There has been a renewed crackdown on dissent in the areas of Syria run by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While on Syrian soil, the PKK uses the name Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing is called the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG/PKK is the dominant force in the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the U.S.-led international Coalition’s ground partner in Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS).
On 17 August, Ahmad al-Hashlum, the chairman of a civic organisation, Enmaa, was arrested by the PYD’s asayesh (secret police) at his office in the eastern suburbs of Raqqa city. A day earlier, Hasan Qassab, a democracy activist who worked against Bashar al-Asad’s regime and then fled Raqqa during the ISIS occupation, was beaten and arrested by the PYD.
Qassab, it should be noted, is the program director for Furat, an initiative that is part of Creative, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which provides basic services like healthcare, education, and electricity to Raqqa in an effort to stabilise the area after ISIS’s eviction. So the fact that Qassab was then accused by the PYD of being part of an ISIS assassination cell should have been a big story.
If the accusation against Qassab was true, it would have meant that the U.S.’s reconstruction program in Raqqa had been infiltrated by ISIS. As it was, the Coalition’s partner force was using accusations of terrorism to repress the civil activists that are the essential ingredient to keeping ISIS out of the liberated areas. And this is not a one-off. The PYD was using accusations of ISIS sympathies against Arab democrats who were unenthusiastic about the prospect of displacing ISIS with another authoritarian militia even before the capture of Raqqa.
These arrests on the 17th were only the culmination of the most recent PYD campaign against civil society. About a week before Qassab was abducted, a number of his friends were rounded up by the PYD. These included: Salah al-Kataa, Khaled al-Salama, and Anas al-Abo of the Future Makers’ Organization (FMO); and Aylas al-Abo of New Horizons, which has done work tending to the mental health of children, among other things. All of these people—all working for U.S.- and internationally-funded NGOs aiding the reconstruction of Raqqa—were accused by the PYD of being ISIS members.
Another half-dozen people were arrested around this time due to “malicious reports”, i.e. being denounced to the PYD authorities as part of a personal vendetta.
By the time Qassab and Al-Hashlum were released on 29 October, after more than two months of arbitrary detention, the PYD had begun another wave of arrests against activists.
Hamza al-Malla, an official with the Muwatana group that tries to foster dialogue between the communities of Raqqa, was arrested by the PYD. A more general spate of arrests took place shortly afterwards as people staged anti-Asad protests when it looked like the regime coalition might be able to come back into the PYD-held areas. And on 6 November, Mazen al-Harami, a civilian activist working for the Wayam (Harmony) program, funded by the U.S. State Department, was arrested after he visited Saluk, a town in northern Raqqa province, which is now controlled by the Turkish-backed Arab forces from the “Syrian National Army” (SNA).
Whatever had been said behind the scenes—and the Coalition had investigated for itself the accusation that people on its payroll were ISIS members—silence had, as usual, been maintained in public. Without the threat of even a rhetorical penalty for its abuses, it is little surprise the PYD continues to behave this way.
Worse, based on the available evidence, the PYD enlisted the Coalition in its repressive activities in early October, accusing a man, Jamal al-Mabruk, an engineer in Raqqa who had been arrested during the time of ISIS’s rule for his suspected dissidence, of being an ISIS financier and having him arrested in a joint operation with the international Coalition.
Al-Malla’s time in PYD captivity was mercifully brief, just a couple of weeks, and at least one other activist was released at this time after “only” three months in the PYD prisons. But many are not so lucky. The PYD holds about 3,000 political prisoners in northern Syria, some of them since 2012. Torture is commonplace in PYD prisons, and some installations, like the “Black Prison” the PYD used to run in Efrin, are notorious centres of abuse. There is no serious legal process for detainees, not least because the PYD simply denies holding many of the people it has “disappeared”.
The PYD is often presented as running a democratic system in Rojava. The reality is a deeply authoritarian one-party regime. The Syrian Kurdish opposition has been systematically eliminated through repression—from censorship and intimidation, to arbitrary arrests and forced exile, up to assassination, against journalists, activists, and officials from rival political parties. And in the Arab-majority areas of the Rojava system there is no serious space for self-rule; all power rests with the PKK commanders.