In 2003, Saleh Muslim Mohammed was a founding member of the Democratic Union Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym PYD, which is the largest Kurdish party in Syria. In 2010, he was elected party chairman. When the PYD established a gender-balanced double chairpersonship in 2012, he continued as one of two co-chairs alongside his female counterpart, Asya Abdullah.

The PYD is universally seen as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed movement that has fought the government of Turkey since the 1980s. The PKK has been labeled as a terrorist group by many governments, and the PYD vehemently denies any such relationship, although it admits to following the ideology of the PKK’s imprisoned founder, Abdullah Öcalan.

When the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, Muslim returned from exile in northern Iraq to lead his party in Syria. The PYD quickly outgrew all other Kurdish movements, and in summer 2012 it seized control over most Kurdish-inhabited towns in northern Syria as government troops pulled out. It was aided by the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a powerful Kurdish militia allegedly trained and supported by the PKK. (For an interview with YPG spokesperson Redur Khalil, see here.)

In mid-2013, the PYD declared that it would begin implementing Öcalan’s ideas on “self-administration” in parts of Syria under Kurdish control, which it refers to as Western Kurdistan or Rojava. Since then, three separate local governments have sprung up in the Qamishli, Kobane, and Afrin areas of northern Syria. Many Arab opposition supporters consider this a separatist project and accuse the PYD of collaborating with Assad’s government. The PYD denies these accusations, saying its Rojava project will stave off chaos and protect Kurdish rights inside Syria in anticipation of a negotiated transition from Assad’s rule.

One thing is clear to both supporters and detractors: since 2011, the PYD has grown to be one of the most powerful factions in northern Syria, and it can no longer be disregarded in any discussion of Syria’s future. Today, Muslim has kindly allowed himself to be interviewed by Syria in Crisis to explain the PYD’s views on the conflict in Syria and the Rojava project.

In the Kurdish areas along the northern border of Syria, the PYD has established self-rule. But what about the Kurds living elsewhere, such as in the Sheikh Maqsood neighborhood in Aleppo or the Kurdish neighborhoods of Damascus, like Zor Ava and Rukneddine?

Let me say first that the decisionmaking [in the self-ruling areas] is no longer the PYD’s—now the people rule themselves. The councils have been established, and the people decide.

One aspect of the self-rule project is that you can start it in a very small town, a very small village, or in the biggest cities. . . . [The Kurds] could make this project for wherever they are. The Kurds in Damascus could do this for themselves in Damascus. They could be free in Damascus or even in Sheikh Maqsood.

Now the situation is not OK because of the fighting. There are many clashes and killing and war in Aleppo, and Sheikh Maqsood is part of it. But tomorrow, if we have peace, maybe they can have their own [political] settlement there as Kurdish people, within Aleppo.

You’ve said that the Kurdish movement aims to redress historical mistakes. One of those mistakes you’ve identified is the Baath Party’s “Arab Belt” policy, a project in the 1970s to resettle Arabs in Syria’s predominantly Kurdish northeastern border areas.

Yes, this is one of them. But we must also mention the genocide against the Syriacs and against the Armenians and against the Kurds. All this should be remedied.

Of course, it’s a real problem that those Arabs were brought to the area, because it left a lot of Kurds without land. Because of that, we need to look for new arrangements. We don’t want to send the Arabs out, but we also don’t want to leave the Kurds without land. We have to reach an agreement on this in a peaceful way.

But do you see a future for the Arab settlers in the Rojava self-administration?

Yes, if they accept this kind of agreement to live together. There are already some Arabs who have done so. It is not Arabs from these settlements but Arab tribes who have been living with the Kurds for decades. But if the settlers would agree to be a part of this system, why not? It’s a democratic system.

You know, I have mentioned this before, but I would like to mention it again: we feel that we are victims of the regime, but the Arabs were in fact also victims of the regime. They were taken from their land, and they came to Kurdish lands. So we are both victims of the regime, and we have to understand each other.

Part two of this interview, which deals with the PYD’s views on the Geneva II peace conference and its relations with the PKK and the West, will be published tomorrow.