The United States has tried to engage in Syria almost solely in a counter-terrorism capacity, against Daesh (IS) and—in a recently-escalating campaign—against al Qaeda. The narrowness of the focus on jihadist terrorists led to the US disregarding wider political dynamics in the war in Syria—and to a degree in Iraq, too—and partnering with forces that over the long term will undo even this narrow mission.
The announcement yesterday that President Donald Trump will now arm the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to expel Daesh from its Syrian capital, Raqqa, is the end-point of this policy, setting up a very dangerous medium- and long-term situation that will redound to the benefit of terrorists.
Background of American policy in Syria
President Barack Obama had come into office determined to lessen US involvement in the Middle East, and he was not deterred from this course by the Syria crisis. In August 2011, Obama called on Syria's ruler, Bashar al Assad, to "step aside," then vetoed the means of making it happen. A year later, a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction was laid down. By the time Assad undeniably violated this edict a year after that, the use of chemical weapons by his regime had become "ordinary". The US stood down from its promise to punish Assad in favour of a Russian-orchestrated scheme to strip Assad of his chemical weapons, a deal the regime of course did not keep. The US finally intervened in Syria with airstrikes in September 2014—against Daesh and al Qaeda.
The US made the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) its main ground partner in the anti-Daesh campaign. There were two main reasons for this. The immediate reason was circumstantial. Daesh was threatening to overrun the YPG-held town of Kobani in northern Syria, and—having initially hinted that the US did not consider saving the town a necessity—it became a media-political test of wills. The overarching reason related to the Obama administration's Iran policy. A legacy-making nuclear deal was in the works and Iran's client was therefore off-limits; indeed an explicit promise was made to Assad (via Iran) that he was not going to be targeted by US airstrikes into Syria. Partnership with the YPG allowed this policy to be maintained because of their conciliatory posture toward the Assad regime.
What is the YPG and what do they have to do with the outlawed PKK?
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian front of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK was founded in Turkey in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, and its ideology combines Marxist-Leninism and Kurdish nationalism—initially outright separatism and later autonomy. Turkey was in turmoil in the late 1970s as groups of various political persuasions fought in the streets. The PKK spent most of this time fighting other left-wing and Kurdish groups to try to monopolize the support base for these ideas. With the coup in September 1980, the PKK was driven into exile and essentially destroyed operationally inside Turkey.
The PKK then took refuge in Syria, where it was able to recruit and train an army with the assistance of the Assad regime and the Soviet Union, who saw the utility in a group that would destabilize Turkey, a frontline NATO state in the Cold War. At the same time, the PKK spread out in Europe, forming extensive support networks among exiled Kurdish populations, particularly in Germany, and vast criminal enterprises—everything from narcotics to weapons to human trafficking—which were and are used to feed resources to the PKK. In 1982, utilizing its live-and-let-live relationship with Saddam Hussein and its good relations with Iraqi Kurdish factions, the PKK had set up bases in northern Iraq, where the graduates of the Assad-overseen training camps were sent. It was from these Iraqi bases that, in 1984, the PKK launched its war against the Turkish state.
The PKK is run on absolutist lines. One of its early leaders, Cetin Gungor (Semir), advocated for internal democracy, and was hunted across three countries in Europe before being assassinated by PKK supporters. A wave of internal purges was conducted under the cover of beginning the war against Turkey in order to shore-up Ocalan's grip on power. Still, the PKK did gain considerable public support among Kurds in Turkey, not least because of the discriminatory state policies that denied Kurdish identity any space and the extreme repression of the post-1980 junta. This was never unanimous: the disorder—30,000 people had been killed by the time Ocalan was arrested in 1999—pushed many Kurds to join the state militias to combat the PKK, and the PKK's authoritarian practices in areas it controlled—particularly forced conscription and "taxation" (extortion)—strengthened some Kurds' wariness.
The PKK is a registered terrorist organization by NATO and the European Union, plus many individual states, including Turkey, the United States, Britain, and Germany. In its campaign against Turkey, the PKK primarily targeted security infrastructure in Turkey, but the group has also engaged in suicide bombings and other indiscriminate tactics against civilians. Of late, the PKK has conducted its more atrocious attacks through a cut-out, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK). The exact leadership structure of the TAK is unclear—some in Turkish intelligence believe it is controlled by Fehman Husayn (Bahoz Erdal), one of the most senior PKK officials—but it is clear, as laid out above, that the PKK does not allow independent actors to operate in its areas of influence. The PKK has also kidnapped Westerners and killed others in Turkey, while carrying out terrorist offences in Europe, including murder.
The PKK in Syria
An unintended side-effect of the no-fly zones that protected Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s was protection for the PKK in the Qandil Mountains and the fall of Saddam consolidated this operational space. Taking stock of the new environment, the PKK altered its structure. The PKK had already founded the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK) to participate in Iraqi Kurdish politics. In 2003, the PKK set up the PYD. Ocalan's brother, Osman, claims to have done this personally. And the next year the PKK created the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) to operate in Iran. The PKK, PCDK, PYD, and PJAK all operate under the transnational command structure of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK)—formed by Ocalan in 2005.
The attempt to deny that the PYD/YPG is under the PKK's direction simply falls. Moreover, to call the PYD and YPG "affiliates" of the PKK can give a misleading impression of separation when in fact the party and its militia are totally, organically integrated into the PKK.
