Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) members man a checkpoint near the Kurdish town of Efrin, in Syria, on 27 November 2014.
Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) members man a checkpoint near the Kurdish town of Efrin, in Syria, on 27 November 2014. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliates face a stark choice: risk their gains in northern Syria through continued prioritisation of the PKK's fight against Turkey, or pursue local self-rule in the area they have carved out of the chaos of the Syrian war.

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Executive Summary

Six years into Syria’s civil war, the military and political map in the north has been dramatically redrawn. The most dynamic local actors, the political affiliates of the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey – the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Democratic Union Party (PYD) – control major portions of the Syria-Turkey border, have announced a federal region and established local rule. But YPG military success is hitting significant geopolitical and demographic barriers, placing the PKK before a stark choice: continue to subordinate its Syria project to its fight against Turkey or prioritise more Kurdish self-rule in Syria. Given recent regional realignments, the latter option is best: for the YPG-PYD to become what it professes to be: a Syrian Kurdish party ideologically linked to the PKK and its founder, Abdullah Öcalan (imprisoned in Turkey), but operationally detached. Turkey’s 25 April attacks on a YPG base reportedly hosting PKK members in northern Syria and a PKK base in northern Iraq augur dangerous escalation of its conflict. To avoid this, other actors, notably the U.S., should tailor their assistance to the YPG-PYD to promote that objective.

After the PKK deployed cadres in Syria in July 2012, it cooperated with the West in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), advancing westward from the majority-Kurdish districts of Jazeera and Kobani in north-eastern Syria to the majority-Kurdish district of Afrin north of Aleppo. By seeking to create this land bridge, the PKK and its affiliates had a dual objective: to control a contiguous militarised belt along the Syria-Turkey border and establish what they call democratic self-administration comprising both Kurdish and non-Kurdish communities. When the YPG, under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), took the majority-Arab city of Manbij in August 2016, it appeared close to realising its strategic goals.

Today, however, regional realignments are stymying the YPG-PYD ambitions and rendering the PKK’s twin objectives incompatible. Since mid-2015, after a Turkey-PKK ceasefire broke down, Ankara has worked to strangle the YPG-PYD-run region. Its rapprochement with Moscow enabled Turkish troops to enter Syria in August 2016 without fear of Russian or regime airstrikes (Operation “Euphrates Shield”). Fighting beside Syrian rebel allies, their aim was to defeat ISIS, but especially, to halt the YPG’s expansion west of the Euphrates. In February 2017, they succeeded, leaving the YPG surrounded and dependent on Damascus for movement between majority-Kurdish districts. Meanwhile, because the PKK views northern Syria essentially as a recruiting ground and potentially a launching pad for attacks in Turkey, with local governance not worth heavily investing in, those, especially in the YPG-PYD, willing to consider a Syrian solution have been unable to strike local roots or set up governing institutions with broad legitimacy.

For the YPG’s self-rule project to survive, overcome the embargo on it and cease relying on the regime, it will need support from more powerful outside actors. Yet, finding a reliable protector will be challenging. The most capable candidates are Russia and the U.S.; the YPG has forged relations with both, but they may prove fickle friends. Moscow’s top priority remains the Assad regime’s survival and recovery of sovereignty. It also appears to prize rapprochement with Turkey. At this rate, the YPG-PYD may soon become a victim of a Russian change of heart.

That leaves the U.S. The question is whether the YPG-PYD and PKK leadership are agile enough to correct course to help their Syrian self-rule project survive. If the former want the U.S. to give longer-term guarantees and commit against abandonment to Turkey, the Syrian regime or both, the PKK almost certainly must adjust to allow Washington to do so without imperilling its Turkish ties. The most effective means would be a return to a Turkey-PKK ceasefire and peace talks. But this does not appear realistic in the short term.

Instead, while the U.S. still needs the YPG to fulfil its anti-ISIS objectives, the PKK should ask Washington to mediate a compromise with its Kurdish rivals in northern Syria and northern Iraq. As part of such a deal:

  • the PKK and its affiliates would agree to withdraw from Sinjar just inside Iraq in exchange for the Iraqi Kurdish authorities fully opening the Syria-Iraq border to trade. While Sinjar does not directly relate to developments in northern Syria, the U.S. could help de-escalate a local conflict there between two groups with which it has close ties, the YPG and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. This may not be sufficient to also de-escalate tensions in northern Syria, but it could be a critical first step that is relatively more doable;
  • in northern Syria, the PKK would forego ambition to connect the two eastern majority-Kurdish districts with Afrin and allow the YPG-PYD to seek a Syrian solution for Syrian Kurds. This would entail diluting its political dominance by giving other Kurdish and non-Kurdish parties a viable local governance role, especially in budget management and appointing senior officials, and removing the YPG from governing responsibility. This could render the one-party YPG-PYD “democratic self-administration” less undemocratic; and
  • the YPG should refrain from actively supporting PKK violence in Turkey, whether through arms supplies or providing personnel and tactical skills, and establish an SDF military operations room through which both YPG and non-YPG commanders can interact with the U.S.

In return, the U.S. would:

  • coordinate with, and give military aid and advice through, the SDF operations room to be established by the YPG; recruit and train local fighters exclusively through the SDF; give stabilisation support and reconstruction funds to local administrations in Jazeera and Kobani, provided the PYD makes its rule more inclusive, as stated above; and support the PYD’s bid to be included at the Geneva negotiations along with other Syrian Kurdish parties; and
  • continue patrols in the YPG-PYD self-rule area east of the Euphrates instituted following the 25 April 2017 Turkish air strikes there, and commit to using influence with Ankara to prevent further Turkish attacks in that area. The latter entails exchanging assurances with Ankara that YPG-PYD rule in Syria is indeed being diluted as described.

Jointly, these efforts could improve YPG-PYD chances to set up a workable governance structure and build alternative trade routes not dependent on Damascus; transform its military role from servicing the PKK’s anti-Turkey agenda to a legitimate effort to protect the northern Syrian populations in the absence of central-state control; gain some outside protection; and potentially help give the PYD a role in Syria peace talks and drafting of a new constitution.

The U.S. should have a powerful interest in pursuing this: under the current trajectory, its efforts to defeat ISIS in Raqqa risk being complicated; the Turkey-PKK conflict could be pushed into new theatres, with risks to wider regional stability; and the U.S.-Turkey partnership could be compromised.

As long as the PKK requires its offshoots to prioritise fighting Turkey, it stands to lose much if not all that the YPG has gained in northern Syria. If it allows its local affiliates to strike roots in Syria in a way both acceptable and meaningful to the diverse population, it has some hope, however narrow, of turning a new page.

Ankara/Qamishli/Brussels, 4 May 2017

I. Introduction

In an apparent deal negotiated between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK) and Iran in 2011, Syria, preoccupied with fighting off a well-armed insurgent challenge, partially retreated from Kurdish-populated areas in July 2012. This allowed the PKK to send its fighters from its Qandil stronghold in northern Iraq into northern Syria, thus improving its strategic position while suffering heavy losses fighting the Turkish army inside Turkey. By opening a second front, it was able to apply new military and political pressure on Ankara through its Syrian affiliates, the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG), while pursuing an old ambition to connect the region’s three non-contiguous majority-Kurdish districts of Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin. In 2013, as the PKK and Turkey agreed a ceasefire and began political talks, the YPG-PYD set up a “democratic self-administration” there, calling it Rojava (“Western Kurdistan”).[fn]For background on the PKK, PYD and YPG, see Crisis Group Middle East Reports N°s 136, Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle within a Struggle, 22 January 2013; and 151, Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria, 8 May 2014.Hide Footnote

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in towns along the Euphrates Valley, immediately adjacent to and in one case bisecting Kurdish areas, and the effort by a new U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS gave the YPG-PYD a chance to extend its territorial reach east and west of the river and create a contiguous entity. By the first half of 2015, the YPG had connected Jazeera and Kobani districts across Arab-inhabited areas, including the border town of Tel Abyad. Benefitting from U.S. air support, it then pushed west toward, and eventually across, the Euphrates into areas where ISIS was ensconced. By August 2016, YPG flags flew along most of Syria’s northern border with Turkey except for a nearly 100km stretch that remained under either Syrian anti-regime rebel or ISIS control.[fn]In February-July 2015, YPG forces advanced into the Arab-populated areas of Tel Abyad (Raqqa governorate), Tel Hamis and Tel Brak (both in Hasaka governorate), controlling an area of over 18,000km² and connecting Jazeera and Kobani districts. In November 2015, they moved further into Hasaka’s Arab hinterland, seizing Al-Hol and, in February 2016, Shaddadi. That same month, the YPG crossed the Euphrates in an attempt to connect Kobani and Afrin. This extended its overall territorial control to 32,000km². Crisis Group interview, NGO official travelling in Syria, Istanbul, April 2016. By August, it had also taken the predominantly Arab town of Manbij in Aleppo governorate and was eyeing Al-Bab as the last obstacle to its ultimate objective. At that point, it ran into a Turkish counteroperation, “Euphrates Shield”, to block its progress. This fight is ongoing.Hide Footnote

The impact of the PKK’s Syria adventure exceeded its expectations. Military success put further pressure on Turkey and enabled the YPG-PYD to build out its autonomy scheme. In March 2016, it announced a “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” that incorporated local communities – Kurds, Arabs and smaller minorities – in a large contiguous swathe of parts of Hasaka, Raqqa and Aleppo governorates, as well as Afrin, which the group controlled but could not attach to its other territory.[fn]The Washington Post, 24 March 2016.Hide Footnote The group’s numbers also increased. As it advanced into Arab areas, it began recruiting local men whom it placed under the umbrella of a group it called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which it established in October 2015 and commanded.[fn]In October 2015, the YPG, with U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition support, announced creation of the SDF (Quwwat Suriya al-Dimuqraṭiya), an alliance of non-Kurdish fighters (Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen) in addition to the YPG, which retained overall command and control.Hide Footnote

At this point, questions about PKK priorities, objectives and structure, which had simmered since its foundation, resurfaced. Should it continue to focus on Turkey? Or should it permit its Syrian affiliates to set their own priorities autonomously and forge a primarily Syrian solution to the Kurdish question there?

… the more the YPG-PYD acts as an outgrowth of the PKK and its strategy, the more it will provoke regional players and prompt attempts to throttle its self-administration.

This report, Crisis Group’s fourth on the Kurds in northern Syria, argues that Turkey-focused PKK-trained commanders have inclined the YPG less toward a Syrian solution to the Kurdish question in Syria and more to the PKK’s struggle against the Turkish state. This makes YPG-PYD self-rule in northern Syria, under whatever name, more precarious and PKK-dependent. PKK-ordered military moves alienate the YPG-PYD from Kurdish society it wants to govern by militarising youth and antagonising the educated middle class and non-Kurdish groups it controls. This reduces its prospects for broader legitimacy. Moreover, the more the YPG-PYD acts as an outgrowth of the PKK and its strategy, the more it will provoke regional players and prompt attempts to throttle its self-administration.

II. Inside the PKK’s Syria Adventure

A. Competing Priorities

The conflict in Syria revived an old PKK dilemma. Established as an underground leftist party in 1978, the PKK saw Turkey – the country with the largest Kurdish population and its birthplace – as the primary arena for carrying out its agenda through military struggle.[fn]While there are no accurate figures regarding the number and percentage of Kurds in the Middle East, Turkey is estimated to host the largest group, fifteen million. Iran has ten million, Iraq eight million and Syria three million. See “The Kurdish Population”, Institut Kurde de Paris, www.institutkurde.org/en/info/the-kurdish-population-1232551004.Hide Footnote Its objective was not Kurdish autonomy but Marxist-inspired social reform in which it called on Kurds and non-Kurds to participate. In 2003, possibly in response to the U.S. Iraq invasion and Iraqi Kurds’ ascendency, it announced it was changing its objectives from a military struggle against Turkey to Kurdish self-determination in the four main countries with Kurdish populations. To this end, it created branches in each of these neighbours.[fn]In 2003, the PKK created the Kurdish Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran, a military-political organisation to fight the Iranian government. In Iraq, it established the Democratic Solution Party without a military counterpart, given the military control exercised within the Kurdish region by the peshmerga of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, both PKK rivals. In Syria, the PKK established the PYD and other organisations that comprised civilians as well as fighters in civilian dress.Hide Footnote

This shift produced two complementary goals. PKK-affiliated branches outside Turkey began laying the foundations for local Kurdish self-rule, inspired by theories of “democratic self-administration” introduced by Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s founder. This allowed the group to operate across the region, using its presence in each Kurdish community as a resource for its paramount insurgency in Turkey. Regional branches were not autonomous. Decision-making and appointments to branch leadership remained in PKK hands via a new organ, the Union of Kurdish Communities (Koma Civakên Kurdistan, KCK), whose executive council (its highest decision-making organ) comprised only PKK-trained military cadres and served as the spearhead of the party’s activities in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.[fn]The PKK represents the entirety of the movement’s rank-and-file, including its affiliates; the KCK is its decision-making hub in Qandil, overseeing both the PKK and its regional affiliates. This report generally refers to the PKK except when a matter concerns the KCK’s role directly.Hide Footnote

This inherent strategic tension persisted in internal PKK debate from 2003 onward and sprang to the surface following the 2011 Syrian uprising and outbreak of civil war. The movement took advantage of regional polarisation between the Syrian regime’s backers and foes and renewed Ankara-Damascus tensions to harness its Syrian affiliates to a new strategy attuned to the evolving situation.

