With Backing From Damascus, PYD Has Free Hand to Repress Syria’s Kurds

By Eva Savelsberg, Berlin, on 23 Aug 2013, WPR World Politics Review 

For more than a year, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Defense Forces (YPG) have exercised state-like power in the Kurdish regions of Syria. Supported by Iran with weapons and ammunition moved through central Iraq, the PYD—a Syrian affiliate of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—controls large parts of the border region between the Kurdish areas of Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Activists criticizing or not cooperating with the PYD have been abducted, tortured and sometimes killed. The PYD imposes taxes on gasoline, collects border fees and has established a system of courts. Since summer 2012, the Syrian regime has handed over the administration of an increasing number of cities and villages to the PYD.

The fact that the PYD took over all the cities they now control without any significant fighting indicates that there was a deal between the regime and the PYD and PKK.

There are several reasons for the Syrian regime’s cooperation with the PYD. First, the PYD has, particularly in the second half of 2011 and the first half of 2012, violently suppressed dissident demonstrations on behalf of the regime, for example in Afrin. This allowed the Syrian army to concentrate on fights elsewhere and avoid having to open a second front against the Kurds, back then hesitant to join the revolt.

Second, since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist groups have started to operate in Kurdish areas, handing over control of those areas to the PYD means the YPG—not the Syrian army—is fighting the armed opposition there.

Finally, Syria is once again playing its Kurdish card against Turkey. In summer 2011, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) angered Damascus by siding with the opposition. Like his father before him, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is using the Kurds to apply pressure on Turkey. The AKP cannot afford—politically or militarily—for the PKK and PYD to establish a major stronghold in Syria.

Syria’s other Kurdish parties, most of which are members of the coalition Kurdish National Council (KNC), are helpless in the face of the PYD’s violence. The KNC was founded in 2011 to unite the Kurdish parties, to profit from the popularity of youth groups and to more effectively voice Kurdish demands. It has not succeeded. The KNC is deeply divided between those political parties aiming to more openly support the Syrian revolution and those hesitant to do so and between parties loyal to and dependent on Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties and the PKK. As a consequence, the KNC never became a member of the Syrian National Council, nor did it join the National Coalition, founded in November 2012 and currently the most important Syrian opposition group. The KNC’s decision to establish a Supreme Kurdish Committee in cooperation with the PKK and PYD to mutually administer the Kurdish regions ultimately backfired, making it difficult for the KNC to adopt a political strategy independent of the PYD.

Even though a number of Syrian Kurdish political parties have started to maintain armed units, and even though Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is providing military training to Kurdish refugees from Syria, the YPG’s military supremacy has not been seriously challenged. As long as KRG President Massoud Barzani’s Syrian-Kurdish peshmerga forces remain in Iraqi Kurdistan, the YPG will be by far the strongest militia in the Kurdish area of Syria, and therefore able to dictate the rules of the game.

In late-June 2013, the YPG attacked demonstrators in Amuda who were protesting the YPG’s kidnapping of independent activists. At least six people were killed; dozens of activists were kidnapped and tortured; and the offices of other Kurdish parties, as well as youth and cultural centers, were burned down. Since then, no anti-regime demonstrations have been organized in Syria’s Kurdish regions anymore—the PYD has successfully silenced other political actors.

The Amuda incident represents the height of the PYD’s totalitarian policies thus far and cost the group no small amount of sympathy among the Kurdish population. However, Amuda was soon forgotten when the PYD started to report attacks by Islamist units against Kurdish civilians and to present itself as the only force acting against such attacks. Civilians have indeed been killed in fighting between the YPG and various Islamist units; however, according to independent activists, the conflicts are often provoked by the YPG, not vice versa.

The high number of civilian casualties from Islamist attacks reported by the PYD is also unconfirmed. Reports from late-July alleged high numbers of civilian casualties in an FSA attack on a PYD unit in Tal Hasil and Tal Aran, but documentation of the attack appeared suspect. Similarly, the reported killing of 450 Kurdish civilians near Tal Abyad at the beginning of August also has yet to be confirmed.

A Kurdish commission formed by Iraq’s KRG sent to Syria on Aug. 19 to investigate reports of massacres is unlikely to elucidate the affair, as some of the commission’s members belong to the PYD or PKK and are therefore not neutral. In any case, there will be no social peace or democratic development in Syria’s Kurdish regions as long as the PYD can recklessly enforce its claim to exclusive representation.

The PYD’s monopoly of power must be broken if Syria’s Kurdish regions are to democratize. For this to happen, the Iranian and Iraqi governments need to cease providing weapons to the YPG. Turkey can use its ongoing peace process with the PKK to pressure the PYD to share power with other local Kurdish actors, and the KRG can assist by ramping up military training of Syrian Kurds in order to establish a counterweight to the YPG. The international community should politically isolate the PYD’s leadership until basic human rights standards are preserved—or otherwise brand the PYD as what is: a criminal, if not terrorist organization. Last but not least, the Syrian Kurdish parties in the KNC should try to establish alliances with the Syrian Arab opposition in order to develop a sustainable solution for the future of the Syrian Kurds.

Eva Savelsberg is co-founder, president, researcher and project coordinator at the European Center for Kurdish Studies (ECKS) in Berlin, which reports on human rights abuses against the Syrian Kurds.