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Syria's Kurds, hopes and fears

The civil war in Syria has put great strains on the country's Kurdish population. The Syrian Kurds' most powerful politician, Saleh Muslim Mohammad, talks to Vicken Cheterian about their position and future.

Saleh Muslim Mohammad is the head of the Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party / PYD) and the most powerful politician among the Syrian Kurds. The party - founded in 2003, and closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a longstanding armed campaign in the Kurdish-majority regions of eastern Turkey - itself has a well-disciplined fighting force of several thousands among the Kurds of northern Syria. During a recent visit to Geneva to meet international organisations, I ask him for his assessment of the Kurds' situation in light of Syria's evolving war.

Saleh Muslim Mohammad's attitude is confident: that of a leader who at last was on the winning side after decades of being repressed by dictatorship and buffeted by the unpredictable tides hitting the middle east. He was also concerned to uphold his own group's standpoint: “Very often, the international bodies receive information from rival Syrian-Kurdish groups which tries to present us in a negative light. We came here to present our point of view and the facts on the ground.” His fighters, he says, are constantly clashing with jihadi formations in the northern regions of Syria.

Mohammad was born in Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab, in 1951. “You know that Kobane was founded by Armenians?” he tells me to my surprise. “The name Kobani is German (from Ko-Bahn, or railway company). The town was a simple railway station built by Germans in 1912, as part of the Berlin-Baghdad route. Then, in 1915, it became a town when Armenian refugees escaping the massacres in Anatolia settled there. The Kurds came later from neighbouring villages. I remember when I grew up there were three Armenian churches in town, but in the 1960s they abandoned us and migrated to Armenia.”

He attended primary school in Damascus and secondary school in Aleppo, then moved to Istanbul to study chemical engineering at Istanbul Technical University before moving to work in Saudi Arabia. He belongs to a Kurdish political generation that was inspired first by the Barzanis' struggle against the Iraqi Ba'ath regime, then attracted to the PKK's militant nationalism. He has been president of the PYD since 2010. 

The ideological matrix

His comment on the clashes with jihadists prompts me to ask: is the PYD in a war situation, and if yes against whom? “We have been at war since our foundation in 2003", he replies. "First against the [Syrian] regime - remember at that time it was on good terms with Turkey. We paid a heavy toll. Ahmad Hussein (Abu Judy) was killed by the military intelligence under torture in 2004; in the same year Shilan Kobani and his friends were assassinated in Mosul by the mukhabarat; in 2008, Othman Suleiman was also killed under torture. There are many other such examples. I was myself arrested and tortured. We also had to struggle against other Syrian Kurdish formations who considered us troublemakers, but we are revolutionaries and we did not give in.”

I am about to ask about accusations that the PYD cooperates with the Syrian authorities, when he says: “We are the only Kurdish formation that fought against the regime in Ashrafiye and Sheikh Maqsoud” (two neighbourhoods of Aleppo inhabited mostly by Kurds).

“On 19 July 2012 we managed to take control of the Kurdish regions and instal self-rule. The regime forces withdrew. But then ee fell into another problem, that is fighting with salafi-jihadi formations. Now we are fighting both regime forces and Jabhat al-Nusra, and we fear that massive crimes can happen against civilians of Ashrafiye and Sheikh Maqsoud. These neighbourhoods are constantly shelled by the regular troops, and under siege by jihadis. We call the international community to intervene to stop the danger of massacres."

But, I intervene, wasn't the withdrawal of regime troops in July 2012 coordinated with the PYD? He answers: “That's a false allegation. We put pressure on the regime forces, and they did not have the means to open a new front against us. They still remembered how the Kurds all rose up as one in the Qamishli intifada of 2004. In Ras al-Ayn where the population is half-Kurdish and half-Arab, we entered only Kurdish neighbourhoods. The Arabs there supported the regime. Then the jihadi groups entered and started killing people, and when they started attacking Kurdish neighbourhoods we fought back and eventually expelled them from the town.”

I change tack. At the time the Syrian National Congress was formed, relations between it and other parts of the opposition YPG were difficult. How have they evolved since then? “Let me start from the beginning. When the Syrian revolution started, we were searching for a strategic alliance. We set up the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change with four other groups - the Communist Party, Communist Action Party, Communist Party - Political Bureau, and the Socialist Union. They were the ones with long experience of anti-regime struggle and representation within the society. Our project was to overthrow the regime through peaceful democratic means, rejecting violence. Then a fake opposition was set-up in Istanbul with United States-Turkish backing and Qatari funding. The reality became an internal opposition which has no representation, and an exiled opposition which has no presence on the ground.”

