Rift Emerges in PKK Command Structure over Ties to U.S. Coalition Forces in Syria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 22

(source: thenational.ae)

Even by the standards of Syria’s complicated war, October 2019 was a tumultuous month. The contradictions inherent in the U.S. effort to conduct a counter-terrorism war against the Islamic State (IS) divorced from the realities of the underlying conflict erupted into view. Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria on October 6 and effectively green-lit a Turkish incursion, codenamed Operation Baris Pinari (Peace Spring), which began on October 9. Trump then changed course, applying sanctions on Turkey for moving against the United States’ Kurdish partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the political and legal cover for the blacklisted Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (See TM, June 14).

There was a week of fighting, with Turkish troops and their Arab proxies, the Syrian National Army (SNA), taking over the Tel Abyad-Ras al-Ayn zone, an Arab-majority corridor that had formed the link between Kobani and Qamishli—two core Kurdish-majority parts of “Rojava”, as the PKK calls its Syrian statelet.

A U.S.-brokered ceasefire with Turkey on October 17 gave Ankara (on paper) virtually everything it had asked for, ratifying the conquests already made and, crucially, proclaiming a twenty-mile corridor inside Syria free of the PKK, plus lifting the sanctions imposed over the incursion (Al-Hurra, October 17).

Trump subsequently declared that U.S. troops would remain in Syria, albeit in a smaller “oil region” further to the south (Twitter.com/realDonaldTrump, October 24). U.S. officials openly told the media the oil mission was a ruse to get Trump to keep U.S. forces in Syria. There is a bureaucratic argument between those who want the troops to counter IS and those who want them to counter Iran—and the Pentagon, which wants to protect the SDF, and by extension, the PKK.

The logistics of protecting this “oil region”—to be occupied by around 500 troops—would require a continued reliance on the PKK. The PKK, however, has been in discussions about the terms under which it would be re-subordinated to the Assad regime and Russia. It is unclear what the PKK gains from standing with the United States, which is clearly on its way out of Syria. Even when still in place, the United States refused to defend the PKK from Turkey.

Assad’s political terms will always be Carthaginian—the Rojava project is finished—but at least the PKK would be able to retain itself in some format under a deal, resuming its old role as a proxy Damascus can use against Turkey (Anadolu, August 18, 2017). Assad views the PKK as “treacherous” for its association with the United States and will cut the organization down from their current U.S.-empowered position. The PKK is not going to gain leverage over time to mitigate this, and a pointless further delay for however many months the United States remains in Syria could make matters worse, though the PKK operative who leads the SDF seems unclear on this point.

Referred to in much of the Western press as General Mazlum, the SDF leader was known as Shahin Jilo when he was an open PKK member, and his real name is believed to be Ferhat Abdi Shahin, though Turkish sources have recently stated his name is actually Mustafa Abdi bin Halil (Karar, October 16). On November 6, Shahin tweeted that the SDF/PKK was “resuming its joint program of work with the Coalition” (Twitter.com/MazloumAbdi, November 6). On the same day, Shahin gave an interview where he spoke in surreal terms of Assad’s offer on Rojava being “incomplete” and the dictator needing to “take more steps” to meet the PKK’s demands for political and military autonomy within his state (Rudaw, November 6). Assad’s paranoid, Ba’athist worldview does not permit power-sharing in a serious way, certainly not with forces that were recently U.S. proxies, and the balance of power means doing so is not necessary. It is possible that Shahin is only maintaining this line in public for tactical reasons; if not, he is taking the PKK down a very dangerous path.

Shahin himself might be in some danger. Internal PKK dynamics are difficult to discern, but there are some indications that Shahin has run afoul of the PKK central leadership, who are located in the Qandil Mountains (Al-Monitor, November 7). A defector from the SDF confirmed that Sabri Ok, a Kurd from Turkey on the PKK executive council, is the current commander of the Rojava area, a position that rotates to prevent any one person gaining too much personal authority. It is exactly for this reason—Shahin’s growing publicity, even international, prominence and popularity—that Ok has expressed displeasure (Karar, November 28).

Shahin has also been criticized by the “Qandilians” such as Ok and Fehman Husayn (Bahoz Erdal), who control the Rojava regime behind the scenes, because of his good relations with the United States (Karar, November 28). The PKK was on the Soviet’s side in the Cold War and was deeply influenced by them, regarding the Turkish state as an instrument of U.S. imperialism that had to be swept away—a sentiment also shared toward Israel. The only criticisms the PKK ever had of the Soviet Union relate to the period after Stalin. [1]

The anti-Americanism of the PKK is not in the past, either. Not long ago, the deputy chairman of the PKK, Mustafa Karasu (Husayn Ali), wrote an article that began by defending Iran’s Islamic Republic, regarding with horror the possibility the country would return to a pro-Western government like that of the Shah, before accusing the Americans of being engaged in a conspiracy to steal the YPG away from the PKK (Yeni Ozgur Politika, November 12, 2018).

The PKK has killed hundreds of its own members, sometimes for dissenting from the leadership, and sometimes, as with the massacres of young recruits at the Bekaa camps, for no reason beyond the paranoia of the leadership (T24, December 15, 2011). [2] Shahin’s personal recognition and ties to the United States could easily be interpreted within the PKK as a crime, though it does not seem that Qandil objects organizationally to the way the SDF is being run, specifically the recent decisions around the Turkish incursion (ANF, November 6).

The political-military map of northeastern Syria has been re-drawn over the last month, albeit in ways that were inevitable. The United States is leaving, and without them—or a peace deal with Turkey—the PKK statelet is not sustainable. That the PKK would turn back to Damascus and Moscow in such circumstances was likewise predictable. The United States keeping troops in Syria has paused the completion of this trendline, but the signs that this interruption will be brief are already present (White House, November 12).


[1] Balci, A. (2017), The PKK-Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s Regional Politics: During and After the Cold War, pp. 92-95, 111-13.

[2]  Marcus, A. (2007), Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, p. 136.