Of Kurds and Compromises in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on September 2, 2016

PYD/YPG soldiers

PYD/YPG soldiers

Having written extensively about the authoritarian structure in the areas run by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in northern Syria, and the problems of media, local and Western, in covering this, it was very interesting to see a report in The Wall Street Journal underlining some of these points.

The Journal notes that the PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have engaged in a ruthless consolidation of power within a single party, despite claims to be governing in a democratic way. This has included: heavy pressure on all non-pro-PYD media via various Soviet-style accusations of subversion; demographic engineering by a refusal to allow Arab inhabitants to return to homes or actively expelling them; forced conscription, including of children; the imposition of an ideological curriculum in schools; and the suppression and/or expulsion of all opposition.

As the Journal puts it:

[A]s Rojava gets mightier and realizes long-held ambitions of self-rule for Kurds, some of its own people feel alienated by what they claim are heavy-handed tactics that feel reminiscent of the Syrian regime. …

Since late 2014, at least 6,000 young Syrian Kurds have been compelled to serve in the military … In addition, … Rojava officials have arrested and forced into military service a total of 1,178 civilians, including 217 minors and 69 women. …

Opposition parties say Kurdish leaders have arrested and beaten dissenters and shut down rival party headquarters. Rojava officials also banned two independent media outlets from operating freely. Elections originally scheduled for 2014 have been repeatedly postponed.

“Anything that has the hint of not working for their benefit, they ban it,” says Imaad Omar Yusuf, general coordinator for the opposition Kurd Youth Movement. “Seventy percent of Kurds are against them.”

On Aug. 13, Rojava’s police force arrested the president of the Kurdish National Council, … deported him to Iraq and threatened to kill him if he returns …

Sinam Mohamad, foreign representative for Rojava, … [says that] people detained or deported were guilty of criminal offenses … The independent media outlets were engaged in “intelligence gathering” and “antagonizing the autonomous administration,” Ms. Mohamad adds. “And this is against the law.”

In some villages, Sunni Arab residents who fled as the YPG pushed out the … Islamic State have been banned from returning to their homes … Officials defend the ban on the grounds that Rojava is vulnerable to continuing attacks from Islamic State sleeper cells and sympathizers. Mass expulsions also are justified under tribal customs if one or two people in a family are members of Islamic State, say some Kurdish administration officials. …

Marwan Hussein says his sister was lured into joining the [all-female] YPJ by friends when she was 15. She was taken to the Qandil Mountains in Iraq, where the … PKK maintains a base. … She was allowed to come home for a visit late last year, and Mr. Hussein took his sister into hiding. YPG officials have said minors joined the militia without parental consent, though some were fleeing unstable homes. …

At the start of the 2015-16 school year, the Kurdish administration instituted a new curriculum mandating that Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians all be taught in their native language.

Most teacher salaries are still paid by the Syrian regime, though, and it told teachers not to follow the new curriculum. … Teachers say they signed in every day during the school year to get paid but didn’t teach any students. Syrian Kurdish officials brought in replacement teachers, but they were poorly trained. … Salha Abdulrahman, the mother of Jude Hamo, who fled to Germany to avoid the draft, says the Kurdish curriculum hurts students because universities across Syria still teach solely in Arabic. …

Even with her son safely in Germany, the family has continued pushing back against what they call the authoritarian Kurdish administration.

All of these points were raised in the post a couple of weeks ago:

The fleeing of civilians from combat zones is inevitable, but the PYD has taken steps toward preventing the return of Arab inhabitants, sometimes by threats of live fire, more often by demolishing homes. Amnesty International has also reported incidents of direct ethnic cleansing of Arabs …

Anti-PKK Kurdish demonstrations have been violently quelled by the PYD. Journalists face stern restrictions in PYD-held areas. Political opponents are arrested and there is torture in the prisons to extract confessions. Aid is exploited as a means of social control. Conscription is enforced, including for child soldiers. Artefacts are looted.

A new report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights documents a “policy of enforced-disappearance against … those who oppose [PYD] policies,” which has included 397 forced disappearances, sixty-one children and eleven women.

Martyrdom notice for a PYD/YPG child soldier

Martyrdom notice for a PYD/YPG child soldier

Ideologizing the schools—which many Kurds protested as imposing a “totalitarian ideology“—and the systematic use of child soldiers is an especially notable lacunae in the coverage of PYD-held areas, given how much there is written about the attempt by Islamist groups to capture the minds and bodies of the young.

The Journal pointing out the PYD’s dependence on Assad regime largesse to keep its statelet functioning also warrants attention. Assad, after decades of discriminating against the Kurds, handed the Kurdish-majority areas to the PYD in July 2012 “to keep [the Kurds] from joining the uprising,” the Journal writes. Indeed, Assad left the PYD large stocks of weaponry and dismantled the leadership of Kurdish groups that opposed the regime.

Per the International Crisis Group:

[T]here is little doubt that the PYD is engaging the regime in a conciliatory rather than confrontational manner … Damascus’s … withdrawal from Kurdish areas … was mutually beneficial, as it freed regime forces to concentrate elsewhere in the north, while the PYD denied Kurdish areas to the armed opposition. …

Damascus pulled back most of its security personnel but kept government services under its charge … [and] continues to pay salaries to state employees and run administrative offices. Far from leaving these functions to the PYD, it has centralised them, giving it an important edge in relations. …

The PYD did not liberate Kurdish areas of Syria: it moved in where the regime receded; most often, it took over the latter’s governance structures and simply relabelled them, rather than generating its own unique model as it claims. …

Rojava is thus … an instrument that enables the regime to control Kurdish areas. … Its political architecture enjoys only narrow buy-in beyond the PYD affiliates and co-opted personalities, and … the movement’s popular legitimacy still seems largely a function of the threat [i.e. instability and jihadists].

