The Central Intelligence Agency has publicly recognized that the Kurdish partner force the United States-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS) has been working with in Syria is a subsidiary of the terrorist-designated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Attention was brought to this on Twitter, and when the CIA’s World Factbook for Syria is examined it lists the PKK, also identified by the alias “Kongra-Gel”, under the heading, “Terrorist groups – foreign based”.
The profile, which was last updated on 23 January 2018, reads in full:
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) (Kongra-Gel):
aim(s): establish Kurdistan, which comprises territory in northern Syria
area(s) of operation: operational in the north combating ISIL, primarily in the Kurdish-populated region known as Rojava and Syrian Kurdistan; Salih MUSLIM Muhammad leads Kurdistan Workers Party’s Syrian wing, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD); majority of fighters inside Syria are Syrian Kurds, along with Kurds from Iran, Turkey, and Iraq.
There has been an extensive campaign to deny that the PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are part of the PKK. The evidence has long been clear, the PYD/YPG barely disguises its nature, and, indeed, until recently the U.S. accepted that the PYD was a component of the PKK.
In January 2014, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) released its “Counterterrorism Calendar” for that year. The document made reference to the PKK being headquartered in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, operating its terror-insurgency inside Turkey, and the PKK’s “Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party, [which] has increased its presence in northern Syria by establishing control in Kurdish areas, resulting in increased tensions along the border.” That reference was removed in the 2015 Calendar—after the Coalition began working with the PYD/YPG during the Kobani battle—and the past references to the PYD’s relationship to the PKK were subsequently eliminated from the NCTC website.
This pretence that the YPG/SDF were unconnected to the PKK was necessitated by legal and political considerations in the U.S. and Western states more generally because the PKK is a regarded as a terrorist organisation—by the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and NATO. And the pretence has not always been easy to maintain.
U.S. Colonel John Dorrian, the anti-IS coalition spokesman, gave a teleconference from Baghdad on 3 May 2017 in which he said, “the PKK … are a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces”, before quickly correcting himself to say he had meant the YPG. On 19 January 2018, a State Department official said, “We fully understand Turkish concerns about the PKK. It’s a terrorist organization. We appreciate that. But we need to stabilize the north [of Syria]” (emphasis added). And most recently, on 25 January, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said (13:00): “We see that people now have to flee an area [Efrin] that was previously considered pretty stable … because Turkey has taken its eye off the ball—ISIS—and [is] going after the PKK at this time.”
Alongside these verbal slips there have been more considered admissions.
Then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter confirmed that the PYD had “substantial ties” to the PKK during Congressional testimony on 28 April 2016.
Andrew Exum, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Middle East Policy between 2015 and 2016, writing in support of the decision to publicly arm the YPG to expel the Islamic State in Raqqa in The Atlantic on 9 May 2017, bluntly acknowledged: “[T]he YPG is a foreign terrorist organization. Despite protests to the contrary, there is no hard distinction between the YPG and the PKK”.
General Raymond Thomas, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), gave a statement at the Aspen Institute Security Forum on 21 July 2017 in which he described his role in getting the YPG/PKK to rebrand itself as the SDF:
They came about that name [the Syrian Democratic Forces] because at one point in time—and I dealt with them directly, I was in on the formative stage of the relationship with these guys—they formerly called themselves the YPG, who the Turks would say equated to the PKK, “You’re dealing with a terrorist enemy of mine. How can you do that, ally?” So we literally played back to [the YPG], “You gotta change your brand. What do you want to call yourself beside the YPG?” And with about a day’s notice they declared that they were the Syrian Democratic Forces. I thought it was a stroke of brilliant to put “democracy” in their somewhere [audience laughs].
Under any conditions the Turkish government would, therefore, be displeased with its NATO ally arming and supporting the YPG. But the accompaniment of U.S. rhetoric claiming that the YPG and PKK were “not connected”, that there was a “clear line” between them, and that the U.S. government “does not associate” the YPG with the PKK, has provided an additional irritant, as has a litany of unmet promises.
The most obvious violated promise from the U.S. to Turkey is Minbij, where Turkey signed-off on a U.S.-backed, PKK-led offensive to evict the Islamic State—on condition that in the aftermath the PKK would withdraw east of the Euphrates and allow the city’s Arab inhabitants to govern themselves. The PKK flouted this agreement immediately, moving north from Minbij toward the Turkish border and west toward al-Bab to try to connect up the PKK-held cantons all along Turkey’s border. The U.S. made no attempt to enforce a penalty on the PKK for this behaviour, which was the proximate trigger for the first Turkish intervention in Syria, Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD, in August 2016. After the U.S. began overtly arming the YPG/PKK in May 2017, Turkey was assured that any weapons provided that were not used in Raqqa would be recovered. That was an impossible promise to keep and the U.S. soon ceased to uphold the façade as operations were extended into Deir Ezzor.
It is not to deny that Turkey’s policy in Syria has created all kinds of problems, including for herself, to note that the U.S. has to take considerable responsibility for creating a breach within NATO that the Russians are exploiting and which now sets at risk even the narrow counter-terrorism gains in Syria.
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UPDATE (13 Feb. 2018): The U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats submitted the U.S. intelligence community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to Congress, and in it referred to “the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit—the Syrian militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)”.
UPDATE (15 Feb. 2018): It was reported that in a meeting with Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli, U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis had said that the YPG could be used to combat the PKK. What exactly Mattis said is unclear, though this statement spread widely in Turkey and was treated with derision.