Yazidis, Christians and others fled Islamic State attacks into Iraqi Kurdistan 2014. Photo by Reese Erlich.
Giant pallets packed with arms and ammunition floated down from the sky into the Kurdish region of Syria in October. The Pentagon dropped fifty tons of supplies to Kurdish rebels, an indication of increasingly close military ties. The Obama Administration has been ramping up U.S. involvement in the region, sending 3,500 ground troops and an unnamed number of “expeditionary” forces to Iraq, and making plans to send hundreds of commandos to Syria.
Syrian Kurdish rebels who oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have established control over an almost contiguous swath of northern Syria. In November, they played an important role in retaking the city of Sinjar and other Islamic State controlled areas in Iraq.
Led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish rebels are overturning conventional politics in Rojava, their name for the northern, Kurdish region of Syria. “We are fighting for democracy not only in Rojava and Syria,” PYD representative Gharib Hassou tells me. “We are fighting for a democratic process for the entire Middle East.”
The meteoric rise of the Kurdish rebels, who now number in the tens of thousands, has left a trail of misinformation about the PYD from governments, the mainstream media, and even some idealists on the left. The PYD story is complicated but well worth understanding.
The PYD is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Founded in 1978, the PKK originally combined nationalism with elements of Marxism to call for an independent, socialist Kurdish nation. But since the late 1990s, the PKK rejected Marxism and became a nationalist group seeking greater democracy and rejecting Kurdish separatism.
The United States, Turkey, and some European countries continue to label the PKK as a terrorist and separatist organization. The PKK does not intentionally target civilians, but does wage armed struggle against the Turkish military and government.
So the United States has a major problem. It supports the PYD militarily, but won’t extend political recognition for fear of angering the Turkish government. The United States pretends to be supporting a wider coalition of Syrian Christians, Yazidis, and Arabs called the Syrian Democratic Forces. In reality, the coalition was formed by the PYD, which provides the vast majority of its fighters.
Meanwhile, the Turkish Air Force continues to bomb PYD held areas, claiming the PKK constitutes a grave terrorist threat. So the United States is arming the same group that its ally is bombing. Got that?
To sort out this enigma within a conundrum, I visit the PYD and its supporters in Sulaimaniya, the second largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. I walk along a city street to a nondescript, beige residence that serves as headquarters of the Democratic Self Administration of Rojava, as the rebel political arm calls itself.
Sherzad Yazidi, spokesman for the Democratic Self Administration of Rojava, says the rebels have encouraged creation of councils in each city they control, with guaranteed seats for women, Christians, and other minorities. The Self Administration is secular and rejects the religious extremism prominent in the region.
“I am an atheist,” Yazidi tells me with a proud smile.
The PYD claims to be organizationally separate from the PKK while sharing the ideology of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. That ideology, developed during Ocalan’s confinement in a Turkish prison since 1999, includes a hodgepodge of theories, some borrowed from American anarchist Murray Bookchin.
That has led a few American and European anarchists to proclaim that Rojava has become an anarchist success story. One anarchist website called Rojava “an anarchist-oriented movement on the frontlines of the world struggle.”
But PYD leaders decline the anarchist accolades. Sinam Mohammad, a top PYD leader, noted that Ocalan reads all kinds of philosophers, including anarchists. However, she told me in early 2015, “He has his own thought and his own philosophy.”
The PKK and PYD use leftist rhetoric, according to Günes Tezcür, an associate professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago. The PKK even has an affiliated legal political party in Turkey that supports gender equality, gay rights, religious freedom, and environmental issues. But both groups, Tezcür says, “are foremost nationalist organizations.”
So what is the PYD doing on the ground in Rojava? First, it’s important to note that the local councils function under wartime conditions, according to Azad Ali, director of the Rudaw Research Center in Erbil.
“It’s not a democracy, and they are not perfect,” he says, “but they are better than military dictatorship.” The PYD is “involving civilians in decision-making, not just the military,” notes Ali, who is a Syrian Kurd.
The rebel group draws its strongest political support by successfully defending locals from Islamic State attack. “My village would have been looted and destroyed if not for the PYD,” Ali says.
The PYD militia, unable to recruit enough volunteers, began military conscription in Rojava in 2014, requiring most males over nineteen to serve six months. The PYD also has created a volunteer, all-woman militia.
The conscription “is very strict and hard to avoid,” says Ali. Draft-eligible men might be seized at checkpoints or in house raids, a practice long used by the Syrian army.
Others also criticize the PYD for extreme sectarianism. Kamiran Hajo, a leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Syria, tells me the PYD prohibits his and all other major Kurdish parties from organizing politically or militarily in northern Syria. He expects the United States to eventually pressure the PYD to allow other parties to operate there.
Hajo believes the United States needs the PYD as a military ally for the moment, but doesn’t want to establish political relations. “It’s against their interest in the area,” he says.
And that raises a significant question: Will the United States and PYD establish a strategic relationship, and on what terms?
The ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has developed such a long-term relationship. It adopted neo-liberal economic policies to attract U.S. investments and Western oil companies. It manipulated the law to keep KDP leader Masoud Barzani as president for four years beyond his elected term.
In October, the KDP closed opposition radio and TV stations. And the KDP has a military alliance with the United States that could eventually lead to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan that would ally with Israel and anger the Arab world.
Some critics say the PYD seeks a similar relationship with the United States. But recently, in response to rebuffs from Washington, the Kurdish rebels are also seeking closer ties with Russia.
“We welcome a strategic relationship with both the United States and Russia,” says Rojava representative Yazidi. “One wouldn’t be at the expense of the other.”
For now, the PYD and the United States will likely continue their military alliance. The future of their political relations, however, remains murky.
Foreign correspondent Reese Erlich writes regularly for The Progressive and is the author of Inside Syria: The Back Story of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect. This article was published in the February issue of the The Progressive magazine.