A conversation with Salih Muslim
The fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is unifying not only Baghdad and Arbil, but also the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, thereby creating a completely new Kurdish reality in the region.
At such a critical time, I had the chance to have a conversation with the co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Salih Muslim. The PYD is the dominant Kurdish party in Rojava (northern Syria), and Muslim was visiting Arbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in order to meet top Kurdish officials, along with some representatives from the U.S. and the U.K.
Muslim started our conversation saying that the last time he was in Turkey was Oct. 4, when he met with high-level officials from the Foreign Ministry. “We are the ones who want Bashar al-Assad’s fall the most,” he stressed.
So why does the PYD not join the Syrian National Coalition (SNC)? “We tried hard for the SNC; but Turkey will only allow us to join after we have given up on everything that makes us exist, only after we give up our identity. This is because Turkey doesn’t recognize the Kurdish reality in Syria,” Muslim answered.
Muslim says the resistance in Kobane has revealed the fact that it is not possible anymore to distinguish Rojava from the southeast of Turkey. Then could the PYD play a constructive role in the peace process of Turkey? “We have said this to Ankara so many times,” he says. “Once Turkey accepts our existence and our identity, we are up to anything. We could serve in all capacities. We don’t want to be enemies with Turkey.”
When I asked him what kind of a role they could play, he suggested - surprisingly - that they could mediate between the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
We also talked about the Oct. 6-7 street protests in Turkey against the government’s perceived inaction toward Kobane, which resulted in 50 deaths. When I asked Muslim if there had been any contact then between the PYD and the government, he replied: “No, there has not. I wish there had been and we could have helped so that those citizens did not lose their lives. Those people are also our people ... There is so much we can accomplish together once Turkey recognizes us.”
When I reminded Muslim of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement that the U.S. supplied arms to Kobane “despite Turkey’s objections,” he replied: “I said when I was in Istanbul on Oct. 4 that if Turkey allowed us to transit arms, we would not need others.”
Does he empathize with Turkey’s concerns that arms supplied to Kobane might fall into the hands of the PKK? And has he promised the U.S. that those arms will not be transferred to the PKK? “Yes, we said that. We gave the U.S. the guarantee that those arms would not be used against Turkey or fall into the PKK’s hands," Muslim said.
Was the U.S.’s arms supply only a one-off, as Ankara and Washington have said? “No, they will provide arms if we request them again. But there might be some other problems,” Muslim said. “They are afraid of Turkey's reaction.”
What about the PYD’s relations with the U.S.? “They are very good and will be much better,” he replies.
Have the Peshmerga made any difference in Kobane’s resistance? “Of course,” he says. Both President Erdoğan and Fuad Hussein argued that it was Turkey who suggested the transit of the Peshmerga.
Muslim confirms that: “There was intense pressure from the Kurds. And if Ankara had not let them through, this would have looked as if it was objecting [Masoud] Barzani.”
Muslim also argues they are not against the Peshmerga and Kurds’ cooperation. “There might have been some sensitivities beforehand, but ISIL has pushed Kurds into unifying. And this is something good” he says.
When I asked Muslim about their relations with Barzani, he said Barzani is a “very valuable” person and a great value for the Kurdish people, underlining that he does not want to interfere in Syria’s internal dynamics. According to Muslim, the Duhok Agreement that sets aside the long-standing differences between Barzani and Muslim over the governance of Rojava, will be implemented very soon. “It is impossible to separate the Kurds once they unify,” he says.
Last but not least: How to fix the PYD’s relations with Turkey? “There is no reason at all why the relations shouldn’t improve. Once Turkey takes a step and recognizes us, we would do anything. All we want is that it doesn’t stand in our way.”
And Muslim’s last sentence: “All I want to say is: Don’t waste our words of brotherhood and friendship. We genuinely want Turkey to affect the developments in a positive way.”