In Syria, U.S.-Backed Kurdish Fighters Face Trump’s Withdrawal — and the Legacy of Their Own Mistakes

Cornered in Syria, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, has relied on forced conscription and police state methods in its governance.

A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) carries an automatic rifle on a road in the Qandil Mountains, the PKK headquarters in northern Iraq, on June 22, 2018. - Hundreds of Iraqi Kurds marched Friday to protest Turkish strikes against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) after Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would press an operation against its bases. (Photo by SAFIN HAMED / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, carries an automatic rifle on a road in the Qandil Mountains, the PKK headquarters in northern Iraq, on June 22, 2018. Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Khalil was shopping in the Hasakah marketplace in Syria when Kurdish military police arrested him last March. He was 19 and had papers that showed he was in high school, but that didn’t matter. The Kurdish militia, which feeds troops to the U.S.-led war in Syria, was way short of volunteers. They ordered him into a minibus and drove through the northeast Syrian city, abducting others along the way.

The force that conscripted Khalil calls itself the People’s Protection Units, or YPG in Kurdish. The militia it supplies calls itself the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a mixed Kurdish-Arab formation. But conscripts quickly learn who is really in charge in the proxy war against Islamic State extremists. It’s the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Marxist guerrilla movement that’s been at war with neighboring Turkey for 35 years.

Khalil’s boot camp lasted six weeks, one-third of which was political indoctrination about the Kurds — including the works of Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the PKK, which is the Kurdish acronym for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — and the rest was weapons familiarization. His cohort was 15 Kurds and about 350 Arabs, all conscripted at gunpoint, he told me. The course was taught in Kurdish with translators for the Arabs. (Khalil, who’s from Syria’s Yazidi minority, speaks Kurdish).

When the training ended in May, Khalil received orders to deploy to Deir Ezzor on the frontline near an ISIS-held pocket of territory. Instead, he fled with his sister to Kurdish territory in Iraq. He was lucky, for his parents are refugees in Europe — if his family had lived in the area, he wouldn’t have been able to quit, knowing that military police would seize a brother, a cousin, or even their father in his place.

U.S. reliance on the PKK and its Syrian affiliate has driven these militias to conscript at gunpoint and stirred ethnic tensions. The PKK may be sorry to see the Americans go, but a lot of Arabs are not.

This is everyday reality for the force that the U.S. military, politicians, and pundits have lionized as the most capable and reliable ground partner the U.S. could find in Syria. It’s run by a group that the State Department has declared to be terrorists; it conscripts at gunpoint and utilizes police state methods in its operations and governance that are completely antithetical to U.S. values, according to deserters interviewed by The Intercept.

This is also the force that will soon be left hanging and exposed to retribution if President Donald Trump carries out his apparently impulsive decision last week to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria as fast as possible. Turkey, which views the PKK as an existential threat, says that it will go on the offensive against fighters from the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the YPG, in key areas of its border with Syria. ISIS may also target them, and the Assad regime will no doubt try to regain control of lands the Kurds now control. A bigger foe may be Syrian Arabs from areas formerly controlled by ISIS, who bitterly resent the Kurdish militia bossing them around.

“They are not able to do anything today,” Khalil said of the Arabs who constitute the majority of the population in the provincial capital. “But if they come to power in the future, they will do everything they can against the YPG.” Also, a large number of Kurds have fled north Syria rather than live under the YPG and the economic hardship of war, and more will leave with the YPG, especially in Manbij, where they’ve been given special privileges by the YPG.

The U.S. military first linked up with the Kurdish militia in Syria in late 2014 when ISIS was attacking the town of Kobani, but the U.S. ground partner has not had close scrutiny until now, just as U.S. presence is about to end. In part, it’s because the Kurds run what a State Department official told me is a “mini-totalitarian state,” where criticism isn’t allowed; in part, it’s because the U.S. military has refused to discuss PKK practices, insisting that its partner is the Syrian Democratic Forces, not the PKK or the YPG. One way to circumvent this closed circuit is by seeking out deserters, who’ve been fleeing to territory controlled by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government for several years. With KRG assistance, I interviewed four deserters in the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk last month. I have changed their names to protect them from PKK retribution.

My overall conclusion is stark: U.S. reliance on the PKK and its Syrian affiliate has driven these militias to conscript at gunpoint and stirred ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds. The PKK may be sorry to see the Americans go, but a lot of Arabs are not.

Desertions are the bane of the PKK, according to Ali, a senior officer who defected in October and spoke to me in Dohuk. “We know this is a big problem. What can we do?” he said. “If someone wants to leave, all I can do is threaten to throw him in jail.”

