The New York Times on 11 May carried an op-ed entitled, “Once We Beat ISIS, Don’t Abandon Us,” by Sinam Mohamad, the effective foreign minister of the governance structure in northern Syria administered by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian departments of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This comes just over two weeks after another senior PYD/PKK official, Ilham Ahmed, was given space to disseminate the group’s messaging in The Washington Post, and the problems remain the same.
Ms. Mohamad—like Ms. Ahmed—was not identified by her party affiliation, and was instead identified as the “foreign envoy for the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria”. This slight deception conceals the larger issue of the PYD’s nature, a totally integrated component of the PKK’s transnational edifice. Ms. Mohamad claims that the PYD/YPG and their front-groups, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), “are not the P.K.K.” This is to be expected since the PKK is a registered terrorist organization by NATO, the E.U., Britain, Germany, the United States, and others.
The PYD is backed in this contention of a distinction between the YPG/SDF and the PKK by the United States government, which—as best it can—retains this fiction in order to circumvent its own terrorism laws and work with the SDF against IS. The Western press has also adhered to this, presenting this matter, when it is mentioned at all, as a contest between “Turkey’s view” of the YPG as an extension of the PKK and the YPG/SDF’s denial of that—a faux neutral posture of even-handedness, rather than objectivity. The objective stance might raise uncomfortable questions about how media organizations should deal with blacklisted groups.
Ms. Mohamad uses the platform to attack the Turkish government. Brusquely dismissing Ankara’s fears that Rojava, as the PYD calls the area it controls, would become a launchpad for the PKK’s insurgency inside Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to be “no friend to the Kurds in Syria or in his own country” and to want to “decimate Rojava simply because his regime cannot tolerate a pluralistic democracy that includes the Kurds right next door”.
The history of harsh discrimination against Kurds by the Turkish republic is well enough known. It has improved from the days of the Kemalist junta in the 1980s and 1990s, but there is still a long way to go. Turkey’s government has made headway in terms of human rights generally since the coup of 1980, but, again, the recent authoritarian backsliding is plain for all to see. This does not negate the fears the Turkish government has about a PYD-run enclave, which as mentioned above are well-founded, and would be shared by any government in Turkey of any ideological character. Indeed, it is quite likely that Turkey would have moved against the PYD long before now if the General Staff were still running things.
It is the matter of democracy on which Ms. Mohamad chooses to place her emphasis, and it is here that the most glaring deficiencies with the op-ed become evident. There are references to the “unique democratic system” being built by the PYD and their “interest [in] promoting a federated system of local democracy in Syria”.
The key paragraph is:
Not only is our aim to fight against the Islamic State—and not Turkey—but we are also fighting for democracy, for a just and inclusive society in which Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs, Turkmen and other ethnic groups in our diverse area of Syria govern together, where women and men have an equal voice, protected by law. In city after city that we have liberated, whether majority Kurdish or not, we have given residents the opportunity to form their own democratic local governments. [Emphasis original.]
This is textbook from the PYD, framing its state-building project in Syria in universalist, liberal terms as a means of defeating the Islamic State (IS). Parts of this are even true. The PYD has proven—with the provision of weapons, intelligence, logistics, and massive air power—an efficient partner for the international Coalition against IS. The PYD is also the only organization situated to begin an operation to evict IS from its capital, Raqqa City, if the priority is to begin that operation now and the assumption is that IS’s defeat can be measured in the square-miles it controls. But this is only part of the story.
In terms of sustainably defeating IS, the U.S. has at least paid lip-service to the idea that liberated populations must be governed by institutions they see as legitimate. Many Arab populations, Raqqa included, are hostile to the PYD’s political program. This led the U.S. to the idea of using the PYD/YPG to liberate Arab-majority cities and then letting locals to govern themselves, which Ms. Mohamad says has been the PYD practice. This was tried in Minbij. It quickly went wrong, with locals chafing under the Minbij Military Council, a poorly-disguised PKK proxy. (This helped damage U.S.-Turkey relations, since the Turks had supported the PYD/PKK-led Minbij operation, on condition that these forces left the city after liberation.) And that was long before the PYD began handing areas of Minbij over to the coalition of forces supporting Bashar al-Assad, which we can assume will not have democratization as a priority. The U.S. had imagined that Minbij could be the model for Raqqa—and of course it probably will be.
Meanwhile, this stress on ethnic diversity from the PYD is a useful mask for its political monopoly. The PYD has not generated a unique governance model: it inherited institutions almost wholesale from the Assad regime, which continues to operate alongside the PYD and to maintain key parts of the PYD statelet’s infrastructure. This is part of the reason some Kurds compare the PYD to the Ba’ath Party. The other reason is its intolerance of dissent. As Ms. Mohamad’s op-ed went into print, the PYD had just arrested thirteen more Kurdish political opponents, kidnapped four others from their homes, and shut the offices of an NGO. Hundreds of Kurdish dissidents have been arrested, tortured, or beaten up by PYD-directed mobs since 2012-13, with many more expelled and dozens murdered by live-fire against peaceful protesters, extra-judicial assassinations, and maltreatment in prisons. The persecution of the Kurdish opposition in PYD-held areas has escalated since March when the PYD legalized its one-party system. This is not quite the image that the PYD presents to Western audiences.