Though no hard evidence has surfaced of a deal, at least three events suggest the PKK realigned itself with the Syrian regime and its external backers, most importantly Iran, against Turkey. In September 2011, the PKK’s Iranian offshoot, the Kurdish Free Life Party (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê, PJAK), implemented a unilateral ceasefire after years of battle that largely remains in place except for occasional skirmishes.[fn]See “Iran-Kurdish rebel ceasefire holds among skepticism”, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, 7 November 2011. A PJAK-Iran ceasefire accommodated all sides: it allowed Iran to freeze its conflict with the Kurds and prevented continued unrest in Kurdish areas; the Syrian regime to suppress and contain the Syrian Kurdish uprising by delegating control to a Kurdish military force, the PKK; and the PKK to re-militarise in Syria and so put additional pressure on Turkey.Hide Footnote In July 2012, regime security forces withdrew unilaterally from Kurdish areas, allowing YPG fighters to take over positions and border posts. And in mid-2013, the KCK’s executive council experienced a major reshuffle that favoured those who posit the political-military struggle in Turkey as a precondition for solving the Kurdish issue in neighbouring countries.[fn]In July 2013, the KCK replaced Murat Karayilan, a PKK leader oriented toward self-determination in the four countries where Kurds live, with Cemil Bayık and Beşe Hozat as KCK co-chairs. They represent the wing that prioritises pursuit of PKK goals in Turkey over other countries with Kurds. “PKK Reshuffles Top leadership of its Executive Council”, Rudaw, 14 July 2013.Hide Footnote Yet, the swift YPG-PYD territorial gains and proclamation of Rojava self-rule revived the internal debate. A senior PKK cadre and PYD founding member operating in Syria said:

Ideologically, we all refer to Öcalan, but the PYD’s priorities differ from the PKK’s: the PYD seeks to implement Öcalan’s thoughts in Syria. This requires us to avoid clashing with Turkey. We may organise a demonstration in solidarity with Kurds in Diyarbakır, but we don’t want to be part of the fight.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, PKK and PYD founding member, 20 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Cemil Bayık, the KCK co-chair, champions a different view:

It is wrong not to mention Turkey when we speak about Syria, Iran and Iraq. Turkey is behind the crisis in those two countries. If you can’t fix the Kurdish issue in Turkey first, you can’t resolve it there either.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qandil, 24 June 2016.Hide Footnote

Since its creation, the YPG-PYD’s Rojava project had an ethnic overtone, which contrasted yet coexisted with the dominant view within the PKK. That view backed local self-rule experiments as long as they bolstered the overall objective of fighting Turkey, not if they turned into full-fledged Kurdish autonomy projects that could pave the way to statehood on the nation-state model. The PKK’s ideological approach was non-ethnic, at least in name. It proposed an alternative to Western democracy, calling on Kurds and non-Kurds to rule themselves locally around shared principles of gender equality and ecologic awareness. Cemil Bayık explained:

The nation-state idea is not helpful in resolving the current crisis [in the Middle East]. You must concentrate on basic rights. One of the main reasons for conflict in the region is that when one ethnic group defeats another ethnic group, it tries to rule over it.[fn]Ibid. Riza Altun, head of PKK foreign relations, echoed these thoughts. Asked about an independent Kurdish state, he said in an interview, “instead of an independent state and calls for secession, we must focus on achieving social freedom for all the region’s inhabitants. Establishing a Kurdish nation-state would exacerbate existing problems”. He criticised the proclamation of “Rojava” because of its ethnic character, and proposed replacing it with a “federation of northern Syria”, characterised as a federation of different local communities, not a federal region as such: “We prefer the use of North Syria Federation and call for the removal of Rojava from the name, because Rojava denotes a federation of Kurdish identity. North Syria is home to all its constituents, and the freedom of Kurds there is contingent upon the degree of liberty enjoyed by other inhabitants of the region”. Quoted in Mohamed Nouredine, “PKK’s head of foreign relations speaks out”, As-Safir, 26 July 2016.Hide Footnote

A PYD leader in Syria offered a contrary view:

Those who think that a society can exist without a state can keep on dreaming. We have to deal with the reality of the international system, which consists of states with borders. We should focus on getting Kurds recognised as an integral component of Syrian society whose rights are protected. It doesn’t matter whether we do this via cantons or a federal region or whatever. I don’t look at Iraqi Kurdistan as a positive example, but … we should not be pursuing utopia.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, PYD founding member, 20 February 2017.Hide Footnote

These contrasting views reflect neither rigid fault lines nor competing factions within the PKK, whose military hierarchy keeps decision-making centralised and prevents factionalism and splits.[fn]A Kurdish-origin politician of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) said, “the PKK tries to give the impression that it has different factions in order to have more policy options when it needs them. Overall, their leaders are aligned. They switch positions when they need to, compromise when they are weak and listen to Öcalan when it suits them. None of this derives from one faction overcoming the other”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 1 February 2017.Hide Footnote Yet, outside developments have affected internal debates, empowering or disempowering different perspectives and reshuffling priorities without precipitating loss of unity. For instance, because they spent their formative years fighting Turkey in the 1990s, most senior PYD and YPG cadres, regardless of citizenship, have long considered Turkey the primary theatre in which to implement the ideological project, possibly as a precondition for success with Kurdish communities elsewhere. But because the Syrian war has allowed the YPG-PYD to grow, including through promotion of junior commanders, a tendency has emerged that appears to prioritise Kurdish self-determination in Syria over the fight against Turkey, a tendency Turkey-oriented PKK leaders have tried to suppress by appointing trusted senior cadres who follow the Turkey-focused line.

While the two visions could coexist and were even mutually reinforcing at first – while the YPG-PYD worked to build Rojava, the PKK used YPG-PYD progress to put pressure on Turkey – more recent developments present PKK leaders with a choice they may soon have to make: to devolve power to the party’s Syrian branches and allow them to refocus on Kurdish self-rule in Syria, or continue to use Syria as a springboard for guerrilla war against Turkey.

Rojava security checkpoint. CRISIS GROUP/Joost Hiltermann

B. The Critical Role of PKK-trained Cadres in Northern Syria

The PKK and its Syrian affiliates are linked by the history of the latter’s creation and the profile of the military cadres they share. After three decades of guerrilla war, the PKK had a large force of fighters from the four parts of the Kurdish realm: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They received basic training in PKK military camps and ideological academies in Qandil, the movement’s base since the 1990s, and spent their formative years fighting Turkey.[fn]The PKK’s founders distinguish between their generation (the “ideological generation”, jil al-ideoloji), and those who joined from the 1990s onward (the “fighter generation”, jil al-muqatileen). Crisis Group interview, PKK founding member, Qamishli, 10 December 2015.Hide Footnote A Syrian founding member of the first PKK cell recounted:

During the first years …, in the 1980s, the PKK counted just 54 Syrian nationals among its 256 members. At that time, we were little more than a circle of intellectuals with Marxist sympathies. In the 1990s, when the war with Turkey began, the PKK shifted from being an elite movement to a guerrilla organisation. At that point, many Syrians joined, especially after Öcalan was captured [in 1998]. Many were very young and had not finished their studies. They received military and ideological training and were sent to fight the Turkish army.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 18 November 2015.Hide Footnote

In 2003, the PKK established organisations with civilian goals in Syria, such as the PYD, Union Star (Yekiti Star) for women’s rights, and Revolutionary Youth (Ciwanen Soresger), groups ideologically inspired by the imprisoned Öcalan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli resident and former Revolutionary Youth member, Qamishli, 12 March 2016.Hide Footnote While these had members or even nominal leaders with little or no link to Qandil, only PKK-trained fighters held decision-making powers. This allowed the PKK to create a base of Syrian sympathisers and recruit fighters for its struggle in Turkey.[fn]In 1999, Damascus and Ankara agreed to crack down on the PKK (the Adana agreement), which prompted the group to move operations to northern Syria and inject fighters into the leadership of underground civilian organisations, such as the Union Star and the Revolutionary Youth.Hide Footnote A PKK founder recounted the creation of its Syrian branches:

When the PYD was established, we didn’t have the choice between staying with the PKK in Qandil or joining the PYD in Syria. Some of us were Syrians, others not. As PKK fighters, we were united in a [Kurdish] nation [watan]; our designations as Syrian, Turkish, Iranian or Iraqi citizens were externally imposed.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rumeilan, 12 December 2015.Hide Footnote

Despite these regional entities’ claim to be linked to the PKK only ideologically, not organisationally, those with key military and institutional responsibilities used to be PKK fighters in Turkey.[fn]KCK leaders repeatedly state that each regional branch has independent decision-making power. Likewise, regional branch leaders invariably reaffirm their autonomy from the PKK. A YPG commander said, “we are not related to the PKK. We are only followers of Abdullah Öcalan’s thoughts”. Crisis Group interview, Hasaka, 13 November 2015.Hide Footnote Regional branches may have had their own identity and leaders, a distinct name and members who did not receive training in Qandil, and may have enjoyed some decision-making autonomy in recruitment, establishment of local offices, dealing with local authorities and coordinating military operations and militant activities. Yet, strategic decision-making remained the exclusive domain of fighters schooled in the Qandil-based institutions. For example, in 2010, Aldar Khalil, a PYD official who had been a PKK commander in Qandil, had greater decision powers than Salih Muslim, the PYD co-chair, who was a local Öcalan sympathiser from a pro-PKK family but had not received military training in Qandil.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Qamishli, November 2015.Hide Footnote

YPG fighters who arrived in Syria in July 2012 were Syrian nationals who had joined and been trained by the PKK in Qandil in the 1990s and fought in Turkey during the war’s height. During the 2000s, many operated underground or under civilian cover in northern Syria. PKK Syrian commanders took leadership posts in the YPG, PYD, People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) and Movement for a Democratic Society (Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk, TEV DEM), PYD umbrella groups established in 2012. Boundaries between these Öcalan-inspired bodies are blurred; commanders continuously switch posts in and among them.[fn]After 2011, Aldar Khalil served first as a PYD official, then as a TEV DEM executive committee member; Hediye Yousef was a Union Star member and since 2013 is co-president of Jazeera district; Ilham Ahmed, a former Union Star member, served in the PCWK, then became a TEV DEM executive committee member. All were previously members of the PKK’s “fighter generation”. They joined in the 1990s, received military training in Qandil and moved to northern Syria after 2003 to take charge of PKK-affiliated organisations. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 15 November 2015. Because the PKK continuously creates new organisations, renames existing ones and shuffles its cadres among them, this report refers to figures with this shared profile as “PKK-trained cadres” regardless of their official posts at a given time.Hide Footnote

Territorial expansion into non-Kurdish areas induced the YPG-PYD in March 2016, to convert the Rojava self-administration into a northern Syria federal region to accommodate the ethnically and religiously diverse population. While this new administration co-opted local figures, PKK military cadres dressed in civilian clothes took key positions, including in the presidential committee.[fn]In March 2016, Hediye Yousef and Ilham Ahmed joined the federal region’s presidential committee, along with Rojin Ramo (a nom de guerre), another PKK-trained cadre who was a Union Star member before 2011. Crisis Group interviews, Qamishli, November 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote

C. The PKK’s Domestication in Syria

The Syria experience forced the PKK to nurture a new generation of Öcalan sympathisers who had no other prior PKK connection. At the same time, it strengthened the PKK’s grip on its Syrian branches. Because Syrian Kurdish PKK-trained cadres arriving in 2012 were relative outsiders to a local community with its own political parties, they had to work hard to gain acceptance and contain dissent.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 16 November 2015. For a description of the autonomous administration’s evolution, see Crisis Group Report, Flight of Icarus?, op. cit., Section III. Hediye Yousef, a former PKK military cadre, highlighted early decision-making: “The first days were very difficult. In 2012, we were the only ones defending the [Kurdish] areas in Jazeera [district]. Soon we realised that this was not enough and that we had to establish [civilian] institutions to offer the people a larger role. At that moment we decided to establish a local administration”. Crisis Group interview, Rumeilan, 17 November 2015.Hide Footnote

