The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) controls areas of northern Syria, operating under the name of the Democratic Union Party or PYD (its political wing) and the People’s Protection Units or YPG (its military wing). On Tuesday, President Donald Trump approved plans to arm the YPG directly, abandoning a fiction that the U.S. was only arming the Arab parts of an ostensible coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is in fact controlled by the YPG/PKK. This is in preparation for the U.S. backing the “SDF” to liberate Raqqa City, the Syrian capital of the Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate. Leaving aside the geopolitical implications of the U.S. decision for NATO and regional order, and putting aside, too, the likelihood that this decision will defeat its own purposes and give IS a new lease on life, there is a purely humanitarian dimension that deserves more attention. In March the PYD effectively legalized its one-party state in northern Syria and escalated its already-severe persecution of the Kurdish opposition. That crackdown has continued.
THE NATURE OF THE PYD/YPG
The PYD/YPG is a fully integrated component of the PKK, recognised as a terrorist organisation by the European Union, NATO, and numerous individual governments, including the United States, Britain, Germany, and of course Turkey, against which the PKK has run an insurgency since 1984. The PKK was formally founded in 1978 in Turkey by Abdullah Ocalan. Ideologically, the organization mixed Marxism-Leninism and Kurdish nationalism, though the personality cult around Ocalan (“Apo”) was and is very strong. The PKK fought initially for secession and later for autonomy in the Kurdish-majority areas of Turkey.
The PKK is a severely authoritarian organisation. It spent the years leading up to its formal foundation—and indeed the years afterward, until the Turkish coup d’état in September 1980 drove the PKK from the country—attacking other Kurds and Leftists, trying to monopolize the support from that part of the Kurdish political spectrum. This did not stop. In 1985, the PKK struck down Cetin Gungor (Semir) in Sweden after he advocated internal democratic procedures. After the PKK launched its war against the Turkish state from bases in Iraq it gained considerable popularity, which is unsurprising, given the long history of anti-Kurdish discrimination by the authorities in the Turkish republic, and the especial savagery of the post-1980 junta. Ocalan used this wave of popular assent to conduct a bloody purge of those he thought might pose a future threat to his leadership, correctly calculating that this would not get much attention when set against the fact that the long-awaited war had finally begun.
Kurdish support for the PKK was not unanimous. Significant parts of the Kurdish population in Turkey sided with the state and formed militias in their villages to keep the PKK out, for example. The PKK also created Kurdish antagonists by insisting that it was the only legitimate representative of Kurdish opinion and its ruthless dealings with the large number of dissenters from this, who were and are labelled “traitor Kurds”. Forced conscription and “taxes” (extortion) imposed by the PKK on populations under its rule have obvious advantages in military-insurgency terms, but diminishing returns do set in.
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