes in February 2016, just before the PKK helped the pro-Asad coalition lock the devastating siege on Aleppo city. There was no claim of responsibility for this and the SDF did not name the slain. But rebel sources suggest they were Arab commanders, and that there have been subsequent assassinations, including of people close to Silo. There is wide suspicion that the PKK is behind the killings as part of its efforts to centralize control, a pattern of behaviour the group has displayed since its founding in the 1970s.
The PKK’s monopolistic tendency meant it went to war with all other Kurdish and Left-wing organizations in Turkey before it attacked the state, and it has killed hundreds of its own members for perceived deviations. Cetin Gungor (Semir) suggested that PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan relinquish some of his power and allow some democratic procedures within the group. Ocalan’s agents pursued Gungor through three countries in Europe and murdered him in Sweden. Mehmet Sener, a seasoned guerrilla commander who spent eight years in the most hideous prison of the Turkish military regime in the 1980s, was assassinated by PKK agents in collaboration with Asad’s secret police after Sener, too, suggested that the PKK be organized on less autocratic lines. In the cases of Gungor and Sener, there is an identifiable “crime”—voicing dissent from Ocalan. This was not the case for the wounded and disturbed PKK members released from Turkish prisons who were done to death, nor the dozens of young men and women murdered at the Helwe camp in an atmosphere of sheer hysteria about “spies”, nor the many PKK operatives sent on suicide missions, despite their loss damaging the PKK’s cause, because Ocalan felt threatened by their stature. It is, therefore, understandable that if Silo had any suspicion that the PKK wanted him out of the way, he has pre-empted them.
Less dramatically, it is also possible Silo was driven by the realization that there was no hope the SDF will evolve into anything like what it claims to be. The trend line is all the other way. The PKK has broken all Kurdish opposition in “Rojava”; it is not permitted even to demonstrate in favour of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan since the PKK has long been an enemy of the Iraqi Kurds. And the Arabs under PKK rule have been brought in line. At the beginning of the Raqqa operation, there were two Arab units within the SDF capable of independent political and military activity: Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa (Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Front) and Quwwat al-Nukhbat (The Elite Forces). (A third group, Quwwat al-Sanadid or The Sanadid Forces, had and has the military power to exercise some degree of independence, but adheres to the PKK’s political line.) Before the Raqqa operation ever began, Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa was marginalized and its leader placed under “village arrest”. Within a month of the operation beginning, the Elite Forces had been neutralized as well. There can have been very few advantages to Silo of continuing to serve as a fig-leaf for the PKK’s dictatorial rule, and every reason to believe—given the audacious way the PKK chose to celebrate its “victory” in Raqqa—that he would be purged in one way or another eventually.
Silo has been replaced as SDF spokesman by Redur Xelil, the long-time spokesman for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the name the PKK’s military units use on Syrian soil. Xelil, a Syrian from Hasaka whose real name is Sulayman Khalil Hassan, has been a member of the PKK since 1999 and moved back into Syria in 2012. In May 2017, Xelil was replaced as YPG spokesman by Nuri Mahmud (Karwan), another Syrian PKK cadre who was previously based in Damascus. Xelil went back to the Qandil Mountains for six months of ideological instruction. It appears Mahmud has stayed in place as YPG spokesman, while Xelil is now the SDF spokesman. To have veteran PKK operatives as the face of both the YPG and SDF is instructive in itself of how little concern the PKK now has for hiding the reality of the situation.
Reporting on Silo’s defection, Reuters noted that it comes after “months of growing discontent by some Arab tribes with the SDF … Many local Arab tribes in areas controlled by the SDF complain they are marginalized in decision making and blame the YPG for discrimination against them, including the forced conscription of their youths.” Where pro-PKK elements don’t contend that Silo was a Turkish agent all along, his departure is framed in terms of this tension between the PKK and the tribes, with Silo’s move supposedly representing a tilt in the balance within the SDF toward the “progressive” (i.e. ideological) wing and away from the tribalist and conservative forces.
This is not a very convincing explanation given how little influence Silo had, but the dynamic of Arab tribal discontent under the PKK regime in north-eastern Syria is real enough, based on the tribes’ dislike of the PKK’s political extremism, the reports of abuses against Arabs elsewhere, its forced conscription, especially of women, its confiscation of property and indiscriminate sanctions on relatives of IS members (or suspected members), plus the PKK’s alignment with the pro-Asad coalition. These tensions have been inflamed further by things like the PKK’s handling of the displaced from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
The manner of IS’s “defeat” in Raqqa provides little reason to believe the jihadists are finished. To the contrary. On the one hand, IS has reverted to insurgency mode and already demonstrated recovery in some “liberated” areas. On the other hand, the PKK is eliminating all but the most servile representatives from the communities it rules over, which means such figures have no credibility. This dual track is setting the stage for IS to be the only avenue of resistance to an unjust status quo—the situation in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq that enabled IS’s revival last time.
Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society