‘Turkey’s henchmen in Syrian Kurdistan are responsible for the unrest here’

Interview with Salih Muslim Muhammad, chairman of the PYD, by KURDWATCH:

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. Out of fear of political persecution, he fled to Iraq in 2010, where he stayed at a PYD camp in the Gare Mountains. After the dissident protests began, he returned to Syria along with other PYD members. The day after his arrival, he took part in a PYD rally in al-Qamishli. In a conversation with KURDWATCH, Salih Muslim Muhammad speaks out about the PYD’s role within the Syrian revolution and about its activities in Syria. 

KurdWatch: We would like to hold an interview with you for KurdWatch about the current situation in Syria. Do you have time for a conversation?

Salih Muslim Muhammad: First, I would like to make a remark about KurdWatch. One or two days ago, you published a news article in which it was implied that the PYD was responsible for certain deeds. We do not accept this. It is not your job to spread rumors. The PYD is a political organization. We reject politically motivated violence and the oppression of people; we condemn this. I want to make one thing clear: The PYD did not kidnap or threaten anyone. Show me one single person who says that they were kidnapped and threatened by the PYD. That is nothing but propaganda with the goal of discrediting the PYD and the Kurdish freedom movement. We reject this. There are forces that stand behind these accusations. The PYD, as a force with many supporters, is being discredited.

KurdWatch: Who do you mean by these “forces”? 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: There are some people here who have connections to Turkey, especially to the Special War Department. These people were trained there and have now returned to Syria. Their task is to damage our reputation. In the last ten years, the Turkish government has taken several steps in this direction.

KurdWatch: In ʿAyn al-ʿArab (Kobanî) and Raʾs al-ʿAyn (Serê Kaniyê) Kurdish activists were kidnapped and severely tortured. In both cases, the PYD is being blamed. 


Salih Muslim Muhammad: There are problems in Kurdish society, as there are problems in all societies. There are immoral incidents, for example drug use. There are people who sell drugs. The state and outside powers are behind this. They want to break society apart. There are people who do not accept this. We are not those people. In several Kurdish cities there are brothels. Here, too, there are people who are against this. It is not the PYD, but society that does not accept this. Thus it is clear that there will be corresponding reactions. There will be an attempt to classify these reactions politically. But politics is not behind this.

KurdWatch: The Kurdish Future Movement in Syria has repeatedly accused the PYD of threatening its activists. In an interview with the radio station Voice of America, for example, Harvin Usi, a leading member of the Future Movement, accuses the PYD’s leading cadre in Damascus of threatening her life.

Salih Muslim Muhammad: That is not true. No one from the PYD has threatened anyone. Present us with facts. We are a people’s organization. Anyone can come to us and criticize us. We don’t have any problems with that.

KurdWatch: After the first attempt on his life, the speaker of the Future Movement, Mishʿal at-Tammu, indirectly blamed the PYD for this act. More than a few Kurds in Syria are of the opinion that the PYD was behind his assassination. What do you say to this? 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: Mishʿal at-Tammu was a Kurd, a part of the Syrian opposition. As a Kurd, he was one of us. We perceive his assassination as the assassination of one of us. Even if we had political differences, we were part of a united front against the Syrian state. It is out of the question that we are behind his assassination. The murderers wanted others to be blamed for their actions. There is nothing worse than killing a person and then accusing his family.

KurdWatch: Do you have enemies among the Syrian Kurds?

Salih Muslim Muhammad: We have no enemies inside Kurdish society. We have political friends, and there are others with whom we have political differences. We don’t expect that everyone will think as we do. Just because a person has other political ideas, that does not make him our enemy. The enemies of the Kurdish people are our enemies – we do not have other enemies.

KurdWatch: In the 1980s and 90s, the PKK killed many of its Kurdish critics in Syria, many others lost body parts, and others were threatened and beaten. Should we be afraid that the PYD is planning similar acts in the future? 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: If the PKK punished people, it had its reasons. We know this much from that period. Either the people in question were traitors or they had caused harm to the PKK. There were PKK courts that determined the punishments. Or people were punished because that’s what the people wanted. The PYD is a political organization. If someone betrays us, he will be punished. But we do not use murder or violence. The PKK has military units that follow their own laws, as it is the case with the military all over the world. They do not act like political organizations.

KurdWatch: Critics of the PYD accuse you of not pursuing a Syrian project. You are accused of acting solely in the interests of the PKK. 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: We have opened language schools and cultural centers in Syria, not in Turkey. There is a reason that we apply Apo’s [Abdullah Öcalan’s] philosophy and ideology to Syria: It offers the best solution to the Kurdish problems in Syrian Kurdistan. But we do not take orders from anywhere.

KurdWatch: How does the PYD envision the future of Kurds in Syria?

Salih Muslim Muhammad: We have put forth a project: “democratic autonomy”. By this we do not mean autonomy that needs to be clear. We have explained everything, outlined the practical steps, and we have already begun to implement this project. We, as the Kurdish Freedom Movement reject the classical understanding of power. We reject classical models like federalism, con-federalism, self-government, and autonomy. Our goal is the formation of a new Kurdish society, the formation of a free person, a person with free will and free thought. We find the solution in democratic autonomy. It is a matter of creating a new society, and the question is not whether a county commissioner, a district mayor, or a governor is one of us. The point is to renew society from the bottom up. It is about culture, institutions, structure, organization, towns and cities. We are not concerned with autonomy. Autonomy does not move us Kurds forward.

