Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1209, (14 - 20 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The Musallam mystery

The leader of Syria’s largest Kurdish party is suspected of having made a secret deal with the regime, reports Bassel Oudat from Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is hard to read the mind of Saleh Musallam, the leader of Syria’s largest Kurdish party, but many of his fellow Kurds portray him as a manipulative politician who doesn’t brook opposition and as having a penchant for shadowy deal-making.

Yet, there is no denying that Musallam, a chemical engineer by profession, is currently the most powerful Kurdish figure in Syria, as well as the most controversial.

One year before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, Musallam rose in the ranks of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Union (PKK) of Abdullah Őcalan in neighbouring Turkey, serving successively as the PYD chairman and co-chairman.

In his younger days, Musallam helped start a revolutionary movement among Turkish workers, and he had to leave the country when the authorities clamped down on it.

After a stint in Saudi Arabia, he returned to Syria and was imprisoned for a year for political activities. Feeling threatened by the Syrian intelligence services, he left the country again in 2009 to take up residence in Iraqi Kurdistan.

After the Syrian revolution broke out, he came back to help establish the opposition National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), of which he served as deputy coordinator.

Musallam’s critics, who are many inside and outside the Kurdish community, portray him as a man who can lie shamelessly. To prove the point, they refer to his repeated denials that Asayish, the Kurdish security service, employs children, though reputable international organisations operating in Kurdish areas say the opposite.

However, the most damning accusation against Musallam is that he has made a secret deal with the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Musallam denies any deal, but his critics say that there is no other explanation for the fact that the regime has withdrawn from certain areas, practically offering them to the PYD without a fight.

Musallam’s critics also see what they describe as an uncanny resemblance between the conduct of Asayish and that of the regime’s security services. Musallam denies any links, but his critics insist that he has close links with Syria’s top security services.

But such mistrust has not stopped Musallam from turning the PYD into the most influential Kurdish party in Syria, even if it has meant that the PYD is not in alliance with any of the other 11 Kurdish parties in the country.

Interviewed by the Weekly, Musallam spoke about his party’s commitment to independent rule, arguing that a negotiated settlement of the Syrian crisis was still a possibility.

“The entire Kurdish people have joined us in our resistance and there are no differences in our midst. But there is a minority without any real influence that makes various accusations. We are not against the plurality of opinion, but when the Kurdish presence in Syria is under attack we have to remain united and use force to defend our people. Our party is also larger than the other 11 Kurdish parties put together,” he said.

Nevertheless, distrust of Musallam is such that one of the commanders of a rival Kurdish militia has urged his supporters to take up armed struggle against the PYD unless it abandons its policies.

Musallam’s critics accuse him of threatening and even murdering members of the Syrian Kurdish opposition, charges that he denies.

“Our organisation is a political one and it has no military arm. The Asayish units have been formed by the people to protect them, and they are not under the control of our party,” he said.

Yet, the Free Syrian Army, among others, accuses Musallam of being in cahoots with the regime. The PYD, it says, has never fired a shot at the Syrian army, but it has often clashed with rival Kurdish groups.

Musallam has offered no explanation, but instead has continued to shore up the self-ruled administration he created in northern Syria a few months ago through alliances with other minority groups.

Some weeks ago, an Arab clan leader and a Kurdish woman were elected as the administrators of parts of Al-Jazira, an area under PYD control. The PYD also has plans to establish a government for its self-ruled areas in the near future.

Musallam’s critics say he is laying the groundwork for the partitioning of Syria. But he insists that despite the declaration of self-rule, the Kurdish areas will remain part of the country.

“We categorically deny any plans to secede. Our Arab brothers understand that. The self-rule that we have established is a model for all Syria and can be used as a prototype for the future. We have had to take this course because the alternative was a vacuum,” he said.

Musallam extols the benefits of self-rule, portraying it as the way out of Syria’s ordeal.

“In any political solution to the Syrian crisis, self-rule will likely be the answer. Our experience will be copied elsewhere. Every component of the nation should have self-rule, so that all citizens have the chance to have their say and maintain their identity and freedom,” he commented.

Musallam has also stood up to Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, when the latter suggested a power-sharing formula in the Syrian Kurdish areas. Musallam said that the fate of the Syrian Kurds needed to remain separate from that of Iraqi Kurds.

“Barzani wanted to hold a referendum among the Kurds about self-determination. But we will decide our fate through self-rule. Barzani is free to make any plans he wishes in Iraq, but Syria is our business. We respect his choices, and he must respect ours.”

“When the guns fall silent in Syria, a political solution will be found, and anyone who rejects such a solution is bringing the country closer to partitioning or destruction. Everyone knows that, even the opposition that once hoped for the rapid removal of al-Assad. The regime knows it too. What is needed is for everyone to work seriously to formulate a political solution and not to destroy each other,” he said.

Musallam is convinced that Syria can find a pluralist and democratic formula that will keep it unified.

“Syria is not going to slip back into dictatorial and repressive rule, nor will it bow to the arrogance of one-party rule. Syria will be a pluralist and democratic country in future,” he said.

One mystery that remains is why the regime abandoned a sizable portion of land to the PYD without a fight. For all his optimistic views about self-rule as a panacea, the role Musallam hopes to play in a future Syria can only be guessed.

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