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Last week, a member of the Kurdish militia that is the primary instrument the U.S.-led Coalition is using in Syria to defeat the Islamic State (IS) was killed. Examining his biography underlined that this militia is the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist-separatist group that is registered as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and Turkey. The Western powers continue to obfuscate, if not outright deny, this fact, but Coalition support for the PKK—questionable morally and legally in and of itself—is producing negative results on the ground that help IS over the long-term.
The YPG’s Foreign Fighters
Late on 9 November, the commander of a specialist unit within the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), the Kurdish militia that controls large areas of north-eastern Syria, Haji Kurkhan (Ali Botan), was killed in Qamishli. The circumstances of Kurkhan’s death are somewhat vague, but it is clear he was a Turkish citizen from Van, which is to say a member of the PKK.
It is known that the YPG attracts foreign fighters, including from the West. Many of the Westerners who have joined the YPG are ex-military. Some Western volunteers are Christians, who feel a religious duty to confront IS—though there have been tensions because of the YPG’s repressive practices, and a number of Christian foreign fighters have left YPG and joined Dwekh Nawsha in Iraq. There are then radical Leftists, from communists to anarchists, who are ideologically drawn to the YPG. And finally, there are the usual assortment of adventurers, chancers, and even criminals on the lam.
The main motives for foreign fighters joining the YPG seems to have changed over time, Abdulla Hawez, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist currently studying a Master’s in the department of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London, told me. “I think the motivation for foreign fighters during the battle of Kobani [in late 2014] was mostly that a secular militia with female fighters looked very attractive for some, especially the fact these are people fighting a group like ISIS,” Hawez said. “But I believe this has changed; now most of the foreign fighters who join YPG are Left-leaning—some dream to see, and make, Rojava this … Leftist utopia.” The “number of [Western] foreign fighters within the YPG isn’t that large,” says Hawez, and, as reported elsewhere, they are “not doing much on the frontline unless they push to take part in it”. But they are “a very important propaganda tool to attract Western support for their cause.”
It might be argued that this contingent of foreign fighters doesn’t get enough consideration and attention, but it does at least make it into the papers. What is less usually emphasized in stories about the YPG is that it is actually a foreign construct, a subsidiary of the PKK.
A PKK ‘Shell Game’
It is important to note that the U.S. government rejects the fact that the YPG is a branch of the PKK. In May, the State Department asserted that “the YPG is not connected to the PKK“. In October, State added that it draws “a clear line between the PKK’s operations and activities and the regional Kurdish forces [i.e., the YPG]”. Just a week ago, Washington said: “We do not associate the YPG [with the PKK].” This is an indefensible position. As an analyst of Kurdish politics, who is actually embedded with the YPG, stated: “PYD is just the Syrian branch of the PKK in Syria … Their ideology is completely the same, and almost all YPG fighters have a PKK background. … [T]heir commanders all have experience in fighting Turkey.”
The PYD refers to the political party, the Democratic Union Party, which controls the YPG. The PYD was founded as the PKK’s Syrian branch in 2003, beholden to the PKK’s political organization, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). The KCK also contains a branch from Iran, known as the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), and a branch from Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK). The purpose of the KCK and the PKK “affiliates”—with their multiple acronyms—was to avoid the legal complications and politically toxic branding of the PKK name, internationally (in relation to the post-2001 War on Terror era) and locally (because of the PKK’s close relations with the governments of Syria and Iran, which repress ordinary Kurds).
The PKK was founded as an asset of the Syrian regime, and the Soviet Union, a weapon against Turkey, in the late 1970s. Under threat from Ankara, Damascus evicted the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and much of the group’s military infrastructure in 1998, and scaled down its assistance afterward. At the outset of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, this alliance seemed to be rejuvenated, with the PYD acting as a de facto extension of the regime in the early months, most notoriously with the murder of anti-regime Kurdish activist Mishal Tammo. In July 2012, an agreement was reached for the PYD and a coalition of Kurdish opposition parties, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), to jointly administer the Kurdish-majority areas of Syria.
Just days later, the regime pulled out of parts of northern Syria in what looked a lot like a handover to the PYD. The PKK had resumed activity, mostly political, inside Syria under the PYD banner, with various periods of official toleration and crackdown; in 2011 and early 2012, the PKK moved considerable troops back into Syria as well. The PYD used this pre-established position to hijack local administration, preventing Syrian Kurdish troops trained in Iraqi Kurdistan entering “Rojava” to join the YPG and dilute the PYD’s power—a policy that continues. The PYD now governs these zones almost exclusively with an authoritarian system that relies considerably on the remaining architecture of the Assad regime. The regime retained outposts in PYD-held territory, though recently the PYD has asserted itself even against the regime in some cases.
