Salih Muslim’s arrest and the PKK’s Syria gamble

Salih Muslim’s arrest and the PKK’s Syria gamble

Salih Muslim, the former chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, was detained in Prague on Feb. 25 by Czech police, based on information given by the Turkish police.

According to media reports, Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT), informed the Czech Republic’s intelligence agency (IS) that Muslim - who is on Turkey’s “wanted terrorists” list with a bounty of 4 million Turkish Liras (nearly $1.1 million) on his head - was staying at Prague’s Mariott Hotel, based on examination of his social media posts and other sources. Turkey demanded Muslim’s arrest, prompting the Czech police to detain Muslim at around 02.35 a.m. in his room. 

The 67-year-old Muslim founded the PYD in 2003. Through its militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PYD has been the ground force of the U.S. effort in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) since 2014. Ankara had offered its own help as a NATO ally and has been objecting to the U.S.’s collaboration with the PYD/YPG because of the latter’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has conducted an armed campaign against Turkey for an independent Kurdish state for over three decades and is designated as a terrorist group not only by Turkey but also by the EU and the U.S.

Muslim was put on Turkey’s most wanted terrorist leaders list over a PKK bombing in downtown Ankara on Feb. 17, 2016 that killed 29 people and wounded 61, and for which the YPG claimed responsibility. 

The interesting point is that Muslim (a chemical engineer who graduated from Istanbul Technical University many years ago) visited Turkey on a number of occasions in the past to talk to Turkish officials in his capacity as PYD leader. Those visits occurred during contacts between MİT head Halan Fidan and the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, facilitated through the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the Turkish Parliament between 2012 and 2015 in pursuit of a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue. 

The last time Muslim was in Ankara has not been officially confirmed but it was reported as June 20, 2015, just two weeks before the PKK announced that the dialogue process was over and resumed its armed attacks. Disappointed by the June 7 election results, President Tayyip Erdoğan was already thinking that the PKK solution process effort was not worth it and was going nowhere, and the security forces strongly suppressed the PKK’s “trenches and barricades” urban uprising attempt in the second half of 2015.

The reason why the talks started to fall apart was actually the reassessment by the PKK (or the PYD) after the Kobane fight against ISIL in 2014. That was also the start of their collaboration with Washington, despite the fact that the PKK was founded in line with Stalinist ideology. The PKK thought that with the Americans on its side it could impose new terms to the Turkish government as the country headed for a crucial election. This was a big gamble, with the PKK taking the Syrian civil war as an opportunity and thinking it could rely on American support only on a tactical as well as strategic basis. If it could not get better terms from the Turkish government (which it couldn’t) the PKK decided that it would launch a new campaign on three fronts: 

1- The “barricades uprising” in cities across southeast Turkey.

2- The attempt to establish control over the Sinjar region in northwest Iraq to maintain geographical continuity between the PKK headquarters in the Kandil Mountains of northeastern Iraq, on the Iranian and Turkish borders and on Iraq’s border with Syria.

3- The attempt secure lands to the east of the Euphrates River, thanks to collaboration with the U.S. It would extend control towards the west by maintaining geographical continuity to the Mediterranean via the Afrin region in northwest Syria, on the Turkish border. Such an area of control would also mean cutting physical links between Turkey and Sunni Arabs and Turkmens in Iraq and Syria.

The gamble is still holding, thanks to the U.S.’s intention to extend its presence in Syria without boots on the ground (other than a few thousand Special Forces soldiers who are still there), which is justified by ISIL’s continued lingering presence. The U.S. still backs the YPG against its NATO partner Turkey, but has difficulties explaining its support, as is clear from the statement of the ranking U.S. general Raymond Thompson, who said the YPG had “invented” the name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) overnight upon his personal suggestion.

It is still not clear whether the Czech court will rule for the Czech government (also a member of NATO) to respond positively to Turkey’s demand to bring Muslim before a Turkish court. There have been reports that Prague could in return ask for two of its citizens currently in Turkish prisons for fighting alongside the PKK, one of them as a sharp shooter. But it is possible to say that the detention of former PYD leader Muslim by the Czech police has given a new dimension to the entire picture, as Turkey’s military operation in Syria (with tacit Russian backing) to clear the Afrin region of YPG militants continues in its second month.

Murat Yetkin, hdn, opinion