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'Solution to the war in Syria is on the ground'

DW spoke to the Syrian Kurds' most senior leader during his first visit ever to the Basque Country, where he was hearing about the Basque experience just after the Syrian Kurds declared their own autonomous region.

Salih Muslim is the co-leader of the Democratic Union Party, the dominant Kurdish political force in northeastern Syria.

DW: The Syrian Kurds have repeatedly claimed to be a "third side" in the Syrian conflict but you have not been invited to the Geneva peace talks. Why is that?

Salih Muslim: There are many reasons behind it but the main one is the mindset that didn't accept the Kurds being in the 20th century, and it's seemingly applying to the 21st. We wouldn't even mind not being invited as long as the Kurdish issue was discussed but that's not been the case. Everybody is aware that any change in the status of the Kurds will affect the whole Middle East, which is against the interest of both local and foreign powers. That's why they continue to deny our right to exist.

Despite your absence, could Geneva possibly unlock a conflict which has entered in its third year?

Nothing will change as long as the Kurds, and the Syrian people as a whole, are not represented in Geneva. On the one side of the table we have the regime, backed by Iran and Russia; on the other side there are just some individuals who look to their own interests, or that of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, USA, France, the UK… We don't see the light at the end of the tunnel in the Syrian war. The conflict may take one, two… 10 years to finally reach an end so we have decided not to wait to gain our legitimate rights. We have recently declared our own autonomous region and signed a social contract, a Constitution, in a clear move toward democracy.

Could you draw the main lines of your autonomy project?

We liberated our territory from regime forces in June 2012 but we were immediately attacked by Salafist groups. We soon realised that we had to do something for our protection and also to meet our people's demands. We have set up a committee of 35 organizations, the majority of them being political parties as well an assembly of 28 people who will take decisions. They decided to divide our area in three districts: Afrin, Kobani and Jazeera, and to conduct general elections within four months.

man on couch Copyright: Karlos Zurutuza

Salih Muslim

We are well aware that the Kurdish part of Syria also hosts people other than Kurds so we have recognized Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian languages as co-official in Jazeera district - in the country's north east. We have election quotas for the different nationalities and also for an equal representation of men and women among the whole Syrian Kurdish administration. It's an inclusive project on behalf of the people regardless their nationality or creed, and not against anyone, not even Geneva. Ours is very much the clearest proof that the solution to the war in Syria is on the ground, not in Geneva or anywhere else.

Could your project be extended to the rest of Syria?

We're just 15 percent of the population so we cannot decide for the other 85 percent. In any case, it would doubtless be beneficial for them, and even for the whole Middle East, but that would need a dramatic change in their mentality as our Constitution is by far the most progressive one in the region.

Nonetheless, Qamishlo - Syrian Kurdistan's main city - is still partly under Damascus' control. Is that an obstacle to your aspirations?

Full control is possible but it needs time. The airport and the city center are still controlled by the regime so we are transferring our administration to the neighboring town of Amude, which will temporarily be the capital of Jazeera district.

Many claim that the alleged shared control of Qamishlo is the clearest proof that you are siding with the regime. Are you?

The regime is still present in Qamishlo and Hassaka, backed by a strong Arab tribe. It's a very sensitive issue so we are trying to avoid a Kurdish Arab war by any means necessary. I want to underline that the YPG (Popular Defence Committees - the ed.) has not shot a single bullet outside Kurdish areas because they're in a self-defence position.

Secondly, we are not looking to break up Syria. We're trying to live together. We're not against Alawites or anyone else and the regime won't attack us because they know we're different from those backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey… and that we have no help from the outside. Moreover, we rose up against Damascus back in 2004, during the incidents in Qamishlo. For us, the 2011 uprising is not the beginning but a continuation of our struggle toward a democratic system.

A few months ago, Kurdish forces took over a border post in Iraq, near Mosul. Is that helping to cope with the embargo enforced by the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq?

A delegation from Jazeera district travelled to Baghdad where they met local officials. Baghdad is willing to open the gate but they get a lot of pressure from Damascus which rejects the idea of not being able to deploy its troops at the border and also not being able to fly their flag. Nonetheless, the border post at Til Kocer is open for humanitarian aid and some people from our side can cross thanks to our agreement with Baghdad.

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