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Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria
Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union
Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union

Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria

The PYD (Kurdish Democratic Union Party) has imposed its dominance in northern Syria, but its long-run prospects – like those of the areas it controls – depend on the party’s ability to adopt a more balanced and inclusive strategy.

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Executive Summary

With the Syrian regime and opposition locked in a see-saw battle, Kurdish forces have consolidated control over large portions of the country’s north. Their principal players, the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG), now dominate three large, non-contiguous enclaves of Kurdish-majority territory along the Turkish border, over which the PYD proclaimed in November 2013 the transitional administration of Rojava (Western Kurdistan). Kurdish governance is unprecedented in Syria and for the PYD, an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish insurgent movement PKK, from which it draws ideological, organisational and military support. But it is unclear whether this is a first step toward stability and the Kurdish aspiration for national recognition, or merely a respite while the civil war focuses elsewhere. The PYD alone will not determine the fate of Syria’s north, but it could greatly increase its chances by broadening its popular appeal and cooperating with other local forces.

For all its successes, the PYD’s rise is in no small part illusory, attributable less to its own prowess than to its links with other regional forces. Perhaps most important is its de facto alliance with the regime, which handed territories over to it while continuing to give material support to those territories. The party’s gains also flow from its backing from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkarane Kurdistan, PKK). The PYD is in practice an ideological, organisational and military part of this leftist group, of which the umbrella organisation is in theory the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Ciwakên Kürdistan, KCK). It benefits ideologically from the prestige of Abdullah Öcalan, the movement’s long-time leader; and with the PKK’s backing, the YPG has become the immediate region’s strongest military force, one whose success in fending off jihadi militants is perhaps the single most important reason for the Kurds’ waxing fortunes.

Ironically however, these same factors, crucial to the PYD’s success, are also its Achilles heel. First, its PKK heritage has encumbered the party with a rigid culture and vague program that are out of sync with popular expectations. Heavy-handed governance prompts at best grudging acquiescence from a constituency whose younger generation, particularly, appears to aspire to something different.

Secondly, suspected collaboration with the regime has taken a toll on its popularity. The Damascus authorities have maintained a light albeit firm presence in PYD-controlled areas, reportedly acting mostly beneath the surface. Even as they relinquished control over certain state assets (notably administrative and security buildings) to the PYD, they have maintained their hold on, and continue to disseminate, state resources without which the Rojava project would wither.

Thirdly, the PYD’s competition for dominance with would-be allies, most importantly the Kurdish Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, has created popular disenchantment and fatigue; this has left room for regional powers – notably Turkey and Iran – to manipulate the various sides in pursuit of their own interests. Barzani is on good terms with Ankara and Washington, so the PYD has few allies other than Damascus, Iran and, to an extent, the Nouri al-Maliki-led government in Baghdad.

These challenges raise questions about the depth and durability of the Rojava project. For PYD supporters, it is the kernel of future Kurdish self-rule. For detractors, it is an empty shell, a tool of the regime. It is hard to identify a way forward for Rojava. Its dependence on the regime alienates constituents, yet any step toward Kurdish partners and other actors risks jeopardising its dominance on the ground by undermining relations with Damascus.

Kurdish rights – not to mention longer-term local stability – are unlikely to be realised by the PYD forsaking its natural allies for a partnership of convenience with the same regime that long denied them. What all peoples of northern Syria need, Kurdish and non-Kurdish, is a common strategy for dealing with both Damascus and the minority communities in the region. This would require that the PYD:

  • decrease its heavy reliance on its own military and the regime and instead broaden its support base among both Kurds and non-Kurdish populations, as well as the more pragmatic strands of the Syrian opposition;
     
  • prepare, jointly with its support base, a strategy to replace the regime as a service provider and ensure the region’s access to resources; and
     
  • diversify relations with foreign powers to diminish their ability to exploit communal tensions in their own interests.

Bringing northern Syria together would be no mean task, but the reward could be as great as the mission is difficult: emancipation from a regime that someday is likely to turn brutal attention back to the country’s north.

Erbil/Brussels, 8 May 2014

Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: New Challenges for the European Union

Despite suffering significant blows in Syria and Iraq, jihadist movements across the Middle East, North Africa and Lake Chad regions continue to pose significant challenges. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to prioritise conflict prevention at the heart of their counter-terrorism policy and continue investment in vulnerable states.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Over the past few months, military operations have eaten deep into the Iraqi and Syrian heartlands of the Islamic State (ISIS). Much of Mosul, the group’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, has been recaptured; Raqqa, its capital in Syria, is encircled. Its Libyan branch, with closest ties to the Iraqi leadership, has been ousted from the Mediterranean coastal strip it once held. Boko Haram, whose leaders pledged allegiance to ISIS, menaces the African states around Lake Chad but has split and lost much of the territory it held a year ago. Though smaller branches exist from the Sinai to Yemen and Somalia, the movement has struggled to make major inroads or hold territory elsewhere.

ISIS’s decisive defeat remains a remote prospect while the Syrian war rages and Sunnis’ place in Iraqi politics is uncertain. It will adapt and the threat it poses will evolve. But it is on the backfoot, its brand diminished. For many adherents, its allure was its self-proclaimed caliphate and territorial expansion. With those in decline, its leaders are struggling to redefine success. Fewer local groups are signing up. Fewer foreigners are travelling to join; the main danger they represent now is their return to countries of origin or escape elsewhere.

Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is increasingly potent. It, too, has evolved. Its affiliates, particularly its Sahel, Somalia, Syria and Yemen branches, are more influential than the leadership in South Asia. Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, inspires loyalty and offers guidance but has little say in daily operations. Al-Qaeda’s strategy – embedding within popular uprisings, allying with other armed groups and displaying pragmatism and sensitivity to local norms – may make it a more durable threat than ISIS. Its strategy also means that affiliates’ identities are more local than transnational, a shift that has sparked debate among jihadists. Although Western intelligence officials assert that cells within affiliates plot against the West, for the most part they fight locally and have recruited large numbers of fighters motivated by diverse local concerns.

U.S. national security policy looks set to change too. Much about new President Donald Trump’s approach remains uncertain, but aggressive counter-terrorism operations for now dominate his administration’s policy across the Muslim world. Protecting U.S. citizens from groups that want to kill them must, of course, be an imperative for American leaders. But since the 9/11 attacks a decade and a half ago, too narrow a focus on counter-terrorism has often distorted U.S. policy and at times made the problem worse.

The roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied. Patterns of radicalisation vary from country to country ... though war and state collapse are huge boons for both movements.

Some early signs are troubling. Past months have seen a spike in civilian casualties resulting from U.S. drone and other airstrikes. The degree to which the administration will factor in the potential geopolitical fallout of operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda is unclear. U.S. allies could misuse counter-terrorism support against rivals and deepen chaos in the region. Nor it is clear that the U.S. will invest in diplomacy to either end the wars from which jihadists profit or nudge regional leaders toward reforms that can avert further crises. The new administration may also escalate against Iran while fighting jihadists, creating an unnecessary and dangerous distraction.

Though the influence of European leaders and the European Union (EU) on Arab politics and U.S. counter-terrorism policy has limits, they are likely to be asked to bankroll reconstruction efforts across affected regions. They could use this leverage to:

  1. Promote a judicious and legal use of force: Campaigns against jihadists hinge on winning over the population in which they operate. “Targeted” strikes that kill civilians and alienate communities are counterproductive, regardless of immediate yield. Indiscriminate military action can play into extremists’ hands or leave communities caught between their harsh rule and brutal operations against them. European leaders should press for tactical restraint and respect for international humanitarian law, which conflict parties of all stripes increasingly have abandoned.
     
  2. Promote plans for the day after military operations: Offensives against Mosul, Raqqa or elsewhere need plans to preserve military gains, prevent reprisals and stabilise liberated cities. As yet, no such plan for Raqqa seems to exist – it would need to involve local Sunni forces providing security, at least inside the city. As operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda linked groups escalate, the EU could seek clarity on what comes next and how operations fit into a wider political strategy.
     
  3. Identify counter-terrorism’s geopolitical side effects: The fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda intersects a tinderbox of wars and regional rivalries. Frank discussion of the potential consequences of military operations could reduce risks that they provoke a wider escalation. The Raqqa campaign, for example, should seek to avoid stimulating fighting elsewhere among Turkish and Kurdish forces and their respective allies. Success in Mosul hinges on preventing the forces involved battling for territory after they have ousted ISIS. European powers’ own counter-terrorism support should not result in allies being more resistant to compromise.
     
  4. Reinforce diplomatic efforts to end crises: From Libya to Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, no country where ISIS or al-Qaeda branches hold territory has a single force strong enough to secure the whole country. Unless the main non-jihadist armed factions in each country can arrive at some form of political accommodation among each other, there is a risk they either ally with jihadists against rivals or misuse counter-terrorism support for other ends. European powers should step up support for UN-led diplomacy if the U.S. neglects such efforts.
     
  5. Protect space for political engagement: Over recent years, as jihadists have gathered force on today’s battlefields, Western powers have tended to draw a line between groups they see as beyond the pale and those whom they envisage as part of settlements. The EU should keep the door open to engagement with all conflict parties – whether to secure humanitarian access or reduce violence. It should be made clear to groups on the wrong side of the line how they eventually can cross it. Al-Qaeda affiliates’ increasingly local focus makes this all the more vital.

  6. Warn against confronting Iran: Such a confrontation would be perilous. Militarily battling Tehran in Iraq, Yemen or Syria, questioning the nuclear deal’s validity or imposing sanctions that flout its spirit could provoke asymmetric responses via non-state allies. Iran’s behaviour across the region is often destabilising and reinforces the sectarian currents that buoy jihadists. But the answer lies in dampening the rivalry between Iran and the Gulf monarchies, not stimulating it, with the attendant risk of escalating proxy wars. This will mean resuming a tough but professional senior-level U.S.-Iranian channel of communication, something the U.S. administration seems reluctant to do but that Europe could encourage. And, for the EU and its members states (notably France, Germany and the UK), it means clearly signalling to the U.S. administration that any step to undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – in the absence of an Iranian violation of the deal – will leave Washington isolated and unable to recreate an international consensus to sanction Iran.

The roots of ISIS’s rise and al-Qaeda’s resurgence are complex and varied. Patterns of radicalisation vary from country to country, village to village and individual to individual. Clearly, though, war and state collapse are huge boons for both movements. Both groups have grown less because their ideology inspires wide appeal than by offering protection or firepower against enemies, or rough law and order where no one else can; or by occupying a power vacuum and forcing communities to acquiesce. Rarely can either group recruit large numbers or seize territory outside a war zone. The EU’s investment in peacebuilding and shoring up vulnerable states is, therefore, among its most valuable contributions against jihadists. European leaders must do everything within their power to disrupt attacks, but they should also put conflict prevention at the centre of their counter-terrorism policy.