What is the YPG?
Daesh is territorially defeated in Syria and the YPG is claiming victory. What next?
This week, we are flipping things around a bit. Our regular interviewer for this column returned last week from a reporting trip to northern Syria where he met with YPG leaders, a Canadian foreign fighter with the YPG as well as a foreign fighter with Daesh, also from Canada. He had an opportunity to approach the frontlines where the fighting is going on and presumably where the last holdout of Daesh is being eradicated. Our chief political scientist spoke to him about his experiences.
►What s your sense of the s tuat on? Is Daesh go ng out of ex stence now?
As far as Daesh’s territorial control goes, yes, this is the end, and that was inevitable from the beginning of its so-called Caliphate. But what’s interesting is that when I interviewed a Daesh prisoner being held by the SDF, he admitted to me that Daesh members, especially Iraqis and Syrians, have been leaving the group and melting into local populations for months now. There is already a plan in place to carry on as an insurgency. Those that are left, in a very small area - when I was there it was down to one square kilometer of control - are almost exclusively foreign fighters. We’re talking about mostly Europeans, Canadians, Americans, Australians, anybody who can’t mix in with the local population. The Daesh fighter said that basically the leadership, which is mostly Iraqi and Syrian, abandoned these foreigners, left them to defend the last ground, while they all melted away.
►You refer to fore gn f ghters. It seems that there are fore gn f ghters on both s des. Now, one can understand why there m ght be fore gn f ghters on the s de of Daesh because, presumably, they represent a un versal bel ef system. Look ng at t from here n Turkey, The YPG s seen as an ethn c-based organ zat on. Why would fore gn f ghters jo n the YPG?
It’s an interesting question. To answer it, we really have to start with the question of ideology. The PKK’s ideology has evolved over the last two decades or so. In recent years, it has tried to distance itself from the image of a Kurdish nationalist movement and become more of a kind of universalist, quasi- anarchist movement, one for equal rights, for local democracy, etc. I think that shift was by design, to give the PKK a more universal appeal, and it has worked. Its ideology contains ideas that some people anywhere might find appealing. It calls for more local democracy so people have a greater say in how their government functions, it calls for the equality of women and equality of race and creed, it calls for fair economic policies that distribute wealth more evenly across society and it calls for urgent action on climate change. These are all aspirations that you find in many democracies around the world. Of course, how it will deliver on that promise in a highly centralized presidential system of Syria remains to be seen. And that is the crux of the danger the YPG poses to the stability not only of Syria but of the broader region.
The problem is in implementation and in this sense, as you suggest, there are some similarities between PKK/YPG ideology and Daesh ideology, not in terms of their worldviews – they are on the opposite sides of the political spectrum – but in terms of the kinds of people they attract and their revolutionary fervor. In fact, there was a study done in 2016 by an anthropologist from a French university who looked at the ideological fervor of different groups in north- ern Iraq and Syria. He found that the YPG and Daesh have an equal degree of willingness to die for the cause because their ideologies are linked to a much bigger utopian goal. Foreign YPG fighters, like foreign fighters with Daesh, are some of the more ideologically-driven. They are not necessarily fighting for the Kurds but rather for this quasi-anarchist system.
There are other points of contact as well. Both ideologies have a built-in martyrdom narrative, for example. Where Daesh promises its martyrs a free ticket to heaven, the YPG promises immortality. Their slogan is: “A martyr never dies!”
►Many people n Turkey bel eve that the YPG s bas cally an
Amer can creat on. Would that be a correct observat on?
That’s another fascinating question, and also one that reveals a connection between Daesh and the YPG. I’ll start with with Daesh: Clearly, the American intervention in Iraq gave birth to this movement. Most experts agree that without the U.S. invasion, there would be no Daesh.
Now, with the YPG, it’s a little bit subtler. American complicity in the rise of the YPG as it exists today is clear. But it goes deeper than that. In the mid-2000s, for example, I visited the PKK in the Qandil mountains. While I was there, I gathered enough evidence to prove that the PKK leadership had been meeting regularly with the U.S. They admitted this to me reluctantly, only after I presented them with my evidence. The U.S., they told me, was primarily there to help the PKK’s Iranian branch, known by the acronym PJAK. So while these groups existed prior to American support, that support certainly helped them gain in strength. From all of the evidence
I’ve seen, the YPG emerged out of the PKK but would not be where it is today if not for U.S. support.
►So the quest on that Turkey would ask s: Is the U.S. goal to establ sh a Kurd sh state or s t just us ng them?
