The SDF was formed and backed by the US to drive Daesh out of northern Syria. However, the group has strived for permanent presence in the region. With Daesh virtually erased from Syria, the SDF militia looks instead towards regional autonomy.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian regime have captured the strategic eastern city of Deir Ezzor from Daesh. Not only does this signify the loss of Daesh’s final urban stronghold in Syria, it also means that the SDF now has control of Syria’s oil-rich northeastern region, which had previously provided income for Daesh when it took over the city in April 2014.
Deir Ezzor is the last area where the SDF defeated Daesh in resource-rich northern Syria. Since 2014, the SDF fought against Daesh in the north with major support from the US, and now controls most of the Syrian land near the Turkish border, including Raqqa and east of Deir Ezzor province.
With Daesh defeated from all its urban strongholds, and no more land left for it to target, the SDF has now come to its territorial limits.
In the south, regime forces advanced through the Iraqi border from the Mediterranean coast. Meanwhile, Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition groups are in the north and the west, with Iraq in the east.
So far, the US has supported the SDF in northern Syria, insisting that it was their most powerful ally against Daesh, despite strong opposition from Turkey.
US backing for the SDF drove a wedge between NATO allies Turkey and the United States. The YPG forms the backbone of the SDF and is the Syrian branch of the PKK. The PKK, which has waged an armed campaign against the Turkish state for several decades, has been designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU. Its growth along northern Syria is Turkey’s foremost security concern.
The YPG had declared its desire for an autonomous region in Syria’s north since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. As the war progressed, it positioned itself as a key player for the future of Syria by overtaking large swaths of land in northern Syria with the technical, logistical and military support of the US and the diplomatic backing of Russia.
As it has been coming closer to its borders, the YPG has taken steps to formalise and legitimise its presence in the region, through internal steps and external support. Here’s how:
What is the YPG?
The People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is based in the Kurdish-majority regions in northern Syria.
The PYD was founded in 2003 as a political party, and the YPG was founded in 2011 as armed groups loyal to PYD came together soon after the outbreak of the Syrian war.
How did they grow?
The war in Syria has multiple fronts. The Syrian regime ceded eastern Syria to Daesh and northern Syria to the US-armed YPG while retaining western Syria, where it carried out campaigns backed by Russia, Iran and Iranian-backed Shia militias including Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The YPG took advantage of the power vacuum and took control of wide swaths of land in the eastern and western parts of northern Syria. The US supported the group through various means as a partner in the fight against Daesh, and Russia provided logistical and diplomatic support for them in the Afrin region in northwestern Syria.
Although the YPG has significant support in the areas under its control, not all Kurdish groups back them. Some Kurdish groups joined the Syrian opposition and are against autonomy in the region. Other Kurdish groups have protested the policies of the YPG/PYD in the northeastern region of Syria, which they say puts pressure on any group it considers to be a threat.
The YPG has also garnered significant international support through propaganda campaigns that framed the group as "the only democratic force" fighting against Daesh.
How significant was US and Russian support?
The US has provided arms, logistical, technical and strategic support for the YPG in northern Syria. YPG members have also been found with advanced US military equipment that the Pentagon has denied supplying.
When the US openly started arming the YPG in May 2017 it caused further strains in an already-tense relationship between the NATO allies. Despite the US’ promises that they would take back weapons from the YPG after the defeat of Daesh, analysts say this is unlikely.
“It was pretty clear that the arms were unrecoverable,” Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, Kyle Orton, told TRT World. “I don't expect that to change.”
While Russia does not openly provide material support like the US, it financially supports the YPG in Afrin, and provides the group with diplomatic support. It also protected the group on the ground several times by stationing its troops between Turkish-backed opposition groups and the YPG, effectively preventing assaults by the Turkish-backed opposition.
Together, the US and Russia facilitated the YPG’s growth and helped maintain their captured territories.
Because of the extent of their intervention in the conflict, the future of the YPG also rests on the actions and decisions of the international powers US and Russia and their desires for the future of Syria.
