Cross-posted from The Henry Jackson Society
The American-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS) partnered with the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), a political façade for the proscribed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as the ground force in Syria. The most ventilated problems with this partnership so far have been the strain it has put on relations with NATO ally Turkey, against which the PKK has run a terrorist-insurgency for more than thirty years, and the deep local suspicion of the PKK’s governing program that might yet reverse the gains against IS and open political space for other jihadists like al-Qaeda. Another of the problems is now gaining salience: the PKK’s long-term alliance with Bashar al-Asad’s regime and the states—Russia and Iran—that keep it alive.
A CHILD OF THE COLD WAR
The PKK was founded as part of the radical movements of the 1960s, though was formally established in Turkey in 1978 with Abdullah Ocalan as its leader. The PKK was uprooted and expelled from Turkey by the military coup of 1980, which ushered in a savage regime. The repression was broad and the persecution of Kurds was widespread, at Diyarbakir Military Prison Number Five and elsewhere. This “period of barbarity” targeted Kurds generally, even if they had stayed away from activism, and in doing so it helped lay the political groundwork for the PKK, particularly in the brutal but poorly-managed prisons where PKK activists were able to propagandise and recruit. The later amnesties as the General Staff returned Turkey to pseudo-civilian rule allowed this dedicated cadre to form part of the nucleus of the organisation before it began insurgent operations in August 1984.
The PKK, all but defeated, found an eager patron for rebuilding in Syria’s Asad regime, then headed by Bashar’s father, Hafiz, who opened up training camps in Syrian-occupied Lebanon, where Palestinian terrorist groups like Nayef Hawatma’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and a close ally of the Soviet Union. In service of the Soviets’ foreign policy, the DFLP had inter alia helped train the Sandinista movement that imposed a despotism even more cruel than Somoza’s on Nicaragua.
The PKK regards the West as imperial and aggressive, and held the Soviets to be supporters of “national liberation”, as well as the font of their Marxist doctrine. For the PKK, states aligned to the West like Turkey and Israel were fundamentally illegitimate, mere extensions of Western colonialism and racism that History would terminate. These ideology lessons are still given to PKK recruits, including Westerners, in Syria.
Coming under the dual patronage of Asad and the U.S.S.R., the PKK was a weapon against Turkey—for Moscow, to target a frontline NATO state; for Asad, to press his territorial and resource claims against Ankara. Inside Syria, the PKK helped Asad deflect the demands of Kurdish people, who were discriminated against and marginalized under an Arabist and Arabising Ba’thist regime, by mobilising Syria’s Kurds against Turkey. The relationship was so close that those Kurds who joined the PKK were exempt from national service in the regime’s army. Asad stripping 120,000 Kurds of citizenship on grounds that they were “alien infiltrators” from Turkey was not protested by the PKK. Instead, Ocalan buttressed this narrative, and took it even further. “Most Syrian Kurds are immigrants” from Turkey to Syria, Ocalan said in 1996, and the goal has to be to “return them to their original homeland”. Ocalan did not need to add, though he did, “The Syrian government is pleased about this”. Asad empowered the PKK, physically and politically, in Syria’s Kurdish areas, which is why so many PKK fighters at all levels are Syrians, and why the PKK was able to secure dominance in those areas so quickly once the regime pulled out in 2012.
In the late 1980s, the PKK established ties with Saddam Husayn’s Iraq, warring against Iraqi Kurdish factions in alliance with Saddam at various points, and more substantially the PKK built a relationship with the revolutionary Islamist regime in Iran.
The PKK reached its heights in Turkey in the bloody years between 1992 and 1996, with a ferocious campaign that included systematic atrocities, particularly against Kurds who resisted the PKK, amounting to crimes against humanity. The deeply authoritarian PKK structure helped undo the organisation as the Turkish government recovered its footing and began changing tactics. Ocalan murdered hundreds of members of the PKK for ideological “crimes”, real and imagined, and purged competent commanders like Semdin Sakik because he saw them as a threat to his authority. So when the Turks began using more effective conventional tactics like airstrikes, combined with criminal behaviour—mass-expulsion and extra-judicial assassinations against activists, politicians, and journalists to drain away the human terrain in which the PKK could operate—the PKK was unable to adapt. The new Russian Federation continued to provide some weapons to the PKK, but the Soviet Union was gone and with it the overarching political narrative. Syria ceased to be a staging ground for the PKK in 1998 when Asad was pressured to withdraw his support by a threat of war from Turkey. By the end of the 1990s, Ocalan was in prison and the PKK had been forced to withdraw to the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.
