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Kurds in Syria: ‘We don't want to draw new borders’, says Democratic Union Party

Salih Muslim, president of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, interviewed by Thomas Schmidinger

January 29, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Salih Muslim (pictured above) shares the presidency of the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitîya Demokrat, PYD) with Asya Abdullah. The PYD is a sister party of the Kurdistan Workers Party PKK and shares the same ideological background as its leader Abdullah Öcalan. The party is the ruling force in the Kurdish areas of Syria and took over three enclaves with Kurdish majorities in 2012.

In an interview with Austria-based political scientist Thomas Schmidinger, Salih Muslim tells about the present and future project of Kurdish self-rule in Syria.

First I want to give my deepest condolences on the death of your son Sherwan, who was recently killed at the age of 17 while fighting against jihadist groups.

Thank you. If we are fighting for freedom we have to pay a price. This was my price I had to pay.

What was the political project your son died for? What does your party fight for?

We struggle for democratic self-rule within Syria, which is a specific sort of autonomy. We want democratic rights and a constitutional recognition of the Kurds. We don´t want to split from Syria and we don´t want a Kurdish national state. We also presented that concept to the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NBC)[1] and the Arab parties there agreed with us on that.

But you know, nothing is settled now and if you talk about autonomy each country has different forms of autonomies and federal systems. It is different in Germany, Switzerland or in the United States. There are different models and we will see what model would be the best for Syria. We want to rule ourselves. The name is not important, but it should be according to human rights and democracy.
But we are sure about one thing. We don´t want to draw new borderlines. We are not separatists. We will not separate Kurdistan from Syria.

And the details can be negotiated?

Everything else can be negotiated. We have managed self-rule for a bit more than one year now and we still have a lot of difficulties. We are under pressure from a lot of different forces. It is also a problem that everybody says that the PYD is doing this and that, but we are not ruling alone.

These problems are very understandable but until now there are no democratically legitimised structures in the region of Kurdish self-rule. Will there be elections soon?

The PYD only gave a proposal for self-rule. We really don´t want to rule alone and we are preparing for elections in the areas of our control. We want other parties to join. In fact both Kurdish councils, the Kurdish National Council[2] and the People’s Council of West Kurdistan[3] agreed to do it that way. There is a committee for the preparation of elections and this committee decided to create three cantons for the election and the election law should be ready soon. So we hope that we can vote soon.

In the last months there have been heavy conflicts between your party and some other Kurdish parties, especially the Azadî Party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, the sister party of the ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan. Will these parties also participate in these elections?

Some parties cooperate with us, but these two parties, the Azadî Party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party in  Syria don't. They are welcome to run in the elections but until now they refuse to do so. They always attack and criticise us. They say that the militias of the PYD are doing this and that, but they don´t realise that these are not our militias. They are the Kurdish militias.

You can’t deny that your party founded the Asiash, the security forces, and the People’s Defence Forces (YPG) as an army.

No, I don´t deny that. Of course our party founded the Asiash and the YPG because we realised that they are necessary. But that does not mean that the Asiash and the YPG are the forces of our political party. We want a single armed force of the Kurds and we refuse the idea of having party militias.

I understand the idea that parties should not have party militias. But the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) also has a guerilla army.

Yes, but we are not the PKK. That is also one of the misunderstandings about the PYD. We are  an independent party.

I know that you are not the PKK but you are a sister party of the PKK following the same ideology and the same leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Yes, you can call us a sister party but we have our own structures in Syria that are not just the structures of the PKK.

In November you also officially declared  self-rule of the Kurds in Syria. How did the regime react on that?

There were different reactions from the side of the regime. But let me talk also about the opposition. The regime and many parts of the so-called opposition both accuse us of being separatists. Both do not want to us to give us our right to self-rule. So we have to fight for it against both, the regime and the armed opposition.

As long as you don’t want to leave Syria you will have to deal with somebody who rules in Damascus, either with Assad or somebody from the opposition who could win the war. How would you interact with them?

From the beginning we coordinated with the secular leftish opposition. We established the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NBC) and we really want to cooperate with these opposition forces who accept our demands, but not with the Islamists and other anti-democratic forces.

Could you imagine Assad staying in power? With the recent military successes and the latest views from the West, this might be a question.

We have always said that Assad has to leave. This is still our position. We want a negotiated peace but we can’t imagine that he stays in power. We really need an end of the regime and a new democratic beginning. But it is not only a personal question of Assad. The problem is not the person, but the regime. Now there are many Alawis who fear that they could become victims of vengeance if Assad leaves. So it is a much larger problem now. So we have to negotiate to stop the bloodshed and to change the system.

