The recent exploitation of the collapse of the rebel front line in Aleppo by the PYD’s armed wing (YPG) and its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces took some observers by surprise.
Having been praised by many (including Syrian revolution supporters) for determined resistance to the Da’esh juggernaut, the YPG became a pariah almost overnight for attacking every rebel group in Aleppo in its bid to grab as much territory as possible before the regime got there first.
In 2014 there had been something of a thaw in relations between the YPG and various rebel groups after years of fighting that had raged ever since the YPG took control of Syria’s northern Kurdish regions. The threat of Da’esh bearing down upon them brought several groups together in an uneasy truce against a common enemy. The crucible was Kobane, which almost fell to Da’esh in September 2014 before FSA and YPG units drove the group back with heavy casualties on both sides (and more than a little help from US airstrikes). The Euphrates Volcano was the most prominent of the joint operations rooms.
Yet over a year later attempts at unity have fallen apart once again as the YPG assaults the rebels in Aleppo via the Efrin canton, accusing anyone and everyone who stands in their way of being “Islamist” aggressors. Indignation was expressed by observers online and offline, Syrian and non-Syrian. But given the YPG’s recent history, this move was hardly unexpected.
The YPG (“People’s Defence Units”) established in 2011 originated in the PYD (Democratic Union Party) established in 2003, the Syrian wing of the Kurdish Marxist rebel group PKK. The PKK has been engaged in a decades-long struggle against the Turkish state. The Assad regime had massacred tens of revolting Kurds in al-Qamishli in 2004, displacing thousands. The PYD was seen as an opponent of the regime in the aftermath of the massacre.
Up until April of 2011 when the anti-regime uprising was in full swing, the PYD was said to be engaged in a very lop-sided struggle against the regime. Up to 1400 YPG-linked activists were arrested, tortured and killed. The leadership (including current PYD leader Salih Muslim) was exiled abroad, unable to enter Syria for fear of arrest.
When the uprising began in March 2011 the PKK was initially supportive of the anti-government rising. Anti-Assad activists were interviewed on the PKK’s RojTV, given over to Syrian opposition use. Known opposition figures such as Abdulrazak Eid, Haytham Manna, Fayez Sara, Hassan Abdul Azim and Yassin al-Haj Saleh were interviewed. The PKK also encouraged Syrians to rise up and stage demonstrations.
That same March, Iran’s army began heavily shelling the PKK’s bases in the Qandil Mountains. The Qandil Mountains are a crucial stronghold; from this natural fortress the various PKK-aligned groups receive orders from the central command. Several branches of the PKK are garrisoned there alongside the PYD. This includes the Iraq-based Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK) formed in 2002, and the Iran-based Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) formed in 2004.
After the shelling increased, jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan got the message. He ordered the pro-revolution discourse to cease from his Imrali Island prison. The tables turned; PKK propaganda outlets now smeared the revolution – for everything from demonstrations being carried out outside mosques (the PKK is avowedly atheist) to the revolution allegedly being “controlled” by the Muslim Brotherhood.
On April 6th 2011 Ocalan told his lawyer to transmit a message to the regime. The following was part of it; Ocalan declared that Assad should “meet with the Kurdish organizations. The PYD is there, and if Assad’s Syria carries out democratic reforms we will support them.” In exchange for supporting the regime Ocalan suggested several steps:
Cultural and self-administration rights could be recognized as part of these reforms; for example, municipalities could be run [independently]. Kurds could be given the chance to administer their affairs for themselves and have their identity recognized. If they [the Syrian regime] do that, we will support them […]
He finished off his statement with a nonchalant remark: “The Assad family knows my approach to the cause.”
This is hardly an exaggeration. From 1979-1999, the PKK was welcomed by Hafez al-Assad. Syria’s late ruler helped the PKK to establish training camps and Ocalan gave him permission to use PKK fighters for operations in his proxy war against Turkey. The PKK also held official conferences (at least two by 1982) on Syria’s territory. Ocalan also received weapons and financial support from the regime. His organisation was essentially controlled by Syrian intelligence; Ocalan was too indebted to Hafez to resist.
When the PKK declared war against Turkey in 1984, Hafez allowed Ocalan to recruit thousands of young Syrian Kurds for the bloody struggle. By the 1990’s Ocalan was so obliged to the Assad family that he denied Syrian Kurds (or Kurdistan in Syria) existed; he claimed most were “immigrants.” As such, the PKK would “return them to their original homeland.”