ADAPTING TO A NEW WORLD
In the wake of the 9/11 massacre, the PKK, by that time listed as a terrorist organisation by most Western states, the European Union, and NATO, understood that it needed to change course if it was to survive the War on Terror era. This was the beginning of the “confederal” program. Between 2002 and 2004, the PKK created organisations in Syria, Iran, and to a lesser extent Iraq to camouflage its operations. The intention was to appear more localist to counteract some of the negativity the PKK had drawn on itself with Kurdish populations that were displeased at having their rights ignored in favour of the PKK’s Turkey-centric vision, and to get out from under the international terrorism designations.
In Syria, the PKK created the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as its political front and the armed wing was known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The names excluded any ethnic marker so as not to antagonise the Asad regime, which was allowing the PKK to recommence its operations in Syria now that the immediate threat from Turkey had passed. Between 2003 and 2011, the Asad regime would alternate between collaboration and crackdown with the PKK, in a manner not dissimilar to Asad’s treatment of the IS movement in the same period.
THE SYRIAN REVOLT
With the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the PYD/PKK sided with the “internal opposition”, bodies like the National Coordination Body, which if not creatures of the regime’s intelligence services are heavily manipulated by them. The public platform of the NCB and the PYD opposed Asad’s downfall and any external intervention to prevent the regime’s atrocities against what was, for six whole months, a peaceful movement of street protesters. The PYD has never deviated from its conciliatory policy toward the Asad regime, despite occasional clashes at the margins.
In September 2011, as elements of the population began to take up arms to defend themselves from the regime, the PKK cut a deal with Iran to move most of the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) infrastructure from that country into northern Syria. In July 2012, with Aleppo and Damascus ablaze, the Asad regime handed over the Kurdish-majority areas of northern Syria to the PYD/PKK, having assisted the PYD eliminating other Kurdish political leaders. The PYD/YPG attacks on the insurgency as it moved against Asad in Ras al-Ayn in November 2012 cemented the opposition view of the PYD as a regime proxy and place-holder.
The Asad regime had allowed the nominal leader of the PYD, Saleh Muslim Muhammad, to return to Syria, having earlier pressured him to leave to the Qandil Mountains. Saleh Muslim’s return was compared by one author to the German General Staff sending Lenin on a train into St. Petersburg in 1917. Given the effects of Asad bolstering the PYD—keeping Kurds out of the rebellion, helping distract and divide the anti-Asad rebels, and immunising the areas that the Asad regime ceded to the PYD from the influence of U.S. allies like Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan—a case can be made.
The PYD called the areas it held “Rojava” and fastened a system of authoritarian rule on them not dissimilar to the one that departed with Asad. Indeed, in many cases the PYD simply reflagged the Ba’th ministries. And in point of fact Asad never did leave, retaining control of key nodes in Rojava: the land registries that are key to development, Hasaka Airport that controls trade and takes political prisoners to Damascus, various security nodes, and the Qamishli-Nusaybin border crossing. For the full length of this war Asad has financially underwritten the Rojava statelet, paying civil servants, teachers, local government administrators, and all other public sector employees. There was no blitz of PYD-held areas, as happened in rebel-controlled zones. Just as when IS built its caliphate in the east the regime avoided bombing, evidently Asad finds the PYD project to be in his interest.
The case will often be made by the PYD’s supporters and sympathisers that its collaboration with the Asad regime is a function of pragmatism; a lesser-evil calculation to protect itself and the Kurdish population as the rebellion Islamised. Putting aside the timeline problems outlined above—the PYD never took a different line and assassinated Kurdish leaders who did—such an explanation would not explain why the PYD has consistently extended public political support to Asad at crucial moments when it served no Kurdish interest, nor even a narrow PYD interest. To take one example: in August 2013, after the massive attack on East Ghuta with chemical weapons of mass destruction, Saleh Muslim said that “of course” Asad wasn’t responsible and instead “some other sides who want to blame the Syrian regime” so that they could “see action” had orchestrated this. This “false flag” conspiracy theory was the exact view taken by Asad and his defenders. In September 2015, Saleh Muslim said it would be a “disaster for everyone” if Asad fell because he would be replaced by Islamist extremists, again buttressing the regime’s narrative of a binary conflict at a time when it simply wasn’t true.
