This section outlines broad contextual factors that help to explain the YPG/PYD’s rise to power during the early years of the Syrian conflict. It seeks to understand what circumstances enabled the organisation to achieve remarkable gains and autonomy in the space of just a few years after decades of repression by the Syrian regime of most domestic Kurdish political activity. As a PYD representative put it: ‘Let us go back to before 2011. The PYD was forbidden in Syria and Turkey. You can say that the majority of the PYD was locked up in regime prisons. In Damascus? In all provinces!’[11] Our analysis suggests that at least five storylines must be woven together to explain the rise of the YPG/PYD in the early years of the Syrian civil war, regardless of the specific strategies the group has pursued since then (these are analysed in Section 2).

A first element of the story are the policies of marginalisation, Arabisation and repression that Gamal Abdel Nasr applied to the Kurdish population of Syria after 1958 (during the United Arab Republic) and Syria’s various Ba’ath regimes after 1963. Lasting for decades, such policies broke up many communities in Syria’s Kurdish areas through a mix of symbolic and material measures, ranging from re-naming cities and villages.[12] keeping tens of thousands of Kurds stateless, enacting demographic changes, purposeful underdevelopment, and the incarceration of political dissidents.[13] It should be noted that the autocratic nature of the various Ba’ath regimes, especially under the Assads, created a generic level of repression across Syrian society in which Kurdish-specific repression was nested.[14] Moreover, Syrian Kurds could be part of the state apparatus and army as long as they fully embraced the regime and relegated their Kurdishness to the background.[15] Nevertheless, the regime did single Syrian Kurdish communities out for particularly intense and targeted repressive treatment out of concern that the country’s most substantial non-ruling minority might threaten its hold on power. Since the regime perceived the Kurds as not fitting the Arab nature of the Syrian state, the loyalty of this group was in doubt and its ‘othering’ facilitated a prism of repression to take hold.[16] For the purpose of this report, the relevance of these policies is that they created a climate of fear and distrust among Syrian Kurdish communities and political leaders. This climate was maintained by the presence of widespread regime intelligence informant networks.[17]

A visual display of YPG-PKK linkages at the Samalka border crossing between Iraq and Syria
A visual display of YPG-PKK linkages at the Samalka border crossing between Iraq and Syria

A Syrian activist described the climate this engendered in the following manner: ‘Back in 1977, when Hafez al-Assad was in power, […] if you spoke Kurdish, or if they saw a Kurdish book with you, that was enough to arrest you: then you were a threat to state security. More than 250,000 Syrian Kurds did not have passports, let alone civil rights. My father is a Syrian national, but his sister and her children are not. Moreover, the regime removed Kurds to bring about demographic changes. They brought Arabs from Aleppo and Raqqa to our territory, took land from Kurds and gave it to the Arabs. Under Hafez al-Assad, no fewer than 68 leaders of the Kurdish democratic parties have been detained without trial.’[18]

By 2011, these policies of marginalisation and repression had fragmented the Syrian Kurdish socio-political community, created a deep-seated fear of the regime and its repressive practices among Syrian Kurdish political leaders – given the often fatal consequences of resistance – and produced appreciable mistrust between such leaders.[19] One example of how fear of repression influenced political thinking is how the parties, youth and women’s movements in the Kurdish National Council (KNC; created in 2011) hesitated to take up arms to protect their communities in 2011/2012 when the Syrian civil war started.[20] As a result, Syrian Kurdish capacity to engage in collective action was low.

A second element is that from the early 1980s until 1998, the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad hosted the PKK in Yafour, Zabadani and Lebanon’s Bekaa valley[21]. Assad’s objective in supporting the PKK was to gain leverage over its much larger northern neighbour so as to influence various territorial and water disputes. The PKK’s long-standing presence highlights the contrast between the Syrian regime’s treatment of domestic Kurdish political activity and its treatment of externally-oriented Kurdish political and militant activity on Syrian soil. The former was harshly suppressed in most cases; the latter supported. Such support was naturally conditioned on the PKK staying out of Syria’s domestic politics. Instead of mobilising Syria’s Kurdish community against Damascus, the PKK harnessed it to its struggle against Turkey.[22] From the PKK’s point of view, the Syrian Kurdish community became a recruitment pool for its guerrilla war in Turkey.

Regime hospitality grew over time and PKK training, meeting and resting facilities in Syria multiplied. According to a former director of one of the Syrian regime’s security services: ‘In the beginning, Hafez al-Assad was a safe haven for the PKK. Abdallah Öcalan stayed a long time in Syria and he trained his fighters in the Lebanese Bekaa, which was under the control of Hafez al-Assad, and in Zabadani, on Syrian soil. There is a strong relationship between the PKK, the Assad regime and Iran.’[23] Although the relationship between the PKK and the Syrian regime was transactional (meaning it waxed and waned with the priorities of the Syrian regime) it was never fully severed. This did not even happen after Hafez al-Assad, under pressure from Turkey, expelled the PKK in 1998, although the expulsion did lead to the incarceration of many PKK cadres and fighters in Syria.[24]

