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The West’s Syria policy is beginning to unravel of its own contradictions.
The Turkish government launched airstrikes against the positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in north-eastern Syria and the Sinjar area of north-western Iraq in the early hours of 25 April. There were international ramifications to this because the PKK in Syria, which operates politically under the name of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and militarily as the People’s Defence Units (YPG), is the main partner of the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS). Turkey has protested the U.S. engaging the YPG/PKK so deeply and exclusively as its anti-IS partner, being displeased at the U.S.’s uncritical (public) stance toward the YPG, even after the YPG violated U.S.-brokered agreements on its operational theatres and used Russian airstrikes to attack Turkey- and CIA-backed rebels.
In response to Turkey’s anti-PKK operations this week, The Washington Post has hosted an op-ed by Ilham Ahmed, identified as “a co-president of the Democratic Council of Syria”.
The Democratic Council of Syria (or Syrian Democratic Council (SDC)) is the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a front-group for the PKK, mostly designed to assist the United States in circumventing her terrorism laws since the PKK is blacklisted; the PKK is also registered as terrorist by Turkey, the European Union, and NATO. The SDF has some Arab units attached to it, but this multi-ethnic composition is not allowed to threaten the PKK’s political monopoly within the SDF. Ms. Ahmed is also formally the chairwoman of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), the ruling authority in the areas under YPG control that they call “Rojava”. Though TEV-DEM is formally a coalition, most of the ostensibly-different organizations within it are either outright PYD fronts or individuals and parties that have so little support they cannot hinder the PYD.
If these acronyms are beginning to get confusing, that is by design. As a paper for NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism noted in 2015, this is part of the “PKK’s continuous effort to escape its terrorist designation”. Ms. Ahmed’s political role, for example, makes much more sense once it is understood that she is a senior official in the PYD and has been a PKK member since joining its military training program in the 1990s. These were only some of the things not mentioned in her op-ed, which was a skilled piece of propaganda that repays some study, since it helps underline some of the misconceptions currently at play over Syria.
Ms. Ahmed’s op-ed was entitled, “We’re America’s best friend in Syria. Turkey bombed us anyway,” and the entire framing of the piece is that the SDC, SDF, and YPG are “democratic, egalitarian and progressive” forces whose main mission is combatting IS in alliance with the West. Nobody denies the YPG/PKK’s success in clearing IS from areas of northern Syria—nor the massive U.S. airpower that has enabled this. The framing is deceptive, however. The YPG’s key strategic aim is the carving out of a statelet; the anti-IS mission was complementary to that, both in terms of gaining territory as the YPG displaced IS and in gaining the political credit from the West of fighting IS.
Rana Marcel recently wrote for Chatham House of the ways the PYD/YPG has tried to gain legitimacy, inside Syria and abroad. The legitimation strategy is significantly based on messaging, Marcel concluded, very carefully “tailored to different audiences”. The PYD/YPG “present[s] its fight against ISIS as a battle between universal liberal values and extremism,” and puts a particular emphasis on gender quality (its female fighters having been much sensationalized in the Western press), environmentalism, and collectivist economics. Inside its territories, the PYD/YPG plays on Kurdish nationalism. Keeping these messages separate is among the reasons the media is so heavily controlled in PYD/YPG-run areas, with independent reporting on either the party or its militia regarded as “an attempt to deliver information to terrorists”.
The op-ed, of course, contains a considerable amount of messaging against Turkey. Ms. Ahmed detects a “stark contrast” between the progressive, democratic Rojava and Turkey, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is “turning … into a totalitarian state,” while “turning a blind eye to terrorism and supporting groups that overtly espouse jihadist ideals.” Allowances made for rhetorical excess, Ms. Ahmed has a point.
There is no doubt, as Michael Koplow pointed out, that—even if there were not, as it seems there were, irregularities in the referendum itself—the recent vote to give Erdogan executive authority was grossly unfair, and the internal trend in Turkey is certainly toward a more authoritarian government. The only qualifier is that some perspective on the violence and repression of the governments overseen by secular military in the 1980s and 1990s, which the West found compatible with its interests, is helpful.
The Turkish government’s Syria policy has proven disastrous, including to itself. There is plenty of blame to go around for this. Ankara had a right to expect greater support from its NATO allies for its interests in Syria—and that these allies would not actively work against her. At the same time, while Erdogan’s turn from the West has been accelerated by Turkey’s shabby treatment over Syria, it is not reactive in origin, and Turkey’s support for Islamist rebel groups in Syria, notably Ahrar al-Sham, even when powerful nationalists were available, has contributed to the diminishing options the West now has in Syria.
