INTERVIEW: Kurdish autonomy should be a model to end Syrian conflict

Heba Zaghloul, Saturday 10 Oct 2015

Sihanouk Dibo of the Syrian Democratic Union Party believes the Kurdish experience of self-government is key to reaching a longterm political solution to the Syrian crisis

Sihanouk Dibo
Sihanouk Dibo (Photo: Courtesy of Sihanouk Dibo Twitter account)

Russian airstrikes are a step forward in the war against terrorism, says Sihanouk Dibo, political advisor to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a leading Syrian Kurdish opposition party and member of the Syrian opposition group in Cairo.

Dibo believes that negotiations with the Bashar Al-Assad regime are inevitable if a solution to the Syrian conflict is to be reached.

"We welcome any intervention that would help fighting terrorism," says Dibo, who refutes the claim that Russia has mostly attacked rebels fighting the Syrian government, not the Islamic State (IS) group.

"We know it because we are on the ground and our information is more accurate over here. Take the city of Al-Qamishli, for instance. I can assure you that IS is there and it suffered casualties, thanks to the Russian strikes."

Dibo also explains that many US backed rebels have surrendered to Al-Nusra Front. "And Al-Nusra Front is affiliated to Al-Qaeda, therefore it is a terrorist group."

The PYD supports the Russian intervention, the same way they back Western coalition operations in Syria. "We are in favour of any operation that would fight extremist groups," he says.

The Kurds, who are present in northern Syria, along the country’s border with Turkey, have succeeded recently in pushing IS out of some northern areas, like Tal El-Abyad. Those efforts came with the support of the Western coalition.

"The Western coalition intervention became effective only when the West understood that airstrikes weren't sufficient and cooperation with local opposition group was a must."

The position of the PYD is that military actions are not in contradiction with the political track. The PYD was one of the main opposition groups that joined the conference for the Syrian opposition that was held in June in Cairo. They support Egyptian efforts to create a unified Syrian opposition front, with the aim of finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

"Russian intervention does not contradict a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict for the simple reason that there is no solution other than a political one. Russian airstrikes only help to get rid of terrorist groups. This should be done in parallel with the Cairo process," he said.

According to Dibo, one of the main obstacles to finding a solution is the division of the opposition. Instead of uniting, external and internal groups are divided.

"The biggest lie that was spread in the last years is the false claim that the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), based in Istanbul, is the legitimate opposition, representing all Syrians. This is far from the truth," he says.

The coalition holds very different opinions from the majority of the Syrian people it claims to represent, Dibo says.

"It considers Al-Nusra Front as a peaceful opposition group while in fact the latter had committed — like IS — major crimes against Syrian civilians." He also argues the SNC fails to understand the concept of negotiations, imposing preconditions where in fact the whole purpose of negotiations is to fill the gap between two different views .

Another problem is that "they (the SNC) also want to exclude from future talks major regional actors, such as Iran, whose presence is a must for a long term solution. On the other hand, they blindly stand behind Turkey, which has recently imposed its own currency in certain areas of Syria and established security zones, which is a sort of occupation of Syrian territory. Turkey has also been supporting extremist groups such as the Sultan Murad Brigades," he argues.

In his view, the military intervention of Turkey has been very harmful to prospects of ending the conflict. "Turkey is now part of the Western coalition. Except that out of 550 airstrikes it launched, 547 were directed against Turkish Kurds and only three against IS."

Syrian Kurds, like many other opposition groups involved in the Cairo process, believe that negotiations with the Assad regime are inevitable. "Syrians are in a very critical situation and cannot afford to impose their own conditions. There are no other options but negotiating with the Syrian regime. Who else should we negociate with?" Dibo asks.

One thing the opposition agrees on is that a future Syria will not include Bashar Al-Assad — a future that Syrian Kurds have already been preparing. "We should use our own experience to reach a solution to the conflict," he says. By "experience," he means Kurdish self-determination.

In the last few years, the Kurds have established in northern syria the "Renaissance project," as they call it, which is de facto autonomy on the administrative, defence and security levels.

Dibo believes that this PYD-led self-administration experience should extend to the rest of the Syrian areas. "Self-determination is a success story. We were able to host thousands of displaced fellow syrians, which wasn't an easy task given the fact that our frontier with IS extends to 450 kilometres. But this experience, despite some mistakes, remains very positive," says Dibo.

Yet neighbouring countries, especially Turkey, which has a sizeable Kurdish minority, fear that this would lead to an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria that would eventually reach into Turkish territory, as the PYD is considered the Syrian branch of the PKK, the main Turkish opposition group that has been fighting Ankara for years.

But Dibo claims that those fears are not justified and that the PYD and PKK only share the same ideology, democratic principles and aspirations for "decentralised government." 

"When Baathists came to power in Syria about 50 years ago, they have divided Syrians by marginalising Kurds, repressing their culture, forbidding their language, and depriving them of all their political rights. Despite that, Syrian Kurds today live and enjoy their Syrian identity."

Dibo also refutes Turkish accusations according to which the YPG (People's Protection Units) — the Kurdish militia — has committed war crimes against Arab civilians in the Syrian areas they control, to create an exclusively Kurdish region. "This is another lie spread by our opponents who reject the idea of self-determination," he says.

Many see that the Iraqi scenario — in which an independent Kurdish region was established in the northern part of the country following the 1991 Gulf War — could well be reproduced in Syria. The PYD rejects this argument as well. "The Iraqi case is very different because the division in the country was based on ethnicity, whereas in Syria, the division is geographic."

"We find within the YPG more than 25 percent of Arabs, five percent of Assyrians, who also are holding political and administrative positions. If we wanted independence, we wouldn't be taking part in the opposition group calling for political negotiations. In a future Syrian state, we intend to participate in the Syrian army." says Dibo.

"We just believe that the Kurdish autonomous experience should be used as a roadmap for a future political solution to a Syrian conflict. This might be the only way to reach longterm peace in the country."

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