With this context in mind, it is possible to understand why the regime’s May 2011 overtures to the PDK-S to split the Syrian Kurds from the rest of the uprising failed,[25] but those to the PYD succeeded. The former harboured a deep mistrust of the regime as a result of its legacy of repression. The latter had been party to the relationships that were maintained between the PKK and Syria’s intelligence chiefs, as well as its rulers. Together with gestures like the release of PKK personnel from prison, it is these relationships that smoothed the PKK’s re-entry into Syria under cover of the PYD in 2011. The PKK connection also helps explain how the PYD could create, mobilise and arm the YPG so quickly.[26] All of this moreover feeds into Turkey’s view that the PYD merely serves as a PKK franchise and its expectation that northern Syria would simply become a rest and recuperation area for the PKK’s Turkish battlefront.[27]

The situation of the PKK itself is a third element to consider. The organisation did not manage to translate its fighting successes of the 1980s into sufficient political pressure to force the Turkish state to compromise on the matter of Kurdish autonomy. Despite a tentative effort towards peace in 1991 under President Turgut Özal (of Kurdish descent), an upgraded Turkish military hit the PKK hard in the 1990s and restricted it to a mix of guerrilla attacks and urban hits from its base in the Qandil mountains.[28] The subsequent formal peace negotiations between the AKP and PKK ran from 2006 to 2011 (the ‘Oslo talks’) and then from 2013 to 2015 without producing results acceptable to both parties.[29]

Mural of Abdullah Öcalan in the city of Qamishli
Mural of Abdullah Öcalan in the city of Qamishli

In this context, the Syrian uprising offered the PKK an opportunity to increase its leverage and to hedge against the peace talks’ potential failure. Funnelling fighters and resources into Syria via PYD infrastructure and under its untarnished name enabled the PKK to build a presence in an area adjacent to Turkey and within reach of its main base.[30] Its prior relations with the Syrian regime enabled both initial entry as well as subsequent expansion. However, this same intervention contributed to the failure of the peace talks the PKK was conducting in parallel.[31] Persistent reports about PKK control over PYD and YPG decision making, as well as Turkish fears about a PKK presence along its southern border, must be considered from this perspective.[32] In essence, the Syrian civil war offered the PKK a new field of action in its long struggle against Turkey by mobilising its fighting capabilities against Syrian adversaries that were much weaker than the Turkish army.[33]

This connects with a fourth element, namely the rise of the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) as a new entity after 1991 when Iraq’s Kurds carved out a substantial autonomous area under the duopoly of the KDP, which controls the western part of the KRI, and the PUK, which controls the eastern part. In 2005, the KRI even became a formal entity. Its newly established self-rule in the context of a federalizing Iraqi state radically altered the regional Kurdish power configuration by strengthening that of the KDP and PUK while weakening that of the PKK. As both Iraqi Kurdish parties shifted from waging guerrilla war to exercising territorial rule, the PKK became a competitor for authority, loyalties and resources more than a transnational kinship organisation.[34] The initial KDP-PKK understanding, based on the 1983 ‘Principles of Solidarity’ agreed between Barzani and Öcalan, which enabled the PKK to establish itself in northern Iraq, was discarded. It was replaced by open fighting between the PKK and KDP as well as PUK, resulting in a defeat of the PKK. Having been saved by the PUK in an advantageous ‘surrender deal’, the PKK sided with the PUK in the Iraqi Kurdish civil war from 1994–1995.[35] Afterwards, KDP-PKK tensions were kept manageable by an informal arrangement that saw the PKK stay out of urban areas of the KDP-run parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and the KDP refrain from supporting operations against the PKK in rural areas. Over the past decade, this arrangement has gradually broken down as the KDP grew closer to Turkey after 2005 and the PKK moved into Syria after 2011. Today, KDP pre-eminence in the KRG[36] and its cordial relations with Turkey mean that it has become more ambivalent towards the PKK. It has reframed the organization as foreign element instead of one of transnational kinship, and enables an array of Turkish military bases and operations on its territory. The PUK, however, continues to support the PKK that also remains on good terms with Iran.[37]

The start of conflict in Syria in 2011 offered the PKK an opportunity to increase its power base in Syria via the YPG/PYD.[38] Initially, this was not necessarily viewed as problematic in Erbil. As a Syrian Arab-Kurdish TV journalist told us: ‘The countries in the region facilitated it. Barzani, for example, has thousands of fighters in the Qandil mountains that he cannot control [Authors: the number is not verified]. It is in his interest that many of them leave for Syria. For Turkey, it is the same. What happened is that Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian Kurds entered Syria.’[39] But as YPG/PYD influence in Syria grew, the KDP formed the Rojava Peshmerga (which later joined the KNC) and worked more closely with the KNC, in addition to trying to come to an agreement with the YPG/PYD (starting with the 2012 Erbil declaration).[40]

