Syrian Kurdish leader claims military gains against Islamists

John Irish
Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) head Saleh Muslim speaks during a conference in Paris November 13, 2013. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - Islamist groups in northern Syria are weakening after months of fighting and Kurdish militias are gaining ground, a top Kurdish leader said on Wednesday, vowing to continue their advances.

Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), told Reuters in Paris that Tuesday's announcement of an interim administration that aims to carve out an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region was only "provisional" until there was a viable solution to Syria's civil war.

Long oppressed under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him, Kurds view the war as an opportunity to gain more autonomy - much as their ethnic kin in neighboring Iraq have regarded turmoil there.

Control over Syria's northeast, where Kurds predominate, had in recent months swung back and forth between them and mainly Arab Islamist rebels, who strongly oppose what they suspect are Kurdish plans to secede.

But with a string of military gains across northeastern Syria, Kurdish militias linked to the PYD are consolidating their presence.

"About 3,000 of those Salafists have been killed. At the beginning they were strong, but now they aren't so strong," said Muslim, whose son was recently killed fighting Islamists.

"We have found no allies and paid for our own bullets."

Muslim said the PYD had received aid, money and weapons from the Iraq-based Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as well as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which fought for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.

When asked if the recent successes could embolden Syrian Kurdish forces to go beyond majority-controlled Kurdish areas, Muslim said they had no desire to head to Damascus to help topple Assad, but would aid all those in areas where Kurds and Arabs lived together.

"We are willing to go to places where we are living together. It is not our job to go to areas where there are no Kurds," he said.


Muslim said about 30 percent of Syria's oil wells were under Kurdish control, but none were currently producing any oil, and there were no immediate plans to bring them into operation.

The Kurdish gains indirectly benefit Assad and his Shi'ite Muslim allies, as they mean more territory slipping out of Sunni Muslim rebel hands two and a half years into the revolt against Assad's rule.

Despite allegations that his party had cooperated at some level with Assad, Muslim said there had been "no contact".

"I don't think Assad would accept autonomy for us because even until the last minute he refused."

Syrian Kurds number over two million of the total of more than 25 million Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq - a people often described as the world's largest ethnic group without a state.

Rising Kurdish assertiveness in Syria puts Turkey in a tough position as it tries to make peace with the PKK.

Muslim said Turkey had not warned his group to stop its advances in Syria, but was trying to interfere.

"They are trying to divide the Kurds by bringing certain (Kurdish) parties into the (opposition) Syrian National Coalition (SNC)," he said. "They are just trying to keep the Kurds from representing themselves."

Syria's Western-backed SNC opposition agreed on Monday to attend planned peace talks in Geneva on condition Assad played no part in a transitional government. Assad has rejected any precondition that he step down.

Muslim said he would only be ready to join the Geneva talks if there was a separate Kurdish delegation.

(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche)