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The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) controls areas of northern Syria, operating under the name of the Democratic Union Party or PYD (its political wing) and the People’s Protection Units or YPG (its military wing). On Tuesday, President Donald Trump approved plans to arm the YPG directly, abandoning a fiction that the U.S. was only arming the Arab parts of an ostensible coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is in fact controlled by the YPG/PKK. This is in preparation for the U.S. backing the “SDF” to liberate Raqqa City, the Syrian capital of the Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate. Leaving aside the geopolitical implications of the U.S. decision for NATO and regional order, and putting aside, too, the likelihood that this decision will defeat its own purposes and give IS a new lease on life, there is a purely humanitarian dimension that deserves more attention. In March the PYD effectively legalized its one-party state in northern Syria and escalated its already-severe persecution of the Kurdish opposition. That crackdown has continued.
THE NATURE OF THE PYD/YPG
The PYD/YPG is a fully integrated component of the PKK, recognised as a terrorist organisation by the European Union, NATO, and numerous individual governments, including the United States, Britain, Germany, and of course Turkey, against which the PKK has run an insurgency since 1984. The PKK was formally founded in 1978 in Turkey by Abdullah Ocalan. Ideologically, the organization mixed Marxism-Leninism and Kurdish nationalism, though the personality cult around Ocalan (“Apo”) was and is very strong. The PKK fought initially for secession and later for autonomy in the Kurdish-majority areas of Turkey.
The PKK is a severely authoritarian organisation. It spent the years leading up to its formal foundation—and indeed the years afterward, until the Turkish coup d’état in September 1980 drove the PKK from the country—attacking other Kurds and Leftists, trying to monopolize the support from that part of the Kurdish political spectrum. This did not stop. In 1985, the PKK struck down Cetin Gungor (Semir) in Sweden after he advocated internal democratic procedures. After the PKK launched its war against the Turkish state from bases in Iraq it gained considerable popularity, which is unsurprising, given the long history of anti-Kurdish discrimination by the authorities in the Turkish republic, and the especial savagery of the post-1980 junta. Ocalan used this wave of popular assent to conduct a bloody purge of those he thought might pose a future threat to his leadership, correctly calculating that this would not get much attention when set against the fact that the long-awaited war had finally begun.
Kurdish support for the PKK was not unanimous. Significant parts of the Kurdish population in Turkey sided with the state and formed militias in their villages to keep the PKK out, for example. The PKK also created Kurdish antagonists by insisting that it was the only legitimate representative of Kurdish opinion and its ruthless dealings with the large number of dissenters from this, who were and are labelled “traitor Kurds”. Forced conscription and “taxes” (extortion) imposed by the PKK on populations under its rule have obvious advantages in military-insurgency terms, but diminishing returns do set in.
The PKK began setting up local organizations in the mid-2000s, primarily in Syria and Iran but also to a lesser degree in Iraq. The intention was to hide its hand, so it could better embed in populations that were suspicious of it because of its collaboration with their governments, and to avoid the international terrorism designation, especially in the War on Terror environment after 9/11. Despite claims that the group transitioned at this point from old-line Stalinism to a form of eco-anarchistic stateless democracy called “Democratic Confederalism,” in practice old habits have remained.
BACKGROUND TO THE CRACKDOWN
The PYD/PKK made “Decree Number Five,” built out of an ordinance issued in April 2014, operational as of 13 March 2017. It requires the registration of “unlicensed” political parties on penalty of closing their offices. The PYD has not troubled itself with elections since it gained territory via Bashar al-Assad’s withdrawal in July 2012, but has nonetheless presented itself as the sole legitimate representative of Syrian Kurds and worked to suppress opposition. It has a long record of attacking peaceful demonstrators, ransacking the offices of political groups, and jailing, exiling, and even killing journalists, activists, and others.
The PYD has arrested dozens of opponents every year it has been controlling territory, and has taken in hundreds of de facto prisoners as conscripts. Last summer this intensified, with Ibrahim Biro, the leader of the Kurdish opposition umbrella group, the Kurdish National Council (KNC or ENKS), being expelled from Rojava, as the PYD calls the areas it controls, and told he would be killed if he returned. A dozen KNC members were abducted in the days that followed, including Hassan Saleh, who had been imprisoned multiple times for his resistance to the Assad regime. When protests against this conduct broke out, they were violently quelled and more KNC members were kidnapped the following day.
No less than thirty oppositionists were abducted over a two-day period before the passage of Decree Number Five. Independent events pertaining to International Women’s Day were broken up, with women arrested and one doctor stabbed by PYD youth. A women’s union that publicly resisted the demand that it submit itself for approval by the PYD was burned to the ground the day after the decree came into effect. The PYD had raided, sacked, and sealed numerous opposition offices before the decree, and within five days of passing the total stood at forty-four. The repression continued through March.
THE CURRENT WAVE OF THE CRACKDOWN
On 23 March, Amin Omar, a teacher in Derik (Al-Malikiya), was kidnapped by the PYD. Omar’s “crime” is that he is the brother of Hussein Omar, a member of the Kurdish Union Party, usually known as the Yekiti Party, a constituent of the KNC. Hussein himself was kidnapped and detained between 9 February 2017 and 20 March. Fuad Ibrahim, a youth officer with the KNC, was arrested by the PYD on 25 March. This led to protests by Kurds aligned with the KNC in Germany, where there is a very large diaspora population (and extensive PKK networks), on 27 March, demanding that the PYD be put on the terrorism list. This did nothing to halt the PYD, who abducted a senior KNC official, Adnan Mahmud, three days later.