When Öcalan formed the PKK in the late 1970s, well-established parties dominated the Syrian Kurdish political scene. Set up in the 1950s, they were led by an alliance of Kurdish landowners (aghas) and urban professionals who monopolised the movement by mediating between the Kurdish urban middle class and regime, while the latter used them to contain Kurds’ political aspirations.[fn]The Syrian Kurdistan Democratic Party (Partiya Demokrat a Kurdistanê li Sûriyê), the sister of Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, is the oldest, created in 1957 and invariably led by urban professionals, currently Saud al-Mullah. Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) also has a Syrian counterpart, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party (Partiya Demokrat a Pêşverû ya Kurdî li Sûriyê), founded in 1965 and led by Abdul Hamid Darwish, a Damascus University-trained lawyer from a prominent landowning family. The regime resorted to these parties’ leaders to co-opt and contain the Kurdish national movement: only through them and similar intermediaries could educated young Kurds gain access to state-sponsored professions. Jordi Tejel, Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics and Society (London, 2009).Hide Footnote Öcalan’s Marxism resonated especially with Kurdish students from smaller towns who contested the urban and landed elites’ dominance but lacked strength to challenge it effectively. The PKK was particularly successful in recruiting from this underclass, and did not set up political organs, sending the youths directly to Qandil for training.[fn]In the 1980s, PKK ideas resonated with students from smaller towns who attended university in Syria’s main urban centres and wanted to challenge the urban middle-class’ dominance over the Kurdish movement. YPG commander Bahoz Erdar came from a small town close to Derek and attended medical school; Nasr Abdallah, another Syrian PKK founder, was from Darbasiya and attended medical school in Aleppo; Shahin Silo, from Kobani, studied engineering in Aleppo. Crisis Group interviews, Qamishli, 12 November 2015.Hide Footnote

This remained unchanged even after the PKK established the PYD and kindred organisations in 2003. Working clandestinely in a highly restrictive security environment, the new party could not mobilise support beyond the circle of families who had long been PKK sympathisers, challenge established parties among the urban professional class or channel the younger generation’s growing discontent with traditional leaders.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Syria’s Kurds, op. cit., Section III.Hide Footnote This meant that when the 2011 Syrian uprising spread to Kurdish areas, the PYD was just one more urban Kurdish party whose radical ideology and military objectives barely resonated. A PKK founding member observed:

At the start of the uprising, there were a lot of youth organisations [in northern Syria], many of which didn’t like the PKK. We didn’t know how to handle all that youthful energy. We couldn’t tell them: “Come and fight Turkey with us”. They had no interest in Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 16 November 2015.Hide Footnote

Operating anew in the Syrian context, the PKK had to adapt pragmatically in the face of strict party rules. PKK-trained cadres disavowed any direct organisational link with the PKK, stating that they saw recognition of Kurdish rights in Syria as their primary objective. A former PKK member recounted:

When the [PKK-trained] military cadres arrived, the big problem they faced was to manage the street. There were a lot of people coming from the mountain [Qandil]. We were under pressure: the street was intent on gaining Kurdish rights, and the other Kurdish parties were accusing us of operating … with a Turkey-centric agenda. So we decided to set up a self-administration and promote that as the foundation for future recognition of Kurdish rights.[fn]Crisis Group interview, PYD member, Qamishli, 15 November 2015.Hide Footnote

PKK-trained cadres also realised that military rule, justified as protection, would not neutralise dissent, disempower traditional local elites and promote new ones to run local institutions. The PKK had sufficient military commanders to impose security but insufficient cadres with the know-how to administer the self-rule area. Political differences with pre-existing Kurdish parties hindered recruitment of middle-class professionals. The YPG-PYD thus had to recruit locals unaffiliated with the PKK and promote them as an alternative elite. Some were Öcalan sympathisers, but others were notables who had been affiliated with other Kurdish parties and saw in the self-rule experiment an unprecedented opportunity for social climbing.[fn]Jazeera district’s energy commission head, Suleyman Khalaf, is an oil engineer who joined the PYD in the uprising’s aftermath. Explaining his defection from the Syrian state, he said, “before the revolution I was a Syrian Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party member, but then I became closer to the PYD, and they asked me to become energy commission chief. When I was employed by the state, it was rare for Kurdish oil engineers to be appointed in [oil-rich] Rumeilan; even after twenty years we could not be promoted to director-general”. Crisis Group interview, Rumeilan, 15 November 2015. Jazeera’s justice commission head, a 2000 law graduate, nurtured sympathies for the Communist party and worked as a lawyer in Damascus, returned to Qamishli in 2011 and joined the Jazeera district sub-administration the next year. Crisis Group interview, Khaled Ibrahim, Qamishli, November 2015.Hide Footnote Likewise, some previously disenfranchised Arab and minority leaders joined the self-administration to compete more effectively with their own communities’ established leadership.[fn]Expressing political splits within ethnic groups, a member of the Assyrian Youth Council (Tajammu al-Shabab al-Ashouri) in Qamishli said, “Jazeera’s deputy head of the defence commission is a Christian from Qamishli, but he has no diplomas and does not enjoy the respect of local Assyrians”. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 11 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Newly empowered elites gained access to privileges and were able to quickly amass wealth, angering the established middle class.

Lack of experienced administrators has undermined the PYD’s ability to establish effective governing institutions and gain legitimacy. The administration was clumsy, issuing regulations on compulsory military service and curriculum reform that antagonised people.[fn]According to the self-defence law (qanoun difaa al-dhati), issued in Jazeera district in 2014, all eighteen-year-olds must enter six months of military training. The law is mostly enforced on men. That the Syrian regime continues to enforce compulsory military service in areas the YPG controls means young Syrians are under a double strain. Also in 2014, the PYD administration in Jazeera introduced a primary-school curriculum in Kurdish with direct references to Öcalan. In response, the regime shut schools in YPG-controlled areas, compelling families which could afford it to pay for private schools, so their children could follow the Syrian curriculum, the only one the education ministry in Damascus recognises. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, March 2017.Hide Footnote Newly empowered elites gained access to privileges and were able to quickly amass wealth, angering the established middle class.[fn]A lawyer in Qamishli said, “Corruption is on the rise. After the YPG came here, a new group of people has started to make money. Some benefit from cement exports, others from oil exports. Some were previously connected with the regime and have now made enough money to drive around Qamishli in a 2017 Mercedes”. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 13 March 2017.Hide Footnote

On the military side, the speed of the YPG’s territorial conquests compelled it to start recruiting from the local Kurdish population to control these areas.[fn]Territorial expansion has forced the YPG to recruit in Kurdish areas. A PKK-trained cadre said, “we have a large territory to control, so we need fighters, not to deploy on dangerous fronts but to secure checkpoints …. This is why we issued the compulsory-military-service law”. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 2 January 2017.Hide Footnote It established local training centres and military academies that churned out fresh Syrian Kurdish recruits as commanders.[fn]The YPG established its female equivalent, the Women’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin, YPJ); the Martyr Khabat Academy (Akademiya Shahid Khabat), which has six grades and trains recruits in military and ideological matters; and a Special Academy (Akademiya Khaas), a 45-day program for military specialisations. Crisis Group interview, Nasrin Abdallah, YPJ commander, Qamishli, 15 November 2015. The YPG-PYD security police (Asayesh) has academies in at least five locations, offering five-month training for aspiring officers. Crisis Group interview, Jwan Ibrahim, Asayesh general commander, Qamishli, 16 November 2015.Hide Footnote It loosened strict PKK recruitment criteria and offered a diluted version of political principles deriving from Öcalan’s thoughts. Facing growing manpower shortages and having extended its military reach to mixed and predominantly Arab areas, the YPG also had to start a massive recruitment drive among non-Kurds, placing them under the SDF umbrella. In February 2017, a PYD official recounted preparations for the Raqqa campaign:

For the Raqqa assault, we began recruiting [Arab] fighters, providing six months of military training to some, three to others, and only one month to again others. We also try to instil a general political perspective of Öcalan’s thoughts. When the conflict ends, those who want to become cadres can take the full curriculum at our ideological academies.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 20 February 2017. According to YPG officials, the SDF has 50,000 fighters, 23,000 of whom are Arabs.Hide Footnote

Thus, two new groups emerged in northern Syria: PKK sympathisers with no militant background, and YPG and SDF recruits who are anti-ISIS rather than pro-PKK. Yet, PKK-trained cadres remained in charge, establishing top-down rule that prevented local commanders and fighters from pursuing a Syrian instead of a Turkey-focused option, including by consolidating civil administration.[fn]A Qamishli resident gave an example of YPG-PYD failure to administer or understand local society’s needs: “At one point, we were short of diesel, unable to heat our homes …. Some people went to a PKK-trained cadre to complain. He said, ‘when we were in Qandil, we had no heating. If we could survive without it, you can’”. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 12 March 2017.Hide Footnote

D. Ruling from Behind

YPG-PYD decision-making is secretive, limited to a few of PKK-trained cadres appointed by the KCK and closed-door meetings. They decide the administration budget, appointment of front-line and regional commanders, distribution of military supplies and coordination with the U.S. military.[fn]The PKK’s Syria command centre’s composition changes continuously, preventing any commander from accumulating too much power. It usually consists of top PKK leaders, mainly Syrian. In 2016, they included Bahoz Erdar, in charge of organising front-line troops; Haval Mazloum, in charge of logistics and relations with the U.S.-led coalition; and Serdar Derek and Taulim (both noms de guerre). Since early 2017, a PKK commander of Turkish origin, Sabri Ok, has been the operations room’s overall commander. Crisis Group interviews, Qamishli, January 2017.Hide Footnote Technocrats, mostly Öcalan sympathisers without PKK militant background, nominally run the self-rule area’s formal institutions. PKK-trained cadres in lower-ranking posts hold the real power.[fn]For instance, Badran Jia Kurd, a PKK-trained commander who serves as “spokesperson of the Jazeera canton government”, has greater decision-making power over appointments of district commission chiefs than the Jazeera “head of government”, Abdul-Karim Saru Khan, who has no PKK background. Crisis Group interviews, Qamishli, January 2017.Hide Footnote The PKK has woven a web of PKK-trained cadres who infiltrated formal institutions and function as a shadow command chain. Thus, the head of Jazeera’s energy commission oversees refining of oil from the Rumeilan field into diesel fuel and gasoline, but a PKK-trained cadre decides distribution, prices and revenue collection.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Suleyman Khalaf, energy commission head, Qamishli, 2 January 2017.Hide Footnote YPG-PYD security police (Asayesh) sign off on many administrative decisions.[fn]According to Kheder Khaddour, who has researched governance in Syria, “the [YPG-PYD] practices are not new in the particular context of Jazeera. Since the 1970s, the Syrian regime proved unable to establish full sovereignty over this corner …. It controlled it by delegating to security officials decision-making on key issues (like oil, security) and resorting to the local administrative structures only to contain the local population”. Crisis Group interview, Beirut, November 2016.Hide Footnote A lawyer in the Jazeera district sub-administration’s judiciary commission said he could not issue an arrest warrant “without first consulting with the Asayesh, while they can detain anyone without a judicial warrant”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, November 2015. The Asayesh general commander is Jwan Ibrahim, a Syrian Kurd, while a PKK-trained commander of Turkish origin leads Qamishli’s Asayesh. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, January 2017.Hide Footnote

PKK-trained cadres issue orders across the network of regional commanders. Assignments depend on a location’s strategic importance. The YPG puts its most senior, experienced, trusted commanders along the ISIS front and younger commanders who joined the PKK in the late 1990s in the Kurdish hinterland. The latter, many without university degree, unlike the PKK’s “ideological generation”, have found the war a way to rise through the ranks. They appoint squadron and platoon commanders, coordinate with other regional commanders and redistribute military supplies in the areas under their responsibility.[fn]A PKK and PYD founder recounted: “At the regional commanders level there is a bit of everything. You have people who were only military cadres [kawadir askariya] but were given responsibilities usually assigned to ideological cadres [kawadir nadhariya]”. Crisis Group telephone interview, 20 February 2017. Thus, the regional commander for Hasaka, Lewend Rojava, is a Syrian military commander in his early 40s (so relatively young) who fought in Turkey during the 1990s and returned to Syria after 2012. Crisis Group interviews, Hasaka, March 2016.Hide Footnote Squadron and platoon commanders, who mostly joined the YPG after its 2012 creation and were trained in its military and ideological academies, are often placed in administrative rather than strategic or other decision-making posts. They have little chance to advance, as the ideological academies that offer promotion prospects require long-term commitment to the PKK’s struggle, directly under PKK control in Qandil.