He adds: “It was the regime that wanted the militarisation of the revolution, because it had the military advantage. It released some 1,000 salafi-jihadis from Sednaya prison [a notorious jail near Damascus]. And they succeeded. Who talks about democracy now? Even the most moderate fighting brigade [of the opposition] is demanding the caliphate now!”

In a one-hour discussion, Saleh Muslim Mohammad refers twice to the “philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan” as the PYD's reference-point. This ideological source can best be described as a Leninist one as adapted to the needs of a national-liberation struggle. In this, the PKK itself was heavily influenced by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) factions of the 1970s. This ideological set-up has little in common with most Syrian opposition fighting groups, which have gravitated towards the salafi-jihadi political culture.

“The Syrian National Council was in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and controlled by Turkey. When the coalition was founded and moved to Cairo, we thought it would form an independent structure. But in the end it evolved into an amorphous body lacking cohesion and eventually returned to Istanbul.”

The regional complex

I ask whether he understands the fears of the Syrian opposition that the PYD is preparing conditions for separation from Syria. “There is no basis for such fears. There is no single Kurdish party in Syria calling for separatism. Demanding our rights is not separatism.”  But in your literature, I persist, you do not talk about northern Syria, but about west Kurdistan. Isn’t this a political sign? He says that west Kurdistan is "not a political term, but a geographic one. There were people who wanted that we forget our Kurdish identity.”

This brings me to the nub of the matter: is the PYD a Syrian or a Kurdish party? A laugh, then: “It is Kurdish, Syrian, middle eastern. We had Arabs, Assyrians, and Turcomans in our party. We follow the philosophy of Ocalan, and whoever is convinced by it can join us.”

The PYD's analysis largely turns around who is with, and who opposes, the Turkish state. Yet Saleh Muslim himself made two visits to Turkey in summer 2013. Is that a sign of changing times? “We have no animosity towards the Turkish people. We share with Turkey a border of 900 kilometress where there are Kurdish populations on both sides. We expressed our concerns that Turkey is providing logistic support to jihadi groups like Al-Nusra, which they refuted. But we have continuous proof of that. Even now, fighting rages between us and jihadi groups in villages east of Ras Al-Ayn. We also talked about easing humanitarian convoys to our regions.”

Did the start of negotiations between the PKK leadership and Ankara prepare the environment for his visit? “For us, nothing has changed. But [the talks] helped to soften Turkish attitudes toward us. When they themselves negotiate with their own Kurds it is untenable to ask the Syrian coalition not to negotiate with Syrian Kurds.”

When I ask who was his negotiating partner on the Turkish side, he remains vague, saying   only it was on the level of advisor to the foreign minister, without giving names. But he says a third visit is not excluded.

Many Syrian opposition activists view the PYD through the prism of its anti-regime struggle. Similarly, the PYD regards the Syrian opposition from the angle of its own antagonism towards Ankara. To understand the PYD, it's necessary to look at the Syrian conflict against a broader canvas: namely, the emergence of the Kurdish political factor throughout the middle east, the establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, and especially the role of the PKK in awakening Kurdish national identity within Turkey. In the event of an agreement between the PKK and Ankara, there could be a rapprochement between the  PYD and the Syrian opposition - though the opposite is also true.

When I ask about the role of the United Nations in the Syrian conflict, he laughs again and says: “You know, in the mid-90s the UN was going to shut down when the US refused to pay its dues. Did I answer you?”

So how can the conflict in Syria end? “Very difficult! I feel there are sides who want the destruction not only of Syria, but of the whole region by igniting a Sunni-Shi'a conflict…”

Here, I interrupt, saying that I do not like blaming outsiders; such conspiracy theories are also fashionable in my country of origin, Lebanon, as if we are not actors but simple objects. Saleh Muslim Mohammad agrees, adding: “The problem is that our mentality did not develop enough to ensure the independence of our thought and action.”

About the author

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He teaches at Webster Geneva's faculty of media communications, and lectures in international relations at the University of Geneva. His latest book is Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide (C Hurst, 2015). His other books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

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Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva; teaches at Webster Geneva's faculty of media communications; and is a research associate at SOAS's department of development studies. His books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

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