‘Turkey has to leave Syria sooner or later’: PYD co-leader Salih Muslim

PYD co-leader Salih Muslim speaking in Frankfurt, 18 March 2017, (Photo: Huseyin Dogru)

At least 30,000 people attended the Kurdish New Year, Newroz, celebration in German city Frankfurt on Saturday. The march before the concert was dominated by protests against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government, as well calls for an end to the banning of Kurdish symbols, many of which were carried by those attending.

Salih Muslim, the co-leader of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), was also in attendance at the celebration and spoke to journalist Huseyin Dogru about recent developments in Manbij, Turkey’s role in the conflict and the German ban on his party’s emblem.

What is happening in Manbij? Could you explain the situation there?

As far as we know the situation in Manbij is quite clear, nothing special is happening there. The communal council has been elected and they are focusing on building their own structures, but they are threatened by Turkish forces on the ground. Turkish forces are positioned 25-30 km away from Manbij which means that they could attack Manbij at any time. We want to prevent them from attacking us from behind, so we have to be very careful.

The Raqqa offensive has started and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are focused on this offensive right now. The Turkish forces could take advantage of this situation and attack Manbij. The Russians and Americans know that and their presence prevents Turkey from attacking Manbij.

The Kurdish and the Kurdish led forces like SDF or Manbij Military Council are cooperating with the Russians, Americans and the Syrian military. What is the significance of this cooperation and what are your expectations? 

Firstly it must be made clear that the SDF or Manbij Military Council are representing and defending the Syrian people too. That’s why we say that the SDF is a self-defence unit. For now, everyone is fighting against Daesh (Islamic State) especially in the south of Manbij. That’s why Syrian forces are based in this area but mainly to the south of Manbij. In Manbij there is no confrontation between regime forces and the Manbij Military Council. The presence of Turkish troops and Turkish led forces like the FSA is a threat to this cooperation.

Turkish presence is an act of occupation of Syrian land and they are well connected with terrorists groups in Syria like Jabhat al-Nusra, Daesh and Ahrar al-Sham. All these groups as well as Turkey have the same mentality and represent the same thing. That’s the main source of the problem. Everywhere where Turkey is a threat there is a partial collaboration and coordination with them and these groups. In this context the Manbij Military Council is working together with the Russian and Americans. As long as Turkey will not attempt to attack our territory we and the other groups like the Russians, Americans and regime forces will not do anything. All of us want to prevent a military escalation but we don’t know what will happen next.

The US expanded the presence of their troops in this region, especially in Rojava [de-facto autonomous region in northern Syria]. What does this development mean for the future of Rojava?

As I said, Turkish forces are an occupying force on Syrian land. They have nothing to do there and their presence is illegitimate. It´s up to the Syrian people and groups to find solutions and build their freedom. It´s not Turkey’s job. Turkey has settled Turkmens in this area, thereby changing the demographics in the occupied territories. We also have information that Turkey is gathering its allies from Homs and other cities in the areas they have occupied. What is their aim? Why do they want to surround Manbij? Turkish forces and their allies have to withdraw sooner or later. The Americans want to prevent Turkey’s plans and want to bring their NATO ally under control. If Turkey attacks from behind only Daesh will benefit from it and the Americans want to prevent this.

Is it true that Kurdish forces in Sheikh Maqsoud get administrative and military support and training from the Russians?

The situation in Sheikh Maqsoud is quite different. The SDF have been there for the last five years to defend the area. Unlike in Manbij, regime forces and SDF fought each other many times in Sheikh Maqsoud. Russian forces are there to prevent these clashes between both sides. As long as the situation is still tense I don’t think Russia forces will leave.

What is your opinion on the Astana talks? 

The aim of these talks was to negotiate a ceasefire. But they couldn’t really achieve it. Why? Because they are not able to separate moderate groups from terrorists. Therefore, these talks in this configuration are, from our point of view, very problematic and unproductive. We wish the SDF would have had the opportunity to participate in the talks. Turkey in particular did everything to prevent it. They did not accept it and said that they will not negotiate with terrorists. How can they expect to have a positive impact on the Syrian conflict without us, when we, one of the main protagonists, are not allowed to participate?

The Rojava Peshmerga, linked to the KDP and Masoud Barzani, attacked the self-defence units of the Yazidis and the Kurdish forces in Sinjar. They used German produced weapons given to them to fight Islamic State. Can you tell us your opinion about this? 

First of all; such a thing as the “Rojava Peshmerga” does not exist. The truth is that the so called “Rojava Peshmerga” are the Zerevani (special force) units linked to Barzani´s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and some Arab gangs who were fighting together with Daesh against the Yazidis and Kurds. They took all these mercenaries and the Zerevani units, combined them and called them the “Rojava Pehsmerga”.

Our opinion is that they want to complete what Daesh could not; they want to fight the Yazidis and evict them from the [Shingal] area. This cannot be accepted under any circumstances. Shingal belongs to the Yazidis, they have lived there for hundreds of years, it is their land. The Yazidis organised themselves and their self-defence units, like the YBS (Shingal Resistance Units), YJS (Shingal Women’s Units) and the Shingal Berxwedan Units.

These are the groups who are in this region, no one else is there or should be there. A direct attack on Shingal means an attack against these self-organised structures of the Yazidis. The KDP and all the other forces must stop attacking Yazidis. They have the right to be self-organised, build their own structures and organise themselves. But the KDP has done the exact opposite. But the Kurdish people will stand side by side with the Yazidis and protect them.

And yes, we also know that the KDP used German weapons against the Yazidis. There is a lot of proof of this. We know there is a German delegation investigating how these weapons were used against the Yazidis.

The ban of Kurdish symbols and images has been called for in Germany for the last six months. Last week the German Federal Ministry of the Interior decided to ban almost all Kurdish symbols from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The symbols and flags of the PYD, YPG and YPJ are also affected from this ban. How do you interpret this decision?

I don’t know the exact reasons for this decision. It could have been taken due to Turkish pressure or because Germany does not want conflict with the Turkish citizens in Germany. However, the truth is that most of the German people, German organisations or parties have a great respect for these symbols and accept their legitimacy. At the very least Germany should respect the wishes of its own citizens. The German government is acting against the sympathy the German people have for the Kurdish movement and its symbols.

PYD, YPG, YPJ and all the other groups are fighting against terrorists in Syria. All these symbols and values stand everyday against these terrorists. The German government and the EU must ask themselves just one question: Whom do I want to forbid and ban? The ones who are fighting against the terrorists or the terrorists and their supporters? They should not criminalise the Kurdish movement. If the German government wants to ban something, it should be the Turkish flag. No one has respect for this flag and what it stands for today. We are currently pushing all legal ways to fight against this ban. A committee, consisting of lawyers, is doing everything to remove this ban and end the criminalisation of the Kurdish movement.

Follow journalist Huseyin Dogru: twitter@hussedogru