Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), deemed to be the most powerful politician among the Syrian Kurdish parties, was in Geneva to hold meetings with international organizations and explain his perspective. The PYD, which has close ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), controls areas inhabited by Kurds in northern Syria, and has a highly disciplined fighting force made up of a few thousand soldiers.
When I met him, he told me that these organizations “sometimes receive information from other Syrian Kurdish groups trying to distort our image. We came here to express our viewpoint and convey facts from the field.”
When I asked him about the role played by the United Nations in the Syrian conflict, he laughed and replied, “In the mid-1990s, the UN almost stopped working after the United States refused to pay its dues. Does this answer your question?”
Muslim was born in the city of Kobani, or Ain al-Arab, in 1951. “Did you know that it is the Armenians who founded the city of Kobani?” he asked me.
“Kobani is a German name (from the Koban railway company). This village was a train station built in 1912 by the Germans as part of the railway lines linking Berlin to Baghdad. In 1915, it turned into a village with the arrival of Armenian refugees fleeing the massacres. Kurds from neighboring villages subsequently started to flow into it. When I grew up, I remember that there were three Armenian churches in the village, but they moved to Armenia in the 1960s,” he added.
Muslim continued his primary education in Damascus and finished high school in Aleppo. He subsequently moved to Istanbul, where he studied at the Istanbul Technical University and majored in chemical engineering, and then went to Saudi Arabia to work. Muslim belongs to a generation attracted by Kurdish politics inspired by the struggle of Mustafa Barzani, and has headed the PYD since 2010.
The first question I asked him was the following: Is the PYD in a state of war? If so, against whom?
“We have been in a state of war ever since the party was founded in 2003; first against the regime. Back then, the Syrian regime had a good relationship with Turkey, and we paid a heavy price at the human level. Ahmed Hussein, aka Abu Joudi, was killed in 2004 by military intelligence under torture. During the same year, Silan Kobani and his friends were assassinated in Mosul at the hands of the intelligence services. In 2008, Osman Suleiman, among others, died under torture. I was personally arrested and tortured as well. We had to fight other Syrian Kurdish parties that believed we were seeking to make problems, but we are revolutionaries and we did not surrender.”
Before I asked him about the accusations made against the PYD of dealing with the Syrian authorities, he said, “We are the only Kurdish party that fought the regime in the neighborhood of Ashrafieh and Sheikh Maksoud,” both of which are located in Aleppo and are home to a Kurdish majority.
“During a single confrontation in 2011, 61 soldiers belonging to the regime were killed, and the total number of our victims and civilians who were killed reached 47,” he added.
He continued, “On July 19, 2012, we successfully gained control of the Kurdish areas and imposed self-rule, leading the regime forces to withdraw from these areas. Today, however, we are facing another problem, namely fighting Salafist-jihadist groups.
“We are currently fighting the regime forces and Jabhat al-Nusra. We fear mass crimes against civilians who live in the neighborhood of Ashrafieh and Sheikh Maksoud, which are constantly being shelled and put under jihadist siege. We call on the international community to intervene to prevent massacres.”
I interrupted him to ask, “Did the withdrawal of regime forces in July 2012 take place in coordination with the PYD?” He replied, “These are false allegations. We are putting pressure on the regime forces that did not have the means to open a new front against us. They have not forgotten how the Kurds united and revolted during the Qamishli uprising in 2004. In Ras al-Ain, where Kurds account for half of the population and Arabs for the other half, we only entered Kurdish neighborhoods. Arabs there were with the regime. Then, the jihadist groups entered and started killing people, and when they started attacking Kurdish areas, we fought them and drove them out of the village.”
Asked whether the relationship between the Syrian opposition — at the time of the formation of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) — and the units tasked with protecting the people was complicated, and how things have evolved since the formation of the coalition, he said, “Let me start from the beginning. When the Syrian revolution started, we were looking for a strategic coalition. We established a coordination committee — the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change [NCC] — with the Communist Party, the Communist Labor Party, the Political Bureau of the Communist Party and the Socialist Union. They were the ones that started a long struggle against the regime and imposed their representation in the community. Our plan is to overthrow the regime through peaceful means, renounce violence and bring about democratic change. Subsequently, a fake opposition with US-Turkish support and Qatari funding was established in Istanbul. But this opposition became internal, without any representation, and it turned into an exiled opposition that is not effectively present.
“The regime wanted to militarize the revolution as it had the upper hand at the military level. Thus, it released a few thousand Salafists and jihadists from the Saidnaya prison — a prison of disrepute near Damascus. And their plan succeeded. Who talks about democracy now? Even the most moderate brigades are demanding succession now,” he added.
During our hour-long conversation, Muslim talked about “the philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan, who is deemed to be a reference for the PYD. This ideological reference can be described as a Leninist approach adapted to the national liberation struggle, which was greatly influenced by the leftist factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s.
“This ideological regime did not have common ground with most of the Syrian opposition militant groups, which have arisen within a Salafist-jihadist political culture.
“The SNC was in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and under Turkey’s control. When the coalition was established and moved to Cairo, we thought that it would consist of an independent structure. Yet, it ultimately turned into a body with unclear and unharmonious features, knowing that it returned to Istanbul.”
I asked him, “Do you understand the Syrian opposition’s fears that the PYD may be preparing for secession?” He replied, “These fears are unfounded. There is not a single Kurdish party in Syria calling for secession. Claiming our rights does not mean that we want secession.” I then asked him, “You never talked about northern Syria, but instead you have mentioned western Kurdistan. Is that not a political sign?” He replied that western Kurdistan is not “a political but rather a geographical term. Some people wanted us to forget our Kurdish identity.”
I asked him, “Is the PYD a Syrian or a Kurdish party?” He laughed and said, “It is a Syrian-Kurdish and Middle Eastern party. Our party includes Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen. We embrace the philosophy of Ocalan, and any person who is convinced of our philosophy can join our party.”
On the circumstances leading to his two recent visits to Istanbul, he said, “I hold no hostility toward the Turkish people. We share a 900-kilometer [559 mile] border with Turkey, with Kurds residing on both sides. We expressed our concern that Turkey may be providing logistic support to jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which they denied the existence of. We also talked about facilitating the access of humanitarian aid to our areas.”
I asked him, Did the start of the negotiations between the PKK leadership and Ankara pave the way for this visit? He said, “For us, nothing has changed. This has, however, helped the Kurdish position toward us to be changed. When they negotiate with the Kurds who are in Turkey, they cannot ask the Syrian coalition not to negotiate with Syrian Kurds.”
When I asked him about his partners from the Turkish side in the negotiations, he did not answer clearly and contented himself by saying that they are taking place with the adviser to the foreign minister, without mentioning names. But he added that he did not rule out the possibility of a third visit.