The United States has tried to engage in Syria almost solely in a counter-terrorism capacity, against Daesh (IS) and—in a recently-escalating campaign—against al Qaeda. The narrowness of the focus on jihadist terrorists led to the US disregarding wider political dynamics in the war in Syria—and to a degree in Iraq, too—and partnering with forces that over the long term will undo even this narrow mission.
The announcement yesterday that President Donald Trump will now arm the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to expel Daesh from its Syrian capital, Raqqa, is the end-point of this policy, setting up a very dangerous medium- and long-term situation that will redound to the benefit of terrorists.
BACKGROUND OF AN AMERICAN POLICY IN SYRIA
President Barack Obama had come into office determined to lessen US involvement in the Middle East, and he was not deterred from this course by the Syria crisis. In August 2011, Obama called on Syria’s ruler, Bashar al Assad, to “step aside,” then vetoed the means of making it happen. A year later, a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction was laid down. By the time Assad undeniably violated this edict a year after that, the use of chemical weapons by his regime had become “ordinary“. The US stood down from its promise to punish Assad in favour of a Russian-orchestrated scheme to strip Assad of his chemical weapons, a deal the regime of course did not keep. The US finally intervened in Syria with airstrikes in September 2014—against Daesh and al Qaeda.
The US made the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) its main ground partner in the anti-Daesh campaign. There were two main reasons for this. The immediate reason was circumstantial. Daesh was threatening to overrun the YPG-held town of Kobani in northern Syria, and—having initially hinted that the US did not consider saving the town a necessity—it became a media-political test of wills. The overarching reason related to the Obama administration’s Iran policy. A legacy-making nuclear deal was in the works and Iran’s client was therefore off-limits; indeed an explicit promise was made to Assad (via Iran) that he was not going to be targeted by US airstrikes into Syria. Partnership with the YPG allowed this policy to be maintained because of their conciliatory posture toward the Assad regime.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE YPG AND PKK
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian front of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK was founded in Turkey in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, and its ideology combines Marxist-Leninism and Kurdish nationalism—initially outright separatism and later autonomy. Turkey was in turmoil in the late 1970s as groups of various political persuasions fought in the streets. The PKK spent most of this time fighting other left-wing and Kurdish groups to try to monopolize the support base for these ideas. With the coup in September 1980, the PKK was driven into exile and essentially destroyed operationally inside Turkey.
The PKK then took refuge in Syria, where it was able to recruit and train an army with the assistance of the Assad regime and the Soviet Union, who saw the utility in a group that would destabilize Turkey, a frontline NATO state in the Cold War. At the same time, the PKK spread out in Europe, forming extensive support networks among exiled Kurdish populations, particularly in Germany, and vast criminal enterprises—everything from narcotics to weapons to human trafficking—which were and are used to feed resources to the PKK. In 1982, utilizing its live-and-let-live relationship with Saddam Hussein and its good relations with Iraqi Kurdish factions, the PKK had set up bases in northern Iraq, where the graduates of the Assad-overseen training camps were sent. It was from these Iraqi bases that, in 1984, the PKK launched its war against the Turkish state.
The PKK is run on absolutist lines. One of its early leaders, Cetin Gungor (Semir), advocated for internal democracy, and was hunted across three countries in Europe before being assassinated by PKK supporters. A wave of internal purges was conducted under the cover of beginning the war against Turkey in order to shore-up Ocalan’s grip on power. Still, the PKK did gain considerable public support among Kurds in Turkey, not least because of the discriminatory state policies that denied Kurdish identity any space and the extreme repression of the post-1980 junta. This was never unanimous: the disorder—30,000 people had been killed by the time Ocalan was arrested in 1999—pushed many Kurds to join the state militias to combat the PKK, and the PKK’s authoritarian practices in areas it controlled—particularly forced conscription and “taxation” (extortion)—strengthened some Kurds’ wariness.
The PKK is a registered terrorist organization by NATO and the European Union, plus many individual states, including Turkey, the United States, Britain, and Germany. In its campaign against Turkey, the PKK primarily targeted security infrastructure in Turkey, but the group has also engaged in suicide bombings and other indiscriminate tactics against civilians. Of late, the PKK has conducted its more atrocious attacks through a cut-out, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK). The exact leadership structure of the TAK is unclear—some in Turkish intelligence believe it is controlled by Fehman Husayn (Bahoz Erdal), one of the most senior PKK officials—but it is clear, as laid out above, that the PKK does not allow independent actors to operate in its areas of influence. The PKK has also kidnapped Westerners and killed others in Turkey, while carrying out terrorist offences in Europe, including murder.
THE PKK IN SYRIA
An unintended side-effect of the no-fly zones that protected Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s was protection for the PKK in the Qandil Mountains and the fall of Saddam consolidated this operational space. Taking stock of the new environment, the PKK altered its structure. The PKK had already founded the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK) to participate in Iraqi Kurdish politics. In 2003, the PKK set up the PYD. Ocalan’s brother, Osman, claims to have done this personally. And the next year the PKK created the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) to operate in Iran. The PKK, PCDK, PYD, and PJAK all operate under the transnational command structure of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK)—formed by Ocalan in 2005.
The attempt to deny that the PYD/YPG is under the PKK’s direction simply falls. Moreover, to call the PYD and YPG “affiliates” of the PKK can give a misleading impression of separation when in fact the party and its militia are totally, organically integrated into the PKK.
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