Ten things to know about the YPG

Turkey and the US are at odds over the Pentagon's decision to arm the YPG in Syria. While Turkey insists that the YPG is a terrorist organisation, the US sees the group as a key ally in the battle against Daesh.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

YPG members at a funeral in Ras al-Ain city in Syria's Hasakah province. (File photo)

Updated May 12, 2017

1. What is the YPG?

The People’s Protection Units (YPG) are the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and are based in Kurdish-majority regions of northern Syria. The YPG was founded in 2011, shortly after the start of the Syrian civil war.

2. How did the YPG rise to prominence?

A year after the Syrian civil war started, regime leader Bashar al Assad withdrew his forces from the northern border with Turkey. The withdrawal of regime forces left a security vacuum on the Syrian side of the border, which the YPG moved in to fill.

3. Where does the YPG fit into the picture with regard to Syria?

The YPG has clashed with both the Assad regime and Syrian opposition forces, but they have primarily fought to capture from Daesh predominantly Kurdish towns and cities in the north of the country. They have declared the establishment of three autonomous cantons in areas that they control - Afrin, Kobane and Jazira.

YPG member fires an anti-aircraft weapon from Tel Tawil village at Daesh in the countryside of the town of Tel Tamr, Syria. (File photo)

4. Does the YPG represent all Syrian Kurds?

The YPG has a lot of support in the areas it controls in northern Syria. But they are not the sole representative body for Syrian Kurds, who are found across the political spectrum. Those opposed to the regime are also represented through brigades and factions within the Syrian opposition, which are against the establishment of autonomous cantons. In fact, the YPG has been accused by rights groups and observers of using undemocratic means to subdue its opponents, including Kurds.

5. So why is the YPG better known than other predominantly Kurdish groups?

The YPG has been active since its founding. But it was thrust into the spotlight in late 2014 during the battle to liberate the Syrian border town of Kobane from Daesh. The struggle was widely covered by the media amid fears over the fate of Kurds who were trapped in the town. Daesh was eventually pushed out of the town when Turkey allowed Iraqi Kurdish forces to enter Kobane through its territory to fight the terrorist group. This was hailed as a major victory for the YPG, which took control of the town after the battle was over.

A Kurdish refugee woman from the Syrian town of Kobane holds a child in a camp in the southeastern Turkish town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province. (File photo)

6. Do non-Kurds fight for the YPG?

As the YPG expanded its territory, it came to control ethnically and religiously mixed areas that include Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Armenians and Assyrians. While the YPG stands accused of ethnically cleansing non-Kurds from areas under its control, some local non-Kurdish brigades are cooperating with the YPG as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are dominated by the YPG. However, non-Kurdish elements of the SDF have proven vital in its quest for legitimacy in administering non-Kurdish towns and cities seized from Daesh.

7. Who supports the YPG?

The YPG has generated sympathy abroad with a strong propaganda campaign, presenting themselves as the only truly democratic force on the frontline against Daesh. This image has attracted foreign fighters from Western countries such as the UK, Greece, Spain and the US to Syria to fight for the YPG, with some losing their lives in the struggle against Daesh.

The YPG welcomed Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which began in late 2015. It took advantage of Russian air strikes on Syrian opposition forces in northern Aleppo to expand its territory. At the beginning of 2016, the PYD opened an office in Moscow.

But the group’s main backer has been the United States, which has supported the YPG through the SDF with arms, training and logistical support.

US forces are seen at the YPG headquarters in Mount Karachok near Malikiya, Syria, April 25, 2017.

8. Who opposes the YPG?

Turkey has carried out cross-border operations against the YPG in Syria, as it considers the group to be an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been at war with the Turkish state for much of the period since 1984 and has been responsible for around 40,000 deaths in the country since then. Turkey, as well as a number of other countries and international bodies including the US and the EU, have officially registered the PKK as a terrorist organisation. The YPG has fired on Turkey from its positions on the Syrian border and a suicide bomber who killed 37 people in Ankara in March 2016 had spent time in a YPG training camp.

YPG supporters carry YPG flags and pictures of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli, Syria April 26, 2017.

9. Why is support for the YPG so controversial?

The US denies the link between the YPG and the PKK, even at the expense of testimony offered by Washington’s former Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter. There are also a number of reports on the organisation that clearly demonstrate the link between the two, including one that records some 2,500 cases of YPG members who were killed in action and were previously known to fight for the PKK. While the US acknowledges Turkey’s concerns over the YPG and repeatedly reassures its commitment to protecting its NATO ally, Washington has proceeded to arm the YPG and go ahead with plans to back them in their bid to take the city of Raqqa from Daesh. US insistence on this policy has strained relations between Ankara and Washington.

A boy with YPG written on his cheeks and "Apo" written on his chin, the nickname of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, takes part in a celebration in the Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli. (File photo)

10. So what does this mean?

Turkey has refused to participate in the Raqqa operation if the US continues to proceed with the YPG. Turkey is instead urging its NATO ally to back the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main fighting faction of the Syrian opposition. There is also concern that the people of Raqqa, a predominantly Arab city, could reject the SDF due to its predominantly Kurdish character. The US says that the administration of Raqqa will be handed to Arab elements within the SDF, and will not be handed to the YPG.