With the battle against ISIS raging, the PKK faces a pressing need for experienced commanders. Unwilling to empower regional commanders or capable locally-recruited squadron or platoon commanders, it has started to send growing numbers of its Qandil-based cadres to northern Syria, including Kurds from Turkey and Iran. This allows it to enforce strict command and control, as well as ideological unity, but not to gain local legitimacy.[fn]The YPG put a PKK-trained commander of Iranian origin in charge of Tel Abyad after taking it from ISIS; the campaign to take Manbij included Qandil-trained commanders from Iran and Turkey. In 2016, a PKK-trained commander from Iran replaced a Syrian PKK-trained commander at the Samalka border crossing with Iraq. Crisis Group telephone interview, NGO official who travelled in northern Syria, March 2016.Hide Footnote

III. A Military-driven Approach

A. Complementary Objectives, Different Priorities

In September 2014, after ISIS seized the Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border, the U.S. partnered with the YPG to drive it out, providing air cover and weapons delivered indirectly via Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga who entered from northern Iraq via Turkey as part of a deal negotiated with Turkey. The U.S.-YPG military relationship continued, as Washington began pressing ISIS in its strongholds. After Kobani, the YPG, backed by the U.S.-led Western coalition, wrested other towns from the group’s control, gradually expanding its reach across a swathe of northern Syria highly diverse in population that extends along nearly the entire length of the Turkish border and successfully connecting Jazeera and Kobani districts.[fn]In October 2014, the U.S. began supporting the YPG indirectly via Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga deployed in Kobani, and since early 2015 via the SDF, a militia that incorporated, but was also led by, the YPG. By late 2015, the U.S. had three military bases in northern Syria: Kobani, Rumeilan and Tel Abyad. The main operations room for YPG-U.S. cooperation is in Rumeilan. Eric Schmitt, “The US considers further arming Syrian Kurds against ISIS”, The New York Times, 26 September 2016. The U.S. has also given the YPG-PYD access to Qandil from northern Syria by flying commanders to Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, stronghold of Talabani’s PUK, which has strong PKK ties and controls access to the Qandil Valley. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, September 2016, and observations, Qandil Valley, 24 June 2016. See also, Crisis Group Middle East Report N°158, Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict, 12 May 2015.Hide Footnote

The anti-ISIS campaign drew the YPG beyond majority-Kurdish areas into adjacent majority-Arab ones. The YPG-PYD cadres saw in this an opportunity to leverage the group’s military strength to make territorial gains with U.S. support that would connect Jazeera/Kobani with Afrin, establish a federal region recognised by the international community and enhance their bargaining power in negotiations over Syria’s future. For those cadres prioritising the conflict against Turkey, however, an additional goal was clear: utilising U.S. support to press Turkey militarily and isolate it politically by persuading the U.S. to choose the Kurds’ side over time. But those divergent priorities mattered little in the short term, since both favoured a military-focused strategy that would give the YPG-PYD new leverage by establishing facts on the ground. Aldar Khalil, a PKK-trained cadre, said:

In Iraq, the Kurdish parties tried to assert control by building a political alliance with the U.S., but this did not work for them, because it did not allow them to annex all the disputed territories [the Kurds claim, such as Kirkuk]. This is why we have to put facts on the ground militarily and use our military power to get what we want politically.[fn]U.S. officials seem to have encouraged this transactional relationship. Khalil continued, referring to the U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting ISIS: “Brett McGurk came with people from the UK defence ministry. I asked him: ‘When will you recognise Rojava? When are we going to participate in the Geneva negotiations?’ He replied: ‘Let’s retake Raqqa, and then we can start discussing all that’”. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, March 2016. A U.S. official said, “the Kurds are like a mistress or a girlfriend for the U.S. We come to them when we need them, and we know they will be there”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, 12 November 2016.Hide Footnote

The more territory the YPG has seized, the more the PKK has appointed trusted Qandil-trained cadres, including Kurds from Turkey and Iran, in sensitive locations, and the more closely the YPG-PYD has remained tied to the PKK and its conflict with Turkey.

B. The Unintended Consequences of Military Assistance

In the YPG, the U.S. found an efficient and reliable anti-ISIS military partner, first demonstrated in the September 2014 Kobani battle, which obviated the need to deploy U.S. troops. Since then, Washington has indirectly channelled arms to the YPG without giving it political support to avoid further angering Turkey, its NATO partner. The U.S. has performed a semantic dance to pre-empt accusations by Turkey or domestic critics that it is supporting the PKK, an organisation on its terrorism list. The Obama administration claimed that the YPG and PKK were not the same organisation and channelled arms to the YPG indirectly via Iraqi Kurds in Kobani and, after October 2015, via the newly established SDF.[fn]A U.S. spokesperson said, “the PYD is a different group than the PKK legally, under U.S. law”. State Department press briefing, 20 October 2014. YPG commanders see the arms deliveries differently. Sipan Hammo has said expressly that the YPG has received weapons directly from the U.S. www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2015-10-15/u-s-airdrop-in-syria-ends-up-arming-the-kurds. Crisis Group interviews likewise indicate that the U.S. military began with airdrops to “Arab fighters” (the SDF), then, once it had established bases in Rumeilan and Kobani, shipped weapons there. Collection and distribution is invariably and exclusively in the hands of PKK-trained SDF commanders. Crisis Group interviews, northern Syria, 2015-2017.Hide Footnote

The SDF is nominally a mixed Syrian force, but in reality both non-PKK-trained and non-Kurdish commanders have no authority, while the YPG is in overall command and controls military supply. Yet, semantic sleight-of-hand has not rescued the U.S. from the obvious fact, acknowledged by leaders of both PKK and YPG-PYD, that the latter is the former’s Syrian affiliate, fully integrated within its chain of command.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Qandil, June 2016; Qamishli and Amoude, March 2016.Hide Footnote U.S. State Department officials assert that the U.S. can provide weapons only through the SDF. Meanwhile, the military cooperates directly with the YPG, fuelling its hopes of diplomatic recognition for the federal region.[fn]A U.S. State Department official specified: “We have a legal problem in dealing with an organisation listed as a terrorist group”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, 10 October 2016. A U.S. Department of Defense employee posted in Syria stated, however, that the U.S. had coordinated with YPG commanders during the Manbij operation and continued meeting with them. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, 12 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Because the U.S. can channel support to the YPG only by accepting its hierarchy, it reinforces the PKK-imposed chain of command that favours PKK-trained cadres over local Syrian commanders for strategic posts. External military aid thus has had a somewhat paradoxical effect. It allows the PKK to consolidate absolute control while, by enabling the YPG-PYD territorial expansion that necessitated massive local recruitment, forcing it to relax its internal rules and ideological purity in order to attract new fighters.

The Syria-focused YPG-PYD cadres have been disappointed in their expectation to strengthen diplomatic ties with the U.S. or be included in Syria peace talks. Interactions with Washington have been largely informal. In January and September 2016, Brett McGurk, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, twice visited YPG-controlled areas, Rumeilan and Kobani respectively, was filmed with YPG-PYD and SDF commanders but did not discuss the issue foremost on the group’s mind: U.S. protection and recognition of the self-rule area.[fn]Liz Sly, “US envoy goes to Syria to press the fight against the Islamic State”, The Washington Post, 31 January 2016, and Eric Schmitt, “The US considers further arming Syrian Kurds against ISIS”, The New York Times, 26 September 2016.Hide Footnote

Nor has the YPG-PYD realised its ambition to connect Kobani with Afrin, and the window may be closing. In February 2016, the YPG received U.S. military support to defeat ISIS in Sheddadi, an Arab town between Hasaka and Deir al-Zour with no strategic importance for the group. It also received U.S. backing (through the SDF) to take Manbij from ISIS, west of the Euphrates, but Washington had told it that it would have to leave the town in charge of the SDF once the situation was stabilised.[fn]In March 2017, YPG commanders claimed the group had withdrawn from Manbij, leaving it to the “Manbij military council”. YPG fighters remain on the outskirts, however, ensuring perimeter and access control. Crisis Group interviews, Manbij, March 2017.Hide Footnote Precisely to thwart the YPG-PYD ambition, Turkey led, with U.S. support, the November assault on ISIS in Al-Bab, a town whose control would allow creation of a land bridge to Afrin. A U.S. official said:

There is a problem of expectations [with the YPG]. We are not going to give up our relationship with Turkey. We have been clear with them from the beginning: we will not help you to take Al-Bab, and we cannot prevent either Turkey or the regime from taking it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Washington, 10 October 2016.Hide Footnote

The U.S. has also refrained from providing economic support to YPG-PYD areas, not wishing to fuel Kurdish separatist aspirations and further upset Turkey.[fn]The U.S. Pentagon and State Department have taken differing approaches on reconstruction aid to the YPG-PYD. A Pentagon official said, “in areas taken from ISIS we needed an entity to provide services; they [the YPG] are very efficient at bringing back government. In Manbij, we favour … supporting the local administration with reconstruction funds. The State Department takes a different view. [For] their Syrian Transition Assistance and Response Team based in Turkey, it is sensitive to fund a PKK-linked project”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, 12 November 2016.Hide Footnote Moreover, the local administration’s domination by PKK-trained cadres has discouraged Western states from giving it stabilisation funds, lest that would bolster the PKK in Turkey more than foster reconstruction in Syria.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, NGO official dealing with donors, November 2016.Hide Footnote

U.S. military support has unintentionally bolstered the thinking of those who favour continued struggle with Turkey over those willing to contemplate a political settlement for the Kurds in Syria. Since that support has been channelled through the Qandil-appointed commanders, it has further empowered those commanders over locally-recruited ones and made them even less accountable to the local population and local administrators more dependent on PKK-trained cadres. This has prevented a truly civilian-led administration from emerging in northern Syria. It also has permitted the PKK to strengthen its authority over the Kurdish movement in Syria, tie the Kurdish question in Syria and Turkey more closely together and hitch the YPG-PYD self-rule project to the wagon of the PKK’s fight with Turkey.

The result has been a vicious circle: as long as PKK-trained cadres control Kurdish and non-Kurdish lands, the YPG-PYD will be denied reconstruction funds, and the absence of reconstruction will increase local hostility to its rule and thus further empower the more military/security oriented PKK-trained cadres. Over time, however, changing regional alignments and growing numbers of locally recruited Syrians may encourage a degree of autonomous YPG-PYD decision-making and allow a shift toward those who favour a Syrian solution to the Kurdish question in Syria.

C. More Land, More Challenges

The YPG-PYD’s successful strategy of establishing facts on the ground is beginning to show diminishing returns and could become self-defeating. Territorial expansion is limiting its ability to establish sustainable self-rule, under whatever name. Its expansion also has antagonised the self-rule area’s neighbours, prompting a near-total embargo: Turkey to its north, the KRG (the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government) to its east and ISIS and the regime to its south and west, forcing the YPG-PYD to resort to smuggling in all directions.[fn]On the area’s northern boundary, Turkey has closed its border to trade; to the east, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq has allowed basic goods to enter Syria at Samalka but little else. The PYD is thus reliant on smuggling with regime-held areas via ISIS-held areas to the south and west, exchanging limited quantities of grain, oil and cotton for basic goods. In western Syria, Afrin district is under a Turkish embargo, so relies on the regime for trade. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 14 March 2017.Hide Footnote It also compelled the YPG to redirect financial and military resources to new ISIS fronts at the expense of maintaining security and improving services. This has generated discontent among Syrian Kurds, who accuse the YPG of recruiting its youth and diverting resources toward Arab-populated front-line areas while keeping Kurdish areas impoverished.

The group had to confront this reality when its fighters seized Tel Abyad, a predominantly Arab town on the Turkish border, from ISIS in May 2015. Suleyman Khalaf, Jazeera’s energy commission chief, explained:

In 2013, we had to provide electricity to the population of Jazeera canton only. A year later, we also had to provide electricity to Kobani canton, and now even to Arab villages around Tel Abyad – all this while our administration is under a total embargo, and we cannot easily trade or sell our Rumeilan oil.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rumeilan, 13 November 2015. Since the YPG-PYD asserted its presence in northern Syria, the KRG and Turkey have intermittently shut their borders with Syria to place economic pressure on the group. In 2016, as the YPG-PYD extended its territorial control, they both closed their borders indefinitely. The energy commission chief said he was considering ways to break the embargo: “We have a lot of oil in Rumeilan but cannot export it. We hope to conclude a deal with Baghdad so that we can export oil there”. (While the YPG-PYD currently has no direct land access to Baghdad, its involvement in northern Iraq, in cooperation with Iran-backed Shiite militias, may be aimed at opening a corridor from northern Syria to Baghdad via areas south and west of Mosul.) Crisis Group interview, YPG commander, Sinjar, 8 September 2016.Hide Footnote

As in Kurdish areas, PYD-led local administrations in non-Kurdish areas are designed to control the population by co-opting it. In some Arab areas, such as Tel Abyad, the YPG-PYD is discovering that middle-class professionals are even more reluctant than their Kurdish counterparts to join an administration dominated by PKK-trained military commanders.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tel Abyad, March 2017.Hide Footnote Part of the reason is that the YPG has co-opted tribal members previously excluded (by the Syrian regime) from leadership positions and appointed them to local administrative posts with only nominal authority, but they are not automatically accepted by local Arab society.[fn]In Tel Abyad, YPG cadres co-opted local Arab tribal leaders desiring to take revenge on those who collaborated with ISIS. They were allowed to run security and administration in return for allegiance to the SDF. While services did improve somewhat, the YPG found no lawyers or other professionals willing to co-operate with a PKK-run administration to set up a dispute-resolution committee (lijna al-musalaha). Crisis Group interview, lawyer, Qamishli, 14 November 2015.Hide Footnote When, in August 2016, the YPG-SDF took Manbij, which had been under successive Syrian anti-regime rebel and ISIS control, it put in charge tribal leaders excluded by the rebels, who instead had empowered urban notables with Islamist leanings.[fn]Crisis Group interview, NGO official travelling in Manbij, 14 December 2016.Hide Footnote In Syria, the tribes’ domain is mainly outside urban centres; the imposition of tribal leaders in towns taken from ISIS could, therefore, be expected to cause frictions.

