Human Rights Abuses in Rojava and the Anti-ISIS War

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 3 March 2018

Guerrillas from the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), the name the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) uses in Sinjar, Iraq, together with operatives from the People’s Defence Forces (HPG), the armed units of the PKK inside Turkey, holding a picture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. (image source)

The American-led Coalition’s partner against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), presents itself, ideologically and in terms of the governance structure it controls, in universalistic liberal and democratic terms, emphasizing ecological and feminist themes. The reality is that the SDF is under the politico-military control of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization that has run a four-decade-long insurgency against Turkey. The PKK has brought some measure of stability to the areas it controls, but it continues to struggle for legitimacy and without locally-legitimate government IS and other jihadi-Salafists will find political room to operate. The PKK’s continued monopolization of power and abusive governance practices undermine the chances for the “Rojava” system to evolve into a long-term solution to the jihadist terrorists that have used Syrian territory to threaten the region and the wider world.


The PKK is a deeply authoritarian organization that has killed hundreds of its own members on the mere suspicion of doctrinal deviation. When the PKK, which uses the names of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) while operating in Syria, captured territory, beginning in 2012, it assassinated the leaders of Kurdish opposition parties.

According to human rights organizations tracking this, the PYD/PKK murdered forty Kurdish opposition politicians, activists, and journalists between 2012 and 2014. These NGOs say that the PKK’s assassinations of Kurds opposed to them in Rojava largely ceased after 2014 because the PKK had acquired Western backing at Kobani and felt that political assassinations would jeopardize this. A database compiled by Kurdish activists shows dozens of arrests every year up to the present. The arrests, many of which include maltreatment in prison, are often short-term—a warning to cease agitation against the PKK regime. In other cases, particularly those of more high-profile Kurdish oppositionists, the PKK imposes longer terms of imprisonment, though the NGOs note that because the PKK’s process is so opaque it is not clear—even years later—whether some of these “disappearances” are just kidnappings or whether they are murders, as well.

The PKK has encountered resistance after it imposed conscription, taxation, and an ideological school curriculum in the Rojava zone—policies that were controversial when the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, ordered their implementation in PKK-controlled areas of southeast Turkey in the late 1980s. The forced conscription policy was formally suspended in 1990, but in practice it continued on. A defector from the PKK, a former commander named Selahattin Celik, said (p. 119) that after the PKK began kidnapping Kurds to force them into its army, it “encouraged villagers to join the village guards because people wanted to get weapons to protect their children”.

The YPG/PKK’s use of child soldiers in Syria continues right up to the present. This is, as the most recent State Department report on human trafficking notes, “[d]espite having signed a pledge of commitment with an international organization in June 2014 to demobilize all fighters younger than 18 years old”. Instead, the YPG has “recruited and trained children as young as 12 years old” and continues to do so. The YPG’s conversion of the schools into indoctrination centres has provoked considerable resistance from parents angry at the “totalitarian ideology” being imposed on their children at the expense of their life chances.

In March 2017, the YPG/PKK passed a law that formalized its control in Rojava, making the area effectively a one-party regime since opposition parties have to register in order to “legally” operate and the PKK controls the registry process. An intensified wave of persecution followed the passing of this law that obliterated the offices of the Kurdish opposition parties and arrested dozens of people. Previously, the Kurdish opposition—under constant threat—had been able to operate nearly fifty offices in Rojava; a member of the Kurdish opposition confirmed to me last week these are all gone now. The Syrian Kurdish opposition continued to come under pressure from the PKK over the summer of 2017, when the PKK also stepped-up its conscription campaign and clamped down on other areas of life, notably the free exercise of religion. In September, a fresh crackdown was launched by the PKK regime, this time against supporters of Kurdish independence in Iraq.

The PKK has made considerable efforts to obscure the autocratic nature of the system it is running in Syria, through direct propaganda and via a relentless attack on independent sources of information inside Rojava, the media above all. Two important recent cases are the May 2017 kidnapping of Zagros TV reporter Barzan Liani, and the September abduction of Ibrahim Ali al-Suleiman, a journalist with The Euphrates Post, an outlet that has reported indiscriminately on human rights committed in Syria.


An Arab SDF commander, Yasser al-Dahle of the Bakara Battalions, who made the mistake of acting as if he was independent and responsive to local inhabitants was thrown in jail on 28 September 2017 by the PKK, and released only once it was re-established that the PKK was in charge.