As a representative of the Syrian National Coalition confided: ‘In Iraq, you know, you have Barzani and you have Talabani. On the other side you have the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan. The real problem with the Kurds in Syria is the competition between these two parties, between Öcalan and Barzani – who is going to control the Syrian Kurds? Unfortunately, Qandil is winning this competition.’[41] Although the dichotomisation of political choice is a bit simplistic since there are more than two Syrian Kurdish parties, such a statement does correctly point out that the key to a solution to Kurdish divisions in Syria does not lie within Syria itself. There have been several efforts to patch up PKK-KDP relations via PYD-KNC negotiations, including the Erbil-1 (2012), Erbil-2 (2013) and Duhok (2014) agreements, as well as more recent US-sponsored talks.[42] While some of these efforts enjoyed modest success on paper, reinforced temporarily by the wartime exigency of jointly fighting IS in Kobani and Sinjar, they failed to improve the strategic relationship.[43] In sum, we can say that the rising KDP-PKK tensions played a role in turning northeastern Syria into a more active area of KDP-PKK contestation after 2011.[44]

Villages between Debersiya and Ra’s al-Ain
Villages between Debersiya and Ra’s al-Ain

A fifth and final element, which partially overlaps with the previous one, are the longstanding divisions between the Syrian Kurds themselves.[45] The main point to consider is that the YPG/PYD is far from the only representative of Syria’s Kurds. In other words, there are sizeable groups of Syrian Kurds who do not support the party. However, it has become impossible to assess the size of the constituencies of the existing range of Kurdish political parties correctly due to the volume of flight and displacement in northern Syria since 2011, PYD-dominated employment and YPG-run conscription practices in northeast Syria, and wartime propaganda.[46] Two indicators can nevertheless serve as proxies for popular support:

The rough division of Kurdish Syria into loyalists of Öcalan (YPG/PYD), supporters of Barzani (mostly KNC, with its largest party being an ally to Barzani), and followers of other Kurdish parties (appreciating that there are also differences within each group). Allsopp and Van Wilgenburg write: ‘Broad ideological differences were apparent, however, between the two regions of the Jezirah and Kobani. Öcalanism (also referred to as Apoism) was chosen by 42 per cent of the participants in Kobani compared to just 17.5 per cent in the Jazirah’.[47] In short, popular support for different Kurdish parties and ideologies varies significantly per area.

The density of the Kurdish political party landscape. Here, Allsopp points to the personalised nature and personal ambitions of Kurdish political figures in Syria before 2011 as primary causes of fragmentation. Syria’s context of repression of political dissent also precluded the formation of a culture of political dialogue and compromise that could have helped surmount such differences. In 2014, she counted 21 Kurdish political parties in Syria on a total of several million inhabitants (Kurds, Arabs and others).[48] In 2020, Kajjo lists 15 parties that make up the KNC and 23 constituting the PYD-led Kurdish National Unity Party, totalling 38 parties.[49]

A number of these parties are small and centred on a single person. Others are simply ‘follower parties’. Yet, this context provided a ready supply of clients that facilitated the rapid expansion of a patronage system around two poles: the YPG/PYD as PKK proxy and the KNC as ally of the KDP. Such fragmentation also created a collective action problem in 2011/2012 when the level of violence of the civil war gradually increased. While there were (renewed) initiatives to unite politically, these remained emergent, insufficiently capacitated, or were not joined by the YPG/PYD. Instead, the YPG prioritised action over consensus for the dual purpose of seizing control and protecting communities. Once established, it for example repeatedly refused the Rojava Peshmerga entry into northeast Syria – except under its command – including after these originally KDP-linked forces joined the KNC in 2015.[50] In summary, longstanding divisions between Syria’s Kurdish political parties and the individualist, dominant behaviour of the YPG made a joint response difficult in the early days of the conflict.[51]

Table 1 below brings these five elements together to help explain the rise of the YPG/PYD in the early years of the Syrian conflict. They are best understood as enabling context factors.

Table 1
Summary of contextual factors that enabled the YPG/PYD’s rise in the early days of the war

Main elements


Relevance to PYD rise

(1) There was a long-standing policy of marginalisation, Arabisation and repression of Syria’s Kurds (plus other minorities) by Gamal Abdel Nasr, the Ba’ath party and the Assads


A decrease in demographic and cultural cohesiveness

Creation of deep-seated fear of repression and mutual mistrust

Practices of consensus building and compromise were suppressed

Creation of deep-seated need for protection

There was limited Kurdish desire to support an armed rebellion that might re-create an Arab-dominated Syria, which was one undercurrent in a number of opposition statements alongside those more supportive of Kurdish rights.[52]

As the YPG provided early protection against the risk of violence from an escalating civil war for Kurdish communities, it gained support, which it used to grow further (output legitimacy).

The mix of fragmentation of the Kurdish political party scene and the YPG/PYD’s own suppression of alternative forms of protection beyond its control helped it achieve dominance.

(2) There was a positive relationship between the PKK and the Syrian regime


The actors developed detailed knowledge and familiarity with one another over the course of two decades

The familiarity and relationship between the Syrian regime and PKK facilitated re-entry of PKK fighters and, later, deal-making between the regime and the PKK-linked YPG/PYD.

It also helps to explain the PKK’s ongoing dismissal/neglect of Kurdish society in Syria before 1998 and in a context of YPG/PYD-regime dealings after 2011.

(3) The peace process between Turkey and the PKK is uncertain, the PKK down and needs a new purpose


The PKK is looking for a strategic revival and new opportunities

The Syrian civil war offers the PKK a chance to create more strategic depth and to have its own kind of ‘autonomy model’ in Syria by working with and through the YPG/PYD. An informal arrangement with the regime enabled the PYD to expand further.