"Turkey has a clear stance against the PYD's regional autonomy. The US is also clear on its position — they will likely support an autonomous region, and they will also push for it," said Assistant Professor in Political Science and International Relations department at Istanbul Sehir University, Huseyin Alptekin.
"What we don't know is what Russia will do given Turkey's PKK/PYD concerns and the American pro-PKK/PYD stance...[but] Russia's decision will determine the outcome."
What are the YPG’s “cantons”?
After the start of the Syrian war, the YPG took control of Afrin, Kobane and Amuda, and soon thereafter proclaimed three autonomous areas called Afrin, Kobane and Jazira (from the west to the east) following the withdrawal of Syrian regime forces.
It soon proclaimed these areas as “cantons” in line with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s vision for autonomous Kurdish areas in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The PYD leaders currently hold administrative roles in the councils that were founded in the areas the YPG captured.
Ocalan had previously advocated for "Kurdish independence," but after being jailed, he developed an ideological framework called “democratic confederalism,” which aims to create autonomous regions within the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. He also developed the idea of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), a political umbrella structure that reorganises the branches of the PKK to implement “democratic confederalism.”
So where does the SDF come in?
As the YPG gained territory in northern Iraq, it started to encompass a small number of non-Kurdish elements, and “re-branded” itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as it headed towards Raqqa in 2015.
Its renaming was a result of Turkey’s harsh reaction to US support to the group. Turkey opposed the YPG rule.
The US asked the YPG to get a new name to increase its legitimacy and to pacify their NATO ally Turkey. "We literally played back to them [YPG]: 'You have got to change your brand. What do you want to call yourselves besides the YPG?'" With about a day's notice they declared that they are the Syrian Democratic Forces," said US Army General Raymond Thomas, the head of Special Operations Command.
"I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put democracy in there somewhere. But it gave them a little bit of credibility," he continued.
What was Turkey’s response?
Turkey’s biggest security concern is the YPG carving out an autonomous territory near its southeastern border. Turkey, which has a sizable Kurdish population on its side of the border fears a similar movement on its own soil.
As the YPG spread across northern Syria, Turkey sought to prevent the group from connecting its so-called cantons in the east (Kobane) and west (Afrin) with Operation Euphrates Shield starting in August 2016.
Euphrates Shield had the two-pronged aim of preventing the YPG from having a continuous stretch of land along Turkey’s south, and also pushed Daesh back from Turkey’s borders.
Turkey has also deployed troops in the Euphrates Shield zone near YPG-held areas in Afrin and Manbij, though attempted military actions from Turkey and Turkish-backed FSA troops were blocked by Russia.
Turkey continues to station its troops in Syria's Idlib province, which borders Afrin to the north, in order to prevent any move by the YPG towards the south.
How is the YPG consolidating its control?
Experts familiar with the region say that since the era of territorial expansion for the PYD is now over, the next steps will be towards political and organisational transformation.
"The PYD has reached its limit [in terms of territorial expansion]. Their next step is institutional consolidation," said Alptekin.
Over the border, the Kurds in Syria vote for the first time in local elections, first of three campaigns in the autonomous area pic.twitter.com/qlTLYvZmO2— Guy Elster (@guyelster) September 22, 2017
"Their co-chairs [leadership] has changed, and they have carried out local elections," he continued. "They are transforming from a fighting militia to a governing organisation."
The YPG-controlled areas in northern Syria held a vote in late September as part of a plan to set up a KRG-like federal system in Syria. The vote was to pick leaders for 3,700 “communes” in the region.
Turkey has repeatedly underlined its support for the territorial integrity and unity of Syria. A Turkish diplomatic source, who spoke to TRT World on the condition of anonymity, said that Turkey does not recognise any kind of restructuring process in northern Syria, and that Turkey observed the process with concern.
The source also said that Turkey would retaliate against any attack from Afrin that could threaten Turkey’s national security.
The September vote was the first of a three-part process. Although the second vote for local councils was supposed to take place in early November, it was postponed until later in the month due to the political and diplomatic fallout following the referendum in the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.