Ali Najem Kanjar, a member of the Syrian Kurdish opposition Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (PDK-S), was arrested on 10 October 2017 by the PKK’s asayish (secret police) in Derik, northern Hasaka. His fate is unknown.

A Kurdish media activist, Sardar Dari, whose radio station frequently irked the Rojava authorities, was arrested, beaten, and stabbed by PKK military-intelligence in November 2016. Dari fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Dari’s father was murdered on 12 December 2017 in Hasaka.

In early October 2017, before the Raqqa operation was finished, the PKK were caught on video beating an unarmed man because his long beard led them to suspect he was an IS member or supporter. Under IS’s version of Islamic law, men were forced to grow beards, and brutally punished if they refused. Soon after the fall of IS’s “capital”, the PKK began imposing conscription with a mixture of coercion and inducement on the young people in Raqqa, including trying to get families to bring their relatives from other areas to come and join the PKK. This led to an exodus of military-age males, and the PKK began arresting those who tried to flee.

In Tel Rifaat, on 15 February 2018, there was a protest in the Sajo internally displaced persons (IDP) camp against PKK rule. The PKK’s handling of the IDPs has been an important source of resentment for Arabs who have fallen under its rule, but the anger about Tel Rifaat goes beyond that. The PKK captured Tel Rifaat, an Arab-majority territory, with assistance from Russian airstrikes, two years ago, and the PKK’s occupation of this zone was a key mobilizer for rebels to fight alongside Turkey’s Operation OLIVE BRANCH against the PKK in Efrin.

In Tel Abyad, an Arab-majority town in the north of Raqqa province captured by the PKK nearly three years ago, the PKK enforced a ban on commerce on 15 February, closing the markets in order to divert people into events marking the anniversary of Ocalan’s arrest in 1999.

A lawyer, Ibrahim Ahmad al-Salama, was assassinated in his home in Tabqa, in Raqqa province, in the evening of 15 February, likely by the YPG/PKK. Al-Salama had negotiated the deal between the PKK and IS under which IS withdrew from Tabqa—losing his legs in an IS suicide bombing that attempted to resist this surrender agreement—and al-Salama was again the key intermediary for the much more controversial deal that allowed hundreds of IS jihadists to leave Raqqa city.


The Rojava area, which has been officially in place since November 2013, held its first election on 22 September 2017 for the heads of local communes, with a second round to choose “regional” or town councils scheduled for 3 November, and a final round for 19 January 2018 that was to elect a parliament, a “People’s Democratic Council”.

Before the elections began, it was announced that the Arabs of al-ghamar (the flood)—those who had been moved into the Hasaka area by the Asad regime in the 1970s, ostensibly as a necessity related to the Euphrates Dam and in reality as part of an “Arabization” policy to dilute Kurdish homogeneity in the Jazira—would be excluded from voting in the third round. To mitigate this image problem, the PKK tried to compel Arab participation in the first round.

The umbrella organization for the Kurdish opposition, the Kurdish National Council (KNC or ENKS), boycotted the elections, noting that they were taking place under impossibly-unfair circumstances. The PKK had destroyed the infrastructure of all genuinely independent Kurdish parties and—in a move complained about for many years—created and promoted groups and individuals that presented themselves as independent but who were in fact loyal to the PKK. Thus, ENKS refused to lend this Soviet-style sham any legitimacy.

The second round of elections was held on 1 December, in the course of events, and the third round indefinitely postponed for reasons that were “organizational and administrative, not political”, according to the PKK.


Minbij, northeast of Aleppo, has been a geopolitical flashpoint since the PKK displaced IS in the city in the summer of 2016. Turkey agreed to support the U.S. using the PKK to eject IS from Minbij—on condition the PKK left once IS was gone and allowed the Arab residents to govern themselves. The need for the PKK to withdraw east of the Euphrates River was voiced publicly by the U.S. Vice President. The PKK flouted the agreement, began imposing its autocratic system in Minbij, allowed the regime’s secret police back in in exchange for Damascus paying government salaries, and used the city as a springboard to try to capture the territory all along Turkey’s border. This precipitated the first Turkish intervention, Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD, to block the PKK’s maximalist program.