Could the idea of a regional self-rule also be a model for other minorities in Syria, for example for the Alawis?

The Alawis are a different case because they are a religious and not an ethnic group. But the model of self-rule could be a model for the whole Middle East. Decentralised self-rule could be model for all of us.

About 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from all over Syria are at the moment in Rojava (Kurdistan in Syria). When I travelled to Rojava last winter the situation of these IDPs was really bad because they were not getting help from international NGOs. How is the situation of these IDPs from the regions destroyed by the civil war?

At least the lack of diesel fuel has been solved. People are heating with diesel and last winter they did not have any. But concerning food and other important supplies, the situation is still very problematic. It is already difficult for the people living in our areas and it is much harder for the refugees. There is still no international help at all. The big NGOs are not present at all and the International Red Cross is co-operating with the Syrian Red Crescent. But the Syrian Red Crescent is an Arab organisation co-operating with the regime and not with us. As you know the regime did not completely withdraw from Rojava. It still controls the Qamishli  airport and if the Syrian Red Crescent has anything to offer they are working with the officials from the regime and not with us.

Not only the Qamishli airport is in the hand of the regime. In the last few months the regime presence in the capital of self-rule, Rojava, has definitely got stronger. On November 14, supporters of Assad’s Baath Party could protest in Qamishli and could shout their slogan, “We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you Bashar”. The regime’s security forces have returned. In November they arrested the Kurdish singer Sharif Omari. On December 18 five people and a taxi driver were arrested in Qamishli and on December 26 two activists of the independent Kurdish Youth Movement (TCK) were also arrested. Who controls Rojava, the Kurds or the regime?

As I told you, the regime never disappeared. The situation in Qamishli is very complex. Not only is the airport is under control of the regime, also some Arab districts of the city. There is an Arab tribe in Qamishli called Tai with about 35.000 members who are all still supporting the regime. They are all still supporting the regime and in their parts of the town the regime is still present. We do not control their districts. This demonstration of the Baath Party was in their quarter.

Our main goal is to prevent ethnic conflict. We belief in the brotherhood between peoples and we don’t want to have fights between Kurds and Arabs. And because we don’t want to fight with the Tai tribe the situation in Qamishli is complicated. We could prevent a situation like in Serê Kaniyê, where we had a war in the city. To prevent that, we have to find a form of co-existence with the Arab tribes.

The situation in al-Hasaka is even more difficult. We control the Kurdish quarters, a part of the Arab quarter is controlled by the regime and a part by the Islamist opposition. In such a situation we can only try to prevent fighting inside the cities.

In Qamishli and in most of the towns of the east of Syrian Kurdistan there are also many Syrian-Aramaic and Armenian Christians. Who controls their quarters?

The Christians are on our side. Their quarters are controlled and defended by our troops. There are also Christians fighting with us. In Rojava, there is definitely no conflict between Muslim Kurds and Christians.

Christians and Yezidi -- adherents of an independent Kurdish religion -- are afraid of the jihadist influence. They prefer to live under Kurdish control rather than under the Islamists. What about other Kurdish parties? In the last few months some of the other Kurdish groups criticised the PYD for installing an authoritarian regime and for co-operating with Assad.

These are the same accusations we here from Turkey and the Islamist groups. I want to insist that the Asiash (Kurdish for security) and the YPG are not the armed forces of our party but of the Kurdish self-rule. Our enemies always present stories that it is the fault of our party if somebody gets arrested. But therefore we have the Asiash as the police of our Kurdish self-rule and independent courts. If some criminal gets arrested they always accuse the PYD of kidnapping him. So many of these stories told by Kurdish parties who are cooperating with Turkey or with Massoud Barzani[4] are not brought up against us.

Many of these other parties say that they do not dare to demonstrate against the PYD anymore.

If they organise peaceful protest and if they give the Asiash the information in advance where they want do demonstrate, we assure you that they definitely have the right for peaceful protests.

Notes

[1] An alliance of pragmatic left-wing opposition groups, the PYD and 12 smaller (mainly Arabic) left-wing Syrian political parties and independent political activists. The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NBC) has the position of negotiating with the ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad and is therefore strongly criticised by other parts of the Syrian opposition. In particular, the Islamist opposition groups accuse the NBC of being a “front organisation” of the regime. Other than the Free Syria Army, SNC and the various Islamist organisations the NBC opposes the armed struggle against the regime and favours a non-violent resistance against the regime. It also strongly opposes any international military intervention against the regime.

[2] An alliance of most of the non-PYD Kurdish parties of Syria. Some of them have close relations to the Kurdish parties of Iraq.

[3] The self-rule structures of the PYD.

[4] The president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

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