The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally-designated terrorist entity, currently controls about a fifth of Syria’s territory in the northeast, an area it calls “Rojava”. The PKK works, as I explained in a recent report for The Henry Jackson Society, under the banner of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) while on Syrian territory, and has sought—with Western complicity—to obscure its activities even further by attaching some subordinate Arab units to its forces and calling this supposed-umbrella organization the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is the principle partner of the seventy-three-member coalition, led by the United States, that seeks to destroy the Islamic State (IS). On 14 September, the PYD/PKK launched a fresh crackdown on the Kurdish opposition, which has been viciously persecuted by the PKK back to 2011 and assaulted with an especial vigour since the spring of this year. The Kurds arrested by the PKK yesterday, and whose demonstration was attacked and dispersed by the PKK this afternoon, were voicing their support for the independence referendum to be held on 25 September by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
In Rojava, most of the non-PKK Kurdish parties have gathered under the banner of the Kurdish National Council (KNC or ENKS), which has links with the KRG. One of the leading elements within KNC/ENKS is the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (PDKS), the sister party of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, which is the party of KRG president Masud Barzani.
When Bashar al-Asad’s regime pulled out of the Kurdish areas in northern Syria in the summer of 2012 and handed them over to the PKK, its intention was to keep the Kurds out of the rebellion, to retain its key infrastructure in these zones (which the PKK has allowed the regime to do), and to minimize the influence of foreign powers—specifically Turkey and the KRG—in these areas.
That Asad perceives the Rojava statelet as in his interests is flagrantly demonstrated by the Asad regime’s provision of the resources—financial, administrative, and even some military—that make Rojava viable. This has been clearly visible in Aleppo city, which the PKK assisted the pro-Asad coalition in conquering with indiscriminate atrocities last December, and the surrounding areas where the PKK now has its land-bridge between the eastern cantons and Efrin via regime-held territory. In the case of Minbij, it seems the PKK has given way on some overt symbols of its exclusivist domination of the city, but the “Qandilians” still rule from the shadows and Asad’s mukhabarat (intelligence services) have been allowed back in—and begun carrying off dozens of people—as the price of the regime restoring services the PKK is unable to provide.
Relations between the PKK and the Asad regime have even begun to warm in public. For example, female members of the PKK’s “Women’s Council” attended a meeting in August with Mihrac Ural, the leader of the “Syrian Resistance”, a regime death squad best known for a pogrom against Sunni civilians in Bayda and Baniyas, on the Syrian Coast, in May 2013, that slaughtered at least 167 people and involved such gruesome atrocities as “a fetus [being] ripped from a woman’s belly”. And, while the PKK initially made vociferous claims that there would be “no role” for Asad in a post-IS Raqqa, it is now conceded that the regime will have some role once the caliphate collapses in its Syrian “capital”. The PKK apparently draws the line at Asad’s security institutions, yet Minbij has already shown not only that the PKK can quite happily coexist with the Asad regime’s secret police but that the PKK doesn’t always tell the absolute truth; the PKK had promised to withdraw from Minbij once IS was gone last summer.
Russia’s role in bolstering the PKK is less disguised than Asad’s, providing embedded advisers, repeated rounds of airstrikes against Western-backed rebel formations, and troop deployments to shield the PKK from Turkey, notably in Minbij and recently in Efrin. That the Russians in Minbij were joined by the Americans in protecting a listed terrorist group from a NATO state was only the latest oddity of the Syrian war.
While the U.S. and other Western states—and especially their publics—might have taken to the YPG/PKK, the feeling is hardly mutual. The “YPG would more likely break off its relationship with the United States than that with the PKK”, one YPG commander bluntly told Al-Monitor a month ago, and how could it be otherwise? The organizations are one and the same. It goes beyond that, though. The PKK has always been more comfortable in the other column in Syria. During the Cold War, the PKK functioned as an instrument of the Soviet Union to destabilize Turkey, a frontline NATO state, and the PKK’s role as an extension of the Asad family’s foreign policy is longstanding. Conceived in ideological opposition to “Western imperialism”, of which it believes Turkey and Israel are local manifestations, the PKK has continued teaching this doctrine to the stream of several hundred foreign fighters who have joined it in Syria. This heretofore under-the-radar challenge of Leftist militants being trained in urban warfare and joining up transnational networks is beginning to surface, with two ongoing cases in Britain.
A HISTORY OF REPRESSION
The PYD/PKK retained conciliatory relations with the Asad regime from the outset of the uprising, joining what some call the “pro-regime opposition” structures—even though they explicitly rejected the PKK’s key demand for autonomy. Anti-Asad Kurds prepared to work alongside the Arab opposition fell to mysterious assassins, and anti-PKK demonstrations were suppressed by PKK-sponsored thugs or fired on directly by the PKK’s Asayish (secret police). After the PKK acquired territory in 2012, dozens of Kurds would be arrested or “disappeared” every year. A number were released after being subjected to the torture that is endemic in PKK prisons; others remain in jail five years later. The PKK implemented its most controversial policies, taxation/extortion and conscription, including of children, and marginalized all threats to its political-military monopoly.