Draconian rules provoke many desertions. To join the PKK or its Syrian affiliate, the YPG, is to enlist for life; to be conscripted, according to three of the deserters I interviewed, is a ticket to frontline duty. It’s no surprise that tens of thousands of young Kurds have fled to the KRG rather than serve in the guerrilla force, nor that dozens of PKK members flee into KRG every day, according to KRG officials.

A spokesperson for the YPG said conscription of youths over 18 is authorized by a law passed by Kurdish civil authorities.  But he refused to discuss conscripting registered students at gunpoint, underage recruiting, sending conscripted youth to the front with minimal training, and desertions. “These are questions from Erdogan,” said spokesperson Nuri Mahmoud, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “These are unrealistic questions.”

In the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, where the PKK has its main base, members spend the winter in caves, tunnels, and bunkers to avoid Turkish air force. Except for senior officers, members have no cellphones or cars and no access to media and films other than those produced by the PKK. Sexual relations with women, who are recruited, trained, and deployed as a separate force, are prohibited.

Violations of the social code, deserters say, occur a lot more on the flatlands of Syria, where civilians around them date, marry, and have families, than in the highlands of Iraq, where conditions are spartan. But in either location, punishment is decided by “platform,” a court martial where there’s no due process, no legal representation, no law, and no appeal.

Deserters also say the PKK has lost its way politically and cannot deliver on its promises to unite Kurds from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria into one state — or to promote Kurdish cultural rights and spread democratic rule.

The movement may have missed its political moment three years ago in Turkey, when the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, headed by Selahattin Demirtas, a charismatic leader, achieved a major breakthrough in parliamentary elections.

Instead of capitalizing on the political opening, the PKK unilaterally ended a ceasefire with Turkey— and in Syria, buoyed by American backing in the fight against ISIS, declared that it would set up a contiguous Kurdish entity along the border with Turkey. Turkey views that as a threat to its territorial integrity and intervened twice in Syria to prevent it, seizing ISIS-occupied in 2017 and 2018. That dream is now dead, and as the result of a Turkish crackdown following the PKK’s abandonment of the ceasefire, Demirtas sits in a Turkish jail.

Ali deserted the PKK after 20 years of service. He’d commanded 3,500 SDF forces in the Deir Ezzor area of Syria — where Khalil was to be sent — but had a run-in with the PKK leadership over his private life. “I had fallen in love with a woman in the YPJ,” the women’s branch of the YPG, he said. “They put me in jail for four months” and then ordered a “platform,” in which the accused is charged before a gathering of his peers, who then call for punishment. There is no defense.

“Do you know what the main aim of a platform is?” Ali said. “Just to insult and abuse the person in front of the people. Everyone gives an opinion. One will say, ‘Let him be killed.’ Another says, ‘Hang him.’ Another says, ‘Jail him for life.’”

“They used to call it a people’s democracy. In reality, they don’t uphold democracy. They don’t care about human rights.”

Ali was released from jail, suspended from the PKK for six months, and later reinstated to his command position. But the experience scarred him.

“They used to call it a people’s democracy,”Ali told me. “In reality, they don’t uphold democracy. They don’t care about human rights.”

Ali joined the PKK at its redoubt in Qandil and said he was based there for 15 years until he was deployed to Syria in 2013. He had joined “to protect our nation” and support Kurdish self-rule, but now he sees no prospect of that happening.

“Reality has appeared,” he explained. “We know we have gone the wrong way.”

The armed interventions by Turkey, in particular the capture of the Afrin region in northern Syria last spring, punctured the dream of setting up a Kurdish political entity that would have autonomy in a weakened federal Syrian state. “What the PKK lost in Afrin was the federalism project. There’s no way they can force the Syrian regime to accept the project,” he said.

NUSAYBIN, TURKEY -  FEBRUARY 25: AK-47's of armed group Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), a youth division of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, stand under jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan's pictures in a house in southeastern Turkish city of Nusaybin on February 25, 2016, Turkey. Since mid-December, the Turkish security forces placed to several predominantly Kurdish cities in Turkey under 24-hour martial law and curfew on the premise of restoring public order. (Photo by Cagdas Erdogan/Getty Images)

AK-47s of a youth division of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, stand under a picture of the jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Öcalan, in a house in the southeastern Turkish city of Nusaybin on Feb. 25, 2016.

Photo: Cagdas Erdogan/Getty Images

The malaise goes still deeper, according to Osman Öcalan, 60, a co-founder of the PKK. He’s the brother of PKK founder Abdullah “Apo” Öcalan who’s being held in an Istanbul jail. Osman Öcalan broke with PKK leadership in 2003 and now lives in Erbil, in the northern part of Iraq controlled by Kurds. He criticizes current leaders for seeking a military solution to the Kurdish nationalist issue. He calls their ideology “Marxist-Stalinist,” because like the late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, they refuse to accept any other political parties.

