By Kyle W. Orton
The United States recently committed itself to arming the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the Y.P.G., to help evict the Islamic State from its Syrian stronghold, Raqqa. This decision is likely to prove deeply troublesome, risking the regional stability necessary for the lasting defeat of the Islamic State.
The Y.P.G. denies that it is, in effect, a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., but the evidence is clear. The P.K.K., a Marxist-leaning Kurdish nationalist organization, was founded in Turkey in 1978, and took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. The group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was expelled from Syria in 1998, when his old patron, the regime of Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father), came under military threat from Turkey. Mr. Ocalan was soon arrested by the Turks, and the tide of war turned against the P.K.K.
In 2003, the P.K.K. began creating branches in Syria, Iraq and Iran that did not have the burden of the P.K.K. name, to better integrate with local Kurdish populations and to avoid legal problems related to its designation as a terrorist organization by the United States, most other Western states, and international institutions like the European Union and NATO. In Syria, the P.K.K. established the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D.; the Y.P.G. is this party’s armed militia.
As the uprising widened in Syria during the summer of 2012, government forces retreated from areas in the north of the country, leaving the P.Y.D. in control. The Assad regime’s intention was to keep the Kurds out of the rebellion and sow dissension among antigovernment groups. Notwithstanding occasional skirmishes with Kurdish fighters, Damascus continues to underwrite the Y.P.G.-held areas, even though it opposes any long-term federalist solution for the country.
The Y.P.G. does not disguise its ideological affinity for Mr. Ocalan, but denies an organizational link to the P.K.K. The reality is that power is wielded behind the scenes in Y.P.G.-held areas by senior P.K.K. operatives, according to a regional intelligence officer who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. Even the visible leadership of the Y.P.G. is overwhelmingly composed of longstanding P.K.K. members. At the lower levels, too, the P.K.K. retains tight control through a parallel command network.
The P.K.K. spent its formative years warring with other groups that challenged it for influence among the Kurds in Turkey, and has provedhas proven ruthless in eliminating political opposition. Similarly, since capturing territory in Syria, the Y.P.G. has worked to monopolize power, establishing a one-party system that has suppressed Kurdish opponents as well as leaders and activists from other communities.
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The Y.P.G. has arrested hundreds of political prisoners. One prominent case is that of Bahzed Dorsen, a senior official of a rival Syrian Kurdish political party, who has been missing since 2012. About 150 people were abducted by the Y.P.G. in 2013 alone, according to records kept by independent Kurdish activists. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2014, there have been numerous cases of maltreatment in prisons in Rojava, as the Y.P.G. calls the territory it holds. One Kurdish dissident, Kawa Khaled Hussein, was tortured and killed while in the militia’s custody. The Y.P.G. has also engaged in targeted assassinations against Kurdish oppositionists such as Nasreddin Birhek, another senior official in Mr. Dorsen’s party.
The Y.P.G. has exiled other perceived adversaries. In August, the head of the main umbrella Kurdish opposition group, Ibrahim Biro, was expelled from Rojava by the Y.P.G. and threatened with death should he return. Earlier this year, the crackdown on dissent escalated. Nearly 50 opposition offices have been destroyed and around the same number of rivals arrested. Even an independent gathering on International Women’s Day was violently dispersed by Y.P.G. security forces, in stark contradiction to one of the most prominent themes in Y.P.G. propaganda, namely its championing of women’s rights.
Fadhil Dawood, a law professor at a university in a Y.P.G.-held area of northeastern Syria, told me he wanted the students “to all be equals in front of the law,” but when he expelled the relative of a Y.P.G. commander from an exam for cheating, he was beaten up. Mr. Dawood fled Rojava and cannot return because he is wanted by the security services. The Y.P.G. claims that “they protect Kurds and all the people in the region, but it’s not the truth,” he said. “They take money and they do whatever they want.”
The Y.P.G.’s authoritarian conduct has incited resistance, thanks in particular to its imposition of conscription, taxation and an ideological curriculum. The Y.P.G. has struggled to secure its legitimacy because it refuses to include other Kurdish voices and remains fundamentally focused on Turkey, seeing Syria merely as a springboard for supporting the P.K.K.’s insurgency against Turkey’s government. This threatening posture has led to a blockade against them and considerable hardship for Syrian Kurds. American support has reinforced these dynamics by empowering the P.K.K.’s military commanders and making local civilian administrators in Rojava beholden to them.
Until now, the United States formally supported the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F. Ostensibly a coalition of the Y.P.G. and Arab tribal militias, the Arab S.D.F. units are subordinate to Y.P.G. units and their P.K.K.-aligned commanders and are used mainly to administer Arab-majority areas liberated by the American-led campaign against the Islamic State.
Directly arming the Y.P.G. with heavy weapons abandons the S.D.F. fig-leaf. Despite assurances that this is merely short-term and tactical, it will boost the group beyond the fight for Raqqa. Those weapons are not recoverable, and with this backing the United States has taken a step toward a de facto recognition of the P.K.K.’s legitimacy. This is what has agitated the Turkish government, which sees a security threat in a potential P.K.K.-dominated statelet on its southern border.
The menace of foreign attacks orchestrated by the Islamic State from its base in Raqqa underscores the need to quell the terrorist group. But the American policy toward the Y.P.G., with its attendant damage to relations with Turkey, which is an important NATO partner in a strategically sensitive location, makes sense only if destroying the Islamic State hastily is Washington’s paramount concern. It will not help to make that outcome permanent.
More important even than increasing tension with Turkey are the effects on the ground in Syria. Unfortunately, the American-led coalition has tended to play into the Islamic State’s hands by displacing the jihadist group with forces viewed by local Sunni Arab populations as alien and sectarian. An American-backed Y.P.G. takeover of Raqqa will likely repeat this error, creating anew the conditions that led to the rise of the Islamic State.
Kyle W. Orton is a Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.