Such was Ocalan’s dependency on Hafez al-Assad’s clique for support that he was even prepared to deny that the existence of the Kurdish people in Syria had any historical basis. His statements never came close to criticising Assad’s tyrannical mistreatment of his own Kurdish population – in fact he encouraged Assad’s “Arabization” (expelling Kurds from Syrian Kurdistan and supplanting them with Arabs) by claiming they should never have been there in the first place.
By 1999 Turkey had tired of the PKK launching assaults against their state from Syria; Hafez was told to either give up Ocalan or face war. In 1998 Syria expelled Ocalan (he was then arrested and deported to Turkey in 1999) and went about normalising relations with Turkey. When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000 he closed the PKK’s camps, renditioned key PKK members to Turkey and dismantled their infrastructure. However, some claimed that clandestine Syrian support for the PKK continued, and that the PYD may have been collaborating with the regime, even engaging in subversive activity against the Kurdish population on behalf of the regime.
By April 2011, Ocalan and the PKK had seen the opportunity to re-establish their organisation within Syria – on the side of the Assad regime. On April 13th 2011 Ocalan released another statement to his lawyer, reiterating his previous demands and adding:
If Syria accepts these demands, support will be given to Assad […] If the state moves in the opposite [direction], takes temporary steps and adopts a dilatory political approach, the Kurdish people, led by the PYD, will fight alongside the Arab opposition, following the principle of democratic self-administration.”
In other words, the PKK would side with whoever was guaranteed to grant it the breathing space it needed within Syria’s borders to take advantage of the collapsing regime and establish a Kurdish “state” based on Ocalan’s blend of hard-line socialism and “Democratic Confederalism”.
Assad took the bait. In April 2011 Ocalan sent 1000 PKK fighters from the Qandil Mountains into Syria in coordination with the regime’s security apparatus. They began to organise themselves into the “People’s Defence Units” (YPG), completely unmolested by the omnipresent regime forces. By late 2011 Assad had allowed the PYD to open six Kurdish language schools in territories under his control. These schools are openly used for propaganda and indoctrination purposes. In March 2012 another 2000 PKK fighters were allowed to enter Syria’s borders.
In July 2012 the regime put a plan of action into effect in coordination with the PYD and withdrew its forces from Kobanî, Amuda, and Afrin. In fact the regime abandoned most of Syrian Kurdistan, save Qamishli and al-Hasakah province. The PYD’s YPG units then systematically took control of the towns the government forces handed to them (with barely a shot being fired), claiming they “liberated” the territories from Assad’s grip.
Consequently anti-regime demonstrations that had previously raged in the Kurdish territories were repressed by the PYD. Anti-Assad graffiti was painted over, Syrian Air Force Intelligence (secret police) headquarters and forces in PYD territory were allowed to continue operations, and anti-Assad activists were assassinated by the YPG. Kurdish opponents of the PYD are subject to arbitrary arrest (which has continued to this day) and media outlets the PYD deems too critical are shut down. This month the PYD banned the Kurdish Rudaw network from Kobane. Yet portraits of Assad still sit proudly alongside portraits of Ocalan, as do YPG checkpoints alongside the checkpoints of the regime.
Kurds in Amuda protested against the YPG in 2013. The demonstration was fired upon and resulted in 7 fatalities and 40 injuries. The PYD/YPG became known as the “shabiha of the Kurds” for repressing demonstrations on Assad’s behalf. A 107-page report entitled, “Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-Run Enclaves of Syria,” was released by Human Rights Watch in 2014. The report documented arrests (including abuse in captivity), killings and use of child soldiers.
Popular Kurdish opposition leader Mashaal Tammo had already been assassinated in suspicious circumstances in October 2011 as he organised an anti-regime coalition. Now others began to fall; tribal leader Abdullah Bedro was also shot and killed. The PYD denied any involvement, eventually admitting complicity when the body of a fallen YPG fighter was discovered at the scene. The PYD also seems to have killed Dr. Serzad Hac Resid, the Aleppo-based representative of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYDKS). He had been involved in distributing video footage exposing the Assad regime’s brutality.
