The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria

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


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”).

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.

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. 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.

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?

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. 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.

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.

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. 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.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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

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. Likewise, some previously disenfranchised Arab and minority leaders joined the self-administration to compete more effectively with their own communities’ established leadership.

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

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. It established local training centres and military academies that churned out fresh Syrian Kurdish recruits as commanders. 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.

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.

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. 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. 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. YPG-PYD security police (Asayesh) sign off on many administrative decisions. 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”.

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. 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.

III.A Military-driven Approach