The PYD’s suppression of dissent matters when calibrating how deeply the West should get involved with the party. The engagement began militarily, against IS. The PYD’s conciliatory relations with the regime made it into the primary U.S. anti-IS partner, since it allowed—so it appeared—U.S. engagement solely on a counter-terrorism basis. The problem, even in narrow anti-IS terms, is that the Arab opposition, not the PYD, are the force demographically capable of holding the territory IS is cleared from, and they would insist on continuing the anti-Assad fight. Regardless, the tactical decision to support the PYD is defensible to keep IS out of the Kurdish-majority areas. There is no geopolitical rationale to get more deeply politically entangled with the PYD, however: it damages the NATO alliance at a time when Russia is on the march, and it degrades a bilateral relationship with an incredibly strategically-positioned ally for the sake of a militia, landlocked in a corner of Syria, whose only non-hostile relations are with the pro-Assad coalition. If the PYD truly embodied the West’s values, it might make a case for risking relations on their behalf, but this is not so.
It is fair for the PYD to insist they are owed a debt for their collaboration with the Coalition against IS, and some kind of autonomy would seem to be a reasonable price. Decentralization is in Syria’s future anyway, and Kurdish self-government is a just cause. But supporting the party itself, rather than independent institutions in the Syrian Kurdish areas, cements in place a PYD autocracy that has limited local buy-in, setting up a long-term crisis when such a brittle system buckles, as such systems always do.
POSTSCRIPT: Following the 28 April piece in The Washington Post by Ilham Ahmed and the 11 May op-ed in The New York Times by Sinam Mohamad, the PKK’s media campaign reached its crescendo in Foreign Policy on 15 May with an article entitled, “Syria’s Kurds Are Not the PKK,” written by Aldar Khalil, a PKK operative for more than two decades. Khalil even reportedly lost a hand while fighting with the PKK against Turkey many years ago.
Khalil sticks doggedly to the script.
First, the PYD’s project is framed in anti-IS’s terms. Turkey had attacked the PYD “when we are engaged in a historic battle alongside U.S.-led international coalition forces to retake Raqqa and end the Islamic State’s reign of terror,” Khalil writes.
Second, the PYD’s project is presented as democratic. Within the areas held by the PYD/YPG, they are “building an egalitarian, democratic, and ethical society where Arabs, Kurds, and Syriacs—along with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis—all live peacefully side by side and where women are treated equal to men,” says Khalil.
Next, Turkey is attacked, and there is an attempt to drive a wedge within NATO. Khalil says “a NATO member country is accusing its American ally of working with terrorists, that Ankara is “threatening U.S. soldiers,” and that Erdogan’s “politically motivated lies … not only threaten our safety but the safety of our American colleagues”. The lies Khalil refers to are Erdogan’s statements that the YPG and the PKK are one and the same.
Khalil even takes a swipe at the Iraqi Kurds of Masud Barzani, saying the Barzanis aim to build “a nationalist Kurdish state based on aristocracy and the rule of a few,” in contrast to Ocalan, who “called for a socialist state where all were equal”. In reality, Ocalan’s record is one of assassinating anyone he suspected might pose a challenge to his power, while hunting down and murdering PKK members—even if they fled to Europe—if they actually had voiced dissent, such as suggesting the PKK should have an internal democratic process.
After that, all operational connection with the PKK is denied. “We are not the PKK, no matter how much Erdogan wishes it were so,” says Khalil—twice (the concluding sentence is: “We are not PKK, no matter how often Erdogan says otherwise”). Khalil says it “is not difficult to explain why” the YPG and the PKK are separate. The YPG and PKK have “different leadership, different members,” and their “publicly stating” that they are different should be “clear,” says Khalil. The reality, of course, is that the leadership is entirely identical and down to the lowest levels there is an overlap of membership between the YPG and PKK.
Khalil admits that the PYD/YPG “trace[s]” its origins to the “school of thought” belonging to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, now known as Democratic Confederalism. Indeed, “I am proud to say I have a photo of Ocalan on my desk next to me,” says Khalil, and “Ocalan’s views and philosophy are at the core of how we govern”. But, says Khalil, groups “can share a founding philosophical father without being the same organization,” and the PKK’s “implementation of [Ocalan’s] teachings differs greatly from ours”.
Khalil also admits, rather more trickily, to towns straddling the Syria-Turkey border and more to the point the YPG operating in both parts, but says that our territory and resources are not going to be used by the PKK or any other groups fighting Turkey,” and, “We don’t interfere in the domestic affairs of neighboring countries,” a rather daring claim for an explicitly transnational organization that originates outside Syria and has imposed itself over such a large chunk of territory.
Finally, all critics of the YPG/PKK are assailed as hirelings of the Turkish government. Khalil refers to the “expensive propaganda operation,” “the millions of dollars Turkey spends in the United States trying to turn public opinion against us, with paid lobbyists and PR firms,” as the explanation for the belief that the YPG is the Syrian department of the PKK.