The clearest part of the overwhelming evidence that the PYD/YPG is a branch of the PKK is the cross-over in personnel, particularly at the leadership level. Kurkhan is the most recent example. Polat Can, the PYD/YPG representative to the anti-IS Coalition, is a famous example. Less famous is Khabat Derik, another PKK veteran who founded the PYD/YPG. The pattern is much more general, however, as indicated above: a considerable portion of the PYD/YPG’s core manpower is simply the PKK under a different flag. In many cases this means Turkish citizens but quite often it doesn’t, for two main reasons. First, a significant number of the 1990s-era PKK was Syrian—estimates vary between about a fifth and a third—because Ocalan was based in Syria and had free rein to recruit for so many years. Second, when the PKK set up both the PJAK and PYD, it used natives as the advanced guard.
An exhaustive May 2015 study by Jared Ferris and Andrew Self, “Dead Men Tell No Lies,” compiled data on thousands of PKK casualties over fifteen years, and concluded: “Far from just being a PKK offshoot or affiliate, PJAK and the PYD are part and parcel of the organization.” This “does not mean to suggest that the PKAJ, PYD, and PKK are one monolithic top-to-bottom organization,” the authors note, adding:
[T]he relationship between the PKK and its affiliates is one of strategic and operational unity with some level of tactical autonomy. … The PKK’s relationship with its affiliates is not only one of a sponsor giving birth to regional sister organizations, but also one of an inseparable strategic leadership body exercising direct command and control over only nominally distinguishable units. Rather than separate conflicts, the Syrian and Iranian conflicts represent military fronts in a unified regional campaign … Like a shell game, the PKK leadership in Qandil shifts personnel between its affiliates and fronts, attempting to obscure the true nature of the organization and circumvent international terrorist labels. In this sense, the PKK truly has no affiliates, rather three fronts and three names consisting of the same personalities, leadership, ideology, and history of terrorism.
Similar findings are arrived at by everybody who works with the data. A dataset from The Atlantic Council showed that of more than 700 reported YPG casualties between January 2013 and January 2016, half were Turkish citizens. In August 2016, Zaman al-Wasl acquired the names of 530 foreign fighters who had been killed in the ranks of the YPG and its all-female wing, the YPJ. There were fighters from Europe, but more than two-thirds were from Turkey or the PKK leadership’s Iraqi base in the Qandil Mountains.
Fight Terror With Terror?
Accepting that the West is supporting the PKK in the fight against IS has important implications.
The PKK continues to wage war against the Turkish state, and Ankara therefore takes a dim view of the Coalition-enabled expansion of an YPG statelet along its border. Support for the YPG, specifically the uncritical support accorded so far, was key in provoking Turkey to intervene directly in Syria. While there are potentially positive outcomes to this action, in the short-term it complicates an already difficult situation and it is entirely possible that it leads to a deterioration that benefits IS. Meanwhile, the empowerment of the YPG as against the mainstream rebels has created an imbalance that could also lead to longer-term conflict.
The YPG has received Western support to keep IS out of Kurdish areas in Syria and there is hardly another choice; the YPG has made sure of that. More could have been done to promote pluralism and to separate the PYD/YPG from state institutions, but the policy was defensible. Supporting the YPG in expanding into Arab areas to displace IS was more dubious, and more dubious still when that support continued—without penalty—after crimes against Sunni civilians suspected of being IS collaborators or who are simply in the way of the YPG state-building project. This was not even mitigated or counter-balanced with any serious support for Arab groups in their areas, leaving extremists as one of the few instruments to confront YPG maximalism.
The Coalition has said that support for “locally-based forces” to replace IS is the keystone of this campaign. Thus, in the recently-announced, PYD-led operation to expel IS from its Syrian capital, Raqqa, Arab forces working with the PYD under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were to lead the charge into the city itself and administer the aftermath. That now looks troubled on its own terms, and was in any case ultimately doomed. Arabs affiliated with the SDF have little legitimacy since it is understood that the PKK keeps allied Arab groups dependent and thus unable to moderate its hegemony over the SDF. A separate rebel military-political structure is needed to provide local tribes and others an acceptable alternative to IS. But the West has shown little appetite to support such a thing thus far and the effort afoot in Turkey to create one in the next few months gives little cause for optimism.
In Iraq, radically sectarian Shi’a militia groups controlled by Iran—some of them registered terrorist organizations—have been provided U.S. air support, despite repeated instances of anti-civilian crimes. These same militias and Lebanese Hizballah, also a registered terrorist group and a proxy of Tehran’s, make up much of Assad’s offensive ground force, but their movement into Syria has not been interdicted nor their positions attacked by the U.S.-led Coalition. Contrariwise, IS and al-Qaeda have been attacked. This one-handed clapping inevitably redounds to the military benefit of the pro-Assad coalition—hardly the only way U.S. policy has de facto aligned with Iran and its tributaries—and the political benefit of the Sunni jihadists.
One of the dominant themes in IS messaging is that there is a global conspiracy against Sunni Muslims against which they are the only shield. The double-standard of supporting terrorist groups who commit crimes against Sunnis to fight Sunni terrorist groups has played into IS’s hands, providing it legitimacy, which is far more important to it long-term than any short-term military setbacks. There is no “counter-narrative” fix when Western policy is the narrative.