LONDON (Reuters) - A party that controls much of Syria’s Kurdish region on Tuesday rejected the new opposition coalition, highlighting the deep divisions still remaining between the many Syrian armed groups 20 months into the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Saleh Muslim, head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), said he had not been invited to talks in Doha this month in which the Syrian National Coalition was formed, and he labeled the group a proxy of Turkey and Qatar.
The coalition, led by moderate Sunni Muslim cleric Mouaz Alkhatib, was meant to unify Syria’s myriad opposition groups in a bid to secure Western backing in their efforts to topple Assad, and has been endorsed in the West by Britain and France.
Previous efforts to unite the opposition under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council ultimately failed after widespread accusations that the SNC had little sway within Syria and was dominated by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
“They’re making the same mistakes as the Syrian National Council. They’re one color, a cleric is the ruler. More than 60 percent of the SNC were from the Muslim Brotherhood and the religious groups, and they’ve made the same mistake with this coalition,” Muslim told Reuters in London.
“It (the opposition coalition) has not emerged from obedience to Turkey and Qatar,” he said, adding that the Kurds included in the group were not representative of Syria’s Kurds and were handpicked by Turkey to follow its agenda.
Some 10 percent of the population, Kurds are Syria’s largest ethnic minority, and Muslim’s party has been extending its power in northern Syria as Assad battles an insurgency elsewhere.
Whichever group holds the Kurdish lands along the border with Turkey will control a sizeable portion of Syria’s estimated 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil reserves.
Turkey is alarmed at the growing influence of the PYD which it says is the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group which has fought a 28-year separatist conflict in Turkey in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.
On Monday, Syrian rebels clashed with armed Kurds near the Turkish border, the latest sign of a power struggle in Syria’s ethnically diverse northeast.
Muslim said his party did not want to carve a separate Kurdish enclave, and denied any coordination between his party and the PKK over Syria.
“We don’t want separatism or to draw new borders. What we want is constitutional recognition of the Kurdish presence, and constitutional guarantees of the democratic rights of the Kurdish people,” Muslim said.
PYD offices in Syria are however adorned with portraits of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and PYD fighters wear badges bearing the image of the moustachioed militant who is jailed in Turkey.
Muslim also dismissed analyst reports that Assad has allowed PYD forces to take control of much of the country’s northern border to antagonize Turkey, which has called for Assad’s departure.
Though Assad has pulled the bulk of his forces from the Kurdish region, there is a clear co-existence between the PYD and the remaining government troops who man checkpoints unmolested inside the Kurdish region.
The Kurds though have long been discriminated against by Assad and his father before him.
Making matters more complicated, Syria’s Kurds are not politically united and rivalries between the PYD and another group, the Kurdish National Council, have at times threatened to spiral into intra-Kurdish conflict.
Muslim said new, more inclusive talks between Syrian opposition groups were necessary if anti-Assad forces are ever to truly unify and democracy is ever to take root in Syria.
“This coalition is no good. Right now in Aleppo on the ground there are armed groups saying they don’t recognize this group because it does not represent the Syrian people,” he said.
“The solution? The Syrian opposition sits down together and talks this through to come to a proposal we all agree on. There were no talks in Doha. There was a pre-prepared scenario put in front of them and they were told to sign,” he added.
“If the Kurdish problem in Syria is not solved, democracy will not come.”
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Jon Hemming