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At the end of May, Christoph Reuter, a journalist with Der Spiegel, embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as it made its way, supported by the U.S.-led Coalition, toward Raqqa city, the Syrian “capital” of the Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate. Reuter’s report provides snapshots of a number of important—and worrying—dynamics at play that have made the U.S. decision to back the SDF to liberate Raqqa so worrying over the long-term, even on its own terms as a means of sustainably defeating IS.
The primary military component of the SDF is the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is, no matter how often it is denied, a fully integrated and organic component of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group registered as a terrorist organization by most Western states, the European Union, and NATO.
Pictures of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, are ubiquitous in YPG-held areas, Reuter finds: on the office walls of the YPG commanders, on the windows of trucks, even worn as amulets. (The YPG claim is that they are inspired by Ocalan’s ideology, “Democratic Confederalism,” yet organizationally “completely separate”.) At another point Reuter notes, “Several of the officers and specialists …, aside from Kurdish, speak only Turkish”. Early in the war, the high-ranking YPG officials would try to hide the fact that they understand Turkish because it was a giveaway that they had spent decades engaged in terrorist-insurgent activity in Turkey.
The U.S. has paid lip-service to the idea of “locally based Arab forces who know the terrain and know the territory” liberating and governing territory as the means of keeping IS out. The Kurdish identity of the PYD/YPG inhibits them from being this force, so the Coalition sought to graft Arab forces onto the YPG/PKK core, and the resulting multi-ethnic formation is the SDF.
There have been extraordinary estimates given by the Coalition of the proportion of Arabs in the 45,000-man SDF force being sent to Raqqa. In December, it was claimed at about 30%; the claim was revised up to 60% in early March; a fortnight later it stood at 75%. Needless to say, this estimate has been greeted with some caution. Reuter puts the number of Arabs in the SDF at “[a]round a tenth”. The Turkish government and some at CENTCOM say the real number is 2,000. This numbers game rather misses the point, however, since the PKK subverted the SDF program.
The SDF concept had intended to dilute the PKK’s power, but the PKK utilized the concession to ethnic pluralism as a means of further strengthening its political monopoly. New Arab recruits to the SDF have to pass through ideological training and declare allegiance to Ocalan. The earlier rebel units who joined the SDF, often to seek shelter when they were in peril, have been kept deliberately dependent and unable to challenge the PKK’s decision-making process. Put simply, the Arab SDF detachments became force multipliers for the PKK, providing a more acceptable—and perhaps (for a time, anyway) sustainable—face to police and administer the PKK’s political project in the Arab-majority areas that have fallen under PKK rule as a byproduct of the anti-IS campaign.
Reuter finds a classic example of this. If the word “moderate” has any meaning left it applies to Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (LTR), a Free Syrian Army rebel unit, which was a leading component of the anti-IS revolt in January 2014 and “doesn’t belong to the Islamist camp,” as Reuter notes. LTR joined the YPG/PKK-led “Euphrates Volcano” operations room in defending Kobani from IS in late 2014 and thereafter joined the SDF. But LTR’s leader, Abu Issa, is now under “village arrest” because he proved insufficiently pliable to the YPG/PKK.
First, the YPG commander that LTR had interacted with through the Kobani siege was shipped out, and his replacement “said he knew nothing about [the LTR-YPG coordination] and was just following Öcalan’s orders”. This coincided with the U.S. overbalance away from the armed opposition to the YPG, bolstering that organization and leaving groups like LTR to wither. The final straw for Abu Issa came when he “and others demanded that Raqqa be liberated by rebels from the city and that residents be allowed to choose their own city council. ‘That’s why we took to the streets in 2011, for freedom and rights,’ Abu Issa says.” This kind of independent-mindedness will not be tolerated by the YPG.
Reuter remarks that in the run-up to the Raqqa operation, as the YPG/PKK prepared to extend its rule over a new zone, it systematically dismantled the remnants of the Kurdish opposition in the areas it already controls. The YPG presents itself to the West as a democratic outfit, while running an “air-tight and cleverly disguised regime of party dominance,” Reuter notes. The Kurds who stand against the YPG’s authoritarian system have been assassinated in a number of cases, and “arrested, beaten and deported to Iraq” in many others. The Kurdish dissidents’ “offices were closed or burned down” over the last few months, Reuter writes. “Demonstrators who protested the arrests were shot.” In the YPG areas, “Freedom … ends where the party’s absolute hold on power is questioned”.
The YPG was “a perfect partner for U.S. President Barack Obama’s Syrian strategy” because “Obama wanted to fight IS, but not Assad,” as Reuter writes. Shooting at Assad would have risked the Iranian nuclear accord, Obama believed. Few rebels would agree to abandon the fight against Assad to focus solely on IS, and were therefore increasingly written out of U.S. policy, their minimal support eroded and U.S. reliance on the YPG became ever-more exclusivist.
This calculation might be undergoing a rethink since President Donald Trump has proven willing to confront Assad and his allies, Iran and Russia—the coalition of forces that lie at the root of the conditions in which the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have thrived. Trump reacted swiftly in April to punish Assad’s use of chemical weapons of mass destruction, has bombed Iranian-run pro-Assad forces approaching the Tanf base housing anti-IS rebels three times since 18 May, and just last night the U.S. downed an Assad regime jet that was attacking YPG forces.
The demonstration that the U.S. will protect the YPG even from the regime coalition could potentially ease a rebalancing of relations with the YPG. The YPG can feel secure enough that it will not be “abandoned” that it could at the very least not deepen its entanglement with the pro-Assad coalition, yet can be confined to the Kurdish-majority areas since it cannot, should not, and has little self-interest in liberating all of eastern Syria.
There are those for whom, “Anything, anything at all, is better than Daesh,” as one refugee from IS-held territory puts it to Reuter. But the available evidence suggests this is not majority sentiment in Raqqa. Governance in eastern Syria is significantly based on tribal structures. The abuses by the PKK in other Arab areas have significantly contributed to the tribes’ fears about YPG/PKK rule, and personal familiarity has not helped. Those tribes that have had the most contact with the YPG/PKK are the most hostile, putting themselves at the service of IS in exchange for the jihadists’ help against the PKK. IS emerged, and revived after seeming defeat, because of a crisis of legitimate governance in the Sunni Arab zones of the Fertile Crescent. The PKK seems unlikely to be the answer to that.
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UPDATE: Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (LTR) and Quwwat al-Nukhbat (The Elite Forces) were the only Arab units within the SDF that exercised any meaningful independence from the YPG/PKK. As described above, LTR was purged before the Raqqa Operation even properly began, and the Elite Forces were purged on 8 July, forced to surrender their positions around Raqqa. Whether the Elite Forces retained a relationship was left ambiguous after this, until the 25 August defection of hundreds of Elite Forces members to the SDF’s “Deir Ezzor Military Council”, in preparation for the U.S.-led coalition’s offensive into Deir Ezzor, which began on 9 September 2017.