(4) The creation of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) changes the KDP-PKK relationship and mutual perceptions


The KRI shows Kurdish territorial autonomy is possible under particular conditions

Creation of the KRI changes the KDP from guerrilla movement to territorial ruler, with the PKK becoming a ‘difficult guest’

The PKK became a strategic risk to the KDP after 1991 and more so after 2005. When the PKK used the Syrian civil war to expand and circumvent the KDP by supporting the YPG, the PKK became a strategic threat.

The more competitive dynamics of the PKK-KDP relation made PYD-KNC negotiation/cooperation difficult and created incentives for the PYD to sideline the KNC by acting as spoiler.

(5) The many divisions between Syrian Kurdish parties make effective joint action difficult


It is not clear whether any single party enjoys majority support

Parties engage in cooperative relations with the KDP or PKK

The YPG/PYD opts for achieving political control and coercive dominance, using the circumstances of an expanding civil war level to establish and justify protection mechanisms.

The fragmented political landscape makes it difficult to operate more collaboratively.

The factors listed in Table 1 provide the context in which two events could have had a decisive influence on the fortunes and rise of the YPG/PYD after the start of the Syrian conflict. First, the 2011/2012 informal co-existence arrangement with the Assad regime brought the YPG/PYD relative autonomy as well as new coercive and administrative capabilities. These capabilities enabled the YPG/PYD to establish a firmer hold over northeastern Syria after mid-2012 while helping to suppress the revolution and, later on, battling various radical extremist groups. Second, the YPG’s reconquest of the town of Kobani in 2015 became the starting point of a period of sustained US support while also turning the YPG into a fighting force to reckon with, which caused growing concern in both Ankara and Erbil. Both events are analysed in the next sections.

The regime throws in the towel – for now

The parallel ‘day of rage’ demonstrations against the Syrian regime in Damascus and Aleppo on 15 March 2011 marked the moment that a series of geographically dispersed acts of protest and defiance across the country – in places like Deraa, Hasaka, Homs and Deir Ezzor – transformed into an embryonic national movement that rapidly gathered force.[53] By the summer of 2011, the revolution had started to become more militant, in large part because of relentless and brutal regime repression. By late 2011, as Charles Lister puts it, ‘many areas of Syria had become open battlegrounds between Syrian opposition fighters and the military’.[54] The strains on the Syrian Arab Army and the country’s various intelligence services grew in consequence.

But it was well before the summer of 2011 that the regime reached out to several Kurdish factions in a bid to alleviate such strains and increase the likelihood of its own survival. Bashar al-Assad, Ali Mamlouk (head of the General Security Directorate at the time), Hisham Bakhtiyar (then head of the National Security Office; died 2012) and Riyadh Hijab (Prime Minister at the time) are said to have agreed to reach out to both the KDP-S (the first Kurdish party in Syria founded in 1957) and the PYD, using the regime’s longstanding relationship with the PKK.[55] However, several entreaties from Salih Muslim (PYD), Aldar Xelil (PKK Central Committee; today also member of the PYD’s Co-Presidency[56]) and Assad himself (via the governor of Hasaka) to build an KDP-S – PYD alliance in April/May 2011 came to nought. Recent experiences played a key role: while the PKK and PYD had a mixed relationship with the Assad regime, in large part due to Hafez al-Assad’s longstanding support for the PKK, the KDP-S’ experience was much less positive.[57] As one interviewee put it: ‘it already had the experience of the Assad regime and it brought them nothing.’[58]

While the exact sequence of events is hard to establish, the regime’s objectives were clear enough. Assad et al. wanted to prevent a northeastern front opening up against it and to maintain their longstanding narrative of the regime as ‘protector of minorities’ (the Kurds are Syria’s second largest minority after the Alawites). Only the PYD proved willing to talk.[59] Further meetings reportedly followed later in 2011 and early 2012 between PKK delegations from Qandil and regime representatives. Allegedly, PKK representatives entered the country via the Samalka border crossing, were met at Qamishli airport by intelligence officials, and flown to Damascus to meet with regime officials.[60]

A tacit and unwritten understanding between the Syrian regime and the PYD was reached in early 2012. It was a kind of pragmatic arrangement that saw the Assad regime transfer key security resources and economic infrastructure in northeastern Syria to the PYD in exchange for the PYD suppressing protests against the regime, steering clear of the revolution, and maintaining economic relations with the regime (see also Annex 1).[61] From the perspective of a Kurdish political party wishing to establish dominance over northeastern Syria, agreeing a tacit arrangement with the Syrian regime proved to be both a bold move and an appreciable liability.

Bold, because it enabled the YPG/PYD to acquire control over Syrian Kurdish majority areas such as Afrin, Kobani, Amouda, Derbesiya and Derik/Al-Malikiya but also mixed areas in Hasaka province, in a short amount of time. When Kobani and Hasaka later floundered in the face of the IS onslaught in 2014, US support proved critical and the fight against IS became an opportunity for the YPG/PYD to become stronger than the regime is likely to have anticipated (see next Section), extending its authority over both mixed and Arab-majority/-only areas (e.g. Hasaka province, parts of Aleppo province, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces).

