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The Kurds Are for the Kurds

Syria’s other combatants

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By JONATHAN SPYER
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The last regime elements were pushed out of Derik in November of last year. The town constitutes one of the bastions of PYD exclusive rule. The movement’s symbols—red stars, pictures of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan—were everywhere. Nonetheless, a PYD official I spoke to at the party’s headquarters in the town denied that the PYD is a branch of the PKK. “The PYD and the PKK are not one party,” said Talal Yunis, a slight, black-haired teacher by profession. We sat on the rooftop of the party’s building, until recently the headquarters of the Political Security branch of Assad’s intelligence. “Here in Syria,” Yunis told me, “there is only the PYD.” 

But the PYD official’s claims were not borne out by the evidence. The tight, efficient, and comprehensive PYD-dominated administration in the town was clearly not the work solely of the activists of a small, harried local party in existence since 2003. Ahmed, a bright young PYD supporter I spoke to in Derik, confirmed that both the civil and military setups in the town were established under the guidance of PKK fighters and activists who arrived in the course of the summer. Ahmed, a former student at Damascus University, was strongly behind the PYD, but saw no reason to obscure its links with the PKK. 

Usually, the PYD stresses its Syrian identity and downplays its ties to the PKK for two reasons. First, the PKK is designated a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union. The PYD has no such troublesome designation at present. Second, PYD spokesmen are keen to emphasize that the party is not seeking to split Kurdish majority areas off from Syria. Rather, the PYD officially seeks to preserve Kurdish self-rule within the context of what it hopes will, after the fall of Assad, be a federal Syria. Membership in a pan-Kurdish alliance might suggest otherwise. 

I had heard from both Kurdish opponents of the party and Arab rebel leaders that the PYD is working in cooperation with the Assad regime. A leading member of the Azadi party, one of the many small Syrian Kurdish parties opposed to the PYD, told me in my hotel in Iraqi Kurdistan that “the PYD is a tool of the regime. There is an agreement that the PYD works on behalf of the government.” Similarly, Hadji al-Bab, a commander of the Islamist Tawhid Brigade whom I interviewed in Aleppo late last year, accused the movement of conspiring with the regime and seeking the dismemberment of the country. 

PYD supporters indignantly reject these charges. As proof, they point to the regime’s brutal suppression of their movement prior to the uprising and subsequent civil war. They also note the many instances of combat between their forces and regime troops in recent months. PYD supporters in Derik reminded me that the regime had not left Derik of its own free will back in November, but rather had been driven out by a Kurdish mobilization. PYD chairman Saleh Muslim spoke in January this year of a “de facto truce” between the regime forces and the PYD, in which the latter was focusing on establishing organs of rule in the areas under its control. 

The Kurdish areas are ruled by a supreme committee bringing together the PYD with the myriad smaller parties associated with Barzani. This committee was established in an agreement signed in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil last summer. The committee has equal representation for the PYD and the pro-Barzani parties, organized into the Kurdish National Council (KNC). 

Officially, the YPG militia forces are under the authority of this supreme committee. However, all acknowledge the dominance of the PYD. Because of its links with the PKK, the PYD possesses a far more powerful armed element than any of the other parties. In a situation of civil war, the ability to project armed strength is the basic currency of politics. The PYD has it. Its opponents don’t. This makes its authority effectively beyond challenge in northeast Syria. It is seeking to keep out both regime and rebel forces and to set the basis for long-term Kurdish self-rule, under its leadership. 

A supporter of a rival party claimed that the PYD rules by “force alone.” Another, a young woman, told me of threats by party members to take over houses of affluent refugees. She also spoke of the movement’s efforts to impose by force its own secular and socialist worldview, for example, jailing men suspected of taking second wives in accordance with Islamic traditions. She said that the PYD was giving power to “uneducated” people, in the areas that it controls. 


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