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Behind the Lines: No solution without the Kurds
By JONATHAN SPYER
14/12/2013
The ‘Post’ interviews the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria, Saleh Muslim.
 
Saleh Muslim Muhammad, 52, is the leader of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Syria.

This movement, often referred to as the Syrian franchise of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) is today the de facto ruler of around 10 percent of Syrian territory.

Saleh Muslim, an engineer by profession from the town of Kobani in northern Syria, served several jail sentences in President Bashar Assad’s jails in the pre- 2011 period for his political activity.

The outbreak of the Syrian crisis found him in exile in northern Iraq. He returned to coordinate the activities of the PYD, which he has led since 2010.

The Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia has since October fought a series of successful defensive battles against attempts by Sunni jihadi elements to invade and destroy the Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria. They have also pushed forward to capture territory and secure the western borderline of their enclave.

The Kurds now control an area taking in the greater part of Hasakeh province, stretching from the border with Iraq to the town of Sere Kaniyeh further west. They also hold two additional enclaves further west, around the towns of Kobani (Saleh Muslim’s hometown) and Afrin. Hasakeh province contains the greater part of Syria’s oil reserves.

On October 9, Saleh Muslim’s son Shervan, a YPG fighter, was killed in a battle with al-Qaida-linked jihadis near the town of Tel Abyad in Syria. The PYD leader was subsequently refused entry to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq – a testimony to the fraught divisions that continue to plague the internal politics of the Kurds.

Earlier this month, Saleh Muslim took part in a conference on Kurdish issues at the European Parliament in Brussels. The Jerusalem Post spoke with the PYD leader at the gathering.

Amiable and heavyset, Saleh Muslim is a fluent English speaker. After taking part in a panel discussion with this reporter, he confidently dismissed the prospect of jihadi success in their efforts to conquer the Kurdish-controlled areas.

“The Salafis have experienced our forces and they know we can resist,” he said.

“So now they are afraid of us.”

“The regime in future may support them, or maybe they will attack together,” he added. “We fought the regime, and today we are fighting the Salafis.”

Informed Kurdish sources suggest that the YPG’s success in the battles of the last two months was not the result of Syrian Kurdish efforts alone. Rather, senior PKK commanders from the movement’s stronghold in the Qandil Mountains area on the Iraq-Turkey border almost certainly arrived in Syria to help coordinate the fighting.

The less disciplined and poorly trained jihadis proved unable to match their skills.

On the nature of the Kurdish enclave itself, Saleh Muslim gave a diplomatic reply – clearly seeking to avoid accusations of Kurdish separatism. “This is not autonomy,” he told me, “It is an arrangement, to continue until a permanent solution is found for Syria. We have these cantons, in Afrin, Kobani and the Jazeera area, and they will have their own councils to look after the people until this solution.”

“Anyway,” he continued with a smile, “we won’t create anything like the Islamic Emirates in Raqqa and elsewhere.” (This reference is to the very repressive rule of the al-Qaida-associated factions in the city of Raqqa, the only provincial capital to have fallen to the rebels.) But when I quizzed Saleh Muslim as to the likely timeframe until this permanent solution was found, his response was carefully ambiguous: “It’s a transitional period.

It could take three years, four years, 10 years. In the meantime, we can’t live in a vacuum. And maybe after 10 years, it will still continue; and if after 10 years they still don’t find a solution, then maybe this will become permanent.”

“The regime should be changed, anyway.

And they should accept the democratic steps we have taken. Otherwise we will need to resist again.”

The Syrian rebels in the north are convinced that the aim of the PYD is Kurdish separatism. This sentiment is not confined to the al-Qaida-linked jihadis. A commander of the “mainstream” rebel Tawhid Brigade, who I interviewed in late 2012, was adamant that the rebels would prevent any attempts to “divide” Syria.

This brigade took part in actions against the YPG during the October and November fighting.

In our Brussels conversation, the PYD leader seemed unconcerned about calming any such fears on the part of the Sunni rebels and their supporters. At the same time, he stopped short of openly advocating the permanent secession of the Kurdish area.

Saleh Muslim held out little hope for the prospects of the upcoming Syrian peace talks in Geneva, scheduled to take place on January 22. Rather, he had a warning for all those who persist in regarding the Syrian war as a two-way fight between “regime” and “rebels”: “They are trying to keep the Kurds away from Geneva.

And we won’t accept any decision made at Geneva if we are not involved in it. Right now, we’re not invited.”

Finally, I asked the PYD leader about his attitude toward Israel. His reply reflected the ideological, PKK-associated orientation of his party: “We support [jailed PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan’s idea of democratic confederalism in the Middle East.

Israel, if it is democratic, can be part of this, and can live in peace along with the Arabs and the other nations. We are not enemies to them just because of the Prophet Muhammad or something like this.”

The Kurdish dominion in northeast Syria has survived an attempt to destroy it in recent months. As a result of the fighting, it now controls the Yarubiya border crossing between Syria and Iraq. The intention of the YPG is to eventually link the three existing enclaves into a single body. There is much fighting ahead.

There have been complaints from other Kurdish factions regarding the nature of the party’s rule, and its alleged suppression of other factions. But internal arrangements notwithstanding, as Saleh Muslim made very clear in Brussels, it will be impossible to implement any arrangement in Syria which seeks to ignore the voice and the ambitions of the country’s Kurds.

This in itself represents a major achievement for his party and movement. It is an achievement for which both the PYD leader himself and the Kurds of Syria have paid a heavy price. They are set to guard it with continued vigor.

Saleh Muslim reiterated his main message to me, just before we parted ways and headed into the wintry Brussels night: “The US is seeking to keep the Kurdish issue from being discussed at Geneva – because of Arab chauvinism and so on.

But nobody can force us to obey Geneva decisions.”

The world, and Washington, might take note.
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