The problem is that Ms. Ahmed casts these stones from a glass house. The PKK is in a weak position to be hurling accusations of terrorism and extremism. Nor does the PKK have much footing in governance terms. The PKK followed one of its own leaders through three states in Europe to assassinate him after he suggested democratic reforms within the organization, for example, and many other Kurds who joined the PKK have fallen to these purges, carried out on the most arbitrary basis. In Syria, the PYD/PKK has run a harshly authoritarian system, inherited almost wholesale from the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The deep economic and political integration between the Rojavan project and the Assad regime is among the things that did not make it into Ms. Ahmed’s op-ed, but it is one of the reasons that some Kurds compare the PYD’s rule to that of the Ba’ath Party.
Last summer, Ibrahim Biro, the leader of the main Kurdish opposition group, the Kurdish National Council (KNC or ENKS), was expelled from Rojava by PYD security forces and threatened with murder if he returned. A wave of attacks on Kurdish opposition parties began after that: party headquarters burned down, anti-PYD operatives beaten up and even killed either by mobs or the police directed by PYD regime, and a large number of arrests. In recent weeks, this crackdown has intensified as the PYD moved to formally ban all parties but its own.
Ms. Ahmed continues the effort to obfuscate the relationship between the PYD/YPG and the PKK. “[A]ny attempt to equate us with the PKK is disingenuous,” says Ms. Ahmed. She concedes that the PYD and YPG “share a founder and many intellectual values with the PKK,” though the PKK “run contrary to our core value of decentralization of power”. Even the smoothest media operation can have a bad day.
The key claim from Ms. Ahmed is that “our political and military leadership is completely separate from that of the PKK.” This is simply a lie.
In a fortuitously-timed release, the International Crisis Group also had a piece out yesterday, which noted:
The YPG and [PYD] are the PKK’s Syrian affiliates, and there is little prospect for their organic link with the mother party to change in the foreseeable future. Qandil-trained and battle-hardened PKK cadres with years—in some cases decades—of experience in the organisation’s struggle against Turkey hold the most influential positions within the YPG and, by extension, within the SDF’s chain of command; within the PYD-run civil governing bodies that administer YPG-held areas; and within the security forces, such as the Asayesh (security police), which are the backbone of that governance. While most of these cadres are Syrian Kurds (though notable roles are also played by Kurds from Turkey and Iran), loyalty to the PKK’s internal hierarchy appears to override relations to local society. Many also operate largely behind the scenes, or with titles that understate their actual authority, while nominally responsible officials lacking direct ties to the organisation are reduced to placeholders. Though this gives the PKK presence in northern Syria a local face, the reality of who wields power is evident to those living there and should be to external observers as well.
The PYD was founded in 2003 in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, where the PKK has had a base since 1982 when it established a camp at Lolan from which it launched its war against Turkey in 1984, by Osman Ocalan (Ferhat), acting at the orders of his brother, Abdullah Ocalan (Apo), the PKK’s leader. Osman has since explained his role in this after he defected from the PKK in 2005. With the fall of Saddam Husayn and the consolidation of autonomy by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the PKK moved to exploit the greater operational space—and to conceal its hand. In addition to the PYD, the PKK set up the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran and the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK) in Iraq. The PKK, PYD, PJAK, and PCDK all fall under a transnational command structure called the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK).
At the lower levels the PKK/YPG in Syria has recruited a lot of locals since 2011, but even the visible YPG leadership is composed overwhelmingly of PKK cadres, people like Polat Can and Xebat Derik, as is the political leadership of the PYD, Ilham Ahmed herself, Aldar Khalil, Hediya Yousef, and “Rojin Ramo”.
The invisible holders of power in Rojava above the YPG commanders are longtime PKK operatives to a man. They are not all foreign—though some are, such as the governor of Tel Abyad (an Iranian)—because the PKK and Ocalan were, for a long time, hosted by the Assad regime, and used as a proxy by both Assad and the Soviet Union to destabilize Turkey, a frontline NATO state during the Cold War, and the payoff for Assad was that Ocalan recruited Syrian Kurds, who had multiple grievances against a discriminatory state, and redirected them against Turkey.
This aspect of the YPG was slightly illuminated in a very deft piece of messaging by the YPG after the Turkish airstrikes on bases in Syria’s Hasaka Province earlier this month. The U.S. took an undisguised pro-YPG line and despatched U.S. Special Forces to the area to (literally) stand with the YPG. The YPG took a calculated risk by ensuring that one of the commanders in YPG colours stood next to U.S. Special Operators was Ferhat Abdi Sahin (Sahin Cilo), exposing the fact he was among Rojava’s leaders. Sahin, born in Aleppo, was previously the commander of the People’s Defence Forces (HPG), the PKK’s military units, and is an important figure in the KCK. This caused fury in Turkey and nudged the U.S. further along the tracks of openly defending an alliance with the PKK.
