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Co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party-PYDSalih Muslim
Interview by Karlos Zurutuza
March 25, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal translated from the Spanish edition of Vice News and reposted from Kurdistan Tribune — Salih Muslim Muhammad (born Kobani, Aleppo, 1951) is co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party-PYD, the political force that has led the uprising of the Kurds in Syria since the war began, in March 2011.
After spending 12 years as an oil industry engineer in Saudi Arabia, Muslim returned to Syria in the 90s to work clandestinely — Kurdish political parties were banned. By the time he became president of the Democratic Union Party, in 2010, he’d already paid for his political dissent with torture and imprisonment in Assad´s prisons.
It is not the first time Vice News has talked with Muslim, but this time we wanted to hear first-hand his take on the role his people are playing in a conflict that started five years ago.
This week marks five years since the beginning of the war in Syria. Could you possibly predict predict such a mess?
At first it was difficult to figure out what this “great game” was all about and we were not able to recognize the actors on the ground. After five years of war the situation is still chaotic, but today we know who is who. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar as well as Western agents fed the monster of Jihadism in the country, no matter if we talk about Jabhat al Nusra (Al Qaeda´s affiliate in Syria) or ISIS. Today, the monster has reached such a scale that is has become uncontrollable. Regarding our position in the conflict, the Kurds in Syria had been fighting for our democratic rights in a country ruled by a dynastic and despotic regime. But a few months after the uprising we realized that many who were siding with the insurrection were coming from the mosques and we thought that those were not good travel companions for us.
Both Kurds and Islamists were reportedly released from prison by Assad at the beginning of the revolt. Do you confirm such claims?
It´s true, but obviously for different reasons. In the case of the Kurdish prisoners, they weren´t that many but Assad probably released them because he wanted to avoid having problems with us. In the case of the Islamists, it is not unreasonable to think that he wanted to use them to drag the conflict from a political arena to a religious matter; to turn what could have been a peaceful dialogue into an armed confrontation. And there was no possible confusion because many of them were the same members of Al Qaeda that the regime had sent to fight in Iraq over the past decade. Further on, those same Islamists would receive support from several of those countries I mentioned earlier. In the case of Turkey, time has proved that Ankara used the Islamists to fight the Kurds.
Your bet for neutrality has led to an engagement in clashes with both government and opposition forces. Do you still think you took the right step?
Time has proved us right. During these five years we have lost many of our youth fighting but today we know that if we had not taken such position, Syria’s Kurds would not be alive. Today we are part of the Syrian Democratic Council alongside Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmens … It is a political organization fighting for a democratic and secular state which is growing steadily all across Syria, from the north to Deraa, in the far south.
The YPG (People’s Defence Units) are an important agent within the Syrian Democratic Forces, the military wing of the organization you mention. Do they act in coordination with the Russian airstrikes?
There´s no military coordination with Russia but there´s a communication line at a political level, as evidenced by the recent opening of a PYD delegation in Moscow. Russia knows that we are part of a future of decentralized Syria, and that is the message we want them to convey to Assad. If the latter remains determined to treat us the same way he did before 2011, we will be ready to defend ourselves.
You have also received military support from the West but, for the time being, there has been no political backing. Why?
The West is fully aware that the Syrian Democratic Forces are an important and reliable active on the ground, hence the military support. Unfortunately, they have not yet approached us at a political level while they keep their ties with Saudi Arabia, Turkey… However, we do hope political relations to materialize among us in the future.
Is this the reason why you have an office in Moscow but not yet in Washington?
We have very strong contacts in the United States and we are willing to open a permanent delegation as soon as conditions allow it. We´re also looking forward to open other delegations elsewhere to ease communications between us and the rest of the world.
What´s your take on the ceasefire in force since last February?
Unfortunately it has hardly affected us. We continue clashing with ISIS in Jazeera canton and with Jabhat al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and other related groups in northern Aleppo. They said they would respect the ceasefire but they haven´t. And there´s also the Turkish siege on Kobani and Afrin, which is yet another eloquent proof of Erdogan´s belligerent stance towards the Kurds, either in Syria or in Turkey. The same mentality that destroyed Kobani under the name of ISIS is destroying the Kurdish cities in Turkey under the name of the Turkish Special Forces. There is no difference between them.
In a report published last October, Amnesty International charged Kurdish forces with war crimes against the Arab population for allegedly supporting ISIS.
That was a report based on testimonies from informants who were across the border in Turkey. Those who visited the area in question gave a completely different assessment. Interestingly, the report was published while clashes were still going on, which also raises several questions about its veracity. Actually, many among those Arabs were fighting alongside the Kurds against ISIS. Moreover, the displaced Kurdish and Arab families have returned to their houses and villages.
Last year you managed to connect the cantons of Jazira and Kobani. Is linking these two with the westernmost canton of Afrin a next step in your strategy?
Rojava extends from Afrin all the way to Derik in the east but this doesn´t mean that Kurds are compact all across the area. There are Kurds, but also Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians… that´s why we are now talking about a federal model for northern Syria that would include all its elements.
A scenario that Turkey seemingly wants to avoid at all costs. Do you fear an invasion of your territory from Ankara?
I do not think Turkey will dare to make such a move because it would no longer be a Kurdish domestic affair but an international issue. Turkey is a NATO member and Syria has the protection of Russia. All these recent attacks and skirmishes from the other side of the border are nothing but desperate moves from Ankara.
You have accused the KDP (the ruling party in the Autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq) of working closely with Turkey. What is your assessment of the role your Kurdish neighbour has played during these five years?
They opted for working with Ankara rather than helping their own people on the other side of the border. The Kurdish government of Iraq continues to hamper the arrival of vital supplies for us such as food and medicines, as well as the free movement of our people. I hope they reconsider their attitude. As representatives of the Kurdish society they should start by defending their own people and stop obeying Ankara´s orders.
The Democratic Confederalism model that you have enforced seems like a valid alternative in an emergency situation but do you think it can still be a viable option in a peace scenario?
The fact that decisions are taken directly by the community implies that we´re talking about the right decisions. Unlike other political models, the Democratic Confederalism does not impose a system; it eases the co-existence with our neighbours. When sovereignty rests with the people, and if there is a sincere commitment to democracy and the neighbouring powers cease to interfere in the decisions of the Syrians, then we will reach to an understanding and a country in peace. Returning to your question, our most immediate goal is to change the mentality of the people and it is something we have already done with many of our Arab, Turkmen or Assyrian neighbours … The Democratic Confederalism doesn´t root in the “nation-state” concept but in that of the “democratic state.” Unfortunately, changing the mentality that roots in monolithic types of government can take a very long time.