Ahmad Harran al-Motawab, a 16-year-old boy, was killed fighting for the PYD/YPG in Shadadi on 2 April. Al-Motawab had tried to flee Rojava to Turkey eighteen months ago, but was arrested at a PYD checkpoint. That was the last his family heard of him. As it now transpires, al-Motawab had become one of the YPG’s many child soldiers. On 10 April, Farhad Muhammad Othman, a shopkeeper in Dirbesiya, a town in northern Hasaka along the Turkish border, was arbitrarily detained by the PYD. The “taxation” policy also became a particular issue of contention in Kobani in April.
The PYD moved against the headquarters of the KNC in Qamishli on 9 May, arresting thirteen people:
The PYD has released ten of the thirteen, but continues to detain Ms. Fasla Yusef, the vice president of the KNC, plus Muhsin Taher and Muhammad Amin Hussam, both prominent Kurdish opposition figures. [UPDATE: on 31 May, the PYD released Ms. Yusef, and on 5 June confirmed to the families that Taher and Hussam were in the Asayish’s custody.]
It was reported that in separate operations on 9 May, the PYD abducted another four KNC officials, two of them women, from their homes in Qamishli, and closed down the offices of the Germany-based Democracy Centre for the Human Rights.
[UPDATE: Though the Kurdish opposition made a statement of defiance on 14 May, it did nothing to stop this latest round of repression by the PYD. Bashar Amin, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (PDK-S) from Hasaka, was abducted by the PYD on 20 May, and confirmed to be at the Allaya prison in Qamishli on 1 June. On 23 May, the PYD arrested another two Kurdish oppositionists: Sulayman Osso of the Yekiti Party and Nafea Abdulla of PDK-S. An eighty-year-old political activist associated with PDK-S, Muhammad Hassan Sido, died in PYD custody on 24 May ostensibly from a heart attack after being arrested in his home village of Beilan, in the Sheran district of Efrin, and charged with growing cannabis.]
There is a claim from this morning that yesterday the PYD’s security forces, the Asayish, raided a village in Hasaka Province searching for Rami al-Turki, a young man who had been conscripted by the YPG before deserting. Al-Turki allegedly hid, until the PYD began threatening his family by, inter alia, firing in the air, at which point he charged them. In the ensuing melee, it is alleged that at least four civilians, including al-Turki, and three YPG militiamen were killed.
[UPDATE: The PYD/YPG attacked the makeshift headquarters of Liwa Suqour al-Raqqa, one of the Arab SDF units, in the Ghanem petrol station in the Tel Abyad district on 31 May. Arabs in the SDF have frequently complained about being starved of weaponry and kept deliberately weak and pliable by the PYD. Liwa Suqour al-Raqqa was driven from its positions by this attack.
The PKK has a long history of collaboration with the pro-regime coalition, and this has received fresh scrutiny after the PYD handed areas of Minbij, which the PYD captured from IS with massive assistance from the U.S.-led Coalition, to the regimists. The regime has underwritten the PYD statelet for the length of this war, and after the PYD imported this system to Minbij, with the “Qandilians,” the PKK commanders trained at the PKK bases in Qandil, northern Iraq, controlling matters from the shadows while the regime financed state operations and Assad’s secret police were given free access. In late May, the PYD handed fifty people it had arrested in Minbij to the Assad regime, some of whom were thrown in regime dungeons and others were forcibly conscripted into the regime’s decimated armed forces.
The PYD has been accused of demographic engineering to make its polity more durable. This suspicion lurks behind the expulsion of the established Hammoudi family from Tel Abyad city on the pretext that one of its sons had joined the Turkey-run Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD and posted negative remarks about the PYD on Facebook. The PYD also continued its assault on independent media, kidnapping another journalist, Barzan Hussein, a correspondent for Zagros Channel, on 13 May. Hussein had been working in Rmaylan.]
Most often the PYD settles for short-term arrest as a scare tactic, which can be effective, not least because time in PYD prisons so often includes torture. There are other occasions when those apprehended are either kept in custody over long periods (the PYD still holds political prisoners it abducted in 2012), expelled from the Syrian Kurdish areas, or killed. A notable case is Kawa Khaled Hussein, a member of the Kurdish opposition Azidi Party, who was tortured to death in PYD custody.
It would be a positive development if the U.S. used its leverage to insist that the PYD cease its attacks on Kurdish opposition groups and allowed space for diversity of opinion. However, there are reasons to be sceptical that this is possible, relating to the PYD’s very nature.
“The PYD’s terrorist practices reveal the hypocrisy of its claims regarding its democratic attitude,” the KNC said in a press release on 11 May; “they attest to the PYD’s … growing isolation from the population.” This is what the KNC is expected to say. It is also true. As The International Crisis Group recently noted, the PYD remains focused on Turkey, holding to the PKK line. Perhaps at some point the PYD will become Syria-centric and prioritize the well-being of the Syrian Kurds who have fallen under its rule. Until then Syria is merely a launchpad, and the abuses needed to maintain the rule of a party that originated apart from the society it seeks to govern, for ends unrelated to that society’s well-being, will continue.