The arrest of Salih Muslim is only one chapter in the Kurdish chronicles of betrayal

by Meghan Bodette    


Late Saturday night, Czech police detained Syrian Kurdish political leader Salih Muslim on Turkish orders. Turkish president Erdogan suggested Sunday morning that Turkey expects the Czech Republic to “return” Muslim to Turkish custody—though Muslim, the former co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and current TEV-DEM foreign relations official, is a Syrian citizen in Europe legally for diplomatic concerns.

The news sparked outrage from Syrian Kurdish groups, with TEV-DEM condemning the arrest as “illegal” and urging the international community to act to secure his release. As the Turkish invasion of Afrin enters its 37th day despite a unanimous U.N. Security Council vote to declare a ceasefire, many Kurds and their supporters find the situation all too familiar. The region’s dictatorships, including that of Erdogan, have long acted with impunity in European countries to stifle the voices of Kurdish leaders in times of diplomatic importance.

In 1989, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the General Secretary of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), was in Vienna for diplomatic talks with the Iranian state. The negotiations had focused on the issue of Kurdish autonomy in Rojhelat, coming in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War and long-running conflict between Kurdish groups, including PDKI, and the Iranian government. On July 13th, Ghassemlou was assassinated by Iranian agents present at the talks.

The three assassins were allowed to flee the country, at least one with Austrian protection. Arrest warrants were issued after they had left, but were never acted on. Austria had refused to participate in the US-led boycott of Iran in 1979, and Austria’s state-owned arms company had illegally sold millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Iran throughout the 1980s. When Western states can profit off of war and dictatorship, the lives of the victims of war and dictatorship are never valued—despite verbal commitments to principles of self-determination.

A decade later, Western intelligence enabled the capture of another Kurdish leader fighting for freedom from a different dictatorship. Abdullah Ocalan, a founder of the PKK, had gone from Syria to Italy, Russia, and then Greece hoping to find a country in which he could stay-- in the hopes of eventually taking the issue of Turkey’s oppression of the Kurds to court. U.S. pressure on Greece forced him to escape to Kenya. On February 15th, 1999, he was captured by Turkish authorities in Nairobi and returned to Turkey, where he was eventually sentenced to life in prison.

The CIA was involved in every step of this process. The U.S. at the time was the Turkish state’s primary arms supplier, selling jets and helicopters that were used to raze Kurdish villages and using Incirlik Air Base for missions in Iraq—where, ironically, other Kurdish parties enjoyed U.S. support against Saddam Hussein. Turkey’s status as the second-largest army in NATO and strategic position vis-à-vis Russia on the Black Sea proved more important than Kurdish freedom when it was inconvenient. 

Even in cases where there is less outright cooperation, state apathy makes Europe equally dangerous for Kurdish leaders. PKK co-founder Sakine Cansiz had been granted asylum in France and lived there for years—but was still assassinated by Turkish agents in Paris, alongside KNK diplomat Fidan Dogan and Kurdish youth activist Leyla Saylemez in 2013. Turkish intelligence was able to plot and execute an assassination that competent European authorities almost certainly would have stopped if it were targeting one of their own politicians of equivalent stature. French leaders continue to sell weapons to Turkey despite knowing about this plot in their own capital—in fact, on the day that documents proving MIT involvement were released, French president discussed security cooperation with Erdogan himself. Those documents showed that some of the Turkish officials involved in the assassination were also involved in peace negotiations with the PKK, which were ongoing at that time—showing how Erdogan will resort to illegal measures to prevent legitimate negotiation.

If these stories prove one thing, it is this: Kurdish politicians in Europe are in the most danger when the international community hears them speaking up for their people. Turkey fears Kurdish participation in diplomatic or international legal processes, knowing that these processes will uncover years of Turkish atrocities. The West, while presented with unavoidable evidence of these atrocities, continues to look away.

Muslim himself had decried Western hypocrisy towards Turkey and Kurdistan just days ago, saying in Geneva: “We don’t tell the West to fight with Turkey, or to not trade with them. But Turkey is spilling our blood with the weapons you provide them….Aren’t the people dying in Afrin civilians? People in other places are, but not the Kurds who lose their lives in Afrin? Why is there silence about this? You have a vision for democracy and institutions to that end. Turkey is killing civilians; why don’t you do something?”

On Saturday, hours before his arrest, the institutions he mentioned had approved a ceasefire intended to apply all of Syria. U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said that the U.N. is “on the ground and ready over the next few days to support life-saving aid convoys to all besieged and hard-to-reach places across the country, starting in Eastern Ghouta, Rukban, and Afrin.”

Turkey broke that ceasefire almost immediately, bombing civilian areas in Jinderes and Meydanke districts with jets purchased from the US and claiming to ‘fight terrorism’ while enabling its own terrorist proxies that have executed civilians, taken hostages and mutilated corpses. The arrest of Muslim—who had described this pattern before it happened—serves to silence a Kurdish diplomatic voice that had gained international support and draw attention away from Turkish war crimes in Afrin. 

Rojava has more than earned its seat at the negotiating table. Its radical democratic system is a model for Syria’s future, and it has sacrificed thousands of lives for liberation—including Muslim’s own son, Shervan, who was killed fighting ISIS in 2013. Past attempts to deny Kurdish groups their right to negotiate by attacking their leaders have only lead to more conflict. This time, the international community must side with peace over dictatorship. It must recognize Turkey’s attempt to kidnap a Kurdish diplomat whose people fought ISIS for the world as nothing less than attempt to steer the war in Syria in favour of its terrorist proxies. It must call for Salih Muslim’s release—and ensure that his message is heard and understood.