Most grating is the absence of human rights.

“They are against all freedoms for the people. They don’t let fighters lead their own lives,” he said. And he criticizes them for opposing the political negotiations with Turkey that his brother had advocated. He also criticized their forced conscription. If young people fight to defend their country, “that’s OK,” he said. “But kidnapping people is not a good idea.”

Osman Öcalan said he quit the PKK for two reasons. One was his insistence that the PKK decentralize and devolve decisions to its national units. In Syria, the PKK “gives all the orders, sets all the policies, decides the training,” Osman said. He believes that Syria’s YPG should become independent of the PKK and shed itself of the PKK’s worst tendencies. “If the YPG would become a democratic group, no one would desert,” he said. “The main reason people desert is because of the policy of the PKK.” He added that Cemil Bayik, a Turkish-born PKK leader, “doesn’t agree with this idea. … He wants to rule Rojava as well” — a reference to the Kurdish name for northern Syria.

The second reason Osman left the PKK was because Bayik “was against human rights. He didn’t agree if someone gets married and has a personal life.”

Osman welcomed the U.S. offer early last month of a $4 million reward for information on the locations of Bayik and a total of $8 million for two of his senior-most colleagues, Murat Karayilan and Duran Kalkan. Osman said the U.S. move would be “perfect” if it leads “to a political solution to the Kurdish issue.” But is there a broader strategy or was this a gesture to ease tensions with Turkey? The State Department, when asked by The Intercept, said only that the rewards program was “one tool, among many” that the U.S. uses to aid Turkey in its fight against the PKK. 

Abductions in broad daylight are not the only recruitment issue for the PKK.

Hilas was 14 when she ran away from her home in Qamishli in April 2016. “I was influenced by the lyrics of their songs,” she said of the PKK. She’s the third of the four PKK deserters I interviewed in Dohuk. After three months of training, two-thirds of it devoted to political doctrine, the PKK transferred her to its base in Iraq’s Gara mountains.

She missed her family. “I tried to escape,” she said. “But they wouldn’t let me.” She was transferred across KRG territory to Makhmur, a Kurdish refugee camp, where she did guard duty for 18 months. In March, she saw the opportunity and fled to the Peshmerga, the KRG’s defense force. She was 16.

The U.S. military says it strongly disapproves of underage recruiting.

A “stringent vetting process” includes “purposefully screening for underage recruits and denying them the ability to join if found to be under the age of 18,” said Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesperson for Central Command. He said the U.S. military is “not aware of any incidences of the Syrian Democratic Forces recruiting underage soldiers.”

But Geneva Call, a Swiss-based group monitoring the deployments of child soldiers, said the SDF this past September had acknowledged “a number of violations” of its signed obligations not to recruit child soldiers. On December 3, the Swiss group reported that the SDF had “recently” sent 56 underage boys back to their families.

Asked about forced recruitment, Urban said the U.S. is “partnered with the vetted multiethnic Syrian Democratic forces in northern Syria” but “not partnered with the YPG or the PKK.”

That’s a dodge, because the YPG rebranded itself as the SDF at the behest of Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of the U.S. Special Forces Command, who told the tale in mid-2017 at the Aspen Security Forum. “You have got to change your brand,” he urged them in late 2015. “What do you want to call yourselves besides the YPG? With about a day’s notice, they declared that they are the Syrian Democratic Forces.” He commended them for “a stroke of brilliance to put ‘democracy’ in there.”

The State Department says the U.S. has worked with the YPG in eastern Syria as part of the larger SDF and expects U.S. partners to abide “by the highest standards of conduct,” a spokesperson told me by email. “Any allegations regarding possible human rights violations would be of concern.”

In fact, the Kurdish militia has force-recruited underage fighters. Take the case of Ibrahim, a 20-year-old Kurd who defected to Iraq in mid-2017. He was forcibly conscripted in March 2017 and taken to Tal Baydar, a base in north-central Syria, where he joined a cohort of 600 young conscripts, he said in an interview in Dohuk last month.

After six weeks of training, he was sent to the front in what was then the battle for Raqqa. He and a buddy came under attack by ISIS, damaging the truck he was driving, and they drove off. Later, his commander gathered the 40 or so young men in his unit and read the riot act. “Every one of you should fight to the death to liberate the position we want to retake from ISIS,” Ibrahim quoted the commander as saying.

After seven days at the front, he deserted and fled to Iraq. Military police then went to his home and took a married older brother, age 27. After a year, when he was released from military service, they came for a younger brother, age 15. That brother wasn’t in school when the police came. Parents often don’t send their sons to school because, Ibrahim said, the PKK goes into the schools to proselytize “and then takes them into the mountains.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Update: December 28, 2018
This story has been updated with comment from a YPG spokesperson that was provided after publication.

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