By some reports, when Sahin was replaced as head of the HPG by Murat Karayilan (Cemal), a relative dove, in 2013, Sahin moved to become the YPG’s overall deputy, with Nurettin Halef al-Muhammed (Nurettin Sofi) serving as leader. Al-Muhammed, a Syrian recruited and trained by the PKK several decades ago and a hardliner even by PKK standards, is a member of the KCK executive committee. The 2013 restructure de facto gave Karayilan two deputies: al-Muhammed was one, serving as a regional commander; the other was Fehman Husayn (Bahoz Erdal), born in Kobani, who served as second-in-command of the HPG and is known to be one of the most senior PKK operatives in Syria for some time. Another Syrian PKK founder believed to be among those directing the project from the shadows is Nasr Abdallah. A Syrian PKK commander, Lewend Rojava oversees Hasaka Province. Nuri Mahmud, a senior YPG official who has been in Damascus recently and fought for the PKK insurgency under the codename “Karwan” before 2011, is reportedly a Syrian. Other Syrian PKK-legacy commanders of the YPG include “Serdar Derek” and “Taulim”.
Still, Turkish-origin Kurds remain powerful within the YPG. Sabri Ok is the most salient case, a KCK executive and the overall commander at this point of the PKK’s rotating command centre (everyone is kept on the move to avoid them becoming a threat to the paranoid leadership).
The romanticization of the PYD/PKK by the Western media is not helping in working toward a resolution in Syria. The Western foreign fighters seem to be a large part of this. A lot of the coverage of the YPG volunteers has amounted to transmitting YPG messaging. Many are hard-Left politically, attracted by the utopian promise of “Democratic Confederalism,” the hodgepodge ideology that Ocalan switched to in jail, a kind of eco-anarchism that envisions a stateless state of radical democracy. Needless to say, for those on the ground old habits have remained. “Just think [of the] Soviet Union because that’s exactly how [the PYD/YPG regime] operates,” says one American YPG volunteer. Another simply called it “Stalinist“.
There is also the legal question. This applies to the flow of Western foreign fighters to the YPG, but is more acute in propaganda terms. It was unwise in the extreme for the BBC to allow Mostafa Mahamed (Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir), the spokesman for al-Qaeda in Syria, to use its platform to get his message out. The Post and The Telegraph took some heat in July 2015 for running op-eds by Ahrar al-Sham. Ahrar is not on the terrorism list and presented itself—perfectly truthfully—as an enemy of IS. But this does not erase Ahrar’s connections with al-Qaeda, about which it flatly lied, nor the fact that Ahrar is a force in Syria whose influence it would be in the West’s interests to minimize. If it was dubious to run Ahrar’s messaging—and it was—on the basis of their ideological leanings and organizational connections, then hosting members of a political extremist group that is formally on the legal blacklist cannot be considered acceptable.
The PKK in northern Syria is a fact, and even Turkey accepts this. The Turks tried to limit the damage to their interests by quarantining the PKK in an area east of the Euphrates and preventing the PKK replacing IS in Raqqa, and in both cases it seems that because of Western policy the Turks will fail—though Turkey can disrupt a PKK-led Raqqa operation. This is not just about Turkey and NATO, though. Local populations in Raqqa are hostile to the PKK, and given the abuses by the PKK in other Arab-majority areas it has conquered this is understandable. A PKK takeover in Raqqa would be received as an occupation, rather than liberation, and this will redound to IS’s benefit. The argument in favour of this course relies on elevating the timing of IS’s demise over its permanence; this is a mistake. In Iraq, the rushing of the Mosul operation and enabling locally-rejected forces to displace IS has meant that IS is already recovering in places. There are other options, if the West can be weaned from its monomaniacal focus on IS.
This is not a call to disengage with the PKK; it is a call to rebalance, to avoid helping the PKK take any more territory outside the Kurdish-majority areas and shift some support to more durable partners in the Arab-majority zones. The PKK cannot liberate all of eastern Syria—and certainly cannot hold it, which has led to suspicions that, as with areas of Minbij, the PKK will hand Raqqa to the pro-Assad coalition after IS is out, the worst outcome of all for human rights and Western interests, whether defined as defeating IS or containing the Iranian revolution. If IS is to be sustainably defeated in its remaining heartlands like Deir Ezzor it will involve the use of local forces, including the underground resistance in IS-held areas. Those forces are unalterably opposed to collaborating in a project that results in PKK rule. The U.S. is deepening its involvement in Syria, and that is long overdue, but if its involvement continues to take the mistaken road of the last half-decade it will—as we are already beginning to see—result in a much larger, unilateral involvement later to undo the damage.
Post has been updated