Syrian Kurds prepare for new Middle East

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party believes that federalism is a practical alternative to the nation-state model.

al-monitor Kurdish Democratic Union Party head Salih Muslim speaks during a conference in Paris, Nov. 13, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer.

Topics covered

syria, sykes-picot agreement, statehood, salih muslim, kurds, democratic union party

Mar 8, 2015

The Syrian Kurds — in particular, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — claim to be fully aware of the scheme that is being plotted for the region. The Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) battle did not change their perspective, as they still believe that international powers seek to change the map of the Middle East and eliminate the border drawn by the Sykes-Picot agreement. This is why the PYD is getting ready to step up and play its role in this game, stressing that the region’s future is one for federal states. Based on this position, the Kurdish party is engaging in a battle to defend the "self-management" model, noting that the nation-state model has "expired."

This is stressed by PYD leader Salih Muslim, who is a prominent influence and a key player in the Syrian north.

In an interview with As-Safir, Muslim noted that the battles to free Ayn al-Arab and its surroundings are still underway, but the direction in which they are going has now been identified. He told As-Safir, “We have already said this. [The Islamic State's (IS)] defeat in Kobani is the beginning of a comprehensive defeat to eliminate them from all of these areas. That defeat was the preamble of their collapse and the beginning of the end for them.”

Around 160 peshmerga fighters are still on the battlefield in Syria. They had entered Ayn al-Arab through Turkey with advanced weapons, which made a significant difference during the battle, especially the MILAN anti-tank missiles. The battle was fortified by airstrikes launched by the international coalition against IS, which coordinated with the Kurdish fighters later on. All of this made Ayn al-Arab a perfect example of what could happen when incompatible interests clash. The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, spoke about this in an attempt to gather support for a plan to freeze the fighting, starting in Aleppo.

As-Safir asked the PYD leader about the general impression regarding the political price they had to pay Turkey during the settlement to allow the peshmerga forces to enter. However, Muslim denied that, saying, “What happened was not on Turkey’s conditions. The advanced weapons came in with the peshmerga and they entered following US pressure. Turkey consented as a result of the same pressure. They did not do it to please the Kurds.”

Muslim made sure he attended the press conference held by allies of the Kurdish forces in their fight against IS. These allies are Syrian Syriacs from al-Khabour, who are asking for European support for the Syriac military council, which they established to defend their villages that are still under attack by IS and similar armed groups.

Syriacs are one of the components of the "self-management" model that the PYD is attempting to establish. It also includes representatives from other groups in the region, such as the Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans and others.

The Kurdish politician commented on this cooperation, saying, “There has been Christian resistance for at least two years now. We work together, and we have a joint command. There are the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and our Arab brothers from the Free Syrian Army who accept the Kurdish existence. [And there is] the Burkan al-Firat … and the Syriac groups [Sutoro] in the places of residence of the Syriac population.”

The man, in his 60s, strongly defended the need for a self-management model to hold. It is a model that includes multiple nationalities and religions, he said, and it is a standard that all of the region’s countries have to develop after the throes they experienced.

Muslim said, “After all, why are we resisting if not to defend this model? The current attack aims to destroy it. We are with the unity of Syriacs, Kurds and Arabs. We are defending a model that will be adopted in the Middle East and the future Syria.” He added, “We actually had to. The war and the unrest might continue for 10 years. We have to find an alternative for the people. We are a model of coexistence and democracy for the region. And we are talking about a self-rule administration, not secession from Syria.”

In their last strategy to deal with Syria, Iraq and the threat of IS, the Europeans talked distinctively about the Kurds. The Kurds were the only ones that Europeans pointed to, and they referred to them as “resistance.” Moreover, the strategy called for Kurdish support while offering the regional countries strong guarantees regarding the commitment to the unity of their territory.

When asked about it, Muslim said that the change in political language thus far has not changed the essence of the situation. He said: “The language has changed, but the strategy can also be changed. Their mentality is still classic. They are talking about the state of the nation, which we do not believe in and which is not valid for the Middle East. This must be changed. Even the Kurds have many questions about it. Unified Germany, a part of the European Union, could be a model for the Kurdish people. They can live in four different countries and still live together. Ditto for the Syriacs. Why not? We have to tolerate each other.”

Muslim will travel in the coming days to meet Kurdish leaders in Erbil. He will talk about an unresolved problem concerning the future of the Kurds in light of the plans set for the region. “We are one nation, but we do not necessarily share the same mentality. Some favor the nation-state, but even in Europe, this mentality has expired. We want self-rule management.”

When asked if the Erbil government is satisfied with the logic behind his thinking, he replied with his usual calm. “No, not yet. The issue needs a little work. It needs some time in order for them to be convinced of this sort of thing.” He laughed, “The nation-state has gone out of fashion.”

The presence of the Kurds at the heart of the political game in the region and on the front lines has prompted them to come out with a clear conclusion: Serious attempts are being made to change the previous borders of the Middle East map. The experienced Kurdish politician said, “We are not the ones who want to change the map of the Middle East. They are those who are planning for it.”

When speaking, he used the third person and did not specify whom he was referring to exactly. More specifically, he said “regional countries.” Yet the scenario of changing the border stated in the Sykes-Picot agreement pushes some international actors, according to Muslim, to engage in an attempt to remove some ethnic components from specific areas. The idea is not new, but the attempt is now serious. He said, “Since the invasion of Kuwait, it was said that the border should be changed, and some have said that Iraq should be divided into three parts. Thus, probably in order for these interests to be achieved, a map change is required now. Some want a map change to take place, and therefore they have said that the presence of some components must be ended.”

What the Syriac and Kurdish representatives have demanded is direct support for an autonomous administration. Here, the head of the Kurdish party pointed out the presence of unjustified European reservations and that everything is part of political calculation, in his opinion. He said, “Some are asking about our legitimacy. We do not acquire legitimacy from the regimes in Damascus or Turkey; those are ethnic countries. Syriac and Kurdish organizations are everywhere, and they [the people questioning legitimacy] can cooperate with them if they wish to. The EU needs to deal directly with the administration rather than question legitimacy. Everything else is mere excuses. Dealing is something, and recognition is another thing.”

Clashes between the Syrian army and the People's Protection Units recently erupted in the Kurdish town of Hasakah. The battles between the two parties came as a surprise, for it seemed like they had found common ground. Asking Muslim whether the differences that led to the clashes have been resolved, he said that “the cease-fire is ongoing, but the disagreement has not been resolved yet.”

Muslim said there was neither convergence nor a price paid to Turkey in exchange for the entry of the peshmerga forces. Yet it is unclear whether this applies to Washington, which has decided, along with the international coalition, to not allow the fall of Ayn al-Arab. It is also unclear whether the Kurds have become part of the coalition strategy, particularly in terms of its determination not to cooperate with Damascus and its regime, even though a regime change has become second priority compared to the war on IS. 

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Wassim Ibrahim