In 2013 YPG leader Salih Muslim (whose first act upon returning to Syria in 2011 was to meet with Bashar al-Assad as part of the “patriotic opposition”) was claiming the anti-Assad opposition forces were responsible for the 2013 chemical massacre in Ghouta, regurgitating pro-regime propaganda by essentially claiming rebel fighters gassed themselves and their families to induce foreign intervention. Muslim also claimed the collapse of the regime would “be a disaster” for Syrians. Muslim’s statements have often been overlooked by the media at large; in November 2011 he stated that PKK summary executions of Kurds deemed to be “traitors” were justifiable. “If the PKK punished people, it had its reasons”, Muslim remarked.
When Muslim was asked if his men would eventually join forces with the Syrian army, he was open to the idea. “Why not join forces if the Syrian forces are trying to return to the region in a different perspective and under new conditions? In that case the PYD will become a part of the Syrian army.”
When Assad’s advisor Bouthaina Shabaan boasted that the YPG was an integral part of the regime army the YPG strongly denied it – only for UN Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari to back her up. “These Syrian Kurds supported by the American administration are also supported by the Syrian government – just for your information,” Jaafari said.
Shabaan and Jaafari aren’t the only ones to speak up in support of the PKK. Assad himself claims to have supplied them with many of the weapons they later used against his enemies. Architect of the Baniyas massacre Mihraç Ural claims the YPG hasn’t clashed with the regime and should be seen as “necessary“. Ural was responsible for introducing Abdullah Ocalan to Hafez al-Assad decades earlier.
It later emerged that Iranian forces had arrested PKK leader Murat Karayilan in 2011 after a tip-off from Turkish intelligence. After initially planning to rendition him to Turkey, Iran brokered a deal with Ocalan. They would free Karayilan in exchange for a ceasefire and the PJAK withdrawing from Iran. Iran also wanted the PKK’s central command to order the PYD to support the Assad regime to take some pressure off Assad. The request was granted; Karayilan was released and PJAK units withdrew from Iran to Turkey.
By 2012 the PYD and its YPG military wing as avoiding confrontation with the regime at all costs. Instead they turned their attention to the anti-regime opposition. In July 2013 the YPG seized Ras al-Ayn and its border crossing from anti-government forces. Two days later they stormed Tal A’lo. By September the YPG was even clashing with the FSA and shelling the refugee-populated town of Atme. By November the YPG had grabbed 40 more villages, including Aleppo province’s strategic Tell Tamer, and was actively clashing with Da’esh fighters (Da’esh also fight the anti-regime opposition) throughout the region.
By early-2014, cooperation between the FSA and various YPG groups began, as Da’esh presented a growing menace. The Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front, Liwa Ahrar Souriya (Brigade of Syrian Free Men) and the Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa (Brigade of Raqqa Revolutionaries) joined the YPG in fighting Da’esh.
By September 2014 the YPG had been pushed back to the tiny border town of Kobane by Da’esh. By then, the Obama administration had seen fit to make the YPG the sole benefactor of US arms and support. Backed by an immense volume of US airstrikes (and smaller FSA formations) the YPG managed to break the siege, recapture all the lost territory and launch an offensive that eventually unified the two YPG-controlled “cantons” in Syria with the fall of the border town of Tall Abyad in July 2015. Every battle fought by the YPG since Kobane has been heavily aided by US airstrikes.
What followed was less than positive. The YPG initially let the FSA formations put the green revolutionary flag up for the cameras before taking it down and replacing it with their yellow standard. Local FSA commander Abu Ali said the move violated an agreement between the two sides that both flags would fly. Merely a day after the fall of the city, his men left to rejoin their comrades in the north.
“We sacrificed so many martyrs for this flag,” he said. “Would you accept your flag being insulted in this way?” He wearily admitted that some FSA-affiliated groups would remain fighting with the YPG however, claiming the support (and weapons) they receive makes them dependent on them.
But this is hardly the most serious allegation; far more serious are the multiple witness accounts and reports by human rights groups claiming the YPG forcibly displaced thousands of Arabs and Turkmen from Tel Abyad and the surrounding regions. Methods of displacement included threats and burning down houses of non-Kurds, even though Tel Abyad and the surrounding towns aren’t historic Kurdish territory.
Local civilians claim the YPG forced them to leave Tel Abyad, some 16,000 were displaced as the YPG advanced with heavy US air cover. In an unusual display of unity, more than a dozen anti-Assad opposition groups (from Islamic factions to secularists) signed a statement condemning the group.
One refugee claimed the group told local Arabs their territory was part of “Rojava” and they should go back to the Tadmur desert where they “belong.” Ibrahim al-Khider, a powerful local tribesman, was told that he and his people should “Go back to your desert.”