KurdWatch: What about the demand for the constitutional recognition of the Kurds as a second ethnicity in Syria? 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: That is also one of our demands. We imposed this demand upon the National Union for the Forces of Democratic Change.

KurdWatch: In some Kurdish cities, the PYD has opened Kurdish cultural centers and language schools. What are your aims with this?

Salih Muslim Muhammad: Those are concrete steps of democratic autonomy. We establish associations, hold conferences, and open language schools, women’s centers, and cultural centers. We want the people to know what we want and to support our project. The people do not yet believe that they need organizations like language schools and cultural centers. In Syria we currently have the best opportunity to open such schools and centers, even if they are rather symbolic.

KurdWatch: Did you receive authorization from the Syrian state to open these schools and centers?

Salih Muslim Muhammad: We don’t need any authorization from anyone for the things we do for our people. There is no legal basis for these projects.

KurdWatch: The PYD could have started earlier with such projects without authorization. Why now? What has changed? 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: We fought then, too. Many of our members were imprisoned. But now we have established that since the beginning of the unrest, the regime has had no possibility to attack us. If it does attack us, it will see what happens. We are profiting from the unrest. It is a historical chance for us. We have a right and are making use of it. We do not kill anyone and we also do not fight against anyone. We are preparing our people and ourselves for the period after the fall of the regime.

KurdWatch: There is information that armed PYD members in the ʿAfrin region, in ʿAyn al-ʿArab (Kobanî), and in al-Malikiyah (Dêrik) have been equipped by the Syrian state with special powers. There is talk of PYD camps. 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: That isn’t true. In Iraq, in the Gare Mountains we have a base. I was there myself. Our members were and still are trained there. Many of them have returned to Syria. But we do not have a camp here. We also do not have weapons here. If it were necessary, we could get weapons. We could protect our people. We are not reaching for power. We have groups everywhere, in cities and also in the towns. We teach our people how to protect themselves. The point is not to bring people in from the outside in order to protect the people – our people should be able to protect themselves.

KurdWatch: In recent years, many PYD members and sympathizers were arrested and sentenced to years in prison. You yourself also fled to Iraq out of fear of arrest. Like many other PYD members, you returned to Syria after the protests began. You move freely, organize demonstrations, open language schools and cultural centers, and the state does not prevent you from doing this. Is there an agreement between the PYD and the Syrian regime? 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: When I came to Syria, I was accompanied by my party’s armed cadres. I came to lead my party in the current fight. The state knows that if PYD leaders are arrested, there will be serious protests everywhere. This is not in the state’s interest.

KurdWatch: There are many voices in Syria demanding the fall of President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. What are your demands? 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: We demand a fundamental change to the oppressive system. There are some who hold up the slogan: the fall of the regime. In contrast we demand the fall of the oppressive authoritarian system. Our problems are not problems of powers. The ruling powers in Damascus come and go. For us Kurds, this isn’t so important. What is important is that we Kurds assert our existence. The current regime does not accept us, nor do those who will potentially come into power. Our politics differ from a politics that seeks power. That needs to be clear.

KurdWatch: Can you imagine working with the Muslim Brotherhood? 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: No. The Muslim Brotherhood does not acknowledge the existence of the Kurds. They have signed an agreement with Turkey that they will deny the existence of the Kurds if they come to power in Syria.

KurdWatch: The Muslim Brotherhood recognizes that there are Kurds in Syria and that along with cultural rights they have the right to receive full rights of citizenship. 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: You must mean the right to assimilate. It will then be written in the identity card that a Kurd is a Syrian Arab. The Kurdish language will remain banned. Full rights of citizenship are no longer enough for the Kurds. We demand constitutional recognition of the Kurds.

KurdWatch: A few weeks ago Duran Kalkan, a member of the leadership council of the Kurdistan Union of Societies (KCK) said that the PKK in Syria is in a fight against the AKP. Cemil Bayik, another member of the KCK leadership council, allegedly said that the PKK will wage a war against Turkey if Turkey gets involved in Syria’s internal affairs. What does the PYD think of this? 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: Yes, this is our position as well. We have the same philosophy and ideology. What is meant, however, is political war. If Turkey positions itself against the existence of the Kurds, then we will not be silent about it. In the last ten years, in which Turkey has maintained good relations with the Syrian state, it has also installed many henchmen among the Kurds. Turkey’s henchmen in Syrian Kurdistan are responsible for the unrest here. Turkey is afraid that the Kurds in Syrian Kurdistan will receive their rights.

KurdWatch: Who are Turkey’s Kurdish henchmen?

Salih Muslim Muhammad: All those who are currently sitting on the Syrian National Council and who have signed the agreement with Turkey. We do not believe that they know what is happening around them. We consider anyone who does not publicly take a stand against the Turkish position to be one of Turkey’s henchmen.

KurdWatch: Representatives of the Kurdish Union Party in Syria (Yekîtî) and the Kurdish Freedom Party in Syria (Azadî) sit on the Syrian National Council. Just like the PYD, both parties are also members of the Kurdish Patriotic Movement in Syria. 

Salih Muslim Muhammad: Yes, we know that. We have expressed our displeasure to them. We also demand a clear stance from them. Perhaps they are unaware of what is written in the Syrian National Council’s agreement with Turkey.

October 20, 2011

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