The PYD has been more confrontational recently, but has still made no decisive move to end the regime’s security presence in Rojava. For its part, the regime has not withdrawn its subsidies into PYD-held areas, which suggests that just as the regime finds it politically useful for IS to hold territory (thus avoided bombing it, as it did relentlessly to rebel-held areas), so it must find the existence of the PYD’s polity to be in its interests.


The nature of the PYD—political extremists who rule autocratically, aid terrorism against a NATO ally, and have deep historic connections with the Assad regime and Russia—should have made us wary. Instead, the PYD became “the Kurds” in the mind of the Western public, annexing that people’s long struggle, which is one partly against actors like the PYD that seek to impose new forms of dictatorship, and the PYD/YPG became virtually the sole anti-IS ground instrument used by the U.S.-led Coalition.

The question of human rights evidently does not move this U.S. administration, as Syria itself testifies, and perhaps the PYD comes under President Obama’s definition of “a few smart autocrats“. The problem is, as Robert Ford told the Journal, that this “short-term tactical decision … in the name of saying we were making progress on Islamic State,” has “longer-term strategic downsides”.

A moral compromise to work with the PYD to keep IS out of Kurdish-majority areas is one thing—they’d made sure there was no alternative. But the compromise hit diminishing returns when the U.S. began supporting the PYD per se. In the Kurdish areas the U.S. has backed the party, rather than Kurdish democratic institutions. One-party regimes do not last forever.

Long-term stability—and IS’s sustainable defeat—was also set at risk by helping the PYD extend its rule into Arab areas. The failure to levy penalties on the PYD, even when it attacked U.S. assets, worsened these trends, emboldening the PYD’s worst instincts and opening political space for IS and al-Qaeda with populations and rebel groups making lesser-evil calculations. The limitations imposed on PYD maximalism by Turkey’s intervention help towards averting a larger, jihadi-assisting conflict down the road.

The error of compromising as far as the Coalition did with the PYD can also be seen in the fact that the PYD simply cannot liberate all IS-held areas in Syria—and it doesn’t want to, quite understandably. The PYD defines itself to the West as “anti-IS,” while its primary agenda is state-building. For a time the two were synonymous, and they can be made congruent, but they are distinct, as the aftermath of Minbij showed.

The risks involved in bolstering a Sunni Arab force from within the mainstream rebellion to defeat the Jihadi-Salafists in Syria are well-known—and more numerous now the task has been delayed for so long that al-Qaeda was able to embed within the armed opposition. The risks and trade-offs of working with the PYD/YPG alone, however, have been somewhat evaded—even in narrow counter-terrorism terms—and among the primary reasons is the obfuscation of the reality of the organization. The Journal article is a corrective that places this debate on a better footing.





POSTSCRIPT: An article criticising the above was posted by Will T.G. Miller. That the author is supportive of the PYD’s links to Russia—”a much more effective ally,” as opposed to a “noncommittal and indecisive” West—while purporting to oppose “genocide and crimes against humanity” that Moscow is not only abetting but directly assisting Assad commit, makes one just a little resistant to taking his moral advice. Mr. Miller’s geopolitical judgment might also be questioned if he believes the use of Kurds as “pawns” is primarily a sin by America, and seemingly not something to be worried about with Russia.

The direct criticism is that I and others say that since PYD-ruled areas are “not … fully democratic … the West should abandon Syrian Kurds to the wolves.” But this isn’t my position at all. In this and previous posts what I said was that the PYD was anti-democratic: that the current deficiencies in democratic rule in Rojava are not war-time exigency but the partial fulfilment of an ideological commitment. Nonetheless, I said the West should “work with the PYD to keep IS out of Kurdish-majority areas,” while trying to empower institutions that would allow Syrian Kurds representative governance.

My argument was and is for a reduction in support to the PYD, at least in relative terms as against the Syrian armed opposition, and a halt to assisting the PYD’s capture of Arab-majority areas and zones west of the Euphrates. My reasoning is that whatever the short-term anti-IS gain of the current policy, it is setting up a conflict in the future that will benefit IS and other Jihadi-Salafist groups.

Debate is extremely useful analytically—when opponents’ positions are accurately represented. It’s difficult to take anything useful from an exchange that begins by misrepresenting one’s views.

23 thoughts on “Of Kurds and Compromises in Syria

  1. Azad

    As a Kurd I can only agree with you. PKK are not democratic. No freedom of speech. No political opposition. No criticism of official party policies or leaders. In addition they use terrorism (often in Kurdish areas) as a means to accomplish their goals. In Iraq they entered KRG under the pretext of “helping” only to stab us in the back and try to steal Shingal and turn it into a “canton”. They create militias in the area to rival Peshmerga and take bribe from the Iraqi government in return for destabilizing KRG in a time where there are rumors about an independence for KRG. In that way PKK is provoking civil war within Kurdish society and pose a greater threat to Kurds than Arabs, Turks, and Iranians combined.

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