But its arrangement with the regime also became a significant liability for the YPG because, as one of our interviewees put it: ‘our biggest problem with the YPG is that they are allying themselves with the regime. We did not demonstrate against Assad to have him replaced by a non-Syrian, Öcalan.’[62] One consequence of the rejection by one segment of the Syrian Kurdish population of the YPG/PYD’s link with the PKK has been that the YPG/PYD has had to use more coercion and repression to govern northeast Syria than it might have anticipated (this is further discussed in Section 2). It should be noted that both PYD and SDC spokespersons either denied the existence of such a tacit arrangement between the PYD and the regime or remained ambiguous on the matter. Yet, the sequence of events that took place in 2012 provides plausible proof of its existence, as do the documents listed in Annex A.[63]

To begin with, a number of military and police assets started to change hands peacefully in early 2012 as Syrian military forces largely withdrew from the Kurdish-populated areas of northern Syria. A former high-ranking intelligence official of the regime told us: ‘I got orders from Damascus by phone, only by phone. In the first phase, the border posts were handed over, starting with the 95 km border between Qahtaniya and Amouda. There were 15 border posts and each of them had a big Toyota vehicle, a machine gun, and a few Kalashnikovs.[64] Later, the regime gave them [the PKK] more advanced weapons. We could see the difference at the checkpoints. Entire police departments, including equipment, followed at Amouda, Derbesiya, Qahtaniya, Jawadiya and Rumeilan.’[65]

Next, administrative and service delivery state infrastructure followed: bakeries, state services for electricity and distribution, water, city councils and so on. But some infrastructure was retained by the regime, like banks and schools (although the PYD gradually took over the latter nevertheless). One interviewee noted that: ‘They [the PYD] received key administrative buildings from the state. The people saw clear coordination between the regime and the PYD. Today, there are still offices with two floors where on the ground floor the regime is present and on the first floor the PYD is present.’[66]

Finally, several of our interviewees confirmed the transfer of oil and gas fields in Rumeilan, Sweidiya and Jebeisa from the regime to the YPG/PYD on the condition that it kept supplying the regime (see Annex 1).[67] Indeed, throughout the conflict a lively trade has been kept up between the PYD and the regime.[68] As another interviewee put it: ‘The deal was that the YPG would continue to deliver oil to the regime as long as it had these areas under its control.’[69]

Countryside between Amouda and Hasaka with Jebel Kawkab in the background
Countryside between Amouda and Hasaka with Jebel Kawkab in the background

Beyond this staged handover of key security and economic assets, there are more indirect indicators pointing to the existence of a tacit arrangement, such as the fact that the YPG suffered very few regime or Russian airstrikes throughout the conflict despite such strikes being trademark anti-rebel tactics of the regime.[70] What also needs to be considered is the question as to how the YPG could grow from a few hundred to a few thousand fighters in a short period given that, until 2011, the slightest suspicion of armed resistance meant imprisonment or execution. A Syrian Kurdish-Arab journalist knowledgeable on the matter framed it as follows: ‘What you used to see is fighters going from Syria and Turkey towards Qandil, but in 2011/2012 we witnessed the reverse: fighters going from Turkey and Qandil to Syria. Turkey and the KRG considered these fighters as a problem and figured that if they went to Syria it would ease their problem a bit. These fighters, with decades of experience in combat training in harsh mountain conditions, had a big influence on the organisation and operations of the YPG. And the KNC was weak in terms of organisation and coercive capabilities. The people embraced the dream of Kurdish rule and of raising the Kurdish flag across the area.’[71]

The regime did not, however, hand over control fully or unconditionally. It retained a military presence in Qamishli (several blocks in the centre of the town towards the Turkish border, as well as at the airport) and Hasaka (several blocks in the town centre, plus a strategic hill, Jebel Kawkab, outside the town) as well as a wider intelligence footprint in Syria’s Kurdish areas.[72] A KNC representative put it thus: ‘Despite the PYD running all these checkpoints, the regime is still present in Qamishli. What does this indicate? This is an indicator of an agreement between the PYD and the regime. I give you the area, you can exploit it, you have local authority, you can use the oil and gas as well, but I will stay present’ [Authors’ note: It also maintains a more informal and less visible presence in places like Derik/Al-Malkiya].[73] Or, as it was alternatively put by another interviewee: ‘There was an agreement between them [the regime and PYD]. That agreement is: “You will be present today and one day when the matters have calmed down and I have taken control over the revolution, I will require everything back.’[74]

In exchange, the PYD did not join the revolution and on several occasions helped to repress protest. A Syrian politician from Hasaka recalled the following episode: ‘They started to be an agent for the Assad regime by cracking down on demonstrations. The military intelligence of the Assad regime’s security forces were cooperating with the intelligence of the PYD. Both of them oppressed the protests, they were doing control rounds together. I recall an incident in 2012 when, during a peaceful demonstration in the Tel Hajar neighbourhood of Hasaka, both Assad’s military intelligence and a group of PYD opened fire on the demonstrators. They killed three people.’[75] There are furthermore quite a few testimonies from the early years of the civil war about the YPG/PYD killing activists who opposed the regime and its own efforts to establish dominance. Consider, for example, Nasreddine Barheik (PDK-S) and Mash’al Tammo (Kurdish Future Movement).[76] Finally, the PYD killed at least six Kurdish ‘opposition’ politicians and/or activists in Amouda on 27 June 2013 who were part of a demonstration against the regime.[77]

In sum, it is clear from the early days of the Syrian civil war that, as a route to achieving greater Kurdish autonomy based on the concepts of Öcalan, the YPG/PYD and PKK preferred an informal understanding with the devil-they-knew rather than joining the opposition to the regime.

