Life under the Kurdish YPG in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 17, 2017

Uygar Onder Simseki/AFP/Getty Images

Uygar Onder Simseki/AFP/Getty Images

Four days ago, Chapo Trap House, a Left-wing politics and humour podcast, hosted Brace Belden, known to Twitter as “PissPigGranddad,” a 27-year-old from San Francisco who has joined the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). It was very interesting and informative on the state of play in northern Syria.

The YPG is run by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) front of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The most amusing part of the interview is Belden’s formal maintenance that the YPG, while fraternal comrades to the PKK and admirers of their ideology, have absolutely no organizational links at all, while at the same time letting the audience in on the fact that the YPG and indeed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition that it controls are parts of the PKK structure. Belden describes joining the YPG by first linking up with the PKK at its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, before being spirited across the border into Syria.

Belden gives a very interesting glimpse of the YPG’s method of governance. The YPG calls its rule “libertarian socialism,” says Belden, but it’s “pretty much a Stalinist state”. Belden describes the ascetic nature of the true believers in the PKK’s ideology—of which he, clearly, is not one—and the collectivized nature of life. Among other things, everyone is subjected to struggle sessions of the kind associated with Mao or the Khmer Rouge.

The foreign fighters that join the YPG were, initially, “psychopaths that wanted to come kill people,” says Belden, but the YPG expelled these people once it realized what they were and has now refined its recruitment model to bring in a flow of hard-Left Westerners.

Belden says he believes the Americans will abandon the YPG in favour of Turkey and that he believes it will be Turkey and her allies that go to Raqqa to evict the Islamic State. Belden favours this outcome, believing it would be a “bloodbath” if the YPG tries to take Raqqa City. Belden concludes though that there will soon be a peace agreement between the pro-regime coalition, Turkey, and the YPG—and that after that the Turks will attack the YPG in Efrin and elsewhere. Belden says that the YPG retains the ability to strike back, with many men under arms and “lot of friends up north”. YPG have previously stated that their focus is on Syria for now but they will move onto Turkey next. “[E]veryone is just hoping the civil war spreads north,” says Belden, meaning the recommencement of large-scale PKK insurgent activity inside Turkey.

The suspicion of America is not just borne of history, where America has from the Treaty of Sevres onward, semi-regularly made promises to the Kurds that it then dashes; nor is just that the U.S. is aligned with Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, whom the YPG “hate”. Anti-Westernism is integral to the YPG, says Belden: “We get ideology lessons a lot and they are not exactly pro-American”. Belden notes that this spills over from theory to practice: relations between the Kurdish rank-and-file and the American and British Special Forces embedded with the YPG are “tense”. Belden adds that it is “pretty bad that they’re here,” referring to Western Special Forces, and says they are not that much use to the YPG.

***

Belden is interviewed from the Jazira canton of “Rojava”. Asked about the Rolling Stone profile of him this week, Belden says it is “pretty fucking ridiculous”. He was especially displeased at their description of him as “a lowlife punk and petty criminal with a heroin habit”.

Belden says that he has just spent three months on the frontline and is now at the rear of the fight, receiving “advanced training”. Describing how he got to Syria, Belden says he just emailed someone (he is deliberately vague) and they invited him over. He then landed in Sulaymaniya, in the part of Iraqi Kurdistan along the Iranian border run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and then rendezvoused with the PKK in the Qandil Mountains.

Belden is elliptical about this because the formal position of the U.S. government, in order to circumvent its own terrorism laws, is that the YPG is unconnected to the PKK. Throughout the interview, Belden hints at this absurd fiction. “There is an organization that is fraternal to us but of course we disavow any connection. It’s called the PKK. … And they have a couple of guns, which I guess they let us borrow,” says Belden at one point. “We have a lot home-made stuff,” Belden explains. “We’ll just make it in the mountains and shit. Not that we have any connections to the mountains. But sometimes people make them there.” Describing his drift into Left-wing politics, Belden says, “In 2012, I started reading about the PKK a lot—who, again, have no connection to us …” After Kobani, says Belden, “A lot of fighters came from other parts of Kurdistan, if you know what I mean.”

The PKK model operates as a series of fronts, in Syria and Turkey particularly, and to a lesser-extent in Iraq and Iran, so the same individual who is a PKK fighter in Turkey is a YPG fighter in Syria and a PJAK fighter in Iran. These groups have some degree of tactical autonomy but share a huge proportion of their fighters, and answer to one ideology and one leadership.

Belden says he first come across Rojava when Matthew VanDyke’s Sons of Liberty and some Christian ex-soldiers were in the news for fighting alongside the YPG against the Islamic State. This took a slight sideways turn when these good Christian men found that the organization they had joined was staffed by “damn Reds“. After meeting his handlers in Sulaymaniya, Belden made the trip across the border into Syria—with considerable difficulty, in the dead of night, because the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), run by Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has closed the border.

Belden notes that the YPG had come into possession of its areas initially when “the Assad regime kinda just left,” and when he entered these YPG-run areas he underwent two weeks of ideology and language training. Describing the nature of regime the YPG is running, which it calls “Democratic Confederalism,” Belden says: “Technically they call it libertarian socialism, but it’s pretty much a Stalinist state, which is fucking tight.”

