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The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian front of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is the leading group in the administration of the Kurdish areas in north-eastern Syria. The PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have become the preferred instrument of the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS) and as a by-product have been assisted in conquering some Arab-majority zones of northern Syria—and perhaps soon of eastern Syria. The PYD/PKK has always treated all dissent harshly and the Kurdish opposition in recent days has reported an escalation in repression by the PYD, which the West—as has become a habit in cases of PYD misbehaviour—has made no public protest about.
THE PYD’S AUTHORITARIAN REGIME
The PYD regime promulgated a law on 13 March, based on a previous order, “Decree Number Five” of 15 April 2014, demanding that all “unlicensed” political parties register with the authorities within twenty-four hours or “we will be forced to close the office and duly transfer the official to the judiciary.”
The Kurdish opposition, including the Kurdish National Council (KNC), also known by its Kurdish acronym ENKS, objected to this ruling on three grounds:
The next day, 14 March, according to a statement released by the KNC/ENKS today, a series of attacks against them by the PYD began. By now, the PYD “have abducted and arbitrarily detained” at least forty KNC members in more than nine cities across the area controlled by the PYD, which is often called “Rojava”. “In addition to the detentions, attacks against offices of the KNC and its member parties have taken place,” the statement added. “More than twenty offices have been torched or demolished, and subsequently were sealed up by PYD security forces.” Shortly before these attacks, the PYD had closed down the office of a Christian group, the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO) in Hasaka.
On 4 March, the PYD arbitrarily detained thirty-six politicians, most of them PDK-S members. Around the same time, the headquarters of three opposition parties in Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn) and Qamishli were sacked by the PYD.
On International Women’s Day (8 March)—heavily exploited by the PYD, which uses its female fighters as a central point of its propaganda, framing its state-building project as a fight against IS and using the language of universalist liberal values—the PYD’s (male) police forces, the Asayish, stormed IWD meetings and arrested numerous people.
During one of the IWD events, Dr. Khaled Issa, a member of the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party (PDPKS), was stabbed by a mob of PYD youth. A number of women were arrested the next day as they tried to organise an IWD event independent of the PYD and the offices of the PDPKS were put to the torch.
This morning, in conformity with its promise, the PYD burned to the ground the office of the Kurdish Women’s Union or HJKS in Derik (Al-Malikiya) because it did not have a license that only the PYD can issue.
The persecution of dissent by the PYD is hardly new. In 2011 and 2012, the PYD was accused of murdering Kurdish politicians Mishal Tammo, Nasruddin Birhik, and Mahmud Wali (Abu Jandi). The current vivacity in oppression can probably be dated to August 2016, when the PYD arrested a dozen Kurdish opponents, kidnapped several more over a series of days, and beat and imprisoned those who protested about it. Ibrahim Biro, the overall head of the KNC, was expelled from the PYD-ruled areas into Iraq and told he would be murdered if he returned.
In its long war with the Turkish state, the PKK has always striven for total control of the Kurdish political scene, murdering its own dissidents, even when they escape to Europe, and ruthlessly suppressing all independent Kurdish factions. The PKK began as a movement that blended Kurdish nationalism with Marxist-Leninism and acted as a proxy for the Soviet Union in destabilizing a frontline NATO state (Turkey). In recent years, the PKK has claimed a reformation, proclaiming a new ideology, “Democratic Confederalism,” an eco-anarchistic, stateless, direct democracy, but it has not been able to break itself from its deeply authoritarian origins.
THE PKK AND THE COALITION
The PKK’s misbehaviour goes beyond human rights abuses, and it remains baffling in simple strategic terms that the PKK has not come up against at least rhetorical protests from the West.
This month, the PKK—which has strong historical links with Russia, the Assad regime, and Iran—has been, through its Yazidi proxy militia, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), forging stronger links with Tehran in Iraq via its proxy, the Shi’i militia, Kataib Hizballah (KH), which happens to be a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that killed tens of American soldiers in the last decade. KH’s anti-American animus was clear at the meeting, where it insisted that one of its roles was to resist the American conspiracy to partition Iraq. The YBS praised KH and Iran’s other “Islamic Resistance” groups for defending Iraq from takfirism. Given that Iran has flooded these and other Shi’a jihadists tied into its global terrorist network into Syria to rescue Assad under the cover of the anti-IS war, and might well move more of them into the country after the fall of Mosul, the PKK’s assistance in Tehran’s access to the Iraq-Syria border might have been imagined to be objectionable.