Whether in Manbij or Tel Abyad, the underlying problem remains that PKK-trained cadres retain overall control. Kurdish-Arab relations are shaped by Arab recruits’ dependence on YPG commanders who rule their areas without effective civilian oversight. These commanders are in charge of military logistics, providing the most powerful weapons to YPG fighters while delegating to Arab SDF fighters the secondary role of maintaining local security.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former SDF commander, Rumeilan, 14 March 2017. Talal Silo, an SDF spokesperson and local Turkman, said, “the YPG is the SDF’s logistical backbone. The SDF’s central command in Hasaka is composed of the YPG, YPJ and Syriac Military Council [al-Majlis al-Askari al-Suriyani]. The Sanadid Army [an SDF faction of Arab Shammar tribal fighters] doesn’t receive the best weapons, because only the YPG is deployed on the front lines”. Crisis Group interview, Hasaka, 16 November 2015. A member of the Syriac Military Council said of his group’s relationship with the YPG, “we are working under the YPG in order to protect the Syriac community”. Crisis Group interview, Hasaka, 16 November 2015. Syriacs, who belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, are one of several Christian communities in the Middle East.Hide Footnote Local officials working for the administration are tasked with day-to-day management, such as aid redistribution, local security and setting the price of bread, etc.[fn]Crisis Group interview, NGO official travelling in Manbij, 14 December 2016.Hide Footnote Thus, more by default than design, the U.S. has amplified the problems emanating from the YPG’s PKK link and, due to its singular focus on defeating ISIS, encouraged the YPG’s territorial expansion. This is now pulling the Turkey-PKK conflict into Syria and, possibly, pushing the fragile YPG-PYD administration back under Damascus’s wing.

IV. An Escalating PKK-Turkey Conflict in Northern Syria

A. The PKK-Turkey Conflict Spills into Syria

In early 2013, Ankara froze its conflict with the PKK in Turkey, agreeing to a ceasefire and reviving peace talks.[fn]In 1999, after the 1998 arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, Turkey and the PKK launched a first round of peace talks, known as the “Oslo process”. It lasted until 2011, when fighting resumed, a two-year conflict in which the PKK lost nearly 1,000 fighters. Crisis Group Europe Report N°234, Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process, 6 November 2014, pp. 2-3.Hide Footnote During the two-year peace process with the PKK that followed, Turkey tolerated the rise of the YPG-PYD in northern Syria and invited PYD leader Salih Muslim to Ankara for discussions. In parallel, it opened up political space to Kurds in Turkey, perhaps calculating that the participation of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP), in parliament would disempower and de-legitimise the PKK military leadership in both Turkey and Syria.[fn]According to a Turkish security official, speaking well after the 2013 ceasefire had collapsed in 2015, the PKK’s potential transition from a military to political movement was the basis for the ceasefire that started the peace process: “The way out is for the HDP to renounce violence and then for the PKK to do the same. In addressing their base, they can point to their 80 parliament members and announce their efforts will now be exclusively political. They can focus on building their ecological paradise, or whatever, talk in parliament about how they want to divide Turkey, or create federalism or whatever. As long as they don’t have weapons, the political sphere is open to them”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, June 2016. The PKK’s view is the polar opposite. PKK leader Cemil Bayık said, “the PKK has pursued armed struggle because we have been given no choice, no room for political activities. The HDP has been banned, lawmakers have lost their immunity, Öcalan remains in prison …. The PKK has given Turkey a lot of chances. We declared a unilateral ceasefire in 1999. Yet, the state continued the war. When Kobani happened [October 2015], we were in negotiations with Turkey, but they attack[ed] the Kurds in Rojava…. Now they are changing the south east’s demography, leaving us no option except resist or be eliminated”. Crisis Group interview, Qandil, 24 June 2016. Today, Ankara’s position has hardened, focused on managing the conflict more than bringing it to an end, while the PKK appears to assume Turkey is losing ground internationally, and the group thus will have a stronger hand if it postpones talks.Hide Footnote Turkish security officials acknowledged a potential divergence between the PKK’s hard-core leadership in Qandil and younger cadres, especially among the YPG-PYD in Syria, but warned that a breakdown in peace talks would disempower the latter.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, June 2016.Hide Footnote

However, internal developments in Turkey compounded by the YPG’s fast-paced military expansion challenged this pragmatism and helped precipitate a return to open conflict. During the ISIS siege of Kobani, Turkey, after prolonged refusal, agreed to let the YPG’s campaign to free the town proceed once a fig-leaf solution was found: the U.S. brought peshmerga fighters, mainly belonging to Turkey’s Iraqi Kurdish partner, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), to Kobani and channelled weapons to the YPG through them. But continuous U.S.-backed YPG advances alarmed Ankara, which could not countenance a PKK affiliate seizing areas along its Syrian border or the emergence of a YPG-PYD-run federal region in northern Syria that it saw as part of the PKK’s anti-Turkey strategy.

In the aftermath of the peace talks’ collapse in April 2015 and Turkey’s inconclusive parliamentary elections two months later, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) and the PKK seemingly shared an interest in ending the ceasefire. Having lost its majority in a major rebuff, the AKP abandoned its pragmatic approach to the conflict with the PKK and launched a new confrontation to shore up support among Turkish nationalist constituents. In turn, the PKK thought it could, and perhaps should, return to fighting, as it did not trust Erdoğan’s motives in pursuing talks, saw the process beginning to crumble, feared the political rise of the HDP potentially at its expense and believed it could capitalise on its Syrian affiliate’s success.[fn]The HDP performed strongly in the June 2015 elections, winning votes of citizens wary of Erdoğan’s ambition to create an executive presidency. Its growing strength was a threat to the PKK leadership’s entrenched interests in continuing armed struggle. See Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°77, A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks, 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote

Relations between the two started to deteriorate at the time of the Kobani siege and nosedived in July 2015 following an attack in Suruç that killed more than 30 pro-Kurdish activists. Though ISIS claimed responsibility, the PKK blamed the AKP-led government for failing to provide security. In September 2015, as both sides undermined negotiations by building up forces in the south east, the increasingly fragile truce crumbled, giving way to a new and furious round of conflict.[fn]In November 2015, this strategy appeared to pay off, as the AKP won an absolute majority in what in Turkey is referred to as the “repeat” election. The war reinvigorated the PKK’s military branch at the expense of the HDP. Ibid and Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°49, Steps toward Stabilising Syria’s Northern Border, 8 April 2016. Since July 2015, at least 2,721 have been killed, including more than 900 Turkish troops and close to 1,200 PKK fighters. “Turkey’s PKK Conflict: the Rising Toll”, Crisis Group info-graphic, www.crisisgroup.be/interactives/turkey.Hide Footnote

The PKK’s losses in that fight did little to discourage it from doubling down on the YPG’s territorial push in Syria. In taking Tel Abyad in July 2015, the YPG gained control of a contiguous stretch of territory bordering Turkey from Malikiya to Kobani. That December, it crossed the Euphrates, seizing the Tishreen dam. In February 2016, it took Tel Rifaat, north of Aleppo, with the help of Russian air cover.[fn]A YPG leader said in early 2016, “our priority is to consolidate our relationship with the U.S., but … we benefit from both sides …. We should have pushed on as far as Manbij. The Russians made us understand that as far as they were concerned, we could take Jarablus and go as far as the Mediterranean”. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 13 March 2016. A U.S. official said, “before and after they crossed the Euphrates, we told them many times that if they were going to make such a dangerous move, we would not be able to help them. We told them clearly that for us it is not a matter of choosing between Turkey and them. It is that we do not want problems with Turkey, and we want them to fight ISIS”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, 12 October 2016.Hide Footnote In May, the YPG-SDF made another thrust and in August took the predominantly Arab town of Manbij from ISIS.

If Turkey invades Syria, why shouldn’t Kurds from Turkey come to help us?

In response, Turkey sent its military across the border in Operation Euphrates Shield. While Ankara publicly stated it aimed to expel ISIS from Jarablus – and indeed succeeded in doing so – it also, and mainly, wanted to prevent the YPG from taking additional territory between Jarablus and Azaz, thus to block its route to Afrin. Turkish forces subsequently moved south toward IS-held Al-Bab, on which the YPG had also set its eyes, and declared that following victory there their next step would be to retake Manbij from the YPG-SDF.[fn]Ilnur Çevik, a senior Erdoğan adviser, said, “we will knock them [YPG] out from Manbij, west of Euphrates. We’re not going to touch them east of the Euphrates”. Quoted in Patrick Kingsley and Tim Arango, “Erdogan curbs criticism of Trump, seeking warmer relationship”, The New York Times, 11 February 2017.Hide Footnote By early 2017, the furious conflict between the Turkish military and the PKK in Turkey’s south east threatened to spill over into Syria in the form of a proxy conflict opposing Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and the YPG’s Syrian PKK-trained commanders. Turkey’s military intervention strengthened the narrative of the PKK Turkey-focused cadres. A PKK-trained cadre of Syrian origin asked: “If Turkey invades Syria, why shouldn’t Kurds from Turkey come to help us?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 12 March 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Facing a Fateful Choice

Six years after the start of the Syrian conflict, the regional and global alignment that allowed the YPG-PYD to thrive is changing. Having failed to obtain local or external support for its self-rule project, it finds itself besieged, without allies it can rely upon to protect it and dangerously exposed. As a result, the PKK has come to a crossroads: it must choose between continuing to hitch the Syrian self-rule project it so successfully established to the wagon of its ongoing fight against Turkey or giving it the chance to develop and thrive with its own Syria-driven logic. These have become competing objectives in Syria’s rapidly evolving terrain.

With the gradual deterioration of the U.S.-Turkish relationship in 2016, Russia and Turkey started pursuing a rapprochement. Determined to block the YPG, Ankara apparently struck a deal with Moscow in late 2016, standing back as the regime retook rebel-held eastern Aleppo in exchange for gaining a free hand in taking Al-Bab from ISIS. Russia thus seemed to de-prioritise its relationship with the PYD in favour of Turkey and put itself in a stronger position to shape an eventual political solution in Syria. While it has courted the PYD and allied parties inside the country by organising meetings with them, it was unable or unwilling to override a Turkish veto of PYD participation in January 2017 peace talks in Kazakhstan.[fn]A Qamishli resident who has served as intermediary between the regime and the PYD said, “with the Russian-Turkey rapprochement, the dream of territorial continuity is over, because the PYD has failed to build stable political relationships. They kept changing sides and never joined an alliance: first they dealt with the regime, then with the Iranians, then with the U.S. and the Russians, and now they are all alone”. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 3 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Because the U.S. relationship with the YPG involves strictly the anti-ISIS fight, the group can only marginally count on U.S. protection from a Turkish attack. Washington embedded special forces with both the Turkish army and the SDF in northern Syria for the fight against ISIS, but also to prevent a confrontation between the two; and it accepted Turkey’s drive on Al-Bab that prevented the YPG from moving westward.[fn]Turkish and YPG forces in northern Syria are deployed in close proximity. The U.S. embedded military advisers with the Turkish army as it moved across the border. According to a U.S. official, the U.S. aims to play a stabilising role between the army and YPG, deterring the former from advancing eastward toward Kobani and containing the latter’s ambition to expand westward toward Afrin. Crisis Group interview, Washington, 15 October 2016.Hide Footnote Whatever U.S. protection the YPG has enjoyed is likely to end the moment the battle with ISIS ends. At that point, it arguably will become far more a liability than an asset for Washington, unless the Trump administration decides to maintain a longer-term military foothold in northern Syria.

