Erbil, Iraq—The raid began at 3 am in a Syrian village close to the Iraqi border. Kurdish-led military police, many masked, piled out of their pickup trucks, set up roadblocks, drew their weapons, and launched a house-to-house search.
It was America’s favorite Syrian militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, at work. Top figures in the Obama administration and even the professional military praised the YPG as the most effective Syrian force against the Islamic State, or ISIS. (The Trump administration hasn’t yet indicated how it plans to work with the YPG.)
But its mission last September 10 was nothing to brag about. The northeast Syrian village being stormed, Bani Shkawe, is Kurdish, and the Asayish, or military police, were not scouring for radical Islamists but for Kurdish draft-dodgers. They arrested seven young men, but many others got away, local residents said.
Two weeks later, the Asayish returned with a force of 700. When a group of young men took flight, the Asayish opened fire, killing Hani Khanjar, an 18-year-old Kurd. They captured three young men, but set them free, since they were under 18.
The YPG regularly raids villages such as Bani Shkawe, and several times a month it sets up roadblocks and checkpoints at the edge of major towns and villages, according to opposition politicians and local human rights monitors.
Measures such as these testify to the unpopularity of the Democratic Union Party, the PYD, the political wing of the YPG, but it’s not the only reason. The PYD runs the region, which it calls Rojava or west Kurdistan, with an iron hand, suppressing political opposition, detaining journalists and shutting down independent media, and expelling tens of thousands of Arabs as it seeks to consolidate control. Forced recruitment is both a cause and an effect of its unpopularity.
“The PYD has a manpower problem,” said Fabrice Balanche, a French academic expert on Syria with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He estimates that 500,000 Kurds—half the population—have fled northern Syria, most of them for economic reasons.
The US military has got wind of the YPG’s forced-recruitment practice. “We’ve heard of it. I don’t know if we’ve confirmed it,” Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the US Central Command, told The Nation. But, he added, “forced conscription is not something we are in there advising” the YPG to do.
American demands on the YPG may be driving the number still higher. The problem begins with the YPG itself and its hostile relations with neighbors on two sides, Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
In addition, the YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group on the US, Turkish, and European Union terrorism lists. While there may be military logic in teaming up the US military machine with a ground force that has a central organization, an officer corps, and combat experience, that’s also the drawback, for the PKK’s combat experience was gained fighting Turkey for some 30 years in an insurgency that flared up again in the summer of 2015.
The State Department claims the YPG is a separate entity from the PKK, a stance viewed throughout the region as fiction. Asked for evidence to prove its point, the department refuses to answer specific questions about US policy.
At US behest, the YPG took a step in late 2015 to broaden its appeal by setting up the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, an umbrella group with a major component of Arab fighters but under YPG control. And that means PKK control.
“Of course all orders come from Qandil,” said Balanche, referring to the Iraqi headquarters of the PKK. According to PKK defectors interviewed by The Nation, 70 percent of the YPG forces were PKK units based in Qandil.
American support for the PKK’s Syrian front, which began during the Obama administration, has provoked an enormous public row with NATO ally Turkey that has played out on the battlefield. It has severely constrained arms and training Washington provides the YPG, and it appears to be a factor in the failure of the United States and the YPG to agree on political goals for the territory the militia captures from ISIS. All these factors have driven up the casualties and added to pressure on the YPG to recruit, no matter what the cost.
Turkey is not the only US ally at odds with the YPG. Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government in late December threatened to use force if the PKK didn’t withdraw from Sinjar in northern Iraq, which the KRG insists is in its security sphere. (The PKK had moved into Sinjar in 2014 to fight off an ISIS attack against the Yazidi population there.)
The US-Turkey row affected the fighting in Manbij, an Arab city northeast of Aleppo, which the SDF captured from ISIS last August with the help of US airstrikes. Ostensibly it was a triumph, but the cost in lives was enormous. Of the estimated 5,000 SDF fighters, as many as half of them Arab, at least 700 were killed in that battle, estimates Ibrahim Biro, who was a leading Kurdish opposition politician in Rojava until his arrest and expulsion just after Manbij fell.
The official number published by the Rojava news media was 364, according to Rony, a PKK defector who held a senior position in the YPG forces in Rojava during the offensive. KRG officials, who keep tabs on Rojava, tell visitors the true number was closer to 1,000.
Among the reason cited by Biro: ISIS’s effective use of suicide vehicles, poor training of the attacking forces, lack of public support for Kurdish-led fighters on Arab lands, and the fact that so many of the Kurdish fighters were foreign—from Turkey or Iran—and didn’t speak Arabic.
PKK defector Rony said the operation should have been completed in 45 days but took twice that time because of ISIS’s effective defensive tactics (using civilians as human shields, laying mines around key objectives, and sending no fewer than 11 explosive-laden suicide vehicles against the Syrian Democratic Forces) and US failure to equip its ally.