The PKK has long been accused of being aligned with the pro-Assad coalition, and events in Minbij earlier this month, where the PKK handed over areas to the regime coalition in order to block Turkey’s advance on the city, hardly helped. The U.S. and Russia both moving ground forces into Minbij to deter the Turkish-backed rebels and the U.S.’s assistance in the Assadists’ recapture of Palmyra increased the optical sense of a global coalition—the U.S., Russia, Iran, its Shi’i militias, Assad, and the PKK—against the largely-Sunni opposition in Syria, a sectarian narrative the jihadi-salafists thrive on.
The PKK seconded the Russian air force for assaults on CIA-backed rebel assets in Syria multiple times in the last eighteen months, it helped the pro-Assad coalition close the siege of Aleppo City, and the PKK helped the regime coalition during the closing stages of its unmerciful conquest of that city. None of this brought a public rebuke from the United States—or any other member of the Coalition. I have been told by people well-placed to know that the PYD’s more unsavoury behaviour has come up in discussions with U.S. officials. But the appearance of uncritical support from the U.S. to the PYD is its own reality and a very worrying one in terms of the impending Raqqa operation that it now seems inevitable the PYD will lead.
In Raqqa, the PYD will enter a city in the aftermath of IS where there are sleeper cells left behind, where there are people who committed horrific crimes for the jihadists, and where there are also clerks at government offices, oil workers, and farmers who just got on with their jobs so they could feed their families but who incidentally contributed to the functioning of IS’s statelet. The requirements—of justice and ensuring IS as little political space as possible to revive—is that the PYD be discriminating in its identification of collaborators. The PYD will be essentially free of U.S. leverage by this time, and that hardly restrained them before. The PYD’s abusive behaviour toward Arabs under its rule in previous instances, especially in Tel Abyad—and its wild accusations that even a group like Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), which has paid such a high price for its resistance to IS, is pro-IS just because RBSS also opposes the imposition of PYD rule over Raqqa—has already made other Arab populations fearful that the PYD displacing IS will lead to a vengeful occupation, rather than liberation.
The U.S. insists to this day that the YPG is not a branch of the PKK, because the PKK is a registered terrorist organization. Thus, even as the U.S. prepares to directly arm the PKK in Syria to take Raqqa, it can say that the PKK “has no place on the battlefield” when the PKK is involved in trouble in Iraq. That statement came in response to an incident on Tuesday, where the Syrian Kurds of the Rojava Peshmerga (“Roj Pesh”), who are aligned with Barzani’s KDP, fired on a PKK-orchestrated protest in Sinjar, killing at least one civilian.
The Roj Pesh are still in Iraq because they have been barred from returning to Syria, where they would dilute the PYD’s power. The U.S. confirmed yesterday that, once again, it supports the PYD’s stance, and “do[es] not have any plans to use the Rojava Peshmerga as a partner force in Syria.” Among the reasons given was that the Roj Pesh “were not trained by Coalition forces,” which is a strange justification since the YPG/PKK forces were not trained by the Coalition either; they were trained in thirty years of insurgency against a NATO state. But then, the U.S. also claimed yesterday that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the PKK’s own members admit they control, was comprised of 75% Arabs. This was not convincing to many, and even if true would hardly be a refutation of PKK control since the PKK ideologically vets the Arabs who join the SDF and uses Arab groups as locally-acceptable proxies to administer captured territories.
Western support to the PYD in keeping IS out of the Kurdish-majority areas in Syria is unavoidable: IS must be contained and the PYD has eliminated all other alternatives. Assisting the PYD in the capture of Arab-majority areas seems unlikely to be a sustainable solution to the IS problem, but that is another debate. There is, however, no evident reason why the West cannot make a public issue of pressing the PYD to cease its increasingly-flagrant repression of Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen, and others under its rule. In response to U.S. demands to be more representative, the PYD has made a point of increasing its ethnic diversity, while maintaining a political monopoly; the U.S. should push for changes beyond the cosmetic. It would be just in itself and allow Kurds, long repressed by the Ba’ath regime that some Kurds say PYD rule resembles, a chance for pluralism. It would also help in counter-terrorism terms, since the U.S.’s overbalancing in favour of the PYD against the Syrian opposition has allowed the jihadists to recruit with propaganda that portrays the U.S. as leading a global conspiracy against Sunni Muslims. IS has gained from this, and al-Qaeda even more so.