An American-mediated ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK prevented Minbij being caught up in EUPHRATES SHIELD. But in the years since, Turkey has repeatedly threatened to renew hostilities. The complication is that both American and regime troops are deployed in and around Minbij as tripwire forces to keep Turkey out. This has caused a bitter feud within NATO. Minbij is a key strategic holding for the PKK, a physical and political buffer for its statelet. For Turkey, Minbij is a demonstration of America’s broken promises about constraining the PKK. For America, Minbij demonstrates all the problems with Turkey’s Syria policy, in terms of the capacity of Turkish-allied rebels to clear IS-held areas, and Ankara’s political priorities not aligning with Washington’s.

Though Syria’s fate is now more in the hands of foreigners than at any prior stage in the war, the local does still matter; no settlement that is broadly opposed locally is durable, and Minbij is such a case. The PKK has governed Rojava, particularly the Arab-majority areas it has captured, from behind the scenes, and tried to find acceptable public faces for its regime in each locale. In Minbij this means administration by the Minbij Military Council (MMC), a front for the PKK. Given that the U.S. wanted Minbij to be a model for post-IS governance, the PKK has made a special effort to hide its hand—it tends not to display pictures of the PKK founder, Abdullah Ocalan, for example, which are ubiquitous elsewhere in Rojava. This concealment of authority does not change its essence, however, and the violations of human rights and ideological impositions are fomenting a backlash.

In mid-October 2017, efforts to enforce the conscription policy on Minbij through Kataib Shams al-Shamal (The Northern Sun Battalion), one of the PKK’s Arab dependencies that is formally part of the MMC, led to rumblings of dissent. A tribal leader who complained publicly about conscription, Abdulbasit Rajab al-Khalaf, was “arrested” (kidnapped) by the PKK on 1 November, and released four days later in an effort to appease the growing hostility.

On 5 November, a general strike was held in Minbij against the PKK’s conscription policy in general and its abduction of children to fill out its ranks in particular; the PKK broke the locks off shops, forcing local leaders back to work so they could not participate in the strike, and brought in troops from Kobani to help put down the protests. A local media station, Aleppo 24, noted that for the people of Minbij this was a return to the rule of IS in 2014 and before that to Bashar al-Asad’s regime, both of which had brutalized business leaders and other elite figures as part of their effort to quell opposition.

Tensions continued to build in Minbij, and on 14 January 2018 the local population held a “Strike of Dignity” against the PKK regime. Two days before, the bodies of two young men from the large Boubana clan, Abdulhannan Umar al-Jari, 25, and Aboud Mohsen al-Mehnan, 23, were discovered. Al-Jari and al-Mehnan had been arrested by the PKK fifteen days before, and their corpses showed signs of horrific torture. The Boubana is a generally pro-regime tribe: some of its local notables, such as Ismail Rabi’a and Mohamad Kheir al-Mashi, are members of Asad’s parliament. Despite the increasingly close relations of the PKK and pro-Asad coalition, protests, including by armed men, had broken out the day after the bodies were released. The population demanded the punishment of the murderers, the dismantling of the PKK’s intelligence apparatus and assassination teams, and restructuring the one-party system to allow locals a say in their own affairs. The PKK accused the population of “executing Turkish agendas” and tried to intimidate protesters by threatening their families. The PKK promoted images of the anti-PKK general strike in its own propaganda as if the actions were against Turkey and Asad, while simultaneously blaming Turkey, Asad, and IS for orchestrating the protests and promising to punish the participants.


The current arrangements in Syria in the wake of IS’s “caliphate” are fragile. The U.S.-led anti-IS Coalition focused so parochially on the terror group that it neglected to take serious steps toward shaping the post-IS order. Under the cover of the anti-IS war, the Iranian revolution and the PKK have significantly expanded their power, displacing IS from swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. The policies that led to this were undertaken in the name of exigency; the destruction of IS’s territorial control was said to be unable to wait. In truth, control of territory is no way to judge the strength of IS. Establishing competent, legitimate political structures in the areas from which IS is cleared is needed to sustainably keep the jihadists down. Many Arab Syrians in the areas previously ruled by IS see Iran and the PKK as alien and sectarian occupiers, not least because of the abuses outlined above. Meanwhile, Iran and the PKK are regarded by neighbouring states as a menace to their security, hence the recent strikes by Israel and Turkey’s Efrin operation. Putting aside the terrorist-designations attached to these forces, the political reality, internally and externally, militates against Iranian- or PKK-dominated structures being a durable long-term answer to the Syrian crisis, even in narrow anti-IS terms.


Article published in The Diplomatic Observer

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