After Turkey took Al-Bab at the end of February 2017, Syrian and Syrian-allied forces pushed northward from Aleppo to the east of Al-Bab, taking pockets of ISIS territory and proceeding toward Manbij. In March, Russia brokered a deal between the YPG and the regime under which the YPG-SDF allowed 200 Syrian border guards to be stationed in eight villages west of Manbij, established the SDF-run “Al-Bab military council” to control the area and raised the Syrian flag. This created a buffer between the YPG and Turkish forces that satisfied neither party but served Russia’s aim of limiting the scope of Turkey’s Syria incursion while giving Damascus a role north of Aleppo.[fn]Since then, Euphrates Shield forces have reportedly shelled the area of the eight villages.Hide Footnote Because this opened the way for YPG fighters and civilians to move from Kobani to Afrin indirectly, via regime-controlled areas, it suggested the YPG-PYD had partially achieved its land bridge – but only with Damascus’s tolerance.[fn]According to Sipan Hammo, a YPG commander, YPG forces could transit from regime-controlled western Manbij to Tadif, south of Al-Bab, and from there reach Aleppo and Afrin. In future these could be jointly controlled by regime and YPG-SDF forces. Hammo denied the YPG delivered Manbij to regime forces: “In Manbij there is no regime or Russian presence. We left the administration in the hands of a local council”. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 13 March 2017.Hide Footnote

The PKK now must decide how to proceed. It vacillates between seeing the Syrian theatre as a springboard for its struggle against Turkey and viewing YPG-PYD gains as the foundation for realising Öcalan’s ideas in Syria separate from that conflict.[fn]A former PKK commander said, “both the uprising and the war in Syria led us to revive our [Syrian Kurdish] national identity. We were without guidance on how to strike a balance between ideology and national identity. We had no phone calls with Öcalan and faced a lot of pressure from the street”. Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 12 November 2015.Hide Footnote PKK-trained cadres may go back and forth between these preferences or remain undecided, continuing in default mode. Two, now senior officials in Syria, voiced opposing positions. One, reflecting the prevailing PKK view, said:

The Kurdish question in Syria and Turkey cannot be delinked. We will not repeat the mistake of Iraqi Kurdistan. Even if Syrian Kurds gain a political status in Syria, this won’t last if the Kurds in Turkey don’t succeed …. As long as there is no change in Turkey’s policy toward Kurds there, it won’t change its policy toward Kurds in Rojava either. Turkey haunts the Kurds wherever they live.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 10 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Thus, he said, the PKK had no choice but to continue its struggle against Turkey, using all the assets it has accumulated, including and especially in northern Syria (but also increasingly in northern Iraq). The other official said, in contrast:

There are different ways to interpret Öcalan’s writings. The struggle against Turkey has gone on for 30 years. We are now ready to shift our priorities away from that fight. The PKK’s struggle against Turkey is negatively affecting us. We intend to create a region here in Syria that will be friendly toward the U.S. and Israel, with the same diplomatic access that [Masoud] Barzani enjoys.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, 11 March 2016.Hide Footnote

These visions were compatible as long as the immediate objective was to gain ground but now that Turkey has blocked further advances westward, the PKK will have to decide what to do next.

The choice it makes in Syria will have political ramifications far beyond the Kurdish question, affecting regional and wider international stability. If the Turkey-centric view prevails, Turkey and the PKK may increasingly move their confrontation to Syria and Iraq. PKK-trained commanders in Syria say they are considering cementing the group’s presence in Sinjar, a Yazidi town in Iraq’s Ninewa governorate on the Syrian border, which the PKK helped take from ISIS in November 2015. As they see it, strengthening their position there and connecting with Iran-backed Shiite militias in nearby Tel Afar could open a road to Baghdad and so score another point against Turkey and its Kurdish ally, the KDP. The PKK sees in its Sinjar presence the potential to break the KDP-Turkey embargo on northern Syria by opening a trade route between Qamishli and Baghdad that would spare the self-rule area dependency on Damascus. This would also help Iran, which is forging a path to the Mediterranean through areas least likely to put up significant resistance.[fn]See Joost Hiltermann, “Syria: The hidden power of Iran”, The New York Review of Books, 13 April 2017.Hide Footnote So far, the PKK has been willing to go along.

The PKK may be misjudging the current balance of power and thus miscalculating its chances. It may exploit the Iranian corridor for its own anti-Turkey purposes, but it is unlikely Tehran and its allies in Baghdad would help the PKK’s Syrian affiliates gain greater political and economic autonomy from Damascus. Iran seems to be using the PKK as a counterweight to Turkey but gives no sign it would support any Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Indeed, the PKK’s moves in northern Iraq heighten the risk of escalation in the form of further Turkish intervention.[fn]Turkish troops have been at a base near Bashiqa, immediately east of Mosul, since March 2015, without Baghdad’s consent; Turkey sent additional troops in late 2015 after the KDP and PKK, acting separately, retook Sinjar from ISIS. There is a risk yet more Turkish troops will enter Iraq, this time at Sinjar – to fight the PKK – and the nearby Turkoman town of Tel Afar – to ensure the area does not become a Shiite militia stronghold. Such a move would almost certainly spark conflict between Turkey and Iraq.Hide Footnote The early signals are already there: on 25 April, the Turkish air force carried out bombing raids on bases of the PKK and/or its local affiliates in Karachok in northern Syria close to the Iraqi border, and on Sinjar Mountain just across that border, killing a number of PKK fighters.[fn]Five Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga of the KDP were also killed in the strikes on Sinjar, apparently by accident. CNN and other news reports, 25 April 2017.Hide Footnote As the Turkey-PKK conflict metastasises, the YPG-PYD in northern Syria could be left empty-handed.

The better option for Turkey and the PKK would be to return to peace talks, but there is scant hope for now that either would. Yet, there are ways to de-escalate the situation and pave the way for an eventual return to talks. The PKK would have to forego its goal of territorially linking the three majority-Kurdish districts, except through the new regime-held corridor south of Al-Bab. It would also need to dilute its political dominance in Kobani, Jazeera and Afrin by removing the YPG from governance and encouraging the PYD to share the authority of budgeting and appointing senior officials with Kurdish and non-Kurdish groups. If the PYD were to offer better governance, it would gain greater local support.

A deal would need to involve a withdrawal of PKK-trained cadres from Sinjar in return for a full opening of the border to people and trade.

It would help, of course, if the KDP-controlled Iraq-Syria border were to reopen, allowing goods to flow. For this, the PKK, through the YPG, would need U.S. help to mediate a solution to the Sinjar quandary with the Kurdistan Regional Government as well as Baghdad. A deal would need to involve a withdrawal of PKK-trained cadres from Sinjar in return for a full opening of the border to people and trade. As a final component, the YPG would need to refrain from directly aiding the PKK’s fight against Turkey.[fn]While the extent of YPG military support to the PKK is unclear, observers have cited the appearance of military tactics in cities in south-eastern Turkey that also have been used in Syria. Crisis Group interview, Brussels, April 2017. In one example, Turkish authorities claim a one-ton bomb made of RDX, ammonium nitrate, TNT and diesel was detonated via remote control in a 30-metre underground tunnel leading from an apartment in the Bağlar district in Diyarbakır to an adjacent police compound. “Emniyet’in altında 1 ton bomba” (“One-ton bomb under police station”), Hürriyet, 12 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Ankara showed in 2013-2015 it might be able to live with a PYD-run Kurdish entity if the PKK suspended its fight and talked peace. It suggested it could equally do so if the YPG-PYD cut operational links with Qandil.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, March 2015.Hide Footnote PKK action to remove fighters from Sinjar in return for an open Iraq-Syria border might reverse the vicious cycle the group and Ankara entered in 2015, even if it did not yet solve the situation in northern Syria, much less address either’s core demand: for Turkey, an end to the PKK’s armed struggle; for the PKK, “democratic self-administration” in autonomous regions and recognition of basic rights such as mother-tongue education.[fn]See “DTK – Declaration of political resolution regarding self-rule”, HDP Europe, December 2015, http://en.hdpeurope.com/?p=2402.Hide Footnote

If Turkey’s main strategic concern – having a PKK-run entity on its border that caters to the group’s fight in Turkey – is addressed, it should be willing to accept a Kurdish-run enclave in northern Syria and allow the PYD, along with other Syrian Kurdish parties, to participate in Syria peace talks and help draft a new constitution that would guarantee and protect Kurdish rights.

V. Conclusion

Having taken advantage of the chaos in Syria to improve its overall military position in its fight against Turkey, the PKK now faces a momentous choice. This is because its Syrian affiliates may soon reach the territorial and political limits of what is achievable, and risk losing some, if not all, of what they have gained in the past five years if they fail to adjust their behaviour. The PKK’s Syria project spearheaded by the YPG-PYD has landed it in a quandary largely precipitated by its appetite for more territory and more control without offering the local population legitimate governance. The YPG-PYD faces hostile neighbours in Turkey and, in northern Iraq, in Turkey’s ally the KDP. It has found Russia to be an unreliable ally intent on preserving the Damascus regime rather than helping the Kurds gain autonomy. The regime itself likely is simply biding its time, preparing for the day it will have recovered sufficient strength to return in force to oust the YPG-PYD from northern Syria.

The only potential ally the PKK has left is, incongruously, the U.S., which long ago placed the group on its terrorism list. This means its leaders cannot speak directly to U.S. military commanders but must do so through the PKK’s YPG associates in their capacity as SDF commanders. That has worked so far but has not produced the kind of guarantees the PKK would need for its Syria project to survive. While U.S. military officers on the ground in Syria are clearly enamoured of the YPG’s fighting spirit and acumen, it is not they but the Trump administration that will decide on the U.S.’s post-Raqqa military posture in the region. It remains unclear what that decision would be.

What seems clear is that the YPG-PYD will not be in a position to attract long-term U.S. protection if it fails to forego its ambition to link majority-Kurdish districts by force, separate its military control from governance, reach out to other Kurdish and non-Kurdish groups, begin to govern inclusively or put forward a realistic plan for Kurdish rights in Syria. The survival of one of Syria’s few relatively stable and peaceful enclaves – the area carved out by the YPG’s advances – should prevail in the PKK’s calculations over the military utility these acquisitions might offer in the fight against Turkey. In the absence of a Turkey-PKK deal, the group’s remarkable accomplishment in northern Syria is the maximum it can realistically hope to achieve.

Ankara/Qamishli/Brussels, 4 May 2017

Appendix A: Map of Northern Syria

Map of Northern Syria Crisis Group/KO, May 2017. Based on UN map no. 4204, Rev. 3 (April 2012).

Appendix B: Glossary of Abbreviations

AKP or AK Party – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party): Turkey’s ruling party led by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım.

ISIS – Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or just the Islamic State: Jihadist group fighting in Syria and Iraq, with affiliates elsewhere.

Ciwanen Soresger – (Revolutionary Youth): association of Kurdish youth activists established in Syria after 2003, comprising PKK-trained cadres and other sympathisers with Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK founder imprisoned in Turkey since 1999.

KCK – Koma Ciwakên Kürdistan (Union of Communities in Kurdistan): an umbrella organisation created by the PKK in 2005-2007 for its affiliates in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the diaspora. The PYD is formally a member.

KDP – Kurdistan Democratic Party (Partîya Demokrata Kurdistan): one of the main Kurdish parties in Iraq, founded in 1946 and headed by Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdish region.

KDPPS – Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party of Syria (Partiya Demokrat a Pêşverû ya Kurdî li Sûriyê), or simply Kurdish Progressive Party: Syrian sister party of Jalal Talabani’s PUK in Iraq, headed by Abdulhamid Darwish.

KDSP – Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party: Iraqi affiliate of the PKK/KCK.

KRG – Kurdistan Regional Government (Hikûmetî Herêmî Kurdistan): official governing body of the predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The president of the Iraqi Kurdish region is Masoud Barzani; its two largest parties – the KDP and PUK – have ruled since the KRG’s inception in May 1992.

HDP – Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Peoples’ Democratic Party): main political party representing the Kurdish national movement in Turkey.

PCWK – People’s Council of Western Kurdistan: PYD-affiliated elected local assembly in Syria’s Kurdish areas that provides social services, established in late 2011.

PDKS – Partiya Demokrat a Kurdî li Sûriyê (Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria): Syrian sister party of Masoud Barzani’s KDP in Iraq, headed by Saud al-Mullah.

PJAK – Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (Party of Free Life for Kurdistan): PKK/KCK sister party founded in 2004 and focused on Iran.

PKK – Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers’ Party): Kurdish party in Turkey founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan.

PUK – Yeketî Niştîmanî Kurdistan (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan): founded in 1975, one of the main Kurdish parties in Iraq, headed by Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq in 2005-2014.

PYD – Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party): Syrian Kurdish affiliate of the PKK/KCK, founded in 2003.

SDF – Syrian Democratic Forces (Quwwat Suriya al-Dimuqratiya): alliance of non-Kurdish fighters (Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmens) in addition to the YPG, which retained overall command and control.

TEV DEM – Rojava Democratic Society Movement, an umbrella for all organisations in Syria ideologically linked to the PKK, comprising PKK-trained cadres and other Abdullah Öcalan sympathisers.

Yekîtiya Star – Star Union: an organisation focused on women’s rights established in Syria after 2003, comprising PKK-trained cadres and other Abdullah Öcalan sympathisers.

YPG – Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Defence Corps): established in 2012 and deriving from the PKK, the dominant armed Kurdish force in Syria.

YPJ – Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (Women’s Protection Units): established in 2012, the YPG’s female equivalent.