A perfect enemy: Islamic State

In addition to its efforts to split the Kurds from the general opposition, the Assad regime also sought to change the image of the uprising from one of peaceful protest to one of radical Islamist violence. Both strategies coincided further down the road of civil war, but in ways not necessarily intended by the regime. The analysis below sheds light on their first major crossroads during the battle for Kobani in 2014/2015.

The regime recognised early on that there was arguably no greater threat to its rule than sustained non-violent resistance. To prevent it, the regime combined harsh repression with releasing some Islamists and jihadists (in addition to the noted PKK members) from its prisons around mid-2011.[78] It also re-activated networks once used to transport foreign fighters into Iraq to fight against US forces in the mid- to late 2000s. This time, they intended to facilitate the rise of Islamist armed groups.[79] January 2012 did see the entry into the conflict of Jabhat al-Nusra and April 2013 that of IS. Both groups would soon get into conflict with YPG-led forces in the Kurdish areas of Syria,[80] including the pivotal battle for Kobani from September 2014 to January 2015.

The rise of Jabhat al-Nusra and IS had the effect the regime had intended: it helped to gradually switch Western attention from the revolt against Assad to fighting radical Islamist terrorism, alongside Western concerns about the growing religiosity of the revolution at large and the limited quality of rebel governance. The notions that the Assad regime was the ‘biggest terrorist in town’, or that a radical Islamist group with a reasonable degree of local legitimacy like Ahrar al-Sham[81] could also be part of any post-war order, were not seriously considered in Western policy making. An additional benefit to the regime was the split between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in April 2013, which increased conflict within the armed radical opposition.[82]

The second half of 2013 saw IS steadily increasing its territorial presence in Syria and adopting an aggressive posture against other opposition forces. Early 2014 witnessed an alteration in offensives and counteroffensives between several opposition factions and IS with the initial effect of driving IS forces out of western Syria (Latakia, Idlib and the Aleppo area). However, the capture of Mosul by IS in June 2014, together with its declaration of a Caliphate in June 2014, boosted the group enormously. Awash with equipment and cash, enjoying high morale and benefiting from numerous new recruits and allies (from local tribes to franchises beyond Syria), it launched major offensives in the following months in both Syria (north of Aleppo towards Tel Rifaat and in Azaz) and Iraq (first towards Baghdad and then Erbil).[83] Part of the Syria offensive was aimed at YPG-led forces and resulted in the battle for Kobani that started in mid-September 2014.

Graves at a burial ground between Debersiya and Amouda. The deceased fought the Islamic State
Graves at a burial ground between Debersiya and Amouda. The deceased fought the Islamic State

It is this battle that is of interest to our analysis as it marks the second post-2011 accelerator of YPG/PYD rule over Kurdish Syria and beyond. The battle itself was a prolonged and bloody affair that spanned five months of uninterrupted fighting concentrated mostly in the dense urban spaces of the town itself. It should be noted that the town had almost completely fallen to IS due to the group’s fighting prowess, the initial lack of defence put up by YPG, the initial absence of US support and the initial Turkish refusal to facilitate the passage of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga reinforcements (Kobani lies on the Syrian-Turkish border).[84] Ultimately, YPG forces, a mix of FSA brigades, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga,[85] and US supplies and airpower turned near certain defeat into a narrow victory with hugely symbolic consequences. Either overconfident or keen to maintain its image of invincibility, IS kept pouring manpower into the battle even when it was being lost.[86] In the end, IS had to withdraw, marking the battle as an important turning point in its gradual roll-back in Syria.

Another major consequence of the battle was that it restored, to some extent, the YPG/PYD’s local legitimacy, catapulted it to international fame, and secured it a steady supply of US military aid until well into 2021 to continue the fight against IS. A Syrian Arab-Kurdish journalist put it to us thus: ‘Kobani enabled the YPG to establish themselves internationally: “we are the partners of the world in the fight against IS”.’ In addition, success in battle also pushed the YPG/PYD’s suppression of dissent to the background, as well as its measures taken in the name of the fight against IS that forcibly displaced thousands of Arabs and burnt down dozens of Arab villages.[87] It should be recalled that the popularity of the PYD in northern Syria among Kurds was at a low point in September 2014 due to a string of human rights abuses (imprisonment of activists, killing political dissidents) and possible war crimes (such as recruiting children).[88] The shooting in Amouda on 27 June 2013 of about six Kurdish politicians and supporters who had protested against the regime and the PYD was a particularly dark stain on the PYD’s reputation. The party killed its fellow Kurds and forbade them to raise the flag of the revolution in Kurdish areas. However, the pride generated among different Kurdish communities by the YPG’s success in the battle for Kobani relegated its repressive practices to the background for some time, facilitated recruitment, and bolstered its reputation and control.