Belden gives a description of life under PYD/YPG rule. He notes its rigour and ideological collectivism, but disavows all comparisons with Cambodia (or “Democratic Kampuchea”) under the Khmer Rouge. Doubtless, however, his description of Rojava, notably the struggle sessions, will suggest comparisons to some:

Life is—there’s a few different versions of it. There’s, like, civilian life, which is pretty normal. I mean everyone’s kinda poor but, like, it’s not that bad honestly, And there’s the PYD—our civilian wing—it’s socialist so they cover, like, a lot of food, fuel for people, they help people out with housing. So for the people that can’t afford, like, you know, like, people who aren’t refugees essentially—and the refugees we have from the rest of Syria—they put ’em up, they feed them. That’s pretty well taken care of except there’s an embargo so they can’t really get new things.

But the party life is really, really, really ascetic. Like, they don’t have any personal property whatsoever. In fact, like, if I ever looked at my phone or anything like that they’d just be like, “Capitalist, put that away!” … Everything’s communal. There’s no real—there’s commanders and stuff but, like, they have to do the same shit we do.

So, it’s a bit jarring, honestly. But, like, their whole mentality it is that you can’t build a socialist society without living a completely socialist life. So everything is shared. There’s no—so if somebody wants something you have, like, you’re pretty much gonna give it ’em.

And there’s a lot of self-criticism sessions, which aren’t so great, but they’re not like North Korea or—what do you call it?—Cambodia or anything.

Everyone takes turns cooking, including the commanders. Everyone takes turns doing watch. It’s pretty fucking—I guess, egalitarian, even though, like, we have nothing. People don’t have any personal property, except for books. …

There’s some of [the trappings of Western post-modernism]. Some people have phones and stuff. I mean there’s internet and there’s TV. But it’s a lot of just, like, especially in the party, like if you’re in the party, you’re in it basically for life. In that sense, it’s really different [to the West]. Pretty much you just sit around and talk and work on things, like help each other do shit. It’s pretty—I don’t really know how to explain it but it’s wild.

Outside of that, there’s a pretty heavily involved civilian wing of the party that like builds, for instance, they have women build women’s houses in every, like, little village where just women meet and men can’t go, which, of course, ladies, I am completely in favour of.

That’s another aspect of it, like the sexual relations between men and women. Not, like, actually fucking but, like, just the way that women are treated now, from what I hear, extremely different from before. Like, there were honour killings, people had several wives, and now, like, if people hear about, like, doing an honour killing, they’ll just come and kill you. And it’s illegal to marry more than one person now. But yeah. It’s different, really different from the West. In a lot of good ways and in some ways they’re confusing. … It’s pretty much illegal to jack off here.

In terms of who joins the YPG from the West, Belden says that the YPG are “trying to bring mostly Left-wing people out here now. There’s, like, some apolitical but for the most-part everyone’s pretty Left.” This tallies with my findings from the end of last year, which indicated that the balance was tipping in favour of YPG recruiting ideologically Leftist Westerners, rather than the military veterans who had formed the core of the initial foreign fighter flow.

Belden expands on this:

At first there was just mostly, like, psychopaths that wanted to come kill people. But they turned out to be, like, fucking nut-cases so they kind of all got kicked out. There was this one guy named Tim the Cannibal … Once during an operation they had blown up an ISIS guy with an RPG and the guy was pretty well cooked so he just picked up his foot and just started fucking eating it. … In his defence, we don’t get a lot of protein. But he kinda freaked some of the party members out here. And yeah, he would drink blood and once a comrade was wounded and he ended up eating a little bit of that guy while he was still alive and after that was arrested. …

Now, it’s, like, I’d say it’s 75% Left-wing people. The people I’m with now, like, we have me and other American communists, two French anarchists … and there’s like a bunch of French Maoists in the platoon next to ours, which is like a Maoist platoon. So it’s mostly just Left-wing people and then, like, some pretty much apolitical vets who almost uniformly have been kicked out of the U.S. military.

Asked about the YPG’s opponents, Belden talks of course of the Islamic State. “They are very fucking good at what they do, like a lot of them are,” says Belden. “They are some pretty hardy soldiers. There’s different things you’ve gotta watch out for. There’s, like, Chechen snipers, which are, like, notorious here for being, like—they kill a lot of us.”

Belden says there is a “racial hierarchy” within the Islamic State, which while difficult to discern exactly clearly has Arabs at the top and Chinese Uyghurs at the bottom. The Uyghurs get sent out with “pistols, knives, and a couple of grenades,” but they seem to be loaded up with Captagon so they keep going even after being mortally wounded. Around Raqqa City, there are three layers of defences, says Belden. The Islamic State withdraws from most of the surrounding villages but it leaves small teams of three or four, who then snipe and attack the incoming forces. And the Islamic State mines everything. “That’s really the main thing that we’re taking casualties from right now,” Belden explains. “They’ll set out, like, a case of energy drinks, which we drink a lot of, I’ll say that … and they’ll mine a case of energy drinks and just put it on the road.”