The PKK’s expulsion in August 2016 of Ibrahim Biro, the leader of the KNC, from Rojava, with the threat to cut him into pieces if he returned, can be taken as the symbolic, if not quite the literal, marker of a new boldness from the PKK in suppressing those Kurds who dissented from its ideological program. Where previously the PKK had mostly worked in secret, with individual assassinations and disappearances, now there was a willingness for an open crackdown.
In March 2017, the Rojava regime passed a law making the area formally a one-party state, and then burned down the offices of its opponents and jailed their members by the dozens. This persecution continued, with critical journalists, politicians, activists, women’s rights workers, and runaway child soldiers all caught in the PKK dragnet in subsequent weeks.
The PKK’s abusive conduct has continued since the spring, and in some ways intensified.
There have been many complaints about the PYD/PKK’s conduct as it pushed into Raqqa city against IS. One concrete event, reported by a local anti-IS activist group, was on 24 June, when the PYD shot dead Asa’ad Ahmed Zieno and his father in their home. The episode was captured on video and spread around social media. The PYD later returned to kidnap Zieno’s son.
The PYD staged a compulsory demonstration on 5 July in Tel Abyad against a possible Turkish incursion into the PYD-held enclave of Efrin. The Asayish closed shops, demanding the shop-keepers attend the rally, and threatened civil service employees with arrest and worse if they did not turn out for this PYD regime-orchestrated propaganda event. The resistance to PYD intimidation was considerable and in the end the protest was small.
At the beginning of August, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented, by its meticulous standards, ninety-seven political prisoners held by the PYD/PKK. Among these was Barzan Hussein, a journalist kidnapped by the PKK in May, who is being “kept in solitary confinement … was subjected to ill-treatment and was denied health care, even though his health situation was deteriorating on account of a chronic disease”. Most PKK detention facilities “lack the most basic life necessities, such as medical care, personal hygiene, water, food, and ventilation, which [has] led to diseases running rampant among detainees”, SNHR wrote. Inadequate medical care has been reported by a number of foreign fighters. One American, Patrick Ryan Kasprik, said the YPG/PKK was led by men with “no concern for battlefield trauma care and … more desire to print out gaudy yellow photos of young dead people for propaganda”.
It was reported on 21 August that the PYD authorities in Efrin had closed down sixty-four mosques, twenty-four in the city and forty in Rif Efrin, claiming it was a counter-terrorism measure to stop gatherings of jihadists from al-Qaeda and IS. One resident said that even before this decree, the PYD had been “monitoring and arresting those who attend mosques regularly”. Summer courses in the Qur’an for children were also reported to have been banned by the PYD, and the forced use of the Kurdish in schools is interpreted by religious authorities as an attempt to distance the population from the language of the Qur’an. The pressure on religious institutions is a running problem. Imams complain of being forced to “read out anti-Turkey sentiments and statements against the Syrian opposition during the sermons”. Over the first eight months of 2017, four imams in Efrin, who were known critics of the PYD, “disappeared”.
Saleh Jamil Umar, a PDKS central committee member, was taken from his home in Rif Hasaka on 23 August by the PKK, and has not been seen since. The next day, the offices of the Kurdish Union, better known as the Yekiti, Party, which is, like the PDKS, a member of the ENKS/KNC, were burned down in Qamishli.
Two long-running issues resurfaced over the summer: conscription and the imposition of an ideological curriculum in the schools.
The forced conscription in Efrin would have been resented in any circumstance, but when it includes children and the elderly who are then being sent—through regime-held areas—to fight in Raqqa, it becomes intolerable to many. The PKK’s coerced enlistment of children is particularly resented when applied to girls, though the flashpoint case of Mohamad Houri in late May involved a boy. Since June, the PKK’s conscription campaign has been widened, spreading to Tel Abyad and Hasaka, which has led to a yet more people fleeing Rojava for Turkey, Iraqi, Kurdistan, and Europe.
Kurds have been denouncing the PKK transforming their children’s schools into “totalitarian” indoctrination centres for many years, and the reasons are practical as well as philosophical. The dissemination of the PKK’s ideology is enabling its recruitment of children. On 25 August, a serious protest about the introduction of PKK ideology into the schools erupted in the Ghweiran neighbourhood of Hasaka city, and the PKK violently dispersed the demonstration, arresting twenty teachers who had been participating.
