Ilham Ahmed was dispatched to Washington, D.C., this week to try to salvage some part of the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the United States and its Kurdish-led Syrian allies. She is one of the two leaders of the political council that, with U.S. backing, has overseen the region in northern Syria controlled by an umbrella militia called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
Recent days haven’t gone well: President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw the 1,000 American soldiers who were effectively guaranteeing the peace there has triggered a series of shifts that, in sum, have led to significant violence and displacement and left the SDF scrambling to find a way to survive.
I spoke with her about conflicting signals from the White House, the reduction of American power in the region, and the continued threat from the Islamic State—as well as the SDF’s precarious position in new negotiations with Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mike Giglio: What are you trying to negotiate with the U.S. government?
Ilham Ahmed: This is a very important thing: that the U.S. should still engage politically. What we hear from our American counterparts is that they are still involved in Syria.
Giglio: But do you really think they can influence Assad?
Ahmed: The U.S. is still telling us that it can push things politically. I, however, see that they are in a very weak position now when it comes to the political process.
Giglio: Have you spoken to Donald Trump?
Giglio: If you did, would you tell him that he betrayed the SDF?
Ahmed: I wouldn’t say betray, but I would say that the U.S. should have committed to its promises.
Giglio: Trump said on Thursday that the Kurds should go to the oil-producing region in eastern Syria, where U.S. troops may retain a presence. What does this mean to you, and is it possible?
Ahmed: I didn’t understand what he meant. The U.S. is talking about protecting the oil fields, but that shouldn’t be happening on account of the Kurds leaving their historic homeland, and it’s not right, it’s not proper, to move the Kurds from their homeland to other areas. To change the population, the demographics, is ethnic cleansing.
Giglio: What do you expect from Assad?
Ahmed: We are ready to sit and talk about the restructuring of the Syrian army.
Giglio: Is it possible that the SDF could become part of the Syrian army, if it makes the right changes?
Ahmed: There’s a pretty big chance, yes.
Giglio: Would that mean all of the SDF or only its Kurdish elements?
Ahmed: If it’s conditioned on what we’ve [pushed for], all of the SDF.
Giglio: What leverage do you have in these negotiations now that the Americans have said they’re going to leave?
Ahmed: I would say our power comes from our will, our people, the amount of support we have from the people, and the legitimacy of our political project in our region and inclusivity.
Giglio: How much leverage did you lose when Trump announced his decision to allow an invasion by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this month?
Ahmed: Two cities were leveled to the ground. Major villages around these were looted; 300,000 people were displaced; 250 people sacrificed their lives. Sleeper-cell activity by ISIS increased with the Turkish incursion.
Giglio: Is the SDF’s negotiating position weaker, though, in the wake of Trump’s decision?
Ahmed: Definitely yes.
Giglio: I spoke with humanitarian workers who believe they will be targeted by Assad’s forces if the regime returns to SDF areas. What do you think about these fears?
Ahmed: The [SDF] administration is still there, and NGOs wouldn’t be working with the Assad regime. They would be working with us. And the [Syrian army] would not intervene in local life.
Giglio: Do you really think you can protect people from the regime if it comes back into these areas?
Ahmed: Of course we can.
Giglio: How will you stop the regime from arresting activists and other perceived opponents, as it has done elsewhere when it retakes control?
Ahmed: They won’t have control like they have in Damascus.
Giglio: You will be placing a lot of trust in Assad.
Ahmed: It’s not trust. They will probably try to undermine us and arrest the leaders in our region, but we are confident in our strength, as well in the country that’s going to be sponsoring the negotiations between us and Assad.
Giglio: Which country is that?
Giglio: Do you trust Russia?
Ahmed: They should bear responsibility. They wanted to be in the lead.
Giglio: They have bombed hospitals in Syria on purpose.
Ahmed: Yes, they did that. They did that against areas that they consider to be areas that have terrorists. I mean, I would say there is the possibility that they can commit crimes and massacres in our area, but why would they do that?
Giglio: In the past, when Russia called people in Syria terrorists, they sometimes meant U.S. allies among the opposition.
Ahmed: I agree with you. They might do something like that. But I don’t think so.
Giglio: What’s the situation with ISIS in the region?
Ahmed: They will reproduce again. The sleeper cells, they increased their activity with the Turkish incursion.
Giglio: Can you explain the role the Kurds and the SDF have played in the fight against ISIS in Syria?
Ahmed: We carried all the human sacrifice. Eleven thousand people were killed from our side. Six U.S. soldiers were killed. If the U.S. had [waged this war] by itself, I’m sure that its casualty numbers would be much higher.