The Syrian Kurds are currently facing a life-or-death battle against the Islamic State (IS). Their city, Ayn al-Arab (Kobani), awaits “a new massacre,” unless a change is brought about, according to Salih Muslim, leader of the [Syrian Kurdish] Democratic Union Party (PYD). Muslim has been shocked by the international silence concerning the plight of Kurds in Syria.
In an interview with As-Safir, he expressed concern that IS is too free to use its heavy weapons to besiege their city, which is already encircled by Turkey. In his opinion, it’s ironic that IS is besieging them thanks to US weapons, while the latter is leading an international coalition against IS, without aiming to lift the blockade. These doubts culminated with Turkey's quest to establish a buffer zone that will be fought by the PYD, believing it to be an occupation.
In a press conference at the European Parliament on Wednesday [Sept. 24], Muslim made a distress call. The experienced Syrian oppositionist did not get nervous. He remained calm and logical, even though he was witnessing the doom of his hometown.
The besieged Kurds were supposed to take a deep relaxing breath with the international coalition’s airstrikes. The PYD has welcomed them, but has questioned why IS forces besieging Kobani have not been bombed. The PYD has openly offered to be a backup force for the operations against the international “enemy,” since hard work is underway to find parallel ground forces, yet there has been no response to the offer.
Muslim, who does not look over 60 [he is 58 years old], said, “We have issued a statement in which we have clearly welcomed the international coalition and its operations. We have said that we are on the ground and IS is slaughtering us. We certainly want to cooperate with the [coalition] to avoid being slaughtered, but it did not respond yet. I think some parties do not want us to be seen on the forefront, which will happen in case of a collaboration with the coalition. There is Turkey and other countries as well.”
The intensification of the blockade on Kobani has raised questions on the capabilities of the Kurdish forces, both the PYD and the People's Protection Units (YPG), particularly since talks circulated that they were repelling IS during the battle of Sinjar in Iraq.
Muslim corrected this story and introduced the reasons that resulted in the current blockade. He said, “The PYD did not go [to Sinjar], but rather the YPG did, and is still there. The deterioration that is taking place in Kobani is not due to the lack of fighters or shortages of defenders. All of our people are present with their forces to protect themselves. There is a deterioration because they [IS] are besieging the city from three sides. The weapons IS has are sophisticated; they are using sophisticated Abrams tanks and Humvees. As for the weapons the youth have, they are not enough. In fact, there are no weapons. They have light machine guns and RPGs, which are not effective against US armored vehicles. We are expecting a potential massacre at any moment. But we will fight to the end.”
Muslim expressed his doubts about the international “enemy’s” sources of power. He explained that the IS weapons are partially derived from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades that joined the group, and partially from the recent fall of the military airport of Tabaqa. Yet he insisted that the powerful weapons came via a “suspicious” way. First, those weapons obtained by IS from the FSA warehouses near the Turkish border crossings were “given to [the group], and were not the result of the attacks, as was said.” Second, the heavier weapons came from Mosul.
He stressed that there is no logic that can explain “how six brigades of the Iraqi army left all of their weapons to IS and made no effort to defend themselves.”
Furthermore, the group was allowed to move its heavy weapons — which have been monitored by US radars at all times — for dozens of kilometers to encircle Kobani. The coalition’s air raids “are welcomed,” but they came “a week late,” before IS completely surrounded the city. The targets of the bombardment were 15 to 20 kilometers (9 to 12 miles) short of the forces besieging Ayn al-Arab.
In light of this reality, Muslim explained that there is one thing that can make a difference. He said, “We have our own forces. What makes the difference is the quality of weapons. When we receive anti-tank weapons that can damage the Abrams tanks and Humvees that were brought from Mosul, only then we will not have a problem, and will we be able to defend ourselves. IS is besieging us on three sides, as Turkey is closing the border on the fourth side. Weapons can pass via Turkey, or it can offer weapons to our people who are fighting on other sides. [Weapons] are delivered to us because our fighters who came to our rescue from the eastern side are also facing the same heavy weapons.”
Ayn al-Arab is the head of a triangle whose base is composed of Aleppo and Raqqa. Its location, which isolates it from the dense Kurdish tide toward the east in Qamishli and Hasakah, has led it to hamper the ambitions of IS.
The city touches the Turkish border, and it is home to families who are divided on both sides. Its population counts almost half a million people, from the city and its villages, of whom about 200,000 have been displaced.
As Muslim talked about the reality of the battle, As-Safir asked him a question currently raised by many people about the role of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose fighters have been mobilized to support the peshmerga fighters in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Muslim — the deputy general coordinator of the opposition’s National Coordination Body — showed reservations in this regard, as his party has long been deemed a brother to the PKK.
He found the question intrusive, and stressed that the Kurds of the entire region, including Iran, are flocking to repel the invasion of IS.
“Some of our young people came from the north and the south, among other places. We welcome all those who want to defend us. But it is not about whether the PKK sent [forces] or did not. What is the motive of those coming from all over the world, even from Tora Bora? And then they tell us to ask about the identity of those coming to support us. Everyone is flocking to defend us. There are Iranian Kurds who have joined the ranks of young people in the PYD,” he said.
All issues intertwine in the stormy scene of the region: the rescue of Kurdistan and the silence on the siege of Kobani, the constantly inflamed sensitivities with Turkey, the international coalition and who should be thanked or rebuked. When Muslim was wrapping up his conference at the European Parliament, European officials were being questioned on highly relevant issues.
Several speakers pointed to the PKK role in supporting the peshmerga forces, arguing that hats must be taken off to their performance against IS. Thus, European officials were asked why the party is still on the European list of terrorist organizations. One of the officials revealed that the PKK forces are fighting more than the peshmerga in both Syria and Iraq, but he pointed out that Turkey wants it to stay on the blacklist. He added that the reason is the peace process between Ankara and the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Turkey asked the European supporters of the process to “keep the party on the list so that it does not have a substitute for peace. Once they reach a result, we will remove it from the list,” a European official said.
The Turkish sensitivities are clear, according to Muslim. Asked about the buffer zone, which Ankara seeks to set up in the north of Syria, he said, “We believe that the buffer zone, under the management of Turkey, is an occupation of our territory. We do not know why they decided to set it up now. Had it been under international protection, we would have said that it was an extension (of the international alliance), but having it under the protection of Turkey means that they are imposing a certain something on us and that it is a Turkish occupation, which we will fight.”
Muslim does not know what lies in store for his encircled city. He has been traveling around Europe for a year and a half, and for the past few weeks has warned that Ayn al-Arab faces the same fate as Sinjar.
Asked about his interpretation of this international selectivity, he said that the goal is to eliminate the Kurdish administration “model” in the north of Syria. He said that no one wants Syria or the Middle East to follow this model, and added that “the example we are giving changes the whole equation. Who wants an official Syriac language in Syria? The Assyrians are an inherent component of the fabric of the region. In Jazeera canton (Kurdish administration area) they are being granted their rights. Where are the rights of Assyrians in Turkey and Iran? They have nothing. But when the Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs all want to live together and believe in democracy, then this changes the equation in the Middle East as a whole and leaves no room for looting, as is currently the case. Some want petroleum, some have other interests to follow and others want companies based on a certain balance, and when they have desires, they make poor people fight.”
As Muslim got ready to leave and grabbed his small leather bag that looked like an accessory pocket, we asked him a final question about the relationship with the Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani. This relationship has always been marked by sensitivity and volatility. He responded, with cautiousness aimed at avoiding negativity, “There is some kind of convergence that we hope to build on. There are good intentions, but nothing has happened on the ground. God willing something will happen.”