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).