Salih Muslim Muhammad, chairman of the PYD: »We are free and independent, and we are pursuing our own strategy«

KURDWATCH, Juny 4, 2013—Salih Muslim Muhammad (b. 1951, chemical engineer, married, five children) has been chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the PKK, since 2010. In a conversation with KurdWatch he commented, among other things, on the relationship between the PYD and the Syrian regime.

KurdWatch: KurdWatch has received an Air Force Intelligence Service protocol from November 3, 2011, in which it states that you and the National Union of the Forces for Democratic Change have said that you did not want an overthrow, but rather a reform of the regime. Moreover, you are quoted as saying that you would vote for Bashar al‑Assad should he step down and then run for re-election.
Salih Muslim Muhammad: That is not true. Since September 17, 2011, the PYD has called for the fall of the regime and all of its related symbols.

KurdWatch: Is it also untrue that you said if the president would run for re-election, you would call on the Kurds to vote for him?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: No, that is not true. I said nothing of the sort.

KurdWatch: Elsewhere you were quoted as saying that you are not the regime’s Shabbihah and are not a tool against Turkey, but that you maintain a strategic relationship with the regime.
Salih Muslim Muhammad: No, I did not say that we maintain strategic relationships with the regime. We, however, have always said that we are not a Shabbihah, and not a tool in the hands of anyone against anyone else. We are free and independent, and we pursue our own strategy. In 2011, we were only a part of the Union of the Forces for Democratic Change. We were in Damascus, but at that time we did not maintain relationships to anyone other than the Kurdish parties.

KurdWatch: Did you maintain relationships to the government at another point in time?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: No, before 2011 I was wanted man. We had no contact with the regime. The Union of the Forces for Democratic Change declined a meeting with the president because of the military offensive.

KurdWatch: You do not trust many of the armed groups that are fighting against the regime, especially not those that have ambitions in the Kurdish regions. At the same time, the PKK and your leader Abdullah Öcalan have long been supported by the Assad regime. Aren’t your interests and the interests of the government identical?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: The point of departure for your argument is incorrect. The PKK was never on the side of the regime. I was a PKK‑sympathizer; I met President Öcalan many times. The President always said that our relationship to the regime was like a ride on a lion. If you fall off, if you make a mistake, you are destroyed. He said that we would deal with Syria in this way. Therefore the theory of receiving support from the regime isn’t true. I can give other examples, for example the Mahsum-Korkmaz Academy in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. The PKK took over the camp all by itself; no one gave it to the PKK. The regime made a single concession to the PKK: The Syrians said, there are seventy-two PLO offices here; we can give you one office on the condition that you do not become active in Syria. This condition remained, but nevertheless, PKK‑members went out among the people; they were active, and they were imprisoned. I myself was one of these prisoners. I was in all of the Syrian intelligence service’s prisons; my messages can be found on the prison walls. Thousands of us were detained. Therefore it is unjust to talk about Syrian support. Prejudices are one thing, but the reality is something else. Yet there was a relationship between Syria and the PKK, and both sides profited from it. The 1998 Adana Agreement [between Syria and Turkey] destroyed all of that. After the agreement, every fighter who returned injured from the mountains [in Turkey] was arrested and extradited to Turkey. Two hundred PKK‑members were turned over to Turkey. Not a single PKK‑member remained in Syria. Assad’s friendship with Turkey was accomplished at the expense of the Kurds. Later they told us they wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the 1990s [the cooperation with the PKK]. After we founded the PYD in 2003, we were in the prisons, in the basements until 2011. We lost martyrs to the regime. Of course, you can forget all of that and say that we cooperated with our executioners.

KurdWatch: What about the last two years? Were there no relationships or common interests between the PKK and the regime then? What about, for example, the alleged fighting in Tall ʿAdas (Gir Zîro) [further information on the case]. About three hundred Syrian soldiers were surrounded by YPG‑fighters. There was fighting; in the end the soldiers gave up, and you gained control of the oil field. Amazingly, there were no deaths on either side. The Syrian Air Force did nothing to support its troops. What really happened there?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: Let me tell you the true story of Gir Zîro. Gir Zîro is a strategically important area. We wanted the unit of three hundred soldiers to leave it. That’s why we imposed an embargo on them. I was there myself; I sat down together with the Arabs, with the tribal leaders. We told them that we weren’t fighting a war against them, we just wanted the soldiers to leave. We convinced the Arabs, and that’s why we won. And if it’s said that no one died, that isn’t true. One officer was killed. The other soldiers were under embargo, and the tribes that wanted to help them lost. When you say, there was no combat, no one was killed, and the regime did not attack, that isn’t true.

KurdWatch: Why didn’t the Syrian government and especially the Syrian Air Force support its troops in such a strategically important area? Why weren’t your fighters bombed from the air?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: The regime didn’t attack from the air, because that wasn’t possible. We were one with the Arabs of the region. What should they bomb from the air? From the beginning, the regime didn’t want to bomb the Kurdish regions. In 2004, the regime saw what the Kurds are capable of. Why would the regime want to open a new front?

KurdWatch: In February 2012, there was a PYD attack on a Syrian Air Force base in ʿAyn al‑ʿArab (Kobanî); an officer was killed then. The regime answered neither militarily nor with arrests, even though at that time the city was still under its control. Why?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: As I have already said, the regime does not want to fight against the Kurds and open a new front. The regime knows with whom it is dealing. The Kurds fight with democratic and peaceful means. The regime knows that there are no members of the Muslim Brotherhood or Jabhat an‑Nusrah among the Kurds. The Kurds do not maintain contacts with Turkey, and the Kurds do not want to destroy the ʿAlawites.

