Leader of Democratic Union Party (PYD), Salih Muslim. Photo: AFP
LONDON – Kurdish fighters in Syria represent a bastion against foreign jihadists who pose a future threat to Europe, according to the leader of the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Rojava.
Salih Muslim, the PYD co-chairman, was speaking in London as part of a visit in which he was seeking to drum up support for the self-declared autonomous zones that have been set up in the Kurdish regions of Syria.
“We are fighting these Salafists, who mostly don’t accept Kurdish existence,” Muslim told the Kurdish Society at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies on Wednesday. “We have no alternative because otherwise there would be a vacuum in which the Salafists would control everything.”
The PYD leader acknowledged, however, that he was struggling to get the message across to European governments despite his warning that European Muslims recruited into jihadist groups could return from Syria to threaten their home countries.
“If they beat us, what will happen? They will come to Europe,” said Muslim, whose son, Shervan, was killed last year in a clash between Kurdish fighters and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists. “No one is listening to us, but we continue knocking at the door. For now, our only support is from Kurds in the diaspora.”
He said he had requested meetings with, among others, the British Foreign Office.
The PYD leader’s warnings matched concerns expressed by officials in Europe and the US about the potential jihadist threat.
France and Britain are among European countries that have taken action to try to deter their young Muslims from going to fight in Syria. Concerns about the phenomenon of so-called “citizen jihadists” has also been raised by Belgian, Dutch and German authorities.
However, these concerns have not translated into Western support for the PYD-led autonomy project in Rojava, where the military wing of the movement has been involved in clashes with jihadist groups that include the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Western governments, on good terms with Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government, have tended to regard the PYD as a doctrinaire spinoff from the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party. It is also viewed with suspicion because of its alleged continued cooperation with the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Muslim downplayed the PYD’s dominant role in Rojava and said the democratic project there involved other parties, as well as representatives of local Arabs and other minorities in the overwhelmingly Kurdish cantons.
“What we are establishing in our area is part of the future Syria,” he said. “We consider it a model for all the Middle East.”
He rejected the claims of PYD cooperation with the regime. However, he said the movement had rejected requests from other opposition movements, including Islamists, before the start of the three-year-old civil war to mount an armed rebellion against Damascus.
“We were already in a struggle (with the regime) and so knew the realities,” he said. “We were not prepared to be soldiers in somebody else’s fight.”
Muslim acknowledged the support of ordinary people in the Kurdistan Region who had helped their Syrian brethren but he was critical of the role of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, with which he was once allied.
He claimed the KDP’s economic links with Turkey were forcing it to pursue Ankara’s policy in the region. He accused the KDP of dispatching intelligence agents to Rojava to undermine the autonomous regime there.
Muslim said he was not opposed to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq having relations with Turkey, but “we are afraid of any agreements that are against other sectors of the Kurds.”