Like other defectors quoted in this article, Rony was interviewed outside of Syria and is using an assumed name out of fear of retribution by the group he abandoned. “We asked for heavy weapons. We got nothing. We asked for everything. All we got was ammunition and small arms,” he said. He said the United States did not supply flak jackets, helmets, night vision equipment, or mine detectors.
American forces also refused to order airstrikes against suicide vehicles or to fire air-to-ground rockets at ISIS snipers. Supposedly, the Americans provided 12 advanced anti-tank missiles to the YPG, but Rony said he never saw evidence that they had. Instead, the militia had to rely on rocket-propelled grenades or other munitions, an ineffective defense against suicide vehicles, he said.
Rony, who was in the PKK for more than 20 years until his defection in 2016, spoke bitterly about US military aid. He said he lost seven or eight friends to mines that ISIS had planted around the grain silos south of Manbij. YPG fighters were treated like cannon fodder, he said. “They [the Americans] sent us to die. They don’t want us to be strong. They tell us, ‘You can be here but not there.’ ‘You will be dependent on me.’”
Another woeful deficiency of the YPG was inadequate training before the battle. But this is mainly a PKK issue—if Washington had taken over that task, it would have worsened the already strained relations with Turkey. Standard training for recruits is currently six weeks, but only one week is spent on weapons familiarization and tactics, and the rest of the time on ideology, another recent PKK defector told The Nation.
This means reading the works Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK, who’s now in a Turkish jail on Imrali island, close to Istanbul. They include a history of the region, a history of the PKK and the Kurds, and a tract on Ocalan’s political aims: to do away with the nation-states in the region and replace them with a vaguely defined system of “democratic federalism.”
Mohar, a Turkish-born PKK defector, said he himself mastered the operation of tanks, sniper rifles, and mortars, but his training was on the job. The PKK approach, he said, is “if you have the ideology of Ocalan, you can fight, so it’s more important to understand the ideology than the military part.”
Another PKK defector said his training had lasted three months, of which one month was devoted to military training and the rest to ideology. “Technically, the military training was very weak. But ideologically, we had very good training,” said Shiyar, a 20-year veteran now in his 40s. “They tried to work with our minds and make us ready to fight.”
Another missing element in the war against ISIS is agreed war aims. The United States has been wary of the YPG’s political agenda ever since a negative experience in June 2015, when the militia captured the town of Tal Abyad from ISIS, kicked out or kept out the mostly Arab population, and then proceeded to “Kurdify” the town—it’s now called Giri Spi in Kurdish.
In fact, the YPG has consistently stated that it intends to capture a band of mostly Arab territory across northern Syria in order to connect the self-styled Kurdish cantons and the cities of Qamishli and Kobani with Afrin. Turkey, the biggest power in the region, has vowed to stop the project, fearing that the PKK would link YPG-controlled land in northern Syria and predominantly Kurdish towns in southern Turkey, threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity. In August, Turkey sent troops into Syria to prevent that from happening. The United States has disavowed the militia’s goal of establishing the Kurdish corridor, but Washington has been unable to stop its moves on the ground. The YPG and Turkey have clashed repeatedly on Syrian soil.
These obstacles also add to a YPG recruitment challenge—namely, motivating fighters to risk their lives capturing non-Kurdish territory they’ll eventually have to give up. Even the security forces have proven reluctant warriors. Early last August, some 300 Asayish were arrested for refusing to take part in the Manbij operation, the Rojava-based ARA news agency reported.
If US policy appears conflicted, it reflects what may be a lack of understanding at the very top of the US security structure about the forces on the ground. Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in September that America’s “partners on the ground” now total 30,000 Kurds and 14,000 Arabs, up from “a few hundred vetted opposition fighters” in just one year. “We’re trying to grow it even more,” told the Air Force Association in September.
Dunford’s reference to “vetted opposition fighters” implied that the current and future force is opposed to the Syrian government, which is not the case. The YPG in fact has an umbilical link with the Assad regime. According to Biro, every component of the Syrian Democratic Forces “is a big ally of the Syrian regime—because the PYD itself has been an important ally of the Syrian regime since the beginning of the Syrian revolution” in 2011.
The exception among the Arab militias affiliated with the SDF is Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, or the Raqqa Revolutionaries, led by a Raqqa merchant who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Issa. But it has received short shrift from the YPG, possibly because it is opposed to the regime.
The Assad regime’s ties with the PYD’s parent organization, the PKK, date back to 1984, when Abdullah Ocalan established the movement in Damascus under the sponsorship of Syrian intelligence, according to senior officials in the KRG. From that day until today, the PKK has stationed a liaison at the headquarters of one of Syria’s leading intelligence agencies in the Syrian capital, according to these officials.
Syrian Kurds founded the PYD in 2003 with assistance from Iran and Syrian intelligence, according to a defected Syrian intelligence officer who said he took part in the first meeting. But when Ocalan was arrested in 1999 and brought to Turkey, the government in Damascus, wanting to ease relations with Ankara, forced the movement underground.