The YPG itself, according to those I spoke with, realize the U.S. is simply using them. The U.S. tends to look at the world through a very narrow, interest-based lens. In Syria, for instance, the interests are to destroy Daesh and have a local ally to help the U.S. push back on Iranian and Russian influence. Historically, we know that the Americans don’t really take fully into account the long term consequences of such narrow interests. I mean, groups like Daesh and al Qaeda that the U.S. is fighting today evolved from jihadist groups that the U.S supported during the 1980s, especially in Afghanistan in the fight against communists. Isn’t it ironic that the U.S. is now turning to a radical leftist group to fight against the same jihadists that they created? History’s been turned upside-down.
►It certa nly seems to be a very contrad ctory approach. You create forces to serve part cular ends at a part cular t me but once you have released them, you are no longer able to conta n them and at some po nt they may turn aga nst you.
Exactly. If you look at the level of confidence that U.S. support has given the YPG, they’re now openly talking about spreading their revolution globally, even to the U.S. itself. That’s another interesting point of convergence between the PKK/YPG and Daesh, their global ambitions. So, the long-term consequences, which the U.S. doesn’t really think about, could conceivably undermine the U.S. itself.
►Th s br ngs me to the quest on: Is the YPG a l ttle b t too mpressed w th ts own success? W ll t cont nue to enjoy as much success f Amer can support s not there?
No. And the YPG knows this. From what their members told me, the current strategy is to essentially demand a no-fly zone. They feel that if the U.S. gives them that, Turkey will not be able to attack them. The YPG has local support, it has a lot of fighting experience now, not to mention weapons and other materiel given to it by the Americans. And it would be fighting on its home turf. In the absence of air power, my sense is it will be very costly for the Turks to engage in a major military offensive in YPG controlled areas. The other option the YPG is exploring is negotiating with the Syrian regime and Russia. They want to become a bigger player in the broader political negotiations to secure autonomy in the north.
►You use the phrase “local support.” The mpress on n Turkey s that the support for the YPG s pretty much conf ned to the Kurds. The Arab populat on s not so support ve.
You do have a lot of Arab discontent toward the YPG. Still, there are those Arabs in the SDF, and some even among the civilian population, who seem to have bought in to the PKK/YPG ideology. But it’s unclear how long this support will last once the fight against Daesh is over. When you consider the fundamental difference between PKK/YPG ideology and the conservative Arab world view in that part of Syria, the future looks deeply contested. In fact, the Canadian YPG fighter I spoke to even admitted that there’s already been pushback from Arabs after the YPG’s political wing tried to ban polygamy, a common practice among conservative Arabs.
Also, there is a very deep-seated mistrust of Arabs among the Kurds, understandably after their experiences with Daesh. I witnessed this directly, for instance, at YPG checkpoints. It’s never Kurds who get stopped for questioning; it’s always Arabs. The YPG is trying to keep that bias out of the public eye but the mistrust, and in many cases outright hatred, of Arabs is palpable.
►So what does the future hold?
Ha! Well, looking into my crystal ball it looks complicated. One thing is clear to me: If I look 10 years, or even a century, down the road, I don’t see the PKK/ YPG ever succeeding in its utopian adventurism. Let me reiterate though that the problem is one of approach. Their ideology is revolutionary; it rejects existing state structures and calls for overturning those structures and replacing them with their own. Now, Abdullah Ocalan has been saying for years that this revolution is non-violent and that it does not represent a call for independence but rather local autonomy. But this is disingenuous. What the YPG described to me in our conversations amounts to de facto independence. I mean, what they are demanding is that local communities be allowed to set up their own governing structures based on Ocalan’s political philosophy, along with militias to defend those communities and structures. The state should just step aside. Can you imagine any state accepting that? It is a provocation, and a recipe for perpetual conflict.
At the same time, it is possible that Turkey’s response has only made the problem more complicated. History shows that these types of ideologically-driven groups – whether it is the IRA in Ireland or FARC in Colombia or even Daesh - cannot be defeated militarily. They will always survive as an insurgency. So my crystal ball also says that there will have to be a political solution. That solution is possible within existing state structures, not only in Turkey but around the world. We are seeing people rise up, whether in the U.S. or Germany or France, to demand more accountability in government and more say in how they are governed. People are waking up to the inherent flaws in neoliberal economic policies that are ripping our societies apart and the dangers posed by climate change. These are all issues that the PKK/ YPG claims to champion and which provide it with global appeal. What we need, and what we are beginning to see, is the emergence of a new generation of politicians ready to tackle these problems so that people don’t need to turn to movements like the PKK/ YPG or Daesh. That is the only way forward.