A power struggle between the old PKK leadership in Qandil and the younger YPG generation in Syria asks the question: Bashar al Assad or the US?

Cemil Bayik, who sits on a US wanted list, recently made remarks about the PKK’s historic and strong relations with the Assad regime and advocated for an agreement between the regime and the YPG. These remarks are not only related to the politics of Syria but open up a new dimension of the internal rivalry within the PKK. 

After winning several internal battles, the old generation of the PKK in Qandil is asserting its dominance against the new generation in Syria. This rivalry within the PKK leadership is important and may shape the war on terror in the region as well as the future of Syria.

For long, the Qandil leadership has methodically reduced the role of Mazloum Abdi, the adoptive son of Abdullah Ocalan and the general commander of the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. After years of operating in the PKK, Mazloum Abdi was sent to Syria by the Qandil leadership to command the YPG forces and organise the Syrian branch of the PKK. 

In 2014, a new chapter began when the US decided to aid and support the YPG. From then on the YPG grew in capacity, influence, manpower, capital, territorial control, and international renown and legitimacy. 

On one side, Mazloum Abdi took phone calls and had virtual meetings with foreign leaders. The political supreme representative of the YPG, Elham Ahmad, a PKK veteran herself, frequently visited western and Russian capitals. On the other side, the Qandil leadership continued to live in the mountains absent from the international stage. Moreover, the US declared a bounty on the three leading figures of the PKK.

This new dynamic opened the way for Mazloum Abdi and Elham Ahmad to emancipate themselves within the PKK spectrum as alternative charismatic leaders against Duran Kalkan, Cemil Bayik, and Murat Karayilan. While Mazloum Abdi and Elham Ahmad point to their achievements in terms of international renown, territorial control, and have implemented the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the Qandil leadership accuses Mazloum Abdi of going astray from the ideology of the PKK and becoming an ‘American dog’.

In this manner, the main battle for control over the PKK’s future strategy and agenda started when Mazloum Abdi proposed an intra-Kurdish dialog with the Kurdish National Coalition (ENKS). The Kurdish National Coalition is a coalition of the strongest Kurdish political parties in Syria and represents the majority of Syrian Kurds. Their armed branch, the Roj Peshmerga, was exiled by the YPG to northern Iraq. In northern Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government supports and uses the Roj Peshmerga against Daesh and the PKK.

The idea of an intra-Kurdish dialog was welcomed in Washington and with extensive American pressure, ENKS agreed to the intra-Kurdish dialog even though most of their members and leaders were killed, arrested, tortured, or exiled by the YPG in the past. 

When the talks started, the Qandil leadership actively sabotaged the negotiations through their loyal man in Syria, Aldar Xalil, who represented the YPG during the negotiations. From the perspective of the Qandil leadership, ENKS is a Syrian offshoot of Barzani and the KDP that the PKK hate. The KDP and the Peshmerga forces have repeatedly cooperated with the Turkish Armed Forces against the PKK and demanded the PKK leave territories held by the KRG.

After this initial success, the Qandil leadership expressed their disapproval of the oil deal with the US as they knew it will torpedo PKK’s relations with Iran. The Qandil leadership depends on Iran for its survival. Here again, when Biden ended the waiver for Delta Crescent Energy to produce and export the oil in Syria, the Qandil leadership achieved another win.

Mazloum Abdi, on the other hand, has tried to balance the US and the PKK network. He needs Qandil to be able to do anything, but he also needs US support to establish himself as the new leader of the PKK and become the man who implemented the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan. To underline his commitment to the PKK, Mazloum Abdi publically demanded the release of Abdullah Ocalan. To avoid too much international criticism, he did so only in Kurdish.

The Qandil leadership sent Sofi Nureddin to Syria – a senior PKK veteran and the head of the PKK in Syria between 2013 and 2015. Through this, the Qandil leadership aimed at ending Mazloum Abdi’s challenge to them. For several months, Sofi Nureddin broke the command structure of armed and political units of the YPG and weakened Mazloum Abdi from within. 

Several blocs came back under the control of the Qandil leadership. Seeing this, Abdi tried to make a deal with the Qandil leadership. After his negotiations with Sofi Nureddin made some progress, Sofi Nureddin went back to Iraq to discuss the latest situation with the Qandil leadership. Before he exchanged views on the progress to bring Mazloum Abdi back under control, Turkish intelligence has killed him.

After the death of Sofi Nureddin, the Qandil leadership spread rumors that they will exchange Mazloum Abdi with Mahmud Berkhadan. In his most known media appearance, Mahmud Berkhadan said that the YPG will not stand idle while the Kurdish Peshmerga attack the PKK. For damage control, Mazloum Abdi went public and stated that the YPG won’t be a threat to any of its neighbors. However, the Qandil leadership managed to assert its dominance and control as Kurdish rumors say that the PKK appointed new guards for Mazloum Abdi to keep him under 24-hour surveillance.

After the Qandil leadership de-facto eliminated the threat of Mazloum Abdi for their leadership position, the recent remarks advocating for good relations with Assad and the need for a deal should be seen as an attempt to undermine Elham Ahmad. It is known that Elham Ahmad sees the future of the YPG in an alliance with the US, but the Qandil leadership believes that it is not the US, but the Assad regime, that can provide the YPG with the legal status it craves. 

Moreover, the Qandil leadership knows that a deal with the Assad regime would position them at the negotiating table while an approach via the US would sideline them. Therefore, the public push by Cemil Bayik for a pro-Assad policy may not only be driven by geopolitical calculus but rather by personal interest and factionalism.

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