The PYD became the West’s anti-IS partner after the Kobani battle in September 2014, first holding off that siege because of supplies of Western weapons and airstrikes, and then pushing out from Kobani to take over further tracts of IS-held territory. The Asad regime claimed to have sent weapons to the PYD during the Kobani siege; the PYD denies it, and it might be true. The regime has supplied weapons at other times, however, and the consistent and deep trade links between the two sides makes the specifics of Kobani somewhat immaterial.
Even after the PYD partnered with the U.S.-led Coalition to displace IS, the prior Rojava model has been imposed: in return for Asad paying salaries, the regime’s secret police are back in Minbij, for example, hauling away those who dared rise against the regime. When Russia entered Syria in late 2015, the PYD publicly welcomed Moscow’s intervention—which systematically set about the CIA-backed rebel units—and immediately began partnering with the Russians, as well as the Americans.
Russian trainers were deployed with the PYD. Russian airstrikes aided the PYD breakthrough at the Tishreen Dam in December 2015, and the PYD was not shy about this. In February 2016, this became even more brazen: the PYD used the rebel disorientation, after the regime coalition cut the supply line from Aleppo city to Turkey, to seize the Arab towns of Tel Rifaat and Menagh from U.S.-backed rebels under the cover of Russian airstrikes. Nearly a year earlier a British government report had lamented the PYD’s “links to the Assad regime” that made it so difficult to engage, and the U.K. would complain publicly about the PYD’s collusion with Asad/Iran and Russia. It did no good. Later in the same month, the PYD opened an office in Moscow. The PYD helped the pro-Asad coalition impose the siege on Aleppo city in July 2016, and then actively assisted in the unmerciful crushing of this outpost of the mainstream rebellion in November and December 2016.
Since the beginning of 2017, the PYD/PKK has built on events in Aleppo to strengthen its relations with the pro-Asad coalition, integrating Rojava even further with regime-held areas and tightening relations specifically the Russians, even as the U.S. began to publicly arm the YPG/PKK, without the fictitious membrane of the SDF, to clear IS from Raqqa.
In Aleppo itself, the PYD was allowed to keep its area of Aleppo city, Shaykh Maqsud, and handed the others it had jointly assaulted with the regime over to regime control. In exchange, the regime coalition opened the roads through its areas south of the city in Aleppo Province to the PYD so that the PYD now has its land-bridge—albeit at the mercy of the regime coalition—between the eastern cantons that are protected by the U.S. and Efrin canton in the west that is guarded by the Russians. By opening the path between Minbij and Efrin, the Asad regime had lifted the “siege”—enforced by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan—of the PYD areas, a PYD spokesman said, and the PYD could now transfer wheat and oil more easily to the regime, and receive medicine and reconstruction materials in turn.
On 2 March, the PYD handed over a belt of territory west of Minbij to the Asadists in order to prevent Turkey pushing the PYD out of the city. The PYD’s “Minbij Military Council” flew its flags alongside the Russians’ in the city after this. Within days, the U.S. military was ostentatiously deployed in Minbij as a “visible sign of deterrence”—to Turkey. In short, the U.S. worked with the Russians to shield a terrorist organisation from its NATO ally. Such are the oddities of Western policy in Syria.
In the spring, the PKK publicly boosted relations with Iran in the Sinjar-Tal Afar area of Iraq, on the border with Syria. The PKK operates in that area through a Yazidi militia, the Shingal Resistance Units (YBS), and Tehran was working through Kataib Hizballah, one of its proxy Shi’a militias that is a U.S.-designated terrorist organisation. The YBS/PKK allows Iran to move its Shi’a jihadists and weapons into Syria to prop up Asad, and Tehran in turn provides money and weapons to the YBS. The YBS’s most stable form of income is from Baghdad, as part of the Hashd al-Shabi, the Iranian-dominated conglomeration of militias that is now formally part of the Iraqi state. Iran’s attempt to foster links between the PKK and Baghdad go back many years, and Tehran sells it to both sides as a means of countering the influence of the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey in Iraq.
