The PKK Roots of America’s Ally in Syria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 12


The Arab inhabitants of eastern Syria have once again turned out in protest against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Western partner force in the campaign against the Islamic State (IS). The rejection of the SDF’s rule in the area has its roots in political dynamics that were entirely foreseeable.

The SDF claims to be a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional force, and in terms of those who operate under its banner, this is true. It is equally true that the SDF’s military command structure is entirely in the hands of the People’s Protection Forces (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎—YPG), and that the political structures of the SDF are dominated overwhelmingly by the YPG’s political branch, the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat‎—PYD), which is in turn largely subordinate to the YPG military commanders (Omran Center, January 24, 2018).

The YPG/PYD is the name used by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎—PKK) when it operates on Syrian soil (Hurriyet, November 16, 2018). This has been acknowledged publicly by U.S. intelligence (Director of National Intelligence, p. 21, February 13, 2018). Other Western states have documented the PKK’s habit of creating deniable branches, notably the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (Teyrebazen Azadiye Kurdistan‎—TAK) (Australian Federal Register of Legislation, August 2, 2018). The PKK, an extremist organization that combined Marxism and Kurdish nationalism, is listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union, United States, and many other Western governments due to its atrocious conduct in the separatist war it has waged against Turkey since the early 1980s.

The YPG/PYD hardly makes a secret of its reverence for Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader who has a God-like status within the PKK, despite his responsibility for crimes against humanity, many of them against Kurds (Human Rights Watch, November 20, 1998). The YPG claims that it is merely inspired by Ocalan’s philosophy while having no organizational link (Rudaw, January 14). This is evidently not the case (Qasioun, April 21, 2018; UK Parliament, February 9, 2018; UTGAM, May 2017).

The anti-IS coalition is fully aware that the aid it gives formally to the SDF, and the taxes the group collects from populations under its control, are siphoned off to the PKK’s historic headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq (, November 24, 2018). Many intelligence agencies working on this subject have reached the same conclusion, namely that the SDF is a thin veneer for the PKK. [1]

This does not require covert sources to prove. There is abundant evidence in open sources establishing the YPG’s connection to the PKK (SETA, April 14, 2017). The visible commander of the SDF, “General Mazlum,” is a veteran PKK operative named Ferhat Abdi Shahin (Shahin Jilo), one of the most-wanted terrorists in Turkey. U.S. support for the SDF/PKK, in general, has strained relations with Turkey, and the public meetings between Mazlum/Shahin and Operation Inherent Resolve officials have proven a particular flashpoint (Sabah, February 18).

The PKK is a deeply authoritarian organization, in structure and ideology.

It was under the guidance of the Soviet Union that the PKK was built into a force capable of challenging Turkey, a frontline NATO state in the Cold War. The group worked, as it usually did in liaising with terrorists, through the Assad regime and Palestinian groups. [2] The PKK drew on Lenin and Stalin as the “main, if not the only, ideological sources” for its “assumptions, beliefs, and values.” [3] Hundreds of the PKK’s own members have been killed over the years in Soviet-style purges for (perceived) dissidence. [4]

This ideological inheritance showed up again recently when the YPG created an Armenian unit. It displayed pictures of Armenian revolutionaries to emulate, including Monte Melkonian, one of the founders of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), a Soviet-supported terrorist organization that killed dozens of Western citizens (CIA, January 1984; Massis Post, April 22).

There was some hope from the local inhabitants of areas occupied by IS, like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, that the SDF could be more of an American project than a PKK project, and that this would ameliorate the PKK’s monopolistic tendencies (Terrorism Monitor, October 19, 2018). This has not proven to be the case.

The SDF’s commune system, which is supposed to create a bottom-up democratic system, has in fact been used to administer the ideological governance of the YPG/PYD from the top-down, excluding as far as possible political opponents from the power structure. Visitors to “Rojava”—as the SDF calls the zone it holds in north-eastern Syria—found that it was a systematic policy of the SDF to curb resources and services to areas that resisted them. [5] These issues are magnified in the Arab-majority areas (Syria Direct, August 2, 2017).

It took no great foresight to understand that this was unsustainable. By late last year, the anger in Deir Ezzor against the SDF had reached a boiling point that threatened to unravel the entire SDF structure in the area. Even those who had been willing to test out the possibility of a compact with the SDF were losing patience. [6]

It is notable that the primary trigger for what has increasingly taken on the character of a popular uprising against the SDF was the group’s cordial relations with the Assad-Iran-Russia coalition, specifically the transferring of Deir Ezzor oil to keep Assad’s military forces operating (Neda’a Suriya, April 5). Rojava has been deeply integrated with the regime coalition from the outset (Omran Center, July 26, 2018). That the SDF has incurred no penalty for engaging in oil trade with the Assad regime, which violates the American sanctions on Assad and Iran, has helped convince many locals that their hopes in the United States exerting pressure to curb the more problematic aspects of the SDF are futile.

The implications of the short-sighted U.S. policy of solely supporting the SDF are becoming more apparent. At a geopolitical level, Russia has exploited the PKK issue to sow divisions within NATO, and the crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations is now reaching a turning point over Ankara’s purchase of a Russian S-400 (Haberler, June 8). On the ground, the inability of the SDF to provide legitimate local governance to Sunni Arab areas—the only viable long-term solution to defeating jihadists—threatens renewed instability that could give new life to IS.


[1] Author interview with intelligence official, February 2019.

[2] Marcus, A. (2007), Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, pp. 54-61.

[3] Balci, A. (2017), The PKK-Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s Regional Politics During and After the Cold War, p. 112.

[4] Marcus, A. (2007), Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, pp. 91, 96, 161.

[5] Author interviews, August-September 2017.

[6] Author interviews, November 2018.