NORTHEAST SYRIA — As the  grinds on for a second month, there is mounting worry that the violence may engulf the surrounding region. Such worries are especially acute in Iraq and Syria, where Iran-backed militias have escalated attacks against US military installations in part of a long-running effort to dislodge America from what Tehran views as its own zone of influence. Iran-backed proxies in Iraq and Syria have targeted US positions 74 times since Oct. 17. In response, the US military carried out three rounds of airstrikes in Syria and one in Iraq.

The attacks  after the truce between Hamas and Israel that went into effect on Nov. 24. That same day, Al-Monitor caught up with Commander in Chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazlum Kobane at a secret location in northeastern Syria. Kobane, who led the battle against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) and is counted among the Pentagon’s most trusted allies, told Al-Monitor that his people do not want their territory to become a battleground between the United States and Iran-backed Shiite militias. Kobane revealed that the Iran-backed groups had also begun to target SDF military positions.

Kobane added that the failure to bring about a just and sustainable solution to Palestinian and Kurdish issues remained the biggest source of instability in the Middle East.

Kobane stressed that Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israeli civilians was unacceptable, as was Israel’s use of disproportionate force against Palestinian civilians. Israel’s strong-arm tactics, he cautioned, would likely unleash a fresh spiral of extremist violence and spur the formation of new terrorist entities that would seek to exploit Palestinian grievances. The SDF, Kobane insisted, is the most potent force against such groups, as proved by its successful battle against ISIS, which collapsed its so-called caliphate. However, ISIS cells continue to be active inside Syria, as witnessed by the growing number of attacks, particularly against the Syrian Arab Army.

In a recent video purportedly posted by ISIS, which is also known by its Arabic acronym, Daesh, the jihadis asked their followers to attack Jewish people in Europe and in the United States and to bomb Israeli embassies across the globe. At the same time, they called for members to carry out suicide bomb attacks against US forces in the Persian Gulf.

Against this background, Turkey’s continued attacks against northeast Syria, including last month’s barrage of drone strikes on vital civilian infrastructure, are undermining the SDF’s ongoing battle against ISIS. The weak US response to those attacks is, in turn, draining Kurdish confidence in their American partners and emboldening the SDF’s enemies.

The following is the full text of the interview, which was lightly edited for clarity.

Al-Monitor: This is your first interview with the international media since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. What are your immediate thoughts on the ongoing conflict in Gaza?

Kobane: The October 7 attack by Hamas was a turning point for the region and the Middle East.

First, let me be clear that the attacks carried out by Hamas on Israeli civilians are totally unacceptable and we condemn them wholeheartedly. We believe that Hamas was not acting independently and that it was carrying out the agenda of external actors.

Israel’s response and the staggering number of civilian deaths among the Palestinians that have ensued are no less acceptable. As the SDF, we oppose any attacks on civilians no matter the circumstances and rigorously uphold our principle of defending ourselves against those who attack us and [we] have not and will not initiate unprovoked violence.

The tragedy unfolding in Gaza contains several key lessons. The first is that the Palestinian and Kurdish issues remain the biggest sources of instability and conflict in the Middle East. As long as the rights of the Palestinian and Kurdish nations are not addressed in a just, comprehensive and sustainable manner, instability and conflict will persist. I sent a message to Mahmoud Abbas (president of the Palestinian Authority) saying that we stand by the Palestinian people and that we support a two-state solution for the Palestinians.

Al-Monitor: I don’t recall Abbas ever reaching out to you when your forces have been under attack.

Kobane: That’s true. Yet as Kurds, we have always stood by the Palestinian people.

Israel is currently using its full military might in Gaza saying it is determined to “wipe out” Hamas. The Kurds are being similarly confronted by powers that are bent on destroying our existence. The results are obvious. Neither the Palestinians nor the Kurds are going to disappear or give up their struggle for justice no matter what. The Palestinian and Kurdish issues need to be resolved through dialogue, not aggression, and that obviously applies to all sides. I repeat that we condemn Hamas. There will be devastating consequences if the current spiral of violence persists. Indeed, we are already seeing the spillover effects in our region.

Al-Monitor: Could you please elaborate?

Kobane: This disproportionate force currently being deployed by Israel is creating a fertile breeding ground for extremism. It’s early days, but the risk of a new cycle of extremist terror that could set the region on fire and spill over to the West is very real. The conflict in Gaza is providing terror groups like Daesh the opportunity to boost their propaganda and recruitment efforts, and we fully expect to see new terror groups emerge using Gaza to legitimize their existence and already see existing groups act in concert under new labels.