Attaching Arabs to the “SDF” to boost their proportion—and thereby claim it as a legitimate coalition, rather than a vehicle for PYD/PKK hegemony—was long ago subverted. The PYD holds all important levers of power within the SDF, denying Arabs heavy weapons and using Arabs as administrators for its governance structure. The PYD even subjects recruits to indoctrination in PKK ideology. A less obvious aspect of this is that to boost the ranks with “reliable”, i.e. non-hostile, Arabs, the PYD has let in various brigades of Asad loyalists. One of the largest Arab components of the SDF, Quwwat al-Sanadid, is linked to the Iranian-constructed National Defence Forces (NDF).
The schemes to use the PYD as a means of containing Iran will run into this brute fact: the PYD could not confront the regime coalition if it wanted to, and would likely cut a deal if any confrontation arises, because otherwise it would suffer mass-defections and perhaps lose its statelet in the chaos. As Reuel Marc Gerecht put it recently, “America’s strengthening of the YPG hasn’t given Washington a trump card to play in post-Raqqa Syria; it may have given one to both Moscow and Tehran.”
At the end of August, an effort by Turkish spies to apprehend or kill Cemil Bayik, the terrorist who leads the PKK, was unravelled by the PKK. The happened in the area of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has cordial relations with the PKK and close relations with Iran. Bayik himself has long-standing relations with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (VEVAK). A number of officials in the KRG and Turkey believe Iran tipped off the PKK. The proclamation by Turkey last week that its airstrikes against the PKK in northern Iraq were done in coordination with Iraqi and Iranian intelligence was mostly messaging to the U.S., telling Washington that Turkey has other options if the U.S. is set on working with Ankara’s nemesis. Turkey’s worry is about Iran, and Russia, using the PKK against her, which among the main drivers behind Turkey’s policy of finding a working arrangement with the pro-Asad coalition.
Asad’s Foreign Minister, Walid al-Muallem, said on 26 September that the regime would consider allowing the PYD-ruled areas to have autonomy. “This topic is open to negotiation and discussion and when we are done eliminating Daesh, we can sit with our Kurdish sons and reach an understanding on a formula for the future,” al-Muallem said. In February 2016, Bashar al-Jaafari, the regime’s ambassador to the United Nations, famously said that advocates for federalism needed to take Panadol. A year later in Astana, al-Jaafari suggested Panadol and Advil to quell these fever dreams. So this was quite a departure for the regime, which has previously even rebuffed its own patrons in Moscow that have always been open to a settlement along these lines.
After the PYD had flagrantly defied the U.S. by raising a giant poster of Ocalan over Raqqa city as part of their “victory” celebration on 19 October, it became clear that PYD/PKK officials had met with the pro-Asad coalition in Qamishli to discuss a deal whereby the Asad regime would grant semi-autonomy to the PYD statelet in exchange for the Rojava regime continuing to send oil and water resources to the regime. The PKK delegation was led by HPG commander-in-chief Murat Karayilan, and included Shahoz Hesen, the nominal PYD leader, who, with Ayshe Hiso, replaced Saleh Muslim and Asya Abdullah on 28 September. The pro-Asad forces were represented by the internal security chief, Ali Mamluk, and Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Envoy for the Middle East. Later reports suggested that Mamluk’s opening offer—recognition of “regional self-rule” for the PYD in the Kurdish-majority zones of Syria, in exchange for PYD withdrawal from areas it took from the Asad regime and the Arab-majority areas—had been rejected, with the PYD demanding a “federalist area guaranteed by the constitution.” Further meetings between the Asad regime and the PYD/PKK are scheduled.
On 26 November, the “SDF” leaked that the Coalition has 4,000 troops at ten bases inside Syria as part of the anti-IS mission. The troops are American, British, French, and German. This came after reports that the U.S. was about to announce that she has 2,000 “boots on the ground” in Syria. This was the second such leak about Coalition operations this year. In July, Turkey leaked the details of the American bases in the PYD-ruled areas in Syria. The Turks followed the revelation about Coalition troop numbers with a leak about the weapons bases the PYD had in Rojava, and the fact that much of the ammunition was unused, and therefore available for transnational terrorism by the PKK. The signs of this inevitable outcome are already appearing, with the Norwegian PYD/YPG foreign fighter, Karl Hakon Guldbransen, openly joining the PKK, and another PYD operative, Zozan Temir (Zozan Cudi), being killed inside Turkey in the ranks of the PKK. The Asad regime seems, once again, to be facilitating the PKK’s use of Syrian territory for operations against Turkey.
