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Salih Muslim: Syria's Kurdish problems will be solved by Syrians, not Turkey

In an interview just days before being arrested in Prague at Turkey's request, Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim spoke to Al-Monitor about his relations with Ankara.
Salih Muslim Muhammad  chairman of the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK answers journalists' questions as he arrives to pay tribute to the victims of the attacks claimed by Islamic State which killed at least 129 people and left more than 350 injured, on November 17, 2015 in front of the Bataclan theatrein Paris. AFP PHOTO / ADRIEN MORLENT        (Photo credit should read ADRIEN MORLENT/AFP/Getty Images)

Salih Muslim, a globally known Syrian Kurdish leader, was detained in the Czech capital city of Prague on Feb. 24 at Turkey’s request. Ankara is now demanding that he be extradited to Turkey where he faces terror charges over his alleged links to a March 2016 car bomb attack in Ankara that left 37 people dead. It remains unclear what evidence if any Turkey has to prove Muslim’s complicity. The move is a further sign of how Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has abandoned efforts to make peace with its Kurds. It has reverted instead to its old, and so far unsuccessful, tactics of seeking to vanquish them militarily in Turkey and now in Syria while criminalizing their political leaders.

Between 2012 and 2015, Muslim was Ankara’s top interlocutor within the Syrian Kurdish movement, which was inspired by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. 

A chemical engineer by training who studied at Istanbul Technical University, Muslim was until recently the co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and is not known to have been engaged in any armed activities. Muslim is a familiar face in European capitals where he is hosted by senior officials, including Washington’s previous Syria envoy, Michael Ratney. In February 2015, Muslim oversaw a critical operation carried out jointly between the Turkish military and the PYD’s armed wing known as the People’s Protection Units to transfer the remains of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, from a shrine in northern Syria to a village near the Turkish border. Al-Monitor spoke to Muslim at length over Skype on Feb. 22 — just two days before he was detained — about his relations with Turkey. Muslim is expected to appear in court Feb. 27.

The following is a transcript of the interview that was conducted in the Turkish language, with slight edits for length and clarity.

Al-Monitor:  A Turkish court has issued a warrant for your arrest on terrorism charges and Turkey has asked Interpol to issue a red notice against you. Has this affected your life?

Muslim:  No, not in the least. At least not in Europe.

Al-Monitor:  Do you travel on a Syrian passport?

Muslim:  Yes. I am not a Turkish citizen. And everyone knows the issue is political. Interpol has certain criteria, and Turkey’s demand does not fulfill it as far as I know.

Al-Monitor:  When was the first time you had formal contact with Turkish officials. Who called who first?

Muslim:  It started like this: We were in Damascus at the time. We were members of the [Syrian Opposition] National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, led by Hassan Abdel Azim. We were told that a delegation wanted to meet with us.

Al-Monitor:  Who was in the delegation?

Muslim:  The [then] American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and the Turkish Ambassador Omer Onhon came to our office. Mr. Onhon stayed for a bit then left. I guess he couldn’t deal with my presence. We spoke with Ford for around four hours. Then Mr. Onhon sent us word through someone saying he wanted to meet. They were in Cairo at the time. I was, too. We said, ‘Fine, we are game. We are always ready to enter dialogue with Turkey.’ We met. This happened in 2012. I don’t recall the exact date, but it was after July.

Al-Monitor:  Why did they want to meet with you?

Muslim:  The wanted to know why we weren’t talking to the [opposition] Syrian National Council and why we hadn’t joined the opposition. We responded that ‘We are in the opposition and we are ready to talk to them.’ The Syrian National Coalition had not yet been formed. … Then Mr. Onhon called us again, saying there was someone he wanted us to meet. The person in question was a representative of one of the armed Syrian opposition groups. We agreed and met with him. He told us he had 90 fighters. He proved to be a charlatan. We concluded that he was useless. Then the issue of Istanbul came to the fore.

Al-Monitor:  What was that about?

