The offensive to expel the Islamic State (IS) from its primary urban stronghold in Syria, Raqqa city, began on 6 November 2016 with shaping operations and commenced in earnest on 6 June 2017. Backed by the U.S.-led Coalition, the operation, known as EUPHRATES WRATH, is being carried out on the ground by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or Quwwat Suriya al-Dimoqratiyya (QSD). The SDF is formally a coalition of Kurds and Arabs—its announcement of the Raqqa operation named eighteen distinct sub-units. But the predominant force within the SDF is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the Arab SDF play a “secondary role of maintaining local security,” which is to say providing an acceptable face for the PKK’s administration in the Arab-majority areas it has captured. Examining the SDF’s composition, and the recent marginalization of Arab SDF groups, underscores the point.
DOMINANT FORCE: KURDISTAN WORKERS’ PARTY (PKK)
In Syria, the PKK’s military forces operate under the name the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). The formation of the SDF was announced in October 2015 as an alliance of the YPG and the “Syrian Arab Coalition” (SAC). The SAC was unheard of until this moment. An American official acknowledged that the SAC was “an American invention”. The SDF itself, as a whole, was an American-suggested rebrand of the YPG to mask its PKK nature, intended to blunt the diplomatic blowback from Turkey, assuage the political concerns of the Arab populations under IS’s rule that the SDF was supposed to liberate, and circumvent the terrorism laws. It was conceded by all that the YPG was the backbone of the SDF, and U.S. airdrops of weapons—ostensibly bound for the SAC—went straight to the YPG, as the YPG’s commander, Sipan Hemo, publicly admitted.
In the two years since, the “SDF” has expanded the areas under its control to include a lot more Arab-majority zones and its forced conscription has altered the demographics of the force, though claims that the SDF involved in the Raqqa operation are three-quarters Arab—i.e. 34,000 out of 45,000—are deeply suspect. It is also somewhat irrelevant. Those Arab detachments are denied the most powerful weapons and kept away from frontlines, making them logistically and otherwise reliant on the PKK commanders, and before it ever gets to that stage the Arab recruits are only allowed into the SDF after they pass through, and submit to, instruction in the PKK’s ideology.
There is an SDF political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which purportedly contains a multitude of voices, though in reality is dominated by the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), which is itself under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the name of the PKK’s political infrastructure inside Syria. These various fronts provide layers of deniability about who is in charge. There actually are Syria-centric operatives within the TEV-DEM/PYD. But they are all subordinate to the PKK military commanders, who rule from the shadows and whom the Coalition campaign has empowered, making the political system in “Rojava” ever-more-dependent on the Turkey-centric PKK old guard.
[UPDATE: On 3 July, it was announced that the Shingal Women’s Units (YJS), the all-female wing of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), would be joining the anti-IS offensive in Raqqa. The YBS and YJS militias are constituent parts of the PKK, created from among the Yazidis in the Shingal (Sinjar) area of Iraq and controlled by a longstanding PKK commander. The deployment of Yazidi PKK operatives in Syria is not unusual: the PKK has, since it adopted the confederal model in 2003, operated “like a shell game, [where] the PKK leadership in Qandil shifts personnel between its affiliates and fronts”.]
The foreign fighters with the YPG/PKK have gathered under the banner of the “International Freedom Battalion” (EOT), and at least two of their number have officially participated in the Raqqa operation, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) and the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF), which was announced in March.
PKK/YPG PROXIES AND DEPENDENCIES
1. The Syriac Military Council (MFS) and the Bethnahrin Women’s Protection Forces (HSNB)
The MFS is one of the oldest allies of the PKK in Syria, and it would later follow the PKK’s messaging lead by creating an all-female wing, HSNB (which has pages on both Facebook and Twitter). Formed in early 2013 as an anti-regime outfit, MFS did not have much battlefield involvement in 2013, though it was reactivated at the end of the year and began diverting most of its attention to combatting the jihadi-salafists in north-eastern Syria. In January 2014, MFS was absorbed as a component of the YPG, though it retained tense relations with the Assad regime and the pro-Assad elements of the Christian community. MFS came to some attention in early 2015 as the U.S.-led Coalition began working with the YPG against IS, and later in the year was reported on for its abusive behaviour towards Christians it had been designated to administer governance to by the YPG. (This was around the same time as Amnesty International reported on the YPG’s destruction of property and ethnic expulsions.) MFS has firmly denied being a part of the PKK, and this is of course true, though they are dependent. MFS’ political wing, the Syriac Union Party, is part of TEV-DEM, and MFS has links of its own through the Church—independent of the YPG/PKK’s relationship—with the Russian government. MFS is part of the Raqqa operation, and has lost men in the battle for the jihadists’ Syrian “capital”.
2. Minbij Military Council (MMC)
The MMC was set up in April 2016 ahead of the U.S.-backed, YPG/PKK-led operation to clear Minbij of IS. When that operation concluded in August 2016, the MMC was installed to administer the city. Composed mostly of Arabs, and under SDF colours, the MMC is supposed to be an example of diluting the YPG’s influence, when it is in fact a perfect example of the YPG gaining the political credit for ethnic diversity while maintaining its political monopoly. Meaningful decisions in Minbij are taken by the “Qandilians,” the PKK-trained operatives who control the YPG, who have ceded belts of territory near Minbij to the pro-Assad coalition to protect the PKK’s rule from Turkey and allowed the regime’s secret police free rein in the city.
Read the rest at The Henry Jackson Society