The British Parliament has released a report today, entitled, “Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK”, which examines the implications for the United Kingdom of having supported various Kurdish groups and parties as part of the Coalition against the Islamic State (IS).
One of the key questions examined is the support the Coalition has given to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which now operate through another organisation, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The British government says that “it has not provided any weapons to any Syrian group, [though] it has carried out airstrikes to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)”, which has clearly provided some benefit to the PYD/YPG.
The issue at the heart of this is the PYD/YPG’s relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally recognised terrorist organisation that has run a decades-long terror-insurgency against a NATO member state, Turkey.
In my view the evidence is plain that the PYD/YPG is a wholly integrated, organic component of the PKK (you can read my submission to the inquiry here). That the PYD is the PKK in Syria is the public position of U.S. intelligence. The section of the U.K. report dealing with this matter does not itself take a view on the extent of the PYD/YPG-PKK’s integration, but it notes that “our witnesses overwhelmingly argued that the PYD/YPG and PKK were linked”. Her Majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was somewhat less straightforward.
British diplomats said they had only “occasional” and “very infrequent” contact with the PYD and does not have “any contact” with the PKK. This claim is in line with the formal position of the British government, as expressed by Middle East Minister Alistair Burt MP, who told the committee that the PYD/YPG and PKK “are separate organisations”. Indeed, the government follows much of the media in presenting the counter-argument as the “perspective of the Turkish government”, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the panel, a perspective he hastened to add London doesn’t share.
The problem is that the evidence given by British officials does not match this assessment. Some officials referred by rote to “reported links” between the YPG/PYD and PKK; Amy Clemitshaw, the Head of the Eastern Mediterranean Department at the FCO, said it was “not right for us to comment” on such matters and then moments later Mr. Burt said: “[W]hen we talk to the PYD-YPG in relation to this, we say that they should sever links with the PKK. The practicalities are that they are probably not doing that, so those links are there”. Burt added later, in plain terms, “they have clearly got links.”
Tangential to this, when Burt was asked about the grave abuses of human rights by the PYD/YPG regime in the “Rojava” area of Syria, he said, “I don’t know the answer to that question”. The evidence of repression, including torture and assassination of Kurdish opposition politicians, by the PYD/YPG is hardly difficult to find (see here, here, and here.) Troubling as it is, Burt’s position is consistent with Coalition policy so far, which has been near-totally silent on the abuses by the authoritarian, one-party system the PYD/YPG has erected in Syria. Why this is the case is unclear. Western officials have told me this matter gets raised in private. This does not have the same political effect, however, bringing nothing like the same pressure on the PYD/YPG over, say, political prisoners, and in the meantime it allows the PYD/YPG to continue to present itself—and even to recruit—in the West with its image of a democratic utopia.
The report concludes that the denial and dissimulation from the FCO on the subject should cease, and also asks when it was that the British government became aware that the force it had deputized to fight IS would likely trigger another war, this one with a NATO partner:
The FCO’s view about the nature and extent of the links between the PYD/YPG and the PKK, or about whether those links exist at all, is not coherent. Its repeated reference to these links being ‘reported’ is not sufficient or credible. To have a clear policy the FCO should have a clear view. In light of the group’s influence in Syria, the FCO should clarify its own position on the relationship between the PYD/YPG and the PKK. The FCO should:
i) specifically answer whether it sees no links between the PYD/YPG and the PKK, OR it sees abstract and historical links (such as a common heritage or ideology or inspiration), OR it sees deep and current links (such as shared organisation, or the exchange of weapons, personnel, finances, training, or safe-havens).
ii) answer whether it sees a risk of the PYD/YPG providing support to the PKK in the future.
iii) explain, having refused to speculate a year ago about the risk of clashes between the YPG and Turkey, what prior assessments it made of the impact that the provision of military support to the SDF by the Global Coalition would have on the security of, and relations with, the UK’s NATO ally Turkey. It should provide an assessment of how the operation in Afrin will impact on these issues, as well as on the possibility of Daesh’s re-emergence in the region.
While the evidence for (i) is copious, and the real issue is official acknowledgment, (ii) is genuinely contested, though it is becoming more plain: foreign fighters who joined the PYD/YPG are showing up inside Turkey in the ranks of the PKK, and previous terrorist attacks by the PKK’s urban special forces unit, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), have received at least logistical support from the Rojava area. This trend of PYD/YPG-held areas in Syria becoming an extension of the PKK’s operations in Turkey will only increase, especially now there is a direct confrontation with Turkey in Efrin. The panel asks the British government to clarify what role it will play in this by “explain[ing] its future policy towards the YPG and SDF in all areas under their control, including whether the UK will continue to provide military or other support to the SDF after the defeat of Daesh”.