Belden is dismissive of the Free Syrian Army fighters, saying there are not that many of them and those that there are Grey Wolves, a Turkish ultra-nationalist outfit, or “Salafist mercenaries”.

Asked about the two recent articles by Roy Gutman on the less savoury aspects of the YPG regime, Belden responded by first attacking the October 2015 Amnesty International report, accusing the YPG of war crimes, including destruction of property and expulsion.

“There was this … I can’t remember if it was Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. I think it was Human Rights Watch. This report that came out a few years ago that was, like, full of bullshit. All their stuff around this war has been pretty insane, but this was pretty nuts,” said Belden. “It accused us of blowing up villages and bulldozing houses and stuff like that and having child soldiers. Which, you know, I mean, what’s your definition of a child? Mine’s under-14, in which case we don’t have any [laughs]. He [Gutman] wrote it from Istanbul, if you know what I mean.” On the matter of the expulsions, Belden said: “Of course we make civilians leave the battle area.” This is indeed a defensible—make that laudable—tactic. The accusation levelled at the YPG is that they do not allow Arabs and Turkomen to return. Belden says that the YPG allows people to come back as quickly as possible.

Moving on to the Americans, Belden says he once met a CIA operator who rather unsubtly sought his name, place of origin, and if he had had bomb training.

Of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the U.S. formally supports, Belden says:

The SDF, which is what we’re technically underneath, even though we control them actually, they are almost entirely Arab. We have more Arab fighters than Kurdish fighters. And in the YPG itself—in the PKK, which, again, we have no connection with, especially not me—there are tons of Arabs.

The U.S.’s highest estimate is that 13,000 SDF are Arabs, just over a quarter of the 45,000 SDF total.

Of the United States more broadly, Belden thinks the U.S. will side with Turkey and cut off relations with the YPG, which will lead to a war between Turkey and the YPG inside Syria and (so Belden hopes) reignite the PKK’s war against the Turkish state inside Turkey:

America’s absolutely 100% gonna abandon the Kurds for Turkey. Everyone knows that. Even, like, the most farmer-type people were well aware they couldn’t trust the Americans because it wouldn’t be the first time America has stabbed the Kurds in the back. And they think of America as being allied with Turkey—which they are—and allied with the Iraqi Kurds, who they hate. So everyone’s kinda getting ready for that. And actually in Efrin the Syrian army and the Russian army and the Russian air force work with the Kurds over there, and I think there’s gonna be a peace deal.

I think the peace deal is gonna be between us, maybe Turkey, and the SAA or Syrian government. I think that after that Turkey will just attack. I mean they shell us all the fucking time, they shell our civilian areas all the time. My friend was at, like, a protest on the border, where they just opened fire and killed a few people, which wasn’t, like, reported at all. And a couple of nights ago I saw them just fucking shooting a—I don’t know what it was, seemed like a pretty big gun—at people trying to cross the border. So I think they’re going to attack us after that, especially after the referendum on April 16th, so everyone is just hoping the civil war spreads north [i.e. into Turkey]. …

We’re hoping for, like, a semi-autonomous zone—not like [in Iraq with] the KRG, they [the YPG] will still be part of, like, Syria, but they’ll have their own institutions. It’ll be sort of like dual power. … I have a feeling that we’re gonna get fucked, but there are a lot of people under arms here now and there’s a lot of friends up north, too. So if they [the Turks] actually come in here with tanks and stuff like that, which they have done. There’s a guy in Efrin from California who got killed in an airstrike by Turks last month, Michael Israel. So I don’t know what’ll happen but it’ll be pretty fucking bloody. Especially after the referendum. I mean, Erdogan can do whatever he wants after that.

Asked about the military relationship between the YPG and the United States, Belden says:

Oh there is one. It’s an insanely cynical one, but there is one. We get air support from them, which we call in on tablets, which are otherwise used to play Bubble Pop. … The YPG, they don’t give anything to. We don’t get anything from them: no training, no guns, no ammunition—nothing. But the SDF, on the other hand, [sarcastic tone] because it is a new organization that doesn’t have any ties to the PKK, they get some guns and some training and some—I don’t think they get any money, actually I don’t think they even get any training. But they [the SDF] get some guns from them [the U.S.].

It’s gonna be pretty bad when they [the Americans] do sorta leave, but it’s also pretty bad that they’re here. They don’t really help on the ground that much. … It’s pretty tense relations sometimes. Like, the commanders are cool with them, or at least they seem to be cool with them. But a lot of the rank-and-file are definitely not. … At this point, I think they’re going to let Turkey … come in and try to take Raqqa themselves. Which is fine with me, honestly. I think it’s going to be a fucking bloodbath if we try to do it. … So there are Americans here, though it’s actually mostly British I’ve seen, and they seem very uneasy. Because we get ideology lessons a lot and they are not exactly pro-American. People see America as helping out Turkey as well; there’s a lot of very anti-NATO sentiments here.

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