The announcement of the first ever elections to take place in Rojava, beginning 22 September, generated some questions about whether they would, or could, be free and fair. Such questions were swiftly answered by the PKK’s exclusion of thousands of Arab residents in the Jazeera moved their as part of the Ba’thist “Arabization” policies in the 1970s. This was the reversal of a “racist and unfair” policy, according to PKK officials.
The PKK roundup last night included at least twenty-five KNC members (later reports put the total at thirty-one) who were planning to partake in a demonstration today in support of the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The PKK arrested PDKS members Abdulhamid Khalil and Abdulmajid Mousa in Ras al-Ayn. Mostafa Senan and Fahed Ali Asad, both KNC officials, as well as another civilian activist called Mohamad Hami, were taken from the village of Jawhariya in the northeastern Hasaka Province. In 2012, the PYD/PKK murdered one member of the PDKS central committee, Nasreddin Birhek, and later in the year “disappeared” another member, Bahzed Dorsen. On this occasion, however, there seems to have been a particular focus on the Yekiti Party.
In Amuda, on the Turkish border in Hasaka Province, the PKK abducted a journalist with “Yekiti Media”, Barzan Shaykhmos, and a member of the Yekiti Party, Ismail Senan. In Darbasiya city, four members of the Yekiti Party were kidnapped by the SDF/PKK, three members of the same family—Abdulhamid, Jihad, and Nizam al-Din Aliko—plus Idris Ali. The PKK’s intelligence service arrested two Yekiti Party members, Bahjat Shaykho and Ismail Ghazo, in Tal Tamer. And in Ras al-Ayn, another Yekiti official, Badran Mesto, was taken into PKK custody.
Elsewhere, another nine known Kurdish oppositionists were arrested by the PKK: Husayn Haj Ahmad, Qassem Khalil, Mahmud Ismail, Hawas Mahmud, Mohamad Ali, Mohamad Shaykh Basheer, Abdulhamid Rezbai, Abdulawahab Kurmi, Abulkarim Umar Hasso, Hasan Ali Haj Rasho, Nezhan Ahmad, and Loukman Awji.
The KNC and its supporters rather bravely went ahead with the demonstrations across Hasaka in any case, in many towns and even Qamishli city. In Amuda, the PKK broke up the demonstration quickly and confiscated pictures of Barzani and flags of Kurdistan.
There is hostility to the PKK from the populations in areas where IS is being displaced by the PKK and the serious prospect of transferring the Turkey-PKK war onto Syrian soil. Rojava has given strategic depth to the PKK’s terrorism inside Turkey. Recent PKK attacks in Turkey have involved the targeted killing of teachers and the murder of a schoolboy, Eren Bulbul, on 11 August, which provoked enormous popular outrage in Turkey. These pressures within and without provide reason to doubt whether the Rojava institutions are durable, and whether their extension won’t provide yet another opening for IS. It certainly seems set to provide an opening for the Iranian theocracy, whose sectarianism will nourish IS into the future.
The Coalition having been silent in public at every stage as the PKK has eliminated the space for dissent in Rojava alleviated the pressure for the PKK to invest the resources in governance that would grant it popular buy-in. At present, the Rojava structure is a securitized shell, designed as a launchpad against Turkey. This unwillingness to openly challenge the PKK’s behaviour was a reflection of the Coalition’s short-termism, a monomania about the anti-IS operation that had little thought for the day after; it looked like indifference to human rights abuses and did nothing to curb a PKK maximalism that risks undoing the gains against IS, not to mention the PKK’s own attainments.
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UPDATE: On 29 September 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists demanded that the PYD/PKK release Ibrahim Ali al-Suleiman, a journalist with the independent newspaper, The Euphrates Post, which has documented human rights abuses of all parties that have occupied eastern Syria—the Asad regime, IS, and the PKK.
The PKK has frequently repressed journalists that do not adhere to its propaganda line. In May, the PKK kidnapped a Zagros TV reporter, Barzan Liani.
This time, the PKK did not just take al-Suleimani. The PYD Asayish went to al-Suleiman’s house in al-Shadadi on 15 September, and detained him and his four sons. Al-Suleiman’s whereabouts are unknown; his children are being kept at one of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” camps south of Ayn Issa. The Euphrates Post was previously known as “Deir Ezzor is Being Slaughtered Silently”, and for the last few years its primary output has been documenting and exposing the cruelty and abuses of the Islamic State’s regime in the area.
As the PKK is displacing IS in Syria, it has developed a habit of targeting those who resisted the last tyranny, doubtless on the basis that those brave enough to resist autocracy in one case will resist theirs, too. The PKK and its media allies have, for example, attempted to pre-emptively legitimate attacks on Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) by accusing it of sympathies with IS, despite the price in blood RBSS has paid for resisting IS.
Post has been updated
Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society