Spokesman for the Syria’s Turkmen minority Tarik Sulo also complained bitterly of his people facing displacement. Although the YPG is traditionally perceived as having a cordial relationship with Syria’s minorities, the Assyrian Khabour Guards nullified their alliance with the YPG. In a statement they claimed the group turned on them, killing their commander and trying to drive them out of their villages. One Amnesty report claimed the Arab-populated village of Husseiniya had seen more than 90% of its buildings demolished by the YPG to ensure that residents couldn’t return.
Although the YPG strongly denies these claims, their conduct in Tal Abyad seems rooted in long-standing YPG policy toward Arabs. In 2013 YPG leader Salih Muslim said that Arabs in lands they deemed to be Kurdish “will have to be expelled” because “all the villages” there belong to the Kurds. The reference to all the villages can now be understood in the aftermath of the takeover of villages with little to no Kurd inhabitants.
Some foreign fighters embedded with the YPG have also expressed reservations. A German volunteer described the YPG as sending untrained minors into battle with little training as if it were “a school trip with guns.” Adding that he couldn’t confirm systematic displacement, he admitted “they’ll trash the place” if it’s an Arab settlement.
The YPG continued advancing, unifying several FSA groups in the “Syrian Democratic Forces” in October 2015. The groups included Jabhat al-Akrad (Kurdish Front) the FSA’s 99th Brigade and Special Operations Center 455. It also included Jayth al-Thuwar (Army of Revolutionaries) composed of former members of the now-defunct Syria Revolutionaries Front. Despite friction with the anti-Assad resistance the YPG was often given the benefit of the doubt (and some SDF members, including JaT, were based in opposition territory) until February of this year during the regime assault on Aleppo.
On February 1st the Syrian Army’s 4th Mechanized Division, Hezbollah, Kata’ib Hezbollah (Iraqi Hezbollah) and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (an Iraq Shi’ite militia),attacked positions of the anti-Assad forces around Bakshoy, heading to the besieged Shi’a enclaves of Nubol and al-Zahraa. By February 3rd they overran opposition defences and relieved the two towns.
The assault cut opposition forces off from their Turkish supply line which had enabled them to get supplies into Aleppo and withstand the regime siege. However this could have been reversed or blunted (as the earlier Aleppo offensive had been) had it not been for the YPG and its SDF umbrella assaulting rebel positions 24 hours later on February 4th, grabbing the northern towns of Ziyara and Khreiybeh north of Nubl in coordination with the regime. The regime simultaneously attacked and captured Mayer and Kafr Naya.
Previously the YPG had taken towns in raids. However this was a prolonged assault on rebel-held Aleppo in coordination with the regime and allied forces. On February 6th the YPG and Jaysh al-Thuwar took two villages, al-Faisal mill and a hill as the regime advanced. They also coordinated with the Russian Air Force which bombed the town of Menagh for them. The YPG warned rebels to hand over the town or they would get the Russians to bomb them again (it’s worth noting that the YPG allegedly threatened Arab residents of villages surrounding Tal Abyad with US airstrikes in 2015).
On February 7th the regime’s forces were some 7km from opposition-held Tell Rifaat. At the same time the YPG & aligned forces took three villages and then (by the regime’s own admission) set up a joint checkpoint with the regime forces to coordinate their assault on the opposition.
The SDF has expressed no reservations on ignoring the regime, claiming they’re not a “a problem.” It may be surprising to some as various SDF’s factions claim to be FSA. However some groups (Jabhat al-Akrad and Jaysh al-Thuwar) are controversial; al-Akrad was expelled from the FSA for being too close to the PKK. Jaysh al-Thuwar members are former fighters for Jamal Maarouf. His SRF was expelled from Idlib and Aleppo for looting and extortion, practices which SDF members have continued throughout Aleppo province. Even their US allies refused lethal aid to the SRF in its early days, reluctant to be seen to be seen as close to them.
In fact SDF commander Abu Ali bard claims the SDF is far from an anti-regime force as they “protect” Kurds alongside the regime (no mention of Arabs, despite the coalition allegedly having an inclusive focus) and “received weapons from them and fought against the organization (Da’esh) together.” Another nail in the coffin of the YPG’s denials.
