PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK leadership publicly recognise the YPG as part of the PKK structure, but Washington still publicly maintains that the YPG is separate from the PKK.
After the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, US-Turkish relations have begun thawing again, but one crucial issue—the YPG presence in northern Syria along the Turkish border—is still a bone of contention between the two NATO allies.
While Washington considers YPG a strong ally in the fight against Daesh, Turkey classes YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, as a terrorist organisation.
The PKK has waged a three-decade armed campaign against the Turkish state, leading to tens of thousands of deaths and both Turkey and the US have designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation.
In fact, the US recently offered a bounty for the three top PKK leaders, but it still continues to distinguish the PKK leadership from YPG. In recent pictures, both YPG and US commanders have been seen celebrating US Veterans Day in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.
Turkey finds US policy regarding the YPG in northern Syria both problematic for Ankara’s security concerns and contradictory in itself.
YPG recruits most of its militants from the Kurdish population in northern Syria, which neighbours Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern region. Ankara thinks that a YPG consolidation, militarily and politically reinforced by the US, across its border poses a grave danger for Turkey’s national security interests.
According to Turkey’s approach, it’s also contradictory because Washington cannot support an armed group, YPG, when it designates its parent organisation, PKK, as a terrorist organisation.
Washington has refused to recognise any connection between YPG and PKK to date.
Here we explain how both armed groups are connected to each other.
A joint command structure
The YPG is officially the militant wing of the PYD, which is one of the underground parties in Syria established in 2003 under PKK directives. Most of the PYD’s founding members happen to be Syrian Kurds. The PYD has been part of the KCK, which is the umbrella organisation of all PKK groups across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and other countries since the official establishment of the group in May 2007 by the PKK leadership.
The PYD has also been part of the KKK, the predecessor organisation of the KCK, founded in 2005. Without Abdullah Ocalan’s theoretical frameworks, neither the KKK or KCK would exist today. The founder and leader of the PKK, Ocalan, based his understanding on the adaptation of Murray Bookchin’s democratic confederalism.
As a direct result, Ocalan has been the undisputed leader of the KCK and also all related PKK political groups including the PYD across the Middle East.
PYD and YPG leaders have repeatedly expressed that they recognise Ocalan as their leader, officiating their political position under the PKK.
The shift to democratic confederalism
In many ways, PYD/YPG’s “cantons” across northern Syria have been one of the physical results of Ocalan’s democratic confederalism, which aims to form autonomous regions within the borders of existing Middle Eastern countries with sizeable Kurdish populations.
Under Ocalan’s command, from its establishment in 1974 to his capture in 1998, the PKK had long defended a unified independent Kurdish state. This state would include parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, based on the Marxist-Leninist interpretations of Ocalan.
But after Ocalan was captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya, his thinking on Kurdish independence has apparently gradually changed to democratic confederalism. Since 1999, Ocalan has been imprisoned in Turkey.
The godfather of democratic confederalism is Murray Bookchin, an American socialist. His communalism has been a particular inspiration for Ocalan during his time in prison. The reorientation of the group is an attempt to adapt to both his and the Middle East’s new political realities.
Ocalan has moved from independence to democratic confederalism arguably due to the realities facing the Middle East, seeking a compromise with the Turkish state and other respective states or just adapting some kind of pragmatic window dressing to obscure his goal of an independent Kurdish state.
In any case, beyond being a kind of exceptional example of democratic confederalism, YPG cantons in northern Syria are the direct result of Ocalan’s ideas and the PKK’s adaptation of Ocalan’s thinking.
As a result, the YPG experiment, or Rojava, meaning western Kurdistan, is purely part of Ocalan’s new PKK project.
One of the YPG members confirmed this following the capture of Raqqa from Daesh by YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in late 2017.
“All victories, developments and gains made here are results of a great battle based on his opinions and philosophy. If his ideological power hadn’t been with us, we wouldn’t know what to do in such a situation,” said the member, according to Reuters.
"He [Ocalan] said that he considers himself a social ecologist, a good student of Bookchin, and had the intention to create the first polity based on his ideas," said Janet Biehl, Bookchin's biographer and long-time partner, during a panel on democratic confederalism last year.
YPG cantons are clearly Ocalan’s “first polity”, that Biehl referred in her speech. During Turkey’s peace process, Ocalan and his new KCK structure have even referred to YPG’s northern Syria experiment as being a red line and a non-negotiable item for the PKK leadership.
Syria: A common ground
Since the late 1970s, Ocalan had been hosted by Syria during the reign of Hafez al Assad, the father of current regime leader Bashar al Assad. Following Turkey’s direct military threat to Assad in 1998, Ocalan was forced to flee Syria and eventually ended up in Kenya.
During Ocalan’s years in Syria, Assad allowed the PKK to run training camps in the Syrian-occupied Bekaa Valley and other parts of the country. Under Ocalan’s leadership, the PKK and the Assad regime maintained a strong relationship which was further demonstrated during the fracturing of the country during the Syrian civil war.
Back then, the Syrian regime utilised Ocalan and his comrades for both external and internal purposes. Externally, the PKK armed groups were mobilised against Turkey to threaten the country on the water issue and the status of the Hatay province, which seceded from Syria in 1938 and became part of Turkey in 1939.
During the civil war, the rapid emergence of YPG’s autonomous cantons were possibly thanks to the regime and the PKK-coordinated military withdrawal of the Assad forces from northern Syria, according to TRT World Syrian Kurdish sources.
Turkey has supported Syrian opposition groups against the Assad regime.
The withdrawal allowed the YPG to claim most of the northern Syrian territories, preventing much of Turkey’s access to the opposition across the border and also functioning to divide opposition forces. Both YPG objectives have strongly helped the Assad regime’s cause to stay in power.
Shared membership and symbols
The close PKK-YPG links have also been apparent in YPG’s membership formation. Between 2013 and 2016, almost half of YPG casualties, reported by the YPG itself, are Kurds from inside Turkey, according to an Atlantic Council study.
“Sometimes I’m a PKK, sometimes I’m a PJAK [the PKK-allied affiliate, active in Iran], sometimes I’m a YPG. It doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK,” summed up Zind Ruken, a YPG militant, during a WSJ interview.
Most of the YPG’s crucial leadership posts have been filled by members trained militarily and ideologically in the Qandil mountains, located in northern Iraq, where the group’s leadership has been based since they were expelled from Syria in 1998.
The YPG and PKK also have common symbols among which Ocalan, as expected, comes first. Last year, after the YPG-led SDF takeover of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of Daesh, YPG militants had publicly displayed Ocalan posters in the main square of the city.
Across cantons, the picture of Ocalan has also been an indispensable item to be hung on the office walls of the YPG and PYD and has even been used in school texts.
Ocalan’s giant pictures have also been displayed in city entrances and hospitals across YPG-controlled northern Syria territories.