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The YPG menace: Understanding PKK’s Syria offshoot

  • 25 May 2022

PKK leaders endorse links with the YPG. Yet Washington continues to work with the Syria-based terror outfit.

Despite US denial, PKK and YPG have powerfully been linked to each other. In 2017, after the YPG-led SDF takeover of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of Daesh, YPG terrorists had publicly displayed Ocalan posters in the main square of the city. ( TRTWorld )

Türkiye has sent a very clear signal to its allies and foes alike. It will not tolerate terrorist groups to fester and grow along its border especially when they threaten to infiltrate and kill its civilians.

Ankara has announced that it’s gearing up a for possible cross-border operation into northeastern Syria to crush PKK/YPG terror groups. This comes on top of a spat with NATO over membership talks with Finland and Sweden – the two Nordic countries which have harbored PKK members. 

The YPG/PKK units in northern Syria have for years been an active part of the US-backed SDF. Washington has long dubbed SDF as its key armed ally in its fight against Daesh, which controlled a vast swath of territory in the region up till 2017. 

Türkiye believes the SDF is merely a political front to hide the YPG/PKK presence among its ranks. PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation in the US and European Union. Yet, tens of millions of dollars of American taxpayers' money is spent on arming the YPG, an offshoot of the PKK. 

The US denies political and military connections between the PKK and the YPG,  backing the latter politically, financially and militarily. The continuous US support to the YPG has strained ties between the two NATO allies. 

While Türkiye’s possible operation aims to diminish PKK/YPG’s presence in northern Syria close to the Turkish border, Ankara wants the US, Sweden and Finland to declare that they’ll cut ties with the PKK and its affiliates. 

The PKK has waged a nearly four-decade terror campaign against Türkiye, killing tens of thousand of people including women and children. 

On May 11, the US lifted sanctions from the YPG-led territories in northeastern Syria, allowing the terror group to sell oil products like gasoline produced in the region to other countries. 

As a clear evidence of links between PKK and YPG, an Ocalan poster is seen in the formerly YPG-controlled northwestern city of Afrin in Syria in November 2014.(Reuters)

That decision increased friction between Ankara and Washington, prompting Turkish security officials to say that it has become necessary to conduct another cross-border operation against the PKK/YPG.

Here’s how the YPG and the PKK 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 the PKK directives. Most of the PYD’s founding members happen to be Syrian. 

The PYD has been part of the KCK, which is the umbrella organisation of all PKK groups across Türkiye, Iraq, Iran, Syria and other countries since the official establishment of the KCK 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 under PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s instructions, without which neither the KKK nor KCK would exist today. 

As a direct result, Ocalan has been the undisputed leader of the KCK and also all related PKK political groups including the PYD/YPG 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.  

Ocalan has been in Turkish custody since 1999. 

Syria: A common ground

From late 1970s onwards, Ocalan remained active in Syria when Hafez al Assad, the father of current regime leader Bashar al Assad, was in power. Following Türkiye’s direct military threat to Assad in 1998, Ocalan was forced to flee Syria and eventually ended up in Kenya. 

The YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, which has long been connected with the Assad regime, remains in control of large swathes of Syria with the US backing.(AA)

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 associates for both external and internal purposes. Externally, the PKK terror groups were mobilised against Türkiye 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 Türkiye in 1939.

During the civil war, the rapid emergence of YPG-controlled territories 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. Türkiye has supported Syrian opposition groups against the Assad regime.

The withdrawal allowed the YPG terror group to claim most of the northern Syrian territories, preventing much of Türkiye’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 outfit itself, are its members from inside Türkiye, 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 terrorist, 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. In 2017, after the YPG-led SDF takeover of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of Daesh, YPG terrorists had publicly displayed Ocalan posters in the main square of the city. 

Across YPG-controlled northern Syrian territories, 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. 

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