Muslim:  All of these contacts were organized by Mr. Onhon. He was still formally the ambassador to Syria but had been withdrawn [after Turkey downgraded its mission in Syria and supported regime change]. I went to Istanbul. They introduced us once again to members of the Syrian opposition. Two men from the Muslim Brotherhood. Their [Turkey’s] goal was for us to join the opposition under their umbrella. We said we were open to anything, but these people refused to acknowledge our existence, the Kurds’ existence. They refused to make any pledges with respect to our rights. Their mentality was identical to that of the regime. We demand our democratic rights. They could have offered something, at least on paper. We wanted them to say, ‘There is a Kurdish problem in Syria and we are going to solve this Kurdish problem.’ Only then could we agree to work together with them. But they said, ‘No, you don’t exist.’ If I don’t exist, how am I supposed to work with you? These talks took place in 2012 and 2013. Nothing came of them. They don’t want to recognize us. They don’t want to give us our rights.

Al-Monitor:  You also had close contact with the former undersecretary of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Feridun Sinirlioglu, who is now the Turkish ambassador to Turkey’s permanent mission at the United Nations in New York. When did you meet?

Muslim:  Around the same time [2012-2013]. We met in Istanbul. We met not only once, but once, twice, thrice! But Mr. Onhon was always present.

Al-Monitor:  Around the same time, others from your movement were holding official meetings in Ankara, were they not? And if I am not mistaken, Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, was among them?

Muslim:  Yes, they were talking about Kobani, about the transfer of Suleyman Shah’s remains. But I don’t know who exactly from our side went, nor who they were meeting with from the Turkish side.

Al-Monitor:  So were your own discussions with the Turks only about your role in the Syrian opposition?

Muslim:  Yes. At that time they kept saying, ‘Join the Syrian opposition.’ That’s all.

Al-Monitor:  Did they not demand that you give up on autonomy, that you scrap your cantons?

Muslim:  No, they never said anything like that. In any case, we explained what we were doing. There was an authority vacuum [after the regime withdrew from the mainly Kurdish areas in northern Syria] and we were filling it. They remained silent. They said nothing in response.

Al-Monitor:  Around the same time, the government was holding peace talks with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. It was said that the government was demanding that he use his influence over you to get you to give up on autonomy in Syria and to join the fight to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Muslim:  They never mentioned Mr. Ocalan during our conversations. What was said between them, I don’t know.

Al-Monitor:  Journalist Amed Dicle wrote in his recently published book that you had sought the Turkish authorities’ permission to visit Ocalan in prison while the discussions about Suleyman Shah were still ongoing.

Muslim:  I merely said it would be nice if that could happen. But it was more a comment in passing.

Al-Monitor:  How many times did you go to Turkey to meet with Turkish officials?

Muslim:  Four times. I was in Istanbul when the Suleyman Shah operation took place. I traveled to Istanbul before the operation. There was a comrade from our movement with me. I stayed on and he went to Kobani. I remained in constant contact with him. There was also an operation center set up in Ankara for the Suleyman Shah affair. I was in touch with those [Turkish officials] as well. When it was all over, I spoke to one of the people at the operation center. ‘The [mission] is complete.’ I said. They responded, ‘The mission is complete. Everything is finished.’ I then contacted our comrade and asked them whether there were any loose ends that needed tying up. They said no, and I then left Istanbul. [Author's note: This was the last time he traveled to Turkey.]

Al-Monitor:  Did you believe at the time that your cooperation in the Suleyman Shah operation marked the beginning of a new chapter in your relations with Turkey? Did it give you hope?

Muslim:  By then the trust between us and Turkey had already been shaken. But we decided to show good will nonetheless. We did not want to be placed in the position of having been requested to do something and refusing to. We helped [Turkish forces] go 30 kilometers [19 miles] deep into Syria and through the city of Kobani [to get to the tomb]. We escorted them and protected them. We took them in and out safe and soundly. It was an act of good will.

Al-Monitor:  Why was your trust shaken?

Muslim:  Because Turkey was training groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and encouraging them to fight against us. Turkey was being two-faced. They [the Turks] were traveling back and forth to Suleyman Shah’s tomb [where a tiny Turkish garrison was deployed to protect it] through Jarablus with the cooperation of those groups. They were going to [the tomb] via Jarablus rather than Kobani. This aroused our suspicions. We had never shut the route through our territory to them. But when they said they wanted to do this operation with us, we said fine. We hoped that this might help us establish new and healthier relations with [Turkey].  Besides, peace talks were still continuing with Mr. Ocalan.