The day before, 25 November, Riad Darrar, the co-chair of the “Syrian Democratic Council”, the political wing of the SDF, gave an interview in which he said that once the U.S. had defeated IS they can withdraw as they did in Iraq, and a “Syrian settlement” can be reached in which “the Syrian Democratic Forces will be dissolved and become part of the Syrian army”. The SDF will avoid confrontation with any party, says Darrar, and continue to try to build up its own regions.
A similar statement was made on 30 November by Abd Salam Ali, the PYD representative in Moscow, who said: “If a solution agreeable to all parties is found, incorporating the SDF into the Syrian army will be the logical sequence of events. We’ve never raised the question of segregation or secession. On the contrary, the Kurds seek to secure their rights and the rights of other nations in the framework of a unified Syria.”
The PKK veteran who serves as the spokesman for the PYD, Nuri Mahmud, held a press conference on 3 December with the Russians, claiming that the “SDF” had liberated all of eastern Deir Ezzor Province with the assistance of American and Russian “air support, logistics and advising on the ground”. It was not true that the PYD replaced IS in eastern Rif Deir Ezzor, but it likely will be. This is a part of what Hassan Hassan has referred to as the “call dibs strategy”: by the “deconfliction” logic between the pro-Asad coalition and the U.S.-led coalition-SDF alliance, once one marks their territory—as Asad/Iran did with Mayadeen and al-Bukamal previously—it keeps away the other.
These lines of control or spheres of influence are not so harshly defined as all that, however. A Russian briefing on 7 December reiterated earlier claims that Russian Special Forces are operating not only unhindered by, but in coordination with, the PYD militia on the east bank of the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor Province—something of a contrast to the earlier Russian threats if the PYD trespassed into their zone. Moscow also documented the number of airstrikes it had contributed to the PYD/YPG effort in the Jazira.
This is not a novel development. The U.S.’s lack of concern about enabling the pro-Asad coalition is well-established, from telling Asad (via Iran) he was off-limits when the intervention began in 2014 to trying to sign a pact with the Russians to target Asad’s enemies last year to assisting Asad retaking Palmyra in March, and the nadir was reached when CENTCOM publicly invited the Asadists to take Deir Ezzor if they could.
A recent defector from the SDF, Talal Silo, noted what has long been known: one of the crucial PKK officials in setting up Rojava was Fehman Husayn (Bahoz Erdal) and one of the three most senior current commanders in the area is Nurettin Halef al-Muhammed (Nurettin Sofi). Both Husayn and al-Muhammed have been close to Asad’s intelligence services since the early 1990s. Silo added that the PYD/PKK’s relations with Moscow inside Syria are handled by Sipan Hamo, the nominal head of the YPG. Hamo acts at the behest of the PKK executive official and the overall deputy in Rojava, Ferhat Abdi Shahin (Shahin Cilo), the man who handles relations with the U.S.-led Coalition. Hamo’s trip to Moscow in October helped solidify these relations. As Silo explained, the SDF/PKK has “turned to Russia on many issues”.
With the apparent decision of the U.S. to stop sending weapons that enable PYD/YPG offensive operations and the failure to really contest, let alone to thwart, the pro-Asad coalition’s push into the east and Iran’s integration of its assets on either side of the Iraq-Syria border, it appears that the U.S. drawdown is on. The notion of the PYD as a bulwark against Iran was always rather fanciful given its friendly long-term relations relations with Asad, Russia, and Iran, and the reliance of its statelet on regime largesse. Even without such relations, however, the PYD would have to come terms with the pro-regime coalition once the U.S. leaves, or face the twin wrath of a resurgent pro-Asad force bent on re-establishing total control and an enraged Turkish government that sees the survival of its state in the balance. In simple material terms, too, the PYD is unable to provide basic services in its statelet, especially in this vastly-expanded form, without external assistance. Without the U.S., only the regime can offer cash and technicians for hospitals, schools, etc. With those resources come, at a bare minimum, the right for the mukhabarat to kidnap the regime’s opponents from the PYD areas, and the PYD has accepted that deal before. The trendline was best expressed by an American official to The Wall Street Journal in May: “The regime knows these details. They have a natural home-field advantage and have a way of slowly getting back in. We won’t be in Raqqa in 2020, but the regime will be there.”
Post has been updated