Soleimani death weakens Syrian regime, will force direct talks with Kurdish authorities: Salih Muslim

13 Jan 2020 RUDAW – Salih Muslim Muhammad, former co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and leading figure of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), says the killing of Qasem Soleimani – commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, responsible for much of the country’s proxy warfare in the Middle East – will likely weaken President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and render his regime more likely to engage in direct discussion with the northeast Syrian administration. 

While he does not believe northeast Syria, where US troops are no longer based, will become a battleground for American and Iranian forces, he says the level of Syria’s involvement in US-Iran hostilities is dependent on the ability of Soleimani’s newly-appointed successor Esmail Qaani to command the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades – Iranian proxy forces fighting in Syria, made up of Afghan and Pakistani Shiite fighters respectively. 

Salih criticizes the Kurdistan Region’s leading parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – of not being able to seize opportunities for cooperation in post-2003 Iraq, citing failure to replace Kirkuk’s acting governor as an example.

What implications will the killing of Qasem Soleimani have on Syria generally, and Rojava [northeast Syria] in particular?

Soleimani was Iran’s secret hand in Syria. Many organizations, such as the Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun brigades, were working under his command. He had a massive influence on the Syrian regime, both militarily and politically. He was a strong backer of the Syrian government. His death will have negative consequences for Damascus. Damascus did not change its stance and logical thinking concerning the Kurdish question, and rejected dialogue with the self-administration of Rojava because it had Iran’s backing.  I think the death of Soleimani will weaken the Syrian regime to some extent. Maybe they will give up their unwavering stance on the self-administration of Rojava and engage in dialogue with us.

Will there there be changes to Iran’s political work in Syria in the wake of Soleimani’s death?

It is not clear whether there will be changes after Soleimani’s replacement starts work or not. I hope the regime will weaken and engage in serious dialogue with Kurds.

Iran has vowed to take revenge on the US. American forces based in northern Syria are considered to be vulnerable targets to Iran and their proxies. Are you envisioning any attacks on Americans in Syria by Iranian proxies?

America has withdrawn troops from the Kurdish areas, re-positioning them on the Iraq-Syria border and around oilfields. There are no Iranian-backed forces in our region, though there may be some Iranians with the regime forces. So I do not expect any large-scale attacks on American forces. I do not think the Iranian retaliation will happen on our side, maybe elsewhere; Iraq.

What will happen to the self-administration of Rojava if Iran and the US engage in confrontation on Syrian land, especially in Rojava?

The self-administration continues to work. I do not think it will have that influence on us. As I pointed out earlier, the American forces are no longer here on the ground in Rojava. I expect such US-Iran confrontation, if it happens, will weaken the Syrian regime. Hence, the Syrian regime will eventually acknowledge our administration.

So, the killing of Soleimani will force Damascus to engage in talks concerning a solution to the Kurdish question?

The answer of this question depends upon whether Soleimani’s replacement will be able to manage the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades – if not, then it will result in the weakening of the regime in Syria, especially in Idlib and other places where fighting is taking place. When Damascus is weaker, they will engage with us. Things might turn out to be good for us. But this is the Middle East, and things can change at any time.

Do you see any sign that Russia might have changed its position on Syria since Soleimani was killed?

We have not seen any changes. Yet, we do not have to forget that Russia, Syria and Iran are partners, and Soleimani was definitely part of the three-sided agreements and played a role in these processes. What will happen to the trilateral agreements? We do not know yet.

At what level are there direct and indirect talks between Damascus and Rojava?

There are no changes. Russia has made a pledge. There are some sorts of talks between us and Russia, and Syria with Russia. Syria does not want to engage in talks with the self-administration of Rojava. What is positive to us is that Russia is considering itself a guarantor. I think in the near future, the talks will go to the next stage; talks will start with Damascus.

There are growing fears that Turkey might capitalize on the death of Soleimani to implement some of its agenda against Kurds. What is your take?

I do not think this will happen, because Soleimani was close to Turkey. Hakan Fidan [Head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization] and Soleimani enjoyed strong relations and had joint plans and coordinations. Soleimani never stood against Turkey’s plans, and those plans were being carried out in coordination with Soleimani.

Some pundits and activists say this post-Soleimani phase resembles that of post-2003 events of Iraq.

I think they are different. What is important is for Kurds to be united at this stage. Kurds do not have a joint strategy. Our enemies can still use us to fight against one another. If Kurds unite their strategy and discourse, there are plenty of opportunities we can capitalize on. At this historical moment, unity is needed. Massive turmoil has been gripping the Middle East these days. We understand that the killing of Soleimani was not an accident. Killing him was the final result of plenty of reading into the on-the-ground situation and talks. Before deciding to kill him, [the US], must have thought of the implications, and Iran’s reactions as well. The US is highly likely to more strongly respond if Iran reacts further, and these developments would further exacerbate the situation.

Therefore, our present situation is not comparable with that of post-2003. The post-2003 period brought great opportunity to South Kurdistan [Kurdistan Region]. But [disunity] did not let the Region take advantage of the developments and seize opportunities. Just a few days ago, the Kirkuk governor [Rakan al-Jabouri] said that if the Brotherhood List had reached an agreement, he would not still be acting governor. In other words, if the PUK and KDP work together in Kirkuk, there won’t be room for other actors to come into play. If we are able to learn a lesson from the past, I think great days are ahead for us.

Translation by Zhelwan Z. Wali