A YPG fighter walks near residents who had fled Tel Abyad, as they re-enter Syria from Turkey after the YPG took control of the area, at Tel Abyad town, Raqqa governorate, Syria, 23 June 2015. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A YPG fighter walks near residents who had fled Tel Abyad, as they re-enter Syria from Turkey after the YPG took control of the area, at Tel Abyad town, Raqqa governorate, Syria, 23 June 2015. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Steps Toward Stabilising Syria’s Northern Border

On both sides of the Syria-Turkey border, the uncompromising strategies of Ankara, Turkey’s insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and its Syria-based affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are propelling a dangerous conflict toward escalation. The lone force able to head it off is the United States, and if it fails, Islamic State is ready to exploit any new disorder.

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I. Overview

On both sides of the Syria-Turkey border, uncompromising strategies are propelling further escalation and spillover of a dangerous conflict. Turkey is confronting both an ever-more implacable insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as advances in Syria of PKK affiliates like the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Should this continue, likely results include intensified bloodshed in south-east Turkey, a significant blow to the Turkish economy and expansion of violent instability into currently calm areas of western Turkey and north-east Syria. The Islamic State (IS), always keen to seize opportunity from chaos, has both incentive and capacity to help engineer it. What is especially troubling is not only the potential for greater upheaval in a suffering region, but also the extent to which the immediate calculations of each local protagonist (Ankara, the PKK and its affiliates and IS) lead it willingly to this abyss. Avoiding the dangerous unravelling this would entail may require immediate adjustments by the U.S., the lone actor with significant influence over both Ankara and the PKK-YPG camp.

To maximise its leverage over those parties and incentivise them to turn away from escalation and toward the negotiating table, Washington should shift its priority from “degrading and destroying” IS toward the broader, related goal of preventing further destabilisation (while continuing its fight against IS); make clear that PKK actions in Turkey will affect how the U.S. views its relationship with the YPG in Syria; and signal to Ankara that returning to a program of rights-based reforms and preparing the way for new talks with the PKK would enable the U.S. to strengthen its efforts to address Turkey’s transborder security concerns.

The war’s key protagonists seem to agree on one thing only: that their interests are best served by intensifying rather than de-escalating the fighting. This is true across conflict theatres, as seen in the approaches of Ankara and the PKK in Turkey; Ankara and the YPG in Syria and IS in both Syria and Turkey.

II. Escalation Ahead?

A. Turkey and the PKK

Nine months into a round of violence between Turkish security forces and the PKK that has killed at least 1,200 and displaced up to 400,000, both sides appear to view the war as heading in their favour.[fn]The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkarane Kurdistan, PKK), founded by Abdullah Öcalan in 1978, has (in the words of a 2012 Crisis Group report) “spawned a bewildering alphabet soup of entities”. Between 2005 and 2007, it created an umbrella organisation, the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Ciwakên Kürdistan, KCK), containing its affiliates in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria; the term PKK now technically denotes the Turkey affiliate but in practice is often used to refer to the transnational organisation as a whole (a practice applied in this briefing). The Syrian affiliate technically has several entities (and acronyms), the most important of which are its principal political body, the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD), and armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG). Officially, the PYD and YPG operate under the leadership of and take ideological inspiration from Öcalan (imprisoned in Turkey since 1999), but are organisationally independent; in practice, Syrian Kurdish PKK cadres with years of service in Qandil (the organisation’s northern Iraqi mountain base) dominate the YPG leadership and are the decision-makers within the self-proclaimed “autonomous administration”, the broader organisation established to govern areas under its control in November 2013. In short: while PYD and YPG leaders clearly enjoy a degree of tactical autonomy, on strategic matters the integration of PKK, PYD and YPG leadership structures – and the intense discipline and ideological commitment among Qandil-trained cadres – suggest they will continue to function as a single, multi-faceted organisation for the foreseeable future. In any case, because this briefing focuses primarily on military dynamics, it uses YPG as shorthand to refer to the broader organisation’s Syria affiliate. Crisis Group interviews and observations, Qamishli, Syria, December 2015, March 2016; see also Crisis Group Middle East Report N°151, Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria, 8 May 2014; and Europe Report N°219, Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement, 11 September 2012; also Alev Erhan and Aaron Stein, “Mapping ‘the Kurds’: an Interactive Chart”, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote Ankara assesses that its operations to drive PKK-linked militia forces out of their urban footholds in south-east Turkey, combined with its airstrikes against PKK bases in the Qandil mountain range in northern Iraq, are significantly weakening the organisation militarily. Turkish officials also believe that the violence in the south east is diminishing popular support for the PKK among local Kurds, because, in their estimation, some of the group’s sympathisers fault it for dragging them into a destructive fight after the relative stability achieved during the cessation of violence from March 2013 to July 2015. 

Turkish officials thus view continuing security and military operations as further strengthening the state’s hand relative to the PKK, in contrast, as they tell it, to the collapsed peace talks, which they accuse the PKK of having exploited to quietly expand the military entrenchment it now profits from. Not surprisingly, therefore, Ankara’s pre-conditions for a return to negotiations appear prohibitive. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently suggested the PKK must disarm or withdraw all armed elements prior to resumption of talks; President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has struck an even less compromising tone, suggesting that PKK fighters must either surrender or be “neutralised”.[fn]“Turkish President Erdoğan rules out ‘negotiation’ with PKK”, Hurriyet Daily News, 4 April 2016. Hide Footnote  

Turkey, reeling from a series of suicide bomb attacks since July last year for which both the Islamic State and an apparent PKK faction have appeared responsible, equates the PKK and IS as terrorist organisations. The U.S. and the EU also designate both organisations as terrorist. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments pursued a policy of rights reforms to help mitigate Kurdish grievances from 2005 onwards, and as recently as one year ago were in a process of on-off negotiations with PKK leader Öcalan and the PKK. Critical reforms such as mother-tongue education and decentralisation have been shelved, elected members of the Kurdish movement have been arrested for making autonomy calls, while security forces in south-eastern Turkey have been accused of human rights violations and operating with impunity.

Ankara’s uncompromising stance and Erdoğan’s aggressive slide in turn are boosting the PKK’s ambition, since it believes they are consolidating its base and reducing Western states’ appetite to come to Turkey’s aid. The PKK thus shows no sign of acceding to Ankara’s demands and indeed, like its opponent, has come to view the conflict as working in its favour. Crisis Group discussions in Syria with Qandil-trained cadres with years of experience in the broader organisation (and who now serve as senior officials in the YPG and its various political fronts) suggest that the PKK and YPG view the current moment as an historic opportunity to advance Kurdish interests. They base this on the YPG’s success in asserting control and establishing governance within growing swaths of northern Syria; the U.S.-backing and Western acclaim it has garnered through its fight against IS; and the declining state authority and expanding instability in other parts of Syria.[fn]For an explanation on the role of Qandil-trained cadres in Syria, see fn. 1 above.Hide Footnote  

Given that assessment, it is no surprise that the PKK is signalling maximalist intentions. A top PKK commander in Qandil, Cemil Bayık, recently told a visiting journalist: 

Until recently the war with the Turkish army occurred just in the mountains. Then it moved to towns and cities. Now there will be fighting everywhere. … At this moment in the struggle, anything our guerillas are ordered to do will be legitimate. … Our main aim now is the fall of Erdoğan and the AKP [Justice and Development party, the ruling party in Turkey]. We want to bring them down. Unless they fall, Turkey can never be democratic.[fn]Anthony Lloyd, “Revenge will be ours, pledges Turkey’s most wanted man”, The Times (London), 15 March 2016. Cemil Bayık, a PKK founder, is part of its three-member executive committee. Hide Footnote  

When asked about the war in Turkey, a Qandil-trained fighter, currently a senior official in Syria, replied: “The fight will escalate in spring as the mountain snows around Qandil melt and more [PKK] fighters are able to join the battle in [south-east] Turkey. Either that will be sufficient to bring Erdoğan back to the negotiating table, or we will see the fight expand to other regions within Turkey”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, March 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Turkey and the YPG

This same sense of opportunity also encourages the YPG to escalate selectively within Syria, as part of a strategy that balances strengthening its political and military hand with maintaining advantageous relations with the U.S. and Russia. Its top strategic priority – seizing a roughly 90km stretch between two of its enclaves, Afrin, north west of Aleppo, and its holdings east of the Euphrates – is perceived in Ankara as a threat to Turkish interests south of its border with Syria, even though most of that territory now is controlled by IS, a mutual foe. Capturing it would leave Afrin less vulnerable to pressure from the forces that currently surround it: Turkey to its north and west, opposition factions and IS to the east and pro-regime forces to the south. It would also render YPG holdings in Syria contiguous, removing a key obstacle to the northern federal region it envisions and generally improving its hand at any eventual Syria negotiating table. 

Turkey considers this eventuality unacceptable. It fears that additional YPG empowerment and capacity in Syria could further embolden affiliated PKK forces in Turkey and enable the former to expand logistical support to the latter.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Turkish security official, January 2016; for more on apparent logistical support from YPG-held areas of Syria to PKK operations in Turkey, see Katrin Kuntz, Onur Burçak Belli and Emin Oezmen, “Children of the PKK: the growing intensity of Turkey’s civil war”, Der Spiegel, 12 February 2016.Hide Footnote It has signalled that any concerted effort toward connecting Afrin with YPG-held territory to the east would cross a “red line” warranting military response. The YPG took a small step in that direction by seizing rebel-held towns north of Aleppo in February 2016, but the U.S. has urged it to refrain from further advance – advice the YPG, for now at least, appears to be heeding.

The roles here of the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Russia are crucial, as YPG officials appear more concerned with how any step may affect their geopolitical backing than they are by the threat of Turkish escalation. In their view, support from Washington is a game-changer: U.S. military backing reversed IS’s momentum just as it was on the verge of capturing the Kurdish town of Kobane in late 2o14 and has enabled the YPG to consolidate and expand control throughout much of Syria’s north east. A comparable increase in U.S. political support, their thinking goes, would go a long way toward securing a haven for their party and fighters in northern Syria and so be a critical step toward their larger goal of Kurdish autonomy in a decentralised Syria, whether in the context of a broader political resolution or otherwise.

Washington’s objection to YPG designs on the territory between Afrin and the Euphrates, however, conflicts with immediate YPG priorities, as does U.S. support for rebel groups around Aleppo with whom the YPG often clashes.[fn]For background on rebel factions in Aleppo and the U.S. role in supporting them, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°155, Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War, 9 September 2014. For more on clashes between the YPG, its allies and Aleppo rebel factions, see Sam Heller, “Are CIA-backed Syrian rebels really fighting Pentagon-backed Syrian rebels?”, War on the Rocks, 28 March 2016.Hide Footnote That has opened space for Moscow, whose relations with Turkey have been adversarial since Ankara downed a Russian jet that it accused of violating its airspace on 24 November 2015.[fn]See “An alarming new escalation in the Syria war”, Crisis Group In Pursuit of Peace Blog, 24 November 2015.Hide Footnote Moscow has taken advantage and developed its own cooperation with Kurdish forces via airstrikes that aid intermittent YPG advances against U.S.- and Turkey-backed rebels north of Aleppo. According to YPG officials, it has floated the prospect of additional military support to help the YPG seize further ground to the east.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Qamishli, March 2016.Hide Footnote  

Those officials, however, describe the current military support and prospective political backing from Washington as more valuable than what Moscow can offer. As a result, the YPG is aiming for a balance: using Moscow’s overtures as leverage with Washington and benefitting from Russian support around Aleppo in fights against rebels the U.S. would prefer it avoid, while refraining from a full push across any redline, Ankara’s or Washington’s, that might jeopardise its diplomatic backing.[fn]While the “cessation of hostilities” agreement – negotiated by Washington and Moscow and partially observed, with notable breeches daily, by the regime and non-jihadist rebel groups – has significantly reduced violence in much of Syria since 27 February 2016, intermittent clashes between the YPG (and allies in the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF) and rebel factions in Aleppo have remained a dangerous flashpoint. YPG forces are within reach of severing the lone remaining supply line to rebel-held areas in the city. YPG sniper-fire along the road has produced civilian casualties; rebels have countered with indiscriminate shelling on the YPG-held neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsud, resulting in significant civilian casualties, including a reported eighteen killed on 6 April. See “Turkey | Syria: Flash Update – Eastern Aleppo City”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 25 February 2016; also “18 dead in Syrian rebel shelling on Kurdish area: monitor”, Agence France-Presse, 6 April 2016.Hide Footnote  

That balance is delicate. On this front as elsewhere in the transborder conflict, there is real potential for the YPG or PKK to miscalculate – eliciting Turkish escalation, burning bridges with Washington or both. In this context, the relationship between the PKK and YPG deserves emphasis: Turkey views their efforts as strategically and logistically integrated. This means both that escalations in Syria influence Ankara’s domestic threat assessment and that it may respond in Syria to operations against it at home. Though Russia’s role in northern Syrian skies constrains military options, Ankara still has viable means of escalating against its Kurdish adversaries, including artillery strikes on YPG assets and territory in currently stable areas of Syria’s north east. 