The battle for Kobani was also the ‘start’ of the US underwriting the YPG’s fight against ISIS. Our interviews suggest that it was clear from the start that this was understood as a temporary alliance of convenience against IS. In consequence, the uproar that resulted from President Trump’s withdrawal of the bulk of US forces in 2019, which elicited phrases like ‘betraying the Kurds once more’ and ‘abandonment of Syria’, largely served propaganda purposes rather than reflecting reality.[89] One interviewee indicated: ‘The Americans do not promise anything political. They do not promise land, nor do they promise a state. The American is a military ally. There is a strategic alliance between the Americans and the PKK. But they do not promise them anything political.’[90] Or, alternatively: ‘They do not have any political agreement with them, with PYD, YPG, only to fight ISIS. That is what happens.’[91] From a US perspective, support for the PYD indeed appears to have been intended as a tactical military partnership against IS but without support for a Kurdish political project.[92] Yet it was always likely that access to military resources from a superpower in times of war would have political consequences, especially given the YPG’s objective of uniting Syria’s Kurdish-populated regions, despite the fact that the Syrian Kurds are spread across a large area that is also inhabited by many others.

These consequences have extended far beyond the defeat of IS in Syria.[93] The partnership also enabled the PYD to maintain its monopolistic position as the dominant Kurdish party in northeastern Syria, expand into large minority and even non-Kurdish areas of Syria that are rich in natural resources (especially east of the Raqqa–Deir Ezzor axis), increased US-Turkish tensions as the US conveniently ignored the role the PKK plays in the YPG/PYD, and triggered several Turkish offensives into northern Syria.[94] For example, in 2016 Joe Biden (then US vice president) explicitly warned the YPG to pull back east of the Euphrates river after seizing control of the Syrian town of Manbij to ensure continued US support.[95] His remarks indicated that the YPG was not to advance from Manbij on Tel Rifaat, which would have created a connection between Afrin and Hasaka province. However, his words were not backed by action when the YPG nevertheless advanced.[96] Subsequently, this led Turkey, together with a number of FSA brigades, to launch Operation Euphrates Shield to counter the perceived YPG threat on its southern front – in addition to the presence of IS in the area and the Turkish intervention also being part of the Global Coalition’s strategy.

Reception area of a burial ground between Debersiya and Amouda. The deceased fought the Islamic State
Reception area of a burial ground between Debersiya and Amouda. The deceased fought the Islamic State

Today, however, the US is faced with the consequences of having enabled the YPG/PYD to acquire Arab-only areas that include parts of the provinces of Hasaka, much of Raqqa and all of Deir Ezzor along the Euphrates towards the Syrian/Iraqi border. While useful to keep IS down, the YPG/PYD’s presence is not universally welcome in these areas. Many tribal leaders view both the SDC and SDF as vehicles to project and legitimise YPG/PYD rule.[97] The challenge these leaders face is that their tribes are not capable of contesting YPG/PYD rule effectively due to their lack of external support and their decline as coherent political-security actors, which predates the start of the civil war (see Section 2). Rather than employing a finely tuned mix of resource-sharing, coercion and participatory governance tactics to maintain control, our interviews suggest that the YPG/PYD relies mostly on coercive and divide-and-rule methods.[98] Due to the local inability to resist meaningfully, this has so far not had major consequences. Nevertheless, with Iranian militias, Russian mercenaries and regime forces stationed west of the Euphrates, as well as resurgent IS activity in the Badia desert and east of Deir Ezzor (SDF-controlled), it is hard to imagine the current relative calm as permanent. Meanwhile, the area has grown in importance to the US because keeping its resources out of reach of the Syrian regime is a key component of its maximum pressure strategy against Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’.

The US-YPG partnership did not, however, cause the YPG to break off its relations with the Assad regime. One interviewee, reflecting on US-PYD relations after the partial US withdrawal of 2019, recounted: ‘The PYD’s relations with the regime are still good, but their relations with the Americans are better. However, the relations between the PKK and the regime are still good. They do not trust the Americans so much because they are afraid the Americans will let them down and leave them.’[99] Nevertheless, the boost that US support has given the YPG in terms of equipment, international standing, territorial and resource control has created appreciable blowback for the Assad regime, which had originally intended to split the opposition by empowering the YPG/PYD only to the extent that the party could later be folded back into regime structures without much resistance or compromise. But the aggressive rise of IS helped bring about the battle for Kobani, which subsequently saw the start of US support for the YPG/PYD. US support gave the YPG/PYD scope to evolve from the regime’s unofficial ‘partner-in-crime’ (until end 2014) into more of a true rebel group (by 2020).

Taking stock: Assessing the nature of the YPG/PYD

The YPG/PYD emerges from the preceding analysis as a quasi-rebel group (working indirectly against the regime by establishing its own autonomous sphere) as well as a quasi-paramilitary group (working indirectly with the regime by selling it oil, trading with it, not attacking it, suppressing dissent against it, and providing limited battlefield support – especially in and around Aleppo in 2016). It has been engaged in fighting IS as much as it has been in consolidating and expanding its own rule. The quasi-rebel character of the YPG/PYD as armed-group-cum-political-party stems from the fact that it is unlikely to surrender its hard-won autonomy or its newly-acquired territories to Damascus without serious negotiation of its future status, and perhaps even a fight.[100] A return to the status quo before the civil war – in which many Syrian Kurds were second-class citizens without rights and political representation – is difficult to imagine unless by application of sustained brute force. From the perspective of Syria’s Kurds, this is a substantial achievement.