The third vote for a parliament-like assembly is to take place in January 2018.
However, the success of their institutional consolidation and movement from de facto autonomy to autonomy de jure depends on various internal and external factors.
"In order to transform to a de jure authority, the PYD internally will try to consolidate its rule in the territories under its control with elections and alliances," said Alptekin.
"...[E]xternally, [it] will try to reach an agreement with Russia and Assad over the regional borders, while trying to prevent a possible Turkish military operation with the American backing," said Alptekin.
The YPG (and later, SDF)-controlled areas are not all Kurdish-majority. In addition to some Kurdish-majority regions, in cities that have Arab-majority populations, like Tal Abyad, Manbij, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, the group does not have much public support.
Reports from international human rights monitors have shown that the YPG has engaged in war crimes, including ethnic cleansing of Arab and Turkmen populations in areas previously held by Daesh.
Is the Syrian regime changing its stance?
Although the Russia-backed Syrian regime had previously denied any considerations for autonomy, regime Foreign Minister Walid al Moualem announced in late September that the topic of autonomy “was open to negotiation” after the defeat of Daesh, showing the YPG’s growing influence in the region.
Orton says that clashes between the US-backed YPG and the Syrian regime are unlikely.
“But it's much more likely that the PKK cut a deal with Assad. Because they have elsewhere in the country like Manbij, where they cut a deal with regime, it more seems likely to pass in confrontation.”
Analysts also point to the oil wealth in Deir Ezzor as a potential bargaining chip for the YPG.
“The PKK may try to keep the oil fields for themselves, and try to get income from them. But also that they are all valuable tips to trade away,” continued Orton. “It's got... to trade away in exchange of some kind of autonomy within the Kurdish areas.”
Approximately 30-35 thousand barrels of oil per day are produced from nearly 350 small oil wells located in the war-torn country's southwestern Al Suwayda city and the oil rich cities of Rimelan and Karasjok in northeast Syria.
In July, the YPG/PYD handed over the control of oil production in the Rimelan region to the Assad regime and a revenue sharing agreement was signed between the sides, according to a report by Anadolu Agency.
According to the agreement, the Assad regime would receive 65 percent of the revenue while the YPG/PYD would obtain 20 percent. The YPG/PYD gives the remaining revenue to local Arab forces that are responsible for the protection of the fields. The Assad regime supplies salaries of the guards and other workers.
Despite the agreement, the YPG/PYD still keeps an office in the Rimelan region where their officers provide reports on oil production to the organisation.
The oil that is produced from these fields is transported via trucks to refineries in Syrian regime-held Homs. Entrepeneur Husam Katirci, a close associate of the Assad family, oversees the oil transfer.
In Deir Ezzor, an Arab-majority province, the SDF has gained momentum and legitimacy to extend their span of control in territories west of the Euphrates river.
A seat at the negotiation table?
With the Syrian war winding down, a political solution to the conflict has become more likely than ever.
Turkey has barred the PYD/YPG from a seat at negotiation tables at the UN-backed Geneva talks, which aim to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Although Russia and Turkey have been co-operating to implement de-escalation zones in Syria, Russia has also been pushing for PYD/YPG inclusion in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an umbrella organisation of Syrian opposition groups, to help "balance" US influence in the group.
Russia had also invited the YPG/PYD to its proposed Congress of Syrian National Dialogue, an invitation quickly rescinded upon Turkey’s objection.
“Obviously PKK has very longstanding relations with Russians and the Russians are quite okay with the idea of some kind of autonomous zone in the northeastern Syria,” said Orton.
“So they've been trying to mediate that with Damascus.”
On the other hand, Russia also needs Turkey for negotiations with Turkish-backed groups in Syria, and Turkey would not accept PYD presence at the negotiation table.
"It is difficult to convince Turkey [in this regard]," said Alptekin.
The PYD's status is a key point of contention between the parties involved, and will likely be discussed in the first-ever meeting between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Sochi on Wednesday.