This report analyses the role of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the associated Democratic Union Party (PYD) during the Syrian civil war. The purpose of our research is to obtain a better understanding of the nature, objectives and methods of the YPG/ PYD as a combined paramilitary and rebel force that is involved in a quasi-statebuilding project during an internationalised civil war. We start by examining the critical factors that enabled the swift rise of the YPG: informal arrangements with the Assad regime, support from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and a pragmatic partnership with the US against Islamic State. This sets the scene for an inquiry into how core YPG strategies to maintain its dominance once it was established – coercive, deal-making, identity and basic service strategies – both shape the group’s behavior and result from its current organization. Finally, we dissect a number of major challenges to future YPG rule, such as its relation with the PKK, intra-Kurdish reconciliation, the US presence in northeast Syria and its interaction with the Arab populations over which it rules.
Based on our analysis, we anticipate a scenario of ‘muddling through’ in which unconditional support from the US will continue at current levels, combined with an abiding US military presence. This will provide the YPG/ PYD with a security umbrella against both regime forces and Turkey, continue the status quo of the YPG/ PYD ruling northeast Syria in authoritarian fashion, make the civil war more ethno-sectarian in nature and prolong the conflict. While such a scenario is arguably more attractive for northeast Syria than a return of the regime, it is also unlikely to improve the area’s current underdevelopment. It will keep other external actors, like the EU, away and allow the PKK to continue to take its share of the area’s revenues.
The primary audience of the report are Western opinion-, policy- and decision-makers engaged with the Syrian civil war and we hope it will help them to craft policies and initiate interventions that are feasible and appropriate to the situation in northeast Syria.
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