Al-Monitor:  If they could reach the tomb via Jarablus, why did they come to you for help in transferring it?

Muslim:  I really don’t know. Where did they relocate the tomb? To territory under our control. To Ashme. I guess they concluded it would be safer there. Our comrades secured the land where it was placed.

Al-Monitor:  A Turkish soldier did die during the operation though?

Muslim:  Yes. His death was accidental. It was an accident.

Al-Monitor:  When you were in Istanbul overseeing the operation, did you meet with Sinirlioglu as well?

Muslim:  Yes, I recall we did. Face to face.

Al-Monitor:  How were your relations with him?

Muslim:  He is an extremely thoughtful and polite person. He was always very understanding. I don’t know who gave the orders, but our contact ended.

Al-Monitor:  When your son Sirwan was shot dead by a sniper affiliated with jihadi groups, who called you to offer condolences from the Turkish government?

Muslim:  Mr. Onhon did. On his own behalf and that of Mr. Sinirlioglu. You know my son used to train snipers. I spoke to his friends who witnessed his martyrdom. There was a sniper war going on in a small village east of Kobani.

Al-Monitor:  Who was fighting?

Muslim:  There was no Islamic State [IS] at that time. There was [Jabhat] al-Nusra and its extensions. They were all the same. They were positioned opposite our forces. One of our snipers killed several of their people. And they then shot my son, our martyr, Sirwan. It was in an area very close to the Turkish border. He was martyred on Oct. 9, 2013.

Al-Monitor:  When you lost your son did you blame Turkey?

Muslim:  No, not at all. I never did nor wanted to. At the time, several people asked me whether his killer had crossed in from Turkey. I said they hadn’t. Others asked whether Turkey was responsible. I said no it was not and that the thought never crossed my mind even once.

Al-Monitor:  Your relations with Turkey have changed dramatically. Turkey has issued a warrant for your arrest. They have even placed a $1 million bounty on your head. Turkey has launched a military offensive against you in Afrin. Why? How did it all come to this?

Muslim:  I don’t really understand. The Kurdish problem in Turkey and the Kurdish problem in Syria are two separate issues and will be resolved separately. To solve our problem in Syria, we have to sit down and talk with our fellow Syrians, with Arabs, Turkmens and others. Not with Turkey. But we can never break off our ties with Turkey. We share common borders, which separate members of the same families, of the same tribes. And of course we are influenced by Turkey and Turkey by us. The main reason for this situation is Turkey’s Kurdish phobia. They don’t want Kurds to gain their rights anywhere, not in Turkey, not in Syria and not in Iraq. When I look back, I conclude that Turkey was never sincere about wanting to make peace with the Kurds. Had Turkey reached out to the Kurds, worked with the Kurds, it would have become the most powerful country in the Middle East. It’s attacking our people every day. In Afrin. In Kobani. Innocent people are being killed.

Al-Monitor:  Can the United States do anything to help fix things?

Muslim:  The Americans never made us any promises. We are fighting IS together. They are doing their part, and we are doing ours. But the United States never told us how to run our relations with Damascus. We are free to do as we choose. This should be known to all. If we cooperate with the United States against IS, this serves the interests of all. And the fight against IS is not over.

Al-Monitor:  But the United States says it plans to remain in Syria, among other things, to counter Iranian influence.

Muslim:  Iran cannot exert its influence in the regions that we run nor those run by our Arab allies. Neither Iran nor Hezbollah.

Al-Monitor:  Is it possible for you to reach an agreement with the Syrian regime?

Muslim:  Not if they don’t change their outlook. But if they decide to embark on democratic change, then yes. The only project that can keep Syria united is ours. But if the regime persists in its dictatorial ways, nobody will accept that. That time has passed.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think the regime understands this?

Muslim:  Probably, yes. And if Turkey and Iran don’t meddle in our affairs, I believe that an agreement can be reached. Getting back to the United States, it can tell Turkey to stop attacking us, to remain within its own borders. Forget re-opening borders and trade, which we of course would have wanted. For now, all we ask is that Turkey leaves us in peace.

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