Salih Muslim, the co-chairman of Democratic Union Party, which is considered by Turkey as the Syrian affiliate of the outlawed PKK, has reassured the Turkish government over the capture of the northern Syrian district of Tel Abyad by the Kurdish group.
Turkey recently raised its concerns over the border security and displacement of Turkmen and Arabs from Tel Abyad.
Muslim replied to the accusations of the Turkish government saying that “Nobody could prevent people from coming back to their homelands. These charges are baseless. Everybody will return their hometowns and should have no fears except people who have joined and shed blood with ISIS,” in his interview with the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
On its first post-election meeting on June 15, Turkey’s cabinet discussed the Kurdish “cantons” declared by the PYD after the Syrian border district of Tel Abyad has been captured by the group.
Tel Abyad is located between Kobane and Jazira “cantons” and has a strategic importance because it commands the major trade and smuggling routes to Raqqa which is the first major city conquered by ISIS. Now, by taking control of Tel Abyad, the PYD is able to join both “cantons.”
In November 2013, the PYD announced three autonomous areas or “cantons” which are Afrin, Jazira and Kobane from west to the east following withdrawal of Syrian regime forces from mostly Kurdish inhabited areas such as Afrin, Kobane, and Amuda where the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militant wing of the PYD, took control in July 2012 in the course of the Syrian civil war.
Turkish government spokesman Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said, “We keep saying that in northern Syria, no formations which threaten Turkey should be allowed. But recent developments began indicating an emergency situation for Turkey.”
Erdogan also warned that the capture of Tel Abyad by the group will pave the way for a structure threatening Turkey. “Everybody should see our concerns on this issue,” he said.
Muslim has given an interview to Hurriyet, following Turkey’s criticism of the PYD activities in Tel Abyad.
Muslim said, “We could control the border crossing of Tel Abyad alongside with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as previously proposed. Turkey should be comfortable about this issue. We do not insist on controlling the crossing only by ourselves,” Hurriyet reported.
“We have been collaborating with the opposition groups like Burkan al Firat, Al Tawhid Brigade, and Liwa Thuwwar al Raqqa and could work all together dealing with the issues in the region,” he added.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a statement saying that “Arabs and Turkmens were seemed to be targeted in Tel Abyad. Arabs and Turkmens numbered 15,000 crossed Turkey through the border and the PYD and PKK were settled into the emptied places. It is not a good sign.”
Arinc also complained about the PYD activities in Tel Abyad and blamed them with “ethnic cleansing.” Arinc emphasised, “Turkey does not oppose the bombing campaign of the coalition forces against the targets of ISIS. However, we see signs of a formula to make ‘cantons’ join by the coalition forces. Turkish premiership has warned them and given a notice.”
In addition, "Turkey's discomfort regarding Tel Abyad has been conveyed to the United States both in Ankara and in Washington," an anonymous Turkish official told Reuters.
US Embassy Turkey said, “Coalition air strikes in northern Syria have targeted and destroyed ISIS units and worked hard to avoid civilian casualties. Civilian outflows from Tel Abyad are the result of people fleeing fighting brought about by ISIS,” according to a statement released by the embassy's official Twitter account.
“Contrary to insinuations from some in the media, the coalition works hard to ensure civilians are not hit in air strikes,” the statement added.
Muslim reacted to the Turkish criticism saying that “We know each other well. Everybody knows who have committed crimes. People who shed blood will be submitted to court. Turkey should not be worried. Our people live in each side of the border. How could we treat our people as an enemy? We have repeatedly stated that if Turkey feels comfortable we will feel comfortable also. Turkey should get rid of its fears.”
Muslim had previously been a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S) which is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party currently led by Mesut Barzani, the president of Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. In 2003, he joined with the PYD and eventually became its head in 2010.
Muslim denied in an interview with the BBC that the PYD has any operational links to the PKK and also rejected to have ties with the Bashar al Assad regime saying that he had been imprisoned by the regime several times since 2003.
Turkey has long been confronted with armed attacks in its southeastern regions by the PKK, which was founded in 1974 by Abdullah Ocalan - the currently imprisoned leader of the militant organisation - and his supporters. Armed clashes and acts of violence have continued on and off for more than 30 years, and claimed more than 40,000 lives.
Muslim is originally from Kobane [Ayn al Arab in Arabic], one of the PYD-controlled “cantons,” which was besieged by ISIS in September 2014 and had been the scene of a bloody fight for four consecutive months with thousands of casualties.
In late September, the coalition forces led by the US began their first air bombing campaign against the ISIS positions around Kobane and the YPG reinforced by Peshmerga forces and that the FSA fighters gradually beat back the ISIS forces and completely retook the district in late January 2015.
The YPG has become more assertive in the region following the successful defence of Kobane and has been persistently supported by the coalition forces for the war against the ISIS. The recent takeover of Tel Abyad by the Kurdish group along with the FSA is the last indicator of the group’s assertiveness.
However, Tel Abyad is mostly populated by Arabs unlike Kobane with a majority Kurdish population which could cause a backlash against the YPG forces in the region.
Omer Dede, a Turkmen commander in the Syrian opposition forces, said, “All the opposition armies of Syria from Daraa to Damascus ask to send fighters and arms. The tribes are arisen. We made a decision not to leave Tel Abyad to the PYD. They are the second Bashar Assad to us. If they try to found a government [canton] in Tel Abyad, the Syrian civil war will move to here.”