Turkey Pulse

Syrian Kurd leader urges Turkey to join fight against jihadists

Article Summary
In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim says his Democratic Union Party will not participate in Syria’s presidential elections, and questions why the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq is not helping Syria’s Kurds.

After prolonged tensions, relations between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds are showing signs of a thaw.

Border crossings to Turkey controlled by the largest Kurdish militia group known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were long sealed by the Turkish side. But the restrictions have been eased for the delivery of humanitarian relief. Officials from the self-administered Syrian Kurdish region called Rojava traveled to Ankara in March, where they met with Western diplomats and held back-channel talks with the Turkish government. They also meet regularly with UN officials based in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep to coordinate aid efforts. This wouldn’t be possible without Ankara’s blessing. The shift reflects growing acceptance in Ankara that the YPG is a dominant force on the ground and points to future engagement on the political level.

In April, contacts between Ankara and the YPG took a further unexpected turn when a convoy of some 18 Turkish military vehicles, including tanks, crossed into Syria through the YPG-controlled Kobane gate to resupply the Tomb of Suleiman Shah. One of the main reasons that Turkey has shut out the YPG is that it is closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Yet, it is unthinkable that Turkish troops could have passed through Kobane without consulting them first. According to unconfirmed reports, radical Islamist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) disrupted the Turkish convoy’s progress and forced it to return to Turkey via a longer route through the Jarabulus crossing that is under its control. But the Turkish convoy rotated the troops and delivered its supplies.

ISIS has been vying with the YPG and rival Syrian opposition factions for control of areas running along the Turkish border. It reviles Turkey’s leaders as infidels and has threatened to overrun the Tomb of Suleiman Shah, which is under Turkish jurisdiction. In short, ISIS is an enemy of Turkey and the YPG alike, which ought to mean that Turkey and the YPG ought to be joining forces against it.

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Salih Muslim agrees. The co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the political wing of the YPG, spoke to Al-Monitor from Moscow this week. Here are excerpts from the hourlong interview that I conducted via Skype on May 5.

Al-Monitor:  Is it true that Turkish troops consulted with the YPG before crossing into Syria?

Muslim:  Yes, there was contact and the transiting of the Turkish convoy was mutually agreed to. The YPG took all necessary measures to ensure its safe passage to the Tomb of Suleiman Shah. But then it seems ISIS intervened and the convoy was forced to return via Jarablus. The details of what exactly transpired remain murky.

Al-Monitor:  ISIS remains one of the biggest threats to Rojava, and the YPG accuses Turkey of supporting ISIS. Is Turkey still supporting ISIS in its fight against the YPG? If so, how can we explain the hostile stance ISIS espouses against the Turkish government, especially in the social media?

Muslim:  In the same way al-Qaeda has become a global brand, so too has ISIS. Everyone affixes the label to suit his or her own agendas. Everyone has its own ISIS. The [Syrian] regime has its ISIS; Saudi Arabia has its ISIS. They are continuing to fight against us, particularly around Kobane. But we are inflicting heavy losses on them; fear has crept into their eyes. Increasingly, they resort to suicide bomb attacks or IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices].

To return to your question as to whether Turkey supports them, as you know, the Turkish government has declared ISIS to be a terrorist group. ISIS is fighting Syrian opposition factions. such as the Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham, which are supported by Turkey. But there are certain elements within the Turkish state who continue to collaborate with ISIS, and when I say ISIS, I am referring in particular to the Chechen fraction.

Al-Monitor:  Who are these elements within the Turkish state?

Muslim:  These are people within the deep state who don’t want peace between Turkey and the Kurds, who are hostile to the Kurds and who also act under the guise of Turkish nongovernmental aid organizations to promote their radical Islamist world views. And it’s obvious who they are.

I'm repeating my call on Turkey to join forces against these terrorists who are our common enemies, enemies of Syria and enemies of the free and democratic world.

Al-Monitor:  In a previous interview you called on the Turkmen to join forces against ISIS. Did they respond?

Muslim:  We are acting together in areas where Kurds and Turkmens live within close proximity. Mostly around Afrin. A new agreement was reached between the YPG and the Turkmen forces there, uniting them under the umbrella of a newly formed group called Shams Shemal, or the Northern Sun.

Al-Monitor:  You mentioned that there was “an ISIS that is controlled by the Assad regime.” So is the regime using ISIS to squeeze Rojava?

Muslim:  Just look at what has been happening in Raqqa [province] recently. Just the other day a convoy of 50 ISIS vehicles drove past two regime units stationed along the road to Direspiye to reinforce their troops fighting against us. There was less than a kilometer [0.62 mile] separating them, yet the regime did nothing. Doesn’t this tell it all? The regime supports ISIS. And this disproves the lie that we are collaborating with the regime. We are not. We are fighting the regime.

Al-Monitor:  Will the Rojava Kurds be taking part in the presidential elections? You were quoted by the Iranian media as saying your administration would allow balloting to take place under the supervision of the regime.

Muslim:  Either way, the Kurds will not participate. We saw what the past elections were like. They are no more than an exercise in pledging allegiance to the caliph. You either accept him [Assad] as your caliph or you don’t. We don’t.

Al-Monitor:  Getting back to your relations with Ankara, there appears to be a thaw. Aid convoys are being allowed to cross through YPG-controlled border gates. Can we expect you back in Turkey any time soon?

Muslim:  Who knows? It is true that pressure has been easing somewhat. Aid convoys and people are allowed to cross twice a week — on Mondays and Thursdays — via the Mursitpinar crossing to Kobane. Just the other day, there was a terrible car accident in Kobane. Four people who were critically injured were instantly allowed into Turkey for treatment. And our officials have been meeting with the United Nations people in Gaziantep to coordinate relief efforts. Right now, Sinam Mohamed, who is the co-chairwoman of the Rojava People’s Council, is in Gaziantep talking to the UN and, naturally, in one way or another, Turkish officials are involved in the talks. Sinam came through Afrin, not Kobane.

All of this marks a change, but we want bigger and lasting changes. Why, for instance, is Turkey continuing to dig a trench near the border area with Afrin? What is the purpose of this? Turkey has to recognize and accept that Rojava is here to stay and that it is as much in Turkey’s interest as in ours to normalize ties. Peace with Rojava will have a positive impact on the [Kurdish] peace process within Turkey because we are all the same people. These borders are artificial. And no matter how many trenches you dig, the Kurds will remain united.

Al-Monitor:  You say the Kurds are united, but your relations with the Iraqi Kurds and particularly with Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), are terrible.

Muslim:  Indeed, and it is very difficult to understand why. They, too, are digging trenches [along the border areas under the KDP’s control.] They should be with us morally, economically and militarily. Instead they are digging trenches. You cannot even carry a bag of rice across the border any more. What is the reason?

Al-Monitor:  They say you have usurped power in Rojava by force, that you are sidelining the other Kurdish parties and that you are collaborating with the regime.

Muslim:  If the opposition parties expect to share power without lifting a finger, without working for the people, just on the strength of external support, this is totally unrealistic. They were given a chance under the Hewler [Erbil] Agreement [uniting all the Syrian Kurdish parties under the umbrella of the Kurdish Supreme Council set up under Barzani’s sponsorship in 2012] to take part in the administration. But they were lazy. Simply lazy. They wanted power to be handed to them on a plate. They did nothing for the people and now they want us to undo everything, to scrap our elected councils, our agreements with the Arabs, the Armenians, the Syrian Orthodox Christians with whom we are sharing power and to start from zero. This is utterly unreasonable. Still, we say we are willing to work together. Our doors are open to everyone. And the Iraqi Kurds are our brothers. Mr. Barzani is our brother. But they are accusing us of collaborating with the regime and in doing so they are legitimizing attacks against us by ISIS. This is an insult to the memory of our martyrs.

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Found in: turkey, syrian kurds, syria, salih muslim, rojava, pyd, kurdistan regional government, democratic union party

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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