No Fly Zone key to future of Northern Syria – Salih Muslim tells Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Kurdistan

Last week Salih Muslim, head of foreign affairs for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading political party in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, joined us by Skype for a meeting of the Cross Party Group on Kurdistan at the Scottish Parliament. We were able to get first hand news of the situation in Northern Syria from a key political actor. We heard practical analysis of the military situation, and, crucially, we learnt that their one vital demand is for a no-fly zone to protect them from Turkish attack. Salih stressed that, with this, their own Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) would be well able to protect them on the ground. While the best solution would be for a no-fly zone to be organised by the UN, Salih saw possibilities for it to be guaranteed by other forces – by an international coalition, the Russians or the US. They could even work with the Syrian Government, though without going back to the situation in 2011. Salih reminded us that they have always made it clear that they consider themselves part of Syria, and that they are open for dialogue with everyone. Representatives from the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) have been to Russia to present a road map for a democratic decentralised solution for the whole country, but are still waiting for the Russians’ response. They have also sent a delegation to the US.

Trump’s sudden announcement that the US was going to withdraw their troops came as a surprise to the DFNS, as it did to everyone. They have always been aware that the US coalition is not in Syria to protect them, but only a week earlier, US officers in Rojava had told them that their troops wouldn’t leave until Daesh was defeated, the area was stable, and Iran was out of Syria – none of which has happened.

They have a lot of evidence of how Turkey is helping Daesh. Turkey is trying to build a new empire, and the situation in Idlib is especially complicated. Turkey had agreed to destroy Al Nusra in Idlib, but have not kept their promise. Daesh, Al Nusra and Al Qaeda will all take a long time to be defeated, and Turkey is ready to help all these groups.

Asked about Afrin, Salih made it clear that the fight is far from over, assuring us ‘we will get it back for sure’. At present, though, there are some 120,000 people displaced from Afrin living in nearby Shahada, where it is very difficult for them to receive the vital help they need. They are effectively under siege from Turkey on one side and the Syrian regime on the other, and Syria has even blocked medicines from getting through.

Asked about Manbij, Salih explained that the city is protected by Manbij Military Council, which is part of the SDF. There are also still US coalition forces in the city. When Turkey began massing their forces from the north, in preparation for an invasion, Manbij Military Council contacted the Syrian Regime forces for support, through the Russians. There is a base of Regime and Russian forces west of Manbij. So far, Turkey has not moved further. A recent bomb that killed four US soldiers they believe to be the work of Turkish mercenaries trying to speed the US withdrawal. Manbij Military Council continues to patrol one side of the de-facto border, while Turkish troops patrol the other.

Salih explained how, in places liberated from Daesh, such as Manbij and Raqqa, they have arranged lectures and discussions to help people understand how different ethnic and religious groups can live together, and to learn the importance of women’s rights. As a result, Arab women have been joining the Asayis (the local security force) and the YPJ.

It was good to see Salih in Scotland again, even if only virtually. As usual, he ended with a reminder that visitors are welcome to come and see Northern Syria for themselves.

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