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US told Syrian Kurd leaders to play down PKK links, says defector

Turkey has long claimed the Syrian Democratic Forces of Syria are an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party
Former SDF spokesman Talal Silo speaks to Anadolu Agency (AA)

A former spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has told Turkish state media that the US asked him to play down links between the northern Syrian coalition and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Speaking to the pro-government Anadolu Agency, Talal Silo also claimed the US had supported the creation of a "permanent" corridor to the Mediterranean.

Silo - an ethnic Turkmen - defected from the SDF, a Kurdish-Arab coalition established to fight the Islamic State group in northern Syria, last month, reportedly over concerns that non-Kurdish members of the coalition were being marginalised.

In his interview with AA, Silo said that Sahin Cilo, a former leader of the PKK's military wing, had drafted a statement saying that the PKK and SDF were not related, which was then relayed by Silo.

"[The Americans] wanted to make a statement that the SDF was not related to the PKK," said Silo.

"Cilo gave the statement. When Cilo was asked the reason, he said ‘The US wanted it. Thus, it will be shown that there is no relation between us [the SDF] and the PKK’. Our role was on paper."

He said Cilo had also been instrumental in vetoing Turkey's proposal for a joint operation to take Raqqa back from IS, during a meeting with US senator John McCain and Brett McGurk, the envoy for Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

"McCain said Turkey proposed to send its troops to Raqqa along with Arab fighters through a 25-kilometer corridor to be opened from Tal Abyad," he said. "What McCain brought was just a proposal, it was not binding."

"When Sahin Cilo realised that he said they would not open even a 25-centimeter corridor for Turkey and those who would accompany them. McCain was content with those words."

The SDF captured Raqqa from IS in October following a long battle that left much of the city in ruins.

The group is dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wings, the People's Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ).

Turkey has long claimed the groups are indistinguishable from the PKK, who have been involved in a decades-long guerilla war with the Turkish state which has seen more than 40,000 killed.

The country has been alarmed at US support for the SDF, which they see as entrenching a pro-Kurdish statelet in northern Syria that could be used for attacks on Turkey.

Route to Mediterranean

The PYD officially declared the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria in March 2016 and has called for its system of governance - which promotes ecology, feminism and secularism - to be expanded across Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

One senior Kurdish official in the SDF told the Observer newspaper in May that there was a plan to expand their control to the Mediterranean with US backing.

"Arriving at the Mediterranean is in our project for northern Syria; it's a legal right for us to reach the Mediterranean," said Hediya Yousef, the head of the Kurdish federalism project in Syria.

"If we arrive at the Mediterranean it will solve many of the problems of the population in northern Syria. Everyone will benefit.”

In his interview, Silo confirmed that they had discussed the proposal with an American who worked for "a think tank" but whom they later learned was a "US intelligence chief."

"He said to us: 'If you direct towards Deir Ezzor, the US will give the necessary support to provide a post towards the sea to the SDF and the Syrian Democratic Parliament'," explained Silo.

"It was promised. However, the operation to take Deir Ezzor failed. The main issue is not taking the villages and oil fields. [A Mediterranean corridor] was promised to Sahin Cilo and the SDF. I was also there."

Although the SDF announced they had successfully liberated Deir Ezzor from IS on Sunday, the bulk of the province is under the control of forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

"If this operation was completed successfully, if we had won a victory, maybe the US would try to open a corridor towards the sea for the SDF."

Silo added that the intelligence chief warned that the federal project in northern Syria would not "have a future if it does not have access to the sea."