"The PKK’s relationship with its affiliates is not only one of a sponsor giving birth to regional sister organizations, but also one of an inseparable strategic leadership body exercising direct command and control over only nominally distinguishable units," a study for NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism explains. The PKK does not separate its operations across state boundaries, but instead sees a "unified regional campaign … Like a shell game, the PKK leadership in Qandil shifts personnel between its affiliates and fronts, attempting to obscure the true nature of the organization and circumvent international terrorist labels. In this sense, the PKK truly has no affiliates, rather three fronts and three names consisting of the same personalities, leadership, ideology, and history of terrorism."
The most senior PKK operatives in Syria running the YPG operate out of sight, men like Fehman Husayn, Nurettin Halef al-Muhammed (Nurettin Sofi), and Sabri Ok. Other senior PKK figures like Duran Kalkan (Selahattin Abbas) at least have some control over deployments in Syria, whether or not they are actually in-country. Even the visible YPG leadership leaves little doubt about the nature of the organization: Xebat Derik and Polat Can—the YPG's representative to the anti-Daesh coalition, who has rather daringly accused Turkey of terrorism—are both PKK veterans, for example. Undoubtedly, at lower levels, the YPG is staffed by many local recruits, but the high number of Turkish citizens among the YPG's reported casualties makes clear that the direct overlap of personnel between the YPG and PKK is not only at the leadership level.
To help the US avoid its own terrorism laws, the YPG currently operates behind another front group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which gives all appearances of being the US’s chosen instrument to expel Daesh (IS) from Raqqa City, its Syrian capital. Recognizing that local forces need to be in the lead, the SDF is theoretically a coalition that includes Arab units. In reality, as even YPG/PKK members attest, the SDF is under the control of the YPG. The Pentagon claimed in December that 13,000 of the 45,000 SDF soldiers were Arabs. That figure was claimed at 60% (or 27,000) in early March and 75% (nearly 34,000) two weeks later. This was greeted with some caution. "Lying" was the exact reaction from Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, an activist group that works against Daesh inside the "caliphate". The Turkish government and at least some CENTCOM officials believe the real number is nearer 2,000.
It should be stressed that the actual number of Arabs is somewhat immaterial. The YPG/PKK ensures that Arab units of the SDF are kept weak and dependent, and the PKK screens Arabs who join the SDF, putting them through ideological training. Thus, even when the Kurdish YPG elements cede control to an Arab-majority structure like the Minbij Military Council, the PKK's control remains. Ethnic diversity has been conceded, and a political monopoly retained.
Turkey tried various means of containing the PKK's maximalism by leaning on the US before its direct intervention in Syria last August. Expanding on this, two weeks back, Turkey struck at PKK positions in the Hasaka Province of northeastern Syria and the Sinjar area of northwestern Iraq. In the aftermath, US soldiers inspected the bases in Syria as a show of solidarity alongside YPG commanders, one of whom just happened to be Ferhat Abdi Sahin (Sahin Cilo), the commander of the PKK's military units and a senior KCK official. Soon, US troops were deployed alongside YPG fighters to patrol the boundaries of the YPG statelet against Turkey, and elsewhere in Syria US and Russian troops are deployed together to deter Turkey's ability to disrupt YPG operations. Put simply: the US has aligned with Russia to protect a group on its own blacklist from its NATO ally.
The contradictions come crashing down
First, any Turkish government, of any ideological character, would detect a threat from the creation of a PKK-controlled statelet on its border. This is especially true given that YPG operatives have many times expressed their transnational intentions to carry their fight from Syria into Turkey once they have secured their statelet in Syria. That the US has enabled this, despite the YPG breaking promises to limit its areas of operations using Russian airstrikes to attack US rebel assets and helping the pro-Assad coalition in its unmerciful conquest of Aleppo City, has induced rage in Ankara, and who can be surprised? The efforts—at official and popular levels—to deny that it is in fact the PKK that has control of parts of Turkey's border can only contribute to the frustration.
Second, the problems with the US enabling the PKK to capture Arab-majority areas as it displaces Daesh are not primarily related to Turkey. PKK messaging might portray its state-building project in universalist liberal terms that could only be opposed by Arab chauvinists, but the escalating repression of the Kurdish opposition in the areas ruled by the YPG/PKK can be taken as a refutation of this thesis, which relies on a reductive notion that "the Kurds" are a disaggregated mass in Syria that supports the PKK.
The reality is that the stern opposition of most Arabs in Raqqa to the YPG replacing Daesh is political, based on a rejection of the YPG's governing structures, a perception that the YPG is aligned to the Assad regime and may hand the city to the regime coalition (something hardly helped by recent events in Manbij), and the reports of abuse visited on Arab populations that have fallen under YPG rule, specifically the YPG's very broad definition of who is "pro-IS," tending to include its political opponents as well as actual collaborators, and the expulsions and confiscation of property that have followed that designation.
It is this local dislike, distrust, and fear of the YPG/PKK, which could well trigger a broader ethno-sectarian war, that will be the material out of which Daesh makes its comeback if the YPG is supported in taking Raqqa, and these tensions will allow groups like al-Qaeda into the vacuum in eastern Syria once Daesh is evicted. There are other options that would be seen as locally legitimate and that neighbouring states would live with, rather than seek to undermine. But that would involve prioritizing the sustainability of the defeat inflicted on Daesh, rather than its speed.