The YPG’s Search for Legitimacy in War-Torn Syria

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is widely known to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria, has been attempting to gain political legitimacy and popular support from large segments of Syrian society in the war-torn country for a long time. In the quest for political and societal legitimacy, the YPG is struggling to evolve from a non-state armed actor into a state-like actor. However, the legitimacy of the organization is still questionable in the eyes of many due to its actions on the ground that contradict the organization’s rhetoric.

The YPG was founded as the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which traditionally had strong ties with Moscow due to the historic relationship between the PKK and the Soviet Union. With the outbreak of the Syrian war, the party saw an opportunity to increase its role on the Syrian scene. Therefore, the organization started seeking strong relations with Russia, the U.S., and Europe in order to obtain political recognition.

To some extent, the group succeeded in this aim by setting up political offices in Prague, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris, and Moscow. Additionally, PYD’s former co-chair Salih Muslim visited many European countries to present the agenda of his organization to political figures there.

The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, and specifically the Battle of Kobani, which took place in 2014, paved the way for the PYD/YPG to become more powerful. It started moving closer to the U.S., gaining political recognition alongside military help. In this phase, the changing dynamics of the Syrian battleground led the YPG to embrace a more inclusionary discourse.

At the beginning of the Syrian war, the YPG/PYD had used a more nationalistic discourse that emphasized Kurdish nationalism, but this discourse changed over time as the group increased its control over non-Kurdish areas.

The organization also aimed at hindering any Turkish intervention in Syria by creating strong ties with the U.S. That being said, the relationship between the two sides continued to get stronger as time passed. Specifically, the inefficiency of the U.S. train-equip program for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was one cause behind the country’s decision to get closer to the YPG.

At a time when the FSA was keen to fight both the regime and ISIS, the YPG showed its willingness to only fight against ISIS. This stance made the YPG a more reliable ally for the U.S. Eventually, the U.S. started using the group as its ground force in the fight against ISIS. A partnership took place between the two sides.

However, the U.S. was also keen to shape the YPG by asking it to merge with different Syrian actors in an attempt to cut the ties of the group with the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist group which had emerged in Turkey and fought against the country for almost 40 years. The YPG was thus forced to become more inclusive and to appeal to domestic actors alongside international powers.

The inclusion of different groups provided the YPG with an opportunity to present itself as a national entity rather than being merely the Syrian branch of the PKK. In 2015, the group merged with groups of different ethnicities from the region, and the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was created as an umbrella entity that consisted of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians and other ethnicities in line with the will of the US.

The bid to prove that the group was part of a wider Syrian mosaic did not stop with this move. The Future Syria Party (FSP) was created as an ideological partner to the SDF in Raqqa. The party was established with the claim that it represented all the components of Syrian society.

In addition to these measures, the PYD/YPG also has an administration body that provides social services to the public named the Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA). The DAA is a structure of local governance systems comprised of local councils and assemblies across the three cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobane) the PYD collectively calls Rojava. The ideology of the PYD dominates the DAA.

Even though the YPG/PYD tries to present itself as being as inclusive as it can be, the reality on the ground is different. It is claimed that the PYD permits leadership positions in the DAA governance structures only to those who are willing to obey the rules of the party. It might be said that the YPG is seeking the support of local people based on mutual interests and the obedience of society.

However, the lack of true representation for local actors within the DAA is creating discontent among various actors in the territories under the group’s rule. Especially with the takeover of Arab-populated areas of Syria such as Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, local people’s complaints are becoming more visible. Many protests were organized against the SDF. In these protests, the Arab identity of Raqqa was voiced, and people wanted the SDF to leave the city.

Reportedly, the SDF fired on the protesters as a result of the events.  In these areas, there is no plausible governing system, and the cities are to a large extent in ruins. Purchasing power is also very low in these territories due to problems stemming from the war. Hence, these problems in Arab-populated areas are leading to growing anger towards the Kurdish PYD-led administration.

Despite all these problems, the YPG/PYG is still seeking legitimacy by claiming territories and emphasizing that the group does not have a separatist agenda. Especially after President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, it has intensified its efforts towards reconciliation with the Syrian regime. Rêdûr Xelîl, a senior SDF official and former spokesperson for the YPG, has lately expressed that a deal between the autonomous administration and the Syrian regime is inevitable.

He also articulated that reaching a solution between the two sides is essential since the areas under the control of the SDF are part of Syria. In addition to this, pro-regime protests have been organized in Kurdish areas such as Hasaka. The group is even calling for the military support of the Syrian regime in the face of a Turkish assault in Syria, continually saying that the group is always against foreign intervention and is in favor of the territorial integrity of the country.

The U.S. decision to put out arrest warrants for the three leaders of the PKK can also be viewed as an attempt to cut the ties between the two groups. Moreover, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Northern Syria is likely to increase the volume of the YPG rhetoric about becoming a national entity that advocates the territorial integrity of Syria.

It is known that the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, has had talks with Damascus in the past regarding the future of the territories under the rule of the PYD/YPG. In a meeting of the party council in September, the PYD further endorsed the talks, expressing “full support for a result-oriented dialogue leading to the development of a decentralized Syria.”  

Therefore, in the face of the next looming Turkish intervention in Syria, the YPG is increasing its efforts to reconcile with the regime in an attempt to hinder it. In doing so, there is the possibility that the YPG will integrate into the Syrian Arab Army like the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have integrated into the Iraqi army. This is no remote possibility, since many rebels from different groups have joined the Syrian army in the past.

What is more, Salih Muslim has also previously said that the YPG can become a part of the Syrian army if it embraces a new understanding and leaves the mentality of the Ba’ath Party. He also voiced that his group will fight for a democratic and federal Syria and the army must cut its links with the Ba’ath intelligence so that Syria will not return to its pre-war condition.

The PYD/YPG considers that there is a likelihood of producing a legal framework for federalism/autonomy for the areas under its control if it reconciles with the Assad regime, and the inclusionary rhetoric of the group is being utilized for this purpose. However, the regime appears unwilling to give any sort of self-rule to the group. Damascus knows that it gained the upper hand in the war and wants to reclaim its authority over every inch of Syria.

The integration of the YPG into the Syrian Arab Army would strengthen the regime’s military power in Northern Syria and provide a chance for Assad to turn to Idlib, the last stronghold of the Syrian military opposition. It is not a secret that the regime is dissatisfied with the current status quo in the province.

Besides, the regime has not digested the Sochi Deal, which has prevented a full-fledged attack on Idlib up until now. The regime’s attacks on the province indicate its dissatisfaction with the deal. The Syrian regime has violated the deal by continuing to hit Idlib after the Sochi agreement.

All in all, the inclusionary rhetoric and other efforts by the YPG to obtain political legitimacy and widespread support from Syrian society will continue. Nevertheless, the legitimacy of the group remains debatable in the eyes of various actors in Syria as well as the PKK’s sworn enemy, Turkey, since the country views the expansion of the YPG along its borders as an existential threat to its territorial integrity.