In its overtures to the YPG, Russia appears to be attempting to outbid the U.S. for influence; insofar as Russian airstrikes and offers of additional support encourage the YPG to escalate against Turkey-backed rebels in Aleppo or to advance between Afrin and the Euphrates, they increase the risk of spiralling violence. More broadly, however, Moscow’s partnership with Washington in implementing the “cessation of hostilities” (which has reduced violence in much of the country since 27 February 2016) raises the hope that confluences of interest between the two big powers can contribute toward developing a framework for a viable political settlement.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°47, Russia’s Choice in Syria, 29 March 2016.Hide Footnote  

In that context, there is some promising overlap between Washington’s and Moscow’s positions on the YPG and its political front, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, Democratic Union Party). Both agree that the PYD must ultimately play an integral role in attaining a negotiated settlement in Syria (for now, Turkish objections are blocking it from participating in Geneva talks), and both view some degree of decentralisation within Syria’s current borders as a potential means of resolving political and security dilemmas, in Kurdish-majority areas and elsewhere. If Moscow and Ankara avoid further brinkmanship, and Washington can convince Ankara to adjust its approach to its transborder security concerns as discussed below, building upon that political common ground will prove valuable.

C. The Islamic State Factor

IS has a clear stake in worsening conflict between Turkey (on one hand) and the PKK and YPG (on the other) and in instability in the region more generally. It moreover has demonstrated the capacity to exacerbate both, by provoking escalation between the PKK and Ankara and carrying out significant attacks in Turkey.

The group has multiple interests in doing so. The YPG and Turkey are active participants in the fight against it (the former directly on the battlefield, the latter via artillery fire in support of allied rebel groups and enabling U.S. airstrikes from Turkish territory). Insofar as they focus on each other, they divert resources that might be deployed against IS and forego collaboration (if only indirectly) against it: an important advantage, as that cooperation among pro-Turkey rebels, the YPG, and Arab forces allied with the YPG would offer the best prospect of driving IS from territory between Afrin and the Euphrates. IS also views upheaval and erosion of central authorities in the Muslim world generally as an opportunity to broaden and deepen its presence. It has reason to prioritise this in Turkey: geographic proximity and logistical ties to holdings in Syria; a network of operatives there (including Turkish IS members); and the prospect of undermining Erdoğan and the AKP, whose pragmatic, Islamist-inspired politics (whatever their shortcomings) are a more popular alternative to IS’s Salafi-jihadism. 

These factors suggest IS may seek to further expand and escalate its attacks in Turkey. It may continue attacks that appear aimed at undermining the economy, such as the 12 January 2016 bombing near the heart of Istanbul’s tourist attractions and the 19 March 2016 bombing along the city’s busiest pedestrian shopping street. It may also carry out attacks designed to exacerbate polarisation by raising tensions along Turkey’s ethnic (Turk-Kurd), sectarian (Sunni-Alevi) and cultural fault lines – a tactic the organisation’s predecessor employed in Iraq – and thus catalyse a deadly eruption of violence. The IS bombing in Suruç last year already provoked fighting between the PKK and Turkey, though whether by design is unclear;[fn]PKK-Turkey dynamics had been heading toward escalation during spring and early summer 2015, but an IS attack, perhaps inadvertently, was the spark to the powder keg. The PKK held Ankara responsible for the 20 July 2015 IS bombing targeting Kurdish activists in Suruç and retaliated two days later, claiming responsibility for killing two Turkish policemen. The Turkish military responded against PKK facilities in Qandil, resulting in the collapse of the de facto ceasefire, as PKK-linked militants escalated attacks within Turkey in turn.Hide Footnote further attacks could lead to more escalation, however, with IS perhaps seeing itself as well positioned to exploit the ensuing chaos.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote  

III. The Danger of Excessive Optimism

There are many reasons to doubt the optimistic escalation assessments of Ankara and the PKK and YPG camp. Escalation is more likely to bolster support for each among its base than to undermine its opponent among its own; hopes that expanding violence will turn PKK sympathisers against the group or weaken Erdoğan’s political dominance are likely vain. What it would do is present opportunities for their mutual foe, IS, which has proven deft at exploiting instability. 

Herein lies the challenge for outsiders: Turkish, PKK and YPG officials all believe worsening violence could lift their side’s fortunes, at least in the intermediate term. Rising nationalist sentiment among a segment of the Turkish population – an outcome of intensified conflict with the PKK – could bolster Erdoğan’s bid for a new constitution strengthening the presidency. By the same token, given the extent to which the YPG has benefitted from the breakdown of central authority in Syria, it is hardly surprising that at least some within the broader organisation’s leadership structure view destabilisation in Turkey as advantageous. As a senior official in Syria trained in Qandil put it: 

I think Turkey’s future will be what Syria looks like now, except [the civil war] will be bigger, more intense. The war could be between Turkey and the PKK, or Turkey and IS, or both. There as elsewhere in the region, if the government doesn’t give minorities full rights and allow them to administer themselves, there will be broad revolution. Like in Syria, this will work to the advantage of Kurds.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, March 2016.Hide Footnote

So long as Ankara, the PKK and YPG prefer escalation to concessions, hope that further unravelling can be avoided depends on the lone actor enjoying positive relations and significant potential leverage with both: the U.S.

Washington’s task is as unenviable as the trade-offs it faces are substantial. It has had to balance its agenda to “degrade and destroy” IS against dynamics that threaten to further destabilise the broader region – an eventuality that would present new opportunities to IS and other violent groups. Perhaps most salient is the PKK-YPG-Turkey nexus. With the YPG an indispensable partner in the fight against IS, Washington has turned a blind eye to its inconvenient connections and affiliations. It is not surprising that YPG officials deny Turkish charges that they logistically support the PKK, but the public U.S. denial of their links, despite overwhelming evidence, coupled with deepening military support, has heightened Ankara’s mistrust of Washington and raised the ceiling of YPG aspirations.[fn]As State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner put it on 22 February 2016, “[w]hat we’ve said, and we’ve said this last week as well and our policy has not changed, is that we believe the YPG is not affiliated with the PKK”. For a summary of publicly available evidence, see Sam Heller, “PKK Links, Nusra Parallels Make Syrian Kurds a Troubling U.S. Partner”, World Politics Review, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote Turkish-U.S. tensions are costly, since improved cooperation is a pre-requisite for achieving sustainable gains against IS in much of north-east Syria. But YPG maximalism may prove even more dangerous. 

Treating the YPG as independent of the PKK has encouraged the former to believe that it can achieve its dual goal of U.S. military support and political backing even as the latter escalates in Turkey. The broader organisation, therefore, sees an opening to pursue a bigger opportunity – an upheaval that could undermine central authority in Turkey and reshuffle the regional order in the Kurds’ favour – without endangering YPG achievements in Syria, and indeed advancing these as well. This assessment appears to misinterpret Washington’s position, but mixed messages from the U.S. administration have encouraged that misreading. 

Avoiding the perilous escalation that the conflict’s current trajectory entails will require a U.S. effort to change calculations both in Ankara and within the PKK-YPG camp regarding the balance of costs and benefits that would result from turning toward an Ankara-PKK political track as compared with those of the status quo. Two policy adjustments by Washington could open a path to accomplish that: first, shifting emphasis from combating IS toward the broader goal of avoiding further destabilisation from which IS benefits; and secondly, sending unambiguous and consistent signals to the PKK and YPG – whose unity, or at least the likelihood of their close cooperation and coordination, it should acknowledge – that Washington will stand by its NATO partner and strategic ally as long as the PKK maintains an armed struggle against it. 

Doing so would have costs, particularly constraining U.S. ability to work with the YPG, a potent tactical ally against IS, but the advantages for the region’s stability could be significant.[fn]Crisis Group has argued for slowing the U.S.-led coalition’s military operations against IS to allow political preparations for the day-after to catch up. Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit. Hide Footnote To start, it could enhance influence with both sides. Signalling to the YPG that Washington prioritises regional stability above immediate gains against IS could encourage the organisation not to take its preferred backer’s support for granted; that would give Washington more leverage, since the YPG views the U.S. as key to guaranteeing its long-term political role in Syria. It would also send an important signal to Ankara: that Washington is prepared to take its transborder security concerns seriously. But the U.S. should link that message with a firm indication that its capacity to do so effectively is contingent upon Ankara initiating a meaningful push to return to negotiations.

IV. Conclusion

The current approaches of Turkey, the PKK and the YPG seem to entail higher risks and lower prospects of reward than their officials appear to assess, as well as grave potential costs for civilians. Each would be better served by refraining from further escalation and opening space for resuming talks. The U.S., which enjoys unique, significant leverage and working relations with both sides, albeit via the YPG, rather than PKK leaders in Qandil, has a clear interest in nudging them toward that path. Doing so could open new avenues for coordination against IS and, perhaps more importantly, reduce danger of added destabilisation. 

Ultimately a durable solution should include an end to hostilities between the PKK and Turkey, constitutional reforms ensuring full democratic rights for Turkey’s Kurdish population and a negotiated settlement of the broader Syrian war, including some sort of decentralised political and security arrangements. Progress down those long roads could begin with immediate steps:

  • The PKK and Turkey should refrain from further escalation and reopen communication, quietly if necessary. At minimum, both should refrain from increasing violence. The PKK should not expand trenches in the south east, make autonomy declarations or conduct attacks elsewhere, including bombings in western cities. That would remove the need for Turkey to declare additional curfews in Kurdish areas; Ankara should also refrain from escalating in Syria or areas of Turkey already under curfew and should take additional measures to ensure humanitarian protection of and provision for civilians.[fn]For more on curfews and associated Crisis Group recommendations, see Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°80, The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur, 17 March 2016.Hide Footnote Simultaneously, it should quietly reopen communication with Abdullah Öcalan, who despite his imprisonment wields potentially decisive influence within the PKK’s transnational organisation. Once it has initiated contact, Turkey should also enable resumed communication between Öcalan, Qandil and representatives of the HDP (the Kurdish movement’s legal political party), which will be necessary if Öcalan is to push the organisation back to a political track.
  • The U.S. should use its influence and leverage to shape expectations, temper hubris and address fears on both sides. At least in private, it should unify and clarify its messaging, which has not been understood by many actors in the field, in part because it has not been consistent: that regardless of how the PKK and YPG leaderships portray their relationship, the U.S. will hold both accountable for the actions of either on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border. The U.S. reluctance to publicly affirm the unity of the two is understandable in light of its domestic constraints, since linking the YPG to a group listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) would mean the loss of a valued partner against IS. But political hoops the U.S. has to jump through at home have policy consequences in northern Syria and Turkey, where many still hold out hope – and others fear – that the U.S. will invest more and more deeply in its alliance with the YPG, its ties to the PKK notwithstanding, enabling both to achieve their objectives without the necessary compromise.
  • The U.S. should emphasise its commitment to the security of Turkey’s border, including the principle that YPG-held territory should not be used in support of PKK insurgent activity within Turkey. It should also stress to the YPG that it, and its allies within the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), should avoid further confrontation with Turkey-backed, anti-IS rebels in Aleppo and refrain from any further advance west of the Euphrates until a framework for seizing and administering that area is agreed with Turkey and its rebel allies (see below). Concomitantly the US should reaffirm its support for a role for the YPG and its political front, the PYD, within a united, pluralistic Syria. 
  • Turkey should formulate a concrete reform agenda to address Kurdish demands on rights and enable free public debate on controversial issues such as decentralisation, so that confidence in the viability of political solutions is restored among the constituencies of the Kurdish movement in Turkey

These steps, vital to the region’s security in the short term, could have long-term benefits. Though challenges are substantial, stabilising the Syria-Turkish border region would ultimately help the protagonists mount a more effective campaign against IS. They all agree on the ultimate necessity of driving IS from its territory between Marea (east of Afrin) and the Euphrates, but at present a cooperative division of labour – among YPG/SDF, Turkey-backed rebels, Turkey and the U.S. – is impossible, since each, except perhaps the U.S., at present is more afraid of one of its potential partners than of IS. An alliance could be consolidated only if each came to believe that its broader interests were likely to be secured in the day-after dispensation. That could include arrangements for a corridor enabling secure YPG transport between Afrin and YPG-held areas east of the Euphrates, while handing control of the surrounding territory to a combination of Turkey-backed rebels (which could control the border with Turkey) and SDF components allied with the YPG (which could secure the YPG’s transport corridor).

Such a deal could deliver a significant blow to IS and establish a model for positive-sum arrangements in sensitive, contested parts of northern Syria. But it will not happen unless the YPG, PKK and Turkey, with U.S. help, first adjust course to stabilise their own relations.

Istanbul/Qamishli/Brussels, 8 April 2016

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