KurdWatch: Let’s come to the problems between you and the YPG on the one side and the Kurdish National Council on the other. Many YPG activities suggest that it does not get its instructions from the Supreme Kurdish Committee. Many statements by the member parties of the Kurdish National Council also point in this direction. Is the YPG independent or subordinate to the Supreme Kurdish Committee?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: There are some decisions that are under the authority of the YPG, other decisions are within the purview of the Supreme Kurdish Committee. If, for example, there is an attack against the YPG, it will be forced to defend itself. Moreover there are matters for which special committees are responsible.

KurdWatch: Let’s take the attack on Basuta, Burj ʿAbdullah, and Kimar as an example [further information on the case]. Is the YPG responsible for such a far-reaching attack on Kurdish villages?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: This attack was within the authority of the YPG, more specifically of the Asayiş. At that time, two members of the Asayiş were kidnapped. The kidnappers were pursued; the Asayiş wanted to save its people. The attackers were shooting and several people were injured. The Asayiş had to surround the kidnappers and arrest those who did the shooting.

KurdWatch: Were those who were arrested released?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: When Turkey released our two members, all others were also released.

KurdWatch: Let’s forget the details for a moment and come to the fundamental question: Does the Supreme Kurdish Committee have the right to give orders to your Asayiş or the YPG?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: Yes, of course. The Supreme Kurdish Committee has the power of decision over the YPG and the Asayiş.

KurdWatch: In the past there were numerous occasions in which the YPG or the Asayiş shot into the air at demonstrations. In several cases, people were killed or injured. Such actions are almost a part of daily life. Is this a good way to appear?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: I’m sorry, but the way you are portraying things here is not okay. Each event has its own causes. If you mean ʿAmudah : It is clear that members of the Asayiş were injured there. Did they perhaps shoot at themselves? Or are you talking about Kobanî [further information on the case]? Nowhere were demonstrators attacked, but the demonstrations are armed. Armed people lead the demonstrations and want to cause problems. What would you do ? They give the people weapons. What happened a few days ago in ʿAmudah? Some say we were the first to have weapons in hand, but the demonstrators shot at us. The Asayiş wanted to disperse the crowd.

KurdWatch: So the Asayiş was only defending itself?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: It is not our goal to disperse the demonstrations. If the demonstrations are unarmed, then thousands of demonstrations should take place. Moreover: who is the Asayiş? You say »the YPG or the PYD’s Asayiş«, but the Asayiş is not dependent on the PYD. The Asayiş, those are hundreds who were accepted into academies; that isn’t the PYD.

KurdWatch: So the Asayiş is independent?
Salih Muslim Muhammad: It isn’t independent. There are sides from which the YPG and Asayiş are dependent, but they are connected to the Supreme Kurdish Council. It could be that the PYD supported it in the beginning, but then expert committees were formed and there is no longer dependence on the PYD.

KurdWatch: Let’s move on to another topic, to the media attacks between you and the parties of the Kurdish Democratic Political Union—Syria.
Salih Muslim Muhammad: We have not carried out media attacks on anyone. There have been two, three incidents together; only then did we release a statement. There was no media campaign. We have our problems, but we will solve them in the Supreme Kurdish Committee. We don’t want to make any differences between us and the parties of the Kurdish National Council.

KurdWatch: Is there hope for a rapprochement? According to the Erbil Agreement, all armed units are to be united.
Salih Muslim Muhammad: We want that too and we are working around the clock for this goal. But there are some who want to destroy this unity. I will say it openly: there are some people, no parties, the parties don’t demand anything, but some people. We know exactly with whom they are connected.

KurdWatch: You have fought against the armed groups that marched into Raʾs al‑ʿAyn (Serê Kaniyê). And until recently, you called any person, whether Kurd or not, who maintained contacts to these groups a traitor. You described the armed groups as terrorists and as close to al‑Qaʿida. Now, however, you yourself have concluded an agreement and established common checkpoints in the city.
Salih Muslim Muhammad: Your question is disingenuous. It is not based on facts. I’m sorry, but your point of departure is wrong. What happened in Serê Kaniyê? Forces from outside came and attacked: Jabhat an‑Nusrah and others; several Kurds were also there. Hasan Abdullah concluded the agreement]. Who is this man? He is a member of the Revolutionary Committee of the Free Syrian Army in al‑Hasakah province. The agreement that we made was concluded with the Free Syrian Army. Jabhat an‑Nusrah and such groups have lost and fled. And they will not return. We have signed nothing with these people.

KurdWatch: The agreement was not concluded with Jabhat an‑Nusrah? But it was concluded with those groups that had fought against you. And that included Jabhat an‑Nusrah and other Islamic groups.
Salih Muslim Muhammad: Part [of the Free Syrian Army] fought with them [Jabhat an‑Nusrah]. Part of the military committee of al‑Hasakah was on their side. They said that they regretted it; they left Jabhat an‑Nusrha. We concluded the agreement with this group and also with a representative of the National Alliance.

KurdWatch: That means Jabhat an‑Nusrah is not currently represented in Raʾs al‑ʿAyn? There has been information that it is working together with you there.
Salih Muslim Muhammad: Jabhat an‑Nusrah? No, it is no part of the agreement. But because the USA has put Jabhat an‑Nusrah on its terror list, some say that the PYD maintains relations with it. If they find terrorists anywhere, then they say that the PYD is a friend of these terrorists. That is Turkish propaganda. First Turkey wanted to spill our blood [insofar as they sent Jabhat an‑Nusrah to Raʾs al‑ʿAyn]. Now, as the group is on the terror list, the Turks say that we are cooperating with them.

KurdWatch: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Salih Muslim Muhammad: I’m sorry, but your questions were all provocative.