And naturally, there are regional actors who are keen to exploit this situation to fulfill their own agendas. For example, Turkey. You have been in our territory for several days now and have witnessed with your own eyes the number of Turkish attacks that have taken place and in which civilians have once again been targeted and died. Over the past month, Turkey has targeted our power stations setting off a chain reaction affecting water supplies, bakeries, displacement camps. They have bombed our oil facilities. They paralyzed services to our people and made their lives unbearable. Targeting civilian infrastructure is considered a war crime under international law. We are deeply concerned that with the world’s attention focused on Gaza, Turkey will launch another incursion against our territory.

Al-Monitor: Meanwhile, Iran-backed militias have escalated their attacks against US bases in your area and in neighboring Iraq.

Kobane: That is correct. But these militias are not only attacking US bases. They have attacked the SDF as well. The Syrian regime together with the Iranian-backed proxies that work for them have increased their attacks against our forces in Deir Ezzor. There has been a marked escalation since Oct. 7.

Al-Monitor: It’s the first time that I’m hearing this. Are you saying that they are targeting the SDF as well?

Kobane: Yes. An Iranian kamikaze drone attacked an SDF ammunition depot in Deir Ezzor. Several of our forces were injured in that attack, and it caused huge material damage.

Al-Monitor: There are several theories floating around as to why Iran-backed militias have ramped up their attacks against US installations and apparently now yours as well. Iran is clearly averse to getting dragged into the conflict, and Hezbollah is only doing symbolic attacks on Israel. But at the same time, to save face, they need to do something. So they are picking on the Americans in Iraq and Syria. Does that make sense to you?

Kobane: Iran wants US forces to get out of here and from the entire region. It is one of their main goals, as it is for the Syrian regime and for Turkey. This has been plainly evident since the beginning of the so-called Astana process. If the Americans leave Syria, they will have to leave Iraq and vice versa. The troubles we had in Deir Ezzor recently with  were part of this plan to put pressure on us from all sides. There is a very dangerous escalation going on.

And we do not want our region to become a battlefield between the United States and Iran-backed militias, and we have told them that. We are trying to reduce these tensions because we all know who ultimately benefits: Daesh. I would like to take this opportunity to remind Turkey and Iran that Daesh poses a threat to their societies, to their security as well.

To be sure, if anything the conflict in Gaza ought to serve as a reminder to the world that we, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are the antithesis of violent extremism and have lost more than 11,000 of our men and women fighting Daesh. In doing so, we not only protected ourselves but [also] the rest of the world — from Europe to the Sahel where Daesh is still active. We embrace democratic and secular values, gender equality, and people of all faiths and creeds. For example, you may have seen how one of the large churches in Hasakah is being restored.

We should be supported, not attacked.

Al-Monitor: In our past conversations you have said how disappointed you are with the United States’ response to those attacks.

Kobane: Yes, we are  of the weakness the United States is displaying certainly with regard to the attacks coming from Turkey. This stance is causing our people to lose faith in the United States, as you must have surely noticed in your own reporting, and leading them to question our partnership with them and what they would do if called upon to make similar sacrifices in the future. And it seems like the United States’ response to the attacks by Iran-backed militias is not having the desired deterrent effect either.

Al-Monitor: In a recent interview, Gen. Joseph Votel, the former CENTCOM commander with whom you worked very closely, said that Iran does not have full control over the Shia militias and indicated that this added to the risk of further escalation. Would you agree with that assessment?

Kobane: Iran tells us the same thing. The Iranians have told us, ‘We are not targeting your forces. We are not involved in the Deir Ezzor attacks.’ But we all know that these militias are connected to Iran.

Al-Monitor: Are you concerned that the Americans will leave?

Kobane: They have told us that they will not leave.

Al-Monitor: The last time we spoke you said that the regime remains indifferent to your calls for dialogue and that they have zero interest in discussing a workable agreement for the future of this region. Has anything changed since then?

Kobane: No, the regime’s position remains unchanged and it continues with its Iran-backed allies to stir   in Deir Ezzor.

Al-Monitor: How is the situation there now?

Kobane: It is generally calm. However, there have been some internal problems within the Deir Ezzor military council. We recently had a meeting with the council and a town hall meeting with the people of Deir Ezzor seeking their views on what they want from us and their leaders. There is a new military council now, and we have told them that they need to choose a new leader as soon as possible.

Al-Monitor: I know you have at least two more meetings to attend. Is there anything you want to add?

Kobane: Our message to everyone and in particular to our neighbors is that we want peaceful, friendly relations, but that we will continue to defend our lands and our people from unprovoked attacks.