Compulsory YPG military service dates back to June 2014, when the PYD-ruled legislative council in the self-styled Jazira canton issued a “law of performing self-defense.” It required every family to provide a male “volunteer” between 18 and 30 years of age to serve for six months. Families without an eligible male were encouraged to send females instead, leading to unrest throughout Jazira and the other cantons, Kobani and Afrin.
The YPG has been raiding and arresting young men—as well as women and girls—since the beginning of 2014, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported early this year.
SNHR has also reported extensive forced recruitment of child soldiers—adolescents under 16. Some 1,876 children were forcibly recruited between 2012 and 2015. “Children have been forced to use and train on guns since 2012 extensively,” SNHR said. Both the Pentagon and the State Department declined to respond to questions from The Nation.
The YPG agreed in writing in 2014 to halt the recruiting of underage soldiers, according to Geneva Call, an NGO that lobbies armed groups to adhere to international norms in war. As of late 2015, 214 children under 16 had been demobilized and 49 others between 16 and 17 had been discharged from military service, the group said in a report early last year, according to YPG officials.
In the first year of force recruitment, local journalists produced many stories, in part because anxious parents approached them and urged them to report the news. But public protests were quickly suppressed, and independent journalism has been crushed.
In 2013 Sadun Sino began working for Orient TV, an opposition news outlet in Rojava. After reporting on a series of assassinations of Kurdish opposition figures—all of which he believed were carried out by PYD operatives—Sino began regular coverage of protests, which usually erupted when the YPG seized an underage boy or girl. Sino said he produced at least 15 reports from his hometown of Derbasi, and other reporters in Amudah and Kobani produced even more. The YPG “staged so many roundups in Derbasi that I lost count,” Sino said. “People came to me asking me to report on it,” he pointed out.
He reported on the conscription of girls, at least two of whom were under-age, and on PKK arrests of young men and women at checkpoints. “On one day in 2014, they took 40 men and boys at one checkpoint,” Sino said. “It was happening every day.” On another day, the YPG issued an order to round up 150 conscripts.
Finally, the authorities cracked down on the news coverage. “They told me that either I give up journalism and leave or they will kill me,” Sino told The Nation. After being jailed four times, he fled Rojava in January 2015.
Jason Stern, a researcher with the New York–based Committee to Project Journalists until last week, said CPJ has found that censorship and arrests are routine in Rojava. “Too often the authorities there get glowing coverage for their role in fighting Islamic State, and, as a result, their regular practice of censorship is ignored,” Stern observed in an e-mail.
“Journalists have been routinely detained for days at a time and then released—each incident sending a clear message to other journalists,” Stern said. Media affiliated with other parties or the Syrian opposition “are targeted” for censorship, he said. And he noted that the PYD withdrew the license of two major news outlets in August 2015, the KRG-based Rudaw news agency and the Syrian opposition station Orient TV. Both were banned permanently in February 2016, according to Saeed Omar Khalil, a human-rights lawyer in Erbil, the KRG capital.
But this is only part of the picture of repression. In its annual human-rights report last year, the State Department, quoting Kurdish activists and press reporting, said “the PYD and the YPG violently suppressed freedom of assembly and severely limited freedom of speech in areas under their control.”
In the past two years at least eight journalists have been abducted or arrested, according to Kurdwatch, a Berlin-based watchdog group. It reported a case in early 2015 where a journalist from the website of a news outlet affiliated with the Kurdish Unity Party was abducted by the Asayish military police, beaten with iron bars, and had a finger cut off.
Lawyer Khalil gave The Nation a list of 57 political activists who had been arrested through last September. Among them was Yunes Assad, the head of the town council in Amudah, who was kidnapped, beaten, and tortured in May 2016.
The severe political repression has also contributed to the reluctance of Kurds to serve in the YPG, Kurdish refugees said. As of last autumn, according to Kurdwatch researcher Eva Savelsberg, as much as 40 percent of the security forces in Rojava are recruited by force. The rest, mainly young men from poor families, join largely for the salary in a region where there are almost no employment opportunities.
Despite the forced recruitment, the YPG was still short of fighters last year, so a new rule was issued on October 17 requiring nine months of service, with three more months tacked on for those who don’t register by December 1.
Rojava opposition politicians claim that the PYD support base is no more than 10 percent of the population; as proof they cite the YPG’s closure of the border with Iraqi Kurdistan since last spring. KRG officials say that if the YPG were to open the borders to Iraqi Kurdistan, three-quarters of the population would flee.
In Bani Shkawe, the public mood remains defiant. “Our village is surrounded by hills and valleys, and the village people know every valley and stone,” said a resident, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “Our youth go into hiding when the village is stormed.”
“We don’t want anything from the PYD,” said the resident. “We just want them to leave us alone.”
Editor’s update: A quote from Fabrice Balanche has been corrected to reflect his view that most of the Kurds who have fled northern Syria have done so for economic reasons, not to avoid submitting to YPG rule.