Salih Muslim, the former co-chair of the largest Kurdish party in Syria, said the Middle East was undergoing a restructuring process and the Kurds, left out 100 years ago when the region was last reshaped, would have a say in the future this time round.
Muslim was co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from 2010 till 2017, a period in which the party and its military wing, emerged from the shadows of underground activism to controlling most of northeast Syria during the country’s complex and multi-sided civil war.
Backed by the United States as the most reliable fighters against Islamic State, the PYD now faces threats on invasion from Turkey due to what Ankara says are its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been in conflict with the Turkish state since 1984.
Muslim spoke to Ahval in an interview:
Q: What is the position of the Kurds in Syria? Are they caught between Russia and the United States?
A: “What is happening in the Middle East is a restructuring. The Kurds were not included in the restructuring of the region scenarios originally, but with discipline and effective organisation we managed to gain a seat at the table.
“Currently, we have the most precise and most transparent position in the region. We are the only group that managed to organise in a way to analyse the problems on the ground and produce solutions to these problems, all of which are very much in alignment with our position. In this sense, politically we are very clear about our goals and our intentions.
“But furthermore, our activities on the ground are having a significant effect on regional political balances. The uncertainty stems from other forces, not us. All other actors are talking about the problems of the region, but they don’t have any concrete solutions or proposals to solve these problems.
“Of course, there are many different nations’ forces in the region. But we are following our own goals and policies, and we depend only on our own troops. In other words, we are not trapped in between two international powers. We have a politically clear stance coherent with our position.”
Q: Some have speculated that Russia was trying to push the Syrian Kurds closer to the Syrian government. Are you planning to have closers contact with Russia in the near future?
“Russia is, of course, a significant force in the region and a substantial force in Syria. But it has its shortcomings, mainly in addressing the problems and developing solutions. Russia should not blindly support the Assad regime. Syria has many issues, especially regarding personal freedoms and democracy. Russia shouldn’t turn a blind eye to these problems.
“We have to solve all of Syria’s problems simultaneously. We have to establish a democratic system. And Russia should play an active role in solving these problems. In other words, it will be very problematic for Russia if it chooses just to protect the regime and ignore these problems. That might have a profound effect on Russia’s role in Syria. For this reason, Russia must be more objective and focus on the solutions to these problems. We believe that this is the only way Russia can have an active role in the answer.”
Q: In the past months, you have had talks with the Syrian government. But no significant development was reported afterwards. Why were the talks stopped or interrupted? Is there any possibility of dialogue again?
“Our talks with the Syrian government have been suspended, but not cut off. We are always ready for a dialogue to solve the problems in Syria. However, the regime is trying to go back to the situation in 2011 by merely offering a few small changes in the Law of Local Authorities. Our demand is the creation of a new constitution and a democratic constitution without discrimination between the peoples of Syria. We have to change the regime that has led to the collapse of Syria, and that cannot be achieved by doing some minor changes. We need to do radical reforms.
“Syria cannot go back to the system in 2011. But the government does not have any plans to create a new Syria. We are saying let’s build Syria’s future together.”
Q: How do you interpret Turkish shelling of Syrian Kurdish forces last week?
“The attacks on Kobani, Tel Abyad and all of Rojava are Turkish government attempts at blackmailing the international coalition. In many ways, Turkey or the AKP government think that they will benefit from such aggression.
“But Turkey is trying to cover up their domestic problems, break the impasse in Idlib, and hinder any possibility of a political solution in Syria. This is a dangerous approach that won’t produce a solution and risks peace between ethnic groups in their country. Turkish people should stop the AKP from pursuing this risky venture.”
Q: Are you worried about further Turkish incursions?
“We are not expecting another major incursion like Afrin, because the terms and conditions on the ground are different. But the AKP administration could act unpredictably, and we are prepared for that possibility.”
Q: What effect do these attacks have on Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria?
“ISIS still remains a potential threat in Syria. Because the circumstances that created it, its creators, and those who benefit from it are still there. To wipe out ISIS, we need to stop those who are supporting and using it.
“ISIS was not created spontaneously, it was created by those who wanted to use such an organisation as their proxy. They brought its militants from around the world and trained them … Turkey’s relationship with ISIS is well documented. Everybody’s talking about this organic relationship, not just us.
At present, ISIS is still active in Russian and Syrian government controlled areas. They are infiltrating the Kurdish controlled areas from there … The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) return liberated areas to the indigenous people, so there are no ISIS militants in those areas, but there are some small sleeper cells created by Turkey.
“We’re not the ones who wanted or started this war. We want democracy and to be free on our own land, and that’s what we’re fighting for. The other side is trying to destroy us. And that is why they are creating and supporting jihadist groups, such as ISIS. This behaviour puts the whole region at risk and can only result in the destruction of all the peoples of Turkey. It needs to stop. To put it bluntly, if the Kurdish problem is not resolved in the Middle East, peace and stability cannot be achieved in the region.”