On February 10th Mennagh was hit with over 30 Russian airstrikes and finally fell to the YPG/SDF. On February 11th they began an assault on rebel-held ‘Azaz (as boasted about by pro-regime Al-Masdar News) the most strategic anti-regime town in the province. On February 13th the SDF continued trying to take ‘Azaz, coming within 500 metres of the town. This prompted Turkish artillery to open fire on the SDF from across the border.
Prime Minister Davutoglu demanded that the SDF withdraw. The SDF refused, parading captured anti-Assad fighters on their TV networks as “al-Nusra.” On February 16th the SDF attacked the Castello road (the opposition’s crucial supply route) in an attempt to besiege the city. The attack was repelled.
The SDF then started taking opposition strong-points in the city with the backing of Russian strikes (as reported by pro-regime media). On February 26th the regime launched an assault on rebel groups through PYD-held territory. On February 27th regime forces handed over the village of Ahras to the SDF. Fighting continues around the city and its rural areas. The YPG has been accused of looting Arab towns and committing atrocities. Many Arabs fled into Da’esh-controlled territory in fear.
The Future of the PYD in Syria
Turkey has long viewed the YPG with suspicion, seeing it as synonymous with the PKK. As did the US Counter-Terrorism Centre until 2014 (the link was abruptly removed and the text altered). US association with the YPG has done more to put Syrians off the group and its allies than anything else. As analyst Kyle Orton put it:
The U.S.’s support for the PYD is sustained by a legal fiction—that the PYD is a separate entity from the PKK. It is not: the PYD is subordinate to the PKK command structure. As one fighter put it, “Sometimes I’m a PKK, sometimes I’m a PJAK [the Iranian branch of the PKK], sometimes I’m a YPG. It doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK.” Understandable, then, that the U.S. arming the PYD upsets Turkey. But the PYD’s history means that the U.S. supporting it upsets many Syrians.
When heavy Russian bombardment of opposition forces began in September 2015 (under the guise of fighting Da’esh) the PYD immediately made themselves available to the Russians, claiming they would be willing to become partners in exchange for arms and air support. The YPG had made the same offer to the US-led coalition only a month earlier, inviting them to establish bases (the US has since established an airfield in PYD-controlled territory).
The PYD’s claim of being an ally of the FSA as it coordinates action with the US coalition and the Russian forces did nothing to make the group welcome in the eyes of the majority of Syrians. The US is widely seen as (and, in fact, is) supportive of Assad and Iranian influence in Syria, a viewpoint which unfortunately stands up to the facts (and was hardly dispelled by Kerry’s threats directed at the opposition).
The PYD cannot be both anti-regime and pro-regime, anti-intervention and pro-intervention. In fact the PYD/YPG is often referred to as “the Kurds” collectively, as if Syria’s Kurds support the group as a whole. This misconception is clouding our ability to interpret events on the ground. Kurds are overwhelmingly anti-regime, rebel groups are full of Kurds (up to 15% of the FSA is Kurdish) and the Syrian opposition blocs are full of Kurdish groups. The one-time leader of the Syrian National Council was Kurdish politician Abdulbaset Sieda. Even the Da’esh attack on Kobane was led by a Kurd, and Da’esh loathes Syrian opposition forces and the PYD alike.
Since 2011 the PYD has been firmly on the side of the Assad regime. For now this is a tenable position. The opposition are too distracted by the Assad regime, Russian bombing and Da’esh onslaughts to act decisively against them, to say nothing of the fact that they enjoy the protection of the US coalition. Although Turkey is shelling their fighters and has intervened against them on the ground, it is curtailed from moving against them decisively. US special forces are intermingled with the very units Turkish armed forces are (timidly) attacking. Obliterating several US commandos would create a backlash that Erdoğan certainly doesn’t need.
It is true that the YPG has sometimes clashed with the Assad regime as many PYD supporters often claim. However these clashes have been limited, local skirmishes which are often ignited by disputes between YPG and regime commanders over control of territory or attempts to forcibly conscript Kurds into the regime army. There have been no permanent disputes or serious grievances between the two.
Should the balance of power tip in favour of the anti-Assad fighters, or should the regime fall, the PYD could quickly find its position untenable. Widely detested by Syrian opposition groups from Islamic fighters to secular forces, the YPG could easily be set upon by these groups. Such was the case in 2012 and 2013 when the FSA, Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra rallied against them. Only next time the YPG may not be able to count on the regime to draw opposition fighters away from their fragile hold on Syria’s Kurdish regions.