Your Middle East: Face to face with Saleh Muslim

Per Jönsson is an Associated Editor at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs

MESOP 5.4.2013 – So far, Syria’s Kurds are the sole benefactors from the revolt against Damascus. But according to the top Kurdish leader, the opposition’s and outside world’s inability to compromise may result in the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The stocky man gives me a friendly but penetrating look under the black hair and smiles under his bushy moustache.

    “I don’t belong to the strict kind of Muslims. We Kurds are no extremists. Armenians, Assyrians and other Christians, Yezidis, and various Arab Muslims all live in Syrian Kurdistan. And we never have any problems in between us,” says Saleh Muslim, a man who has been called the Syrian Kurds’ Abdullah Öcalan, after the famous – and infamous – PKK leader in Turkey.

    Saleh Muslim is in Stockholm to garner support for what he calls a peaceful Kurdish liberation in Syria – peaceful in contrast to the armed Arab-Muslim rebels’ now two-year-old attempt to bring down Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

    But despite Saleh Muslim’s advocating of peaceful and tolerant change, his Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the only organised power within the Syrian opposition that has been able to free and set up self-rule on a significant piece of territory.

    It happened this summer when the PYD declared the Kurdish dominated strip of land along the border with Turkey an autonomous enclave. “West Kurdistan” has its own judiciary, political and economic organs as well as a defence and police force. To the surprise of many this Kurdish manoeuvre has been carried out with practically no resistance from government forces. It has lead to accusations from Arab Muslim rebels – both the Free Syrian Army and extreme jihadist groups – that the PYD is covertly collaborating with the al-Assad regime. Others have instead made the conclusion that the government’s troop withdrawal from Kurdish areas is actually a shrewd tactic by Damascus since the Kurdish self-rule in practise deprives the Arab rebels of potential areas for military expansion.  “There are far too many armed Arab groups, several hundred, who compete between themselves for arms and money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Their division and competition for contributions mean that they get nowhere in the liberation of Syria from the Assad regime.

    “We Kurds, on the other hand, have only one armed organisation, we take no money from abroad and we collaborate as far as possible to maintain our self-rule in northern Syria,” says Saleh Muslim with a trace of satisfaction.

    In other words, entirely in line with Max Weber’s classical formula that a state has monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force over a given territory. But when it comes to Öcalan’s PKK, which is usually called the PYD’s sister organisation among Kurds in Turkey, the demand for a monopoly on violence during almost 30 years of guerrilla struggle has resulted in a very harsh and cruel faith for many Kurdish dissidents.

    I tell Saleh Muslim that I won’t even ask him about the relationship between PYD and PKK. He and his colleagues’ never swaying standard answer to this is that PYD (which was formed in 2003) has no “organic” or “operational” collaboration with PKK (which was founded in 1978 and started its war against Ankara in 1984) but that “we have the same philosophy and ideas as Öcalan.”

    Instead I ask him what it will mean for PYD and the conflict in Syria that Öcalan recently (on Newroz day, March 21) announced a truce and indicated that the PKK will withdraw their guerrilla soldiers from Turkey. Saleh Muslim begins by noting that both the PKK and the Turkish army are yet to change their positions on the ground. But then he allows himself to freely speculate on a more hopeful future:

    “If now Öcalan and Prime Minister Erdogan agrees, if Ankara stops oppressing the Kurds, and if Turkey stops supporting Syrian Islamists – yes, then it could result in an end to the conflict between us Kurds and the armed rebels in Syria…And then we have a chance to unite our forces to bring down the Assad regime together.”

    But then Salah Muslim begins to talk about the latest meeting between Syrian opposition groups in Cairo, which in his view was both a fiasco (since the opposition again displayed its disunity) and a setback for Syria’s Kurds (since they once again did not gain any hearing for their demands as an ethnic minority).

    And with a long line of argument he says that from the very start there has only been one possible solution to the Syrian crisis: a political compromise where the Assad regime in some way shares power with the opposition, at least during a period of transition. In other words, more or less what the UN’s super mediators Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi have said for over a year, and what both the foreign powers and Assad as well as some opposition voices have admitted but then in action not dared or wanted to act on. And here, after two hours of coffee drinking and apple eating, Saleh Muslim reveals himself as a seasoned, but perhaps realistic, pessimist:

    “Within PYD we never really thought that Assad was going to be brought down anytime soon, which many – most – people believed two years ago. Neither did we count on any foreign military intervention to support the opposition. And if no political compromise is brought about, well, then Assad can stay in power forever.”

    Per Jönsson is an Associated Editor at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. For 30 years, he worked as a reporter at the foreign desk of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest morning newspaper.