The Forgotten Foreign Fighters: The PKK in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 17 August 2017

I released a report today, published by the Henry Jackson Society, The Forgotten Foreign Fighters: The PKK in Syria.

The report lays out the background of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has used terrorism and mass-killing against its opponents in Turkey, particularly Kurds who oppose it, and created a vast apparatus in Europe, to help fund its insurgency through organized crime and to gather political support by propaganda and lobbying.

The PKK’s switch to a “confederal” system is explained, whereby it founded departments in Iraq, Syria, and Iran between 2002 and 2004, gathering them all under the authority of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which is directly controlled by the PKK’s leadership. The attempt was to rebrand in order to escape its name, which carried the burden of its conduct and international terrorism designations.

The crucial front for present circumstances is in Syria, where the PKK operates through the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The PYD/YPG have become central players in the Syrian war and the international coalition’s efforts to destroy the Islamic State’s caliphate.

The PKK has run an elaborate messaging campaign to deny that the PYD/YPG is an integrated component of the PKK/KCK, but, as the report lays out in great detail—including the command structure of the YPG/PKK—this is simply false.

The YPG has attracted a contingent of non-Kurdish foreign fighters from around the world, including and especially the West. The report examines sixty of these foreign fighters, analyses their motives and broader profiles, and suggests how Britain and other states might deal with the security challenges surrounding this issue.

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