The quasi-paramilitary character of the YPG/PYD has been on display in, for example, its refusal to join revolutionary forces such as the FSA in their fight against Assad (there are a few exceptions where the FSA has joined forces with the YPG to fight IS), engaging in occasional fights with such revolutionary forces that escalated after the taking of Tel Rifaat, and repressing political competition / suppressing revolutionary protests against the regime in areas under its control. Nevertheless, the YPG retains full operational control of its armed forces and there is no evidence of it taking direct orders from Damascus.[101]

The YPG/PYD’s fight with IS was a crucial contribution to the defeat of the Caliphate in Syria. But while this fight was forced upon the YPG/PYD in 2014–2015, it also became a strategy to extend YPG/PYD control beyond Kurdish-inhabited areas after 2015 – with US support. Ironically, both IS and the YPG/PYD were part of Assad’s survival strategy. But instead of killing each other off and allowing Assad to emerge victorious, the defeat of IS strengthened the YPG/PYD beyond what had been anticipated in Damascus.

In sum, the YPG/PYD can be conceptualised as a hybrid coercive organisation with the caveat that it has so far not engaged in significant violence against the Syrian regime with which it engages in practical deal making. Based on the available evidence, it is reasonable to say that from 2011 to 2016 the YPG/PYD behaved more as a paramilitary than as a rebel group, and that from 2016 to the present day more as a rebel group than as a paramilitary one.

Either way, further examination of the YPG/PYD’s strategic relations, political economy and constituency is warranted to assess its evolution, since these elements are the foundations of its power base.[102] We undertake this task below through a study of the strategies of dominance and governance the YPG/PYD has applied during the Syrian civil war.

Interview with a PYD representative, Ra’s Al-Ayn, 5 October 2019.
For example, the official name of the town of Kobani is Ayn al-Arab; of Derik it is Al-Malikiya; of Tirbespi it is Al-Qahtaniyah.
It should be noted that the ‘othering’ of the Syrian Kurds by the regime was echoed by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in the early years of the war, which did not inspire confidence among Syrian Kurdish parties. See: Allsopp and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit.; Gunes and Lowe (2015), op.cit.; Van Dam (2017), op cit.; Phillips (2020), op.cit.; HNC (Etilaf), Executive framework for a political solution based on the Geneva communiqué of 2012, 2016, online. The latter offers mixed messages, e.g. pages 3 versus 9.
See: Seurat, M., Syrie: l’État de barbarie, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2012.
One consequence was that Kurdish residents in urban areas had greater access to state-enabled opportunities than Kurds resident in rural areas, since the former tended to be (seen as) more integrated into Syria as nation-state.
Marcus (2007), op.cit.; Allsopp (2015), op.cit.
Interview with a Syrian activist, Geneva, March 2017; for greater detail see also: Dukhan, H., State and Tribes in Syria: Informal Alliances and Conflict Patterns, London: Routledge, 2020; Netjes, R., Als Assad oprecht zou zijn, dan had hij de Koerden rechten geven [had Assad been sincere, he would have given the Kurds greater rights], OneWorld, 2017, online.
Consider, for example, the brutal repression by the regime of the 2004 Qamishli protests that is estimated to have resulted in 40 deaths, over 100 injured, and over 2,000 incarcerations. See: Lowe, R., The Syrian Kurds: A people discovered, London: Chatham House, 2006.
Allsopp (2015), op.cit.; ICG (2013), op.cit. A few small initial efforts to set up protection units in Qamishli were undone by the YPG/PYD.
Syria administered parts of Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war and exercised substantial political control.
Marcus (2007), op.cit.
Interview with a former high-ranking official of one of Syria’s intelligence services, Istanbul, 19 August 2019.
About the period around the PKK’s expulsion, see: Alantar, Ö., The October 1998 crisis: A change of heart of Turkish foreign policy towards Syria, CEMOTI: Persée, Cahiers d'Études sur la Méditerranée Orientale et le monde Turco-Iranien, 2001, online.
The PDK-S dates from 1957, is close to Barzani’s KDP, and became the largest party of the KNC once the latter was founded later in 2011.
ICG (2017), op.cit.; Allsopp and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit.; Interview with a prominent PYD representative, Ra’s al-Ayn, October 2019; Dagher (2019), op.cit.; Stein and Foley (2016), op.cit.; see also this statement by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter: link (accessed 18 November 2020).
Acun, C. and B. Keskin, The PKK’s branch in northern Syria: PYD-YPG, Ankara: SETA, 2017.
Marcus (2007), op.cit., also: Aydin, A. and Emrence, C., Zones of rebellion: Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish state, Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2015.
Kadioglu, I. (2019), ‘The Oslo Talks: Revealing the Turkish government’s secret negotiations with the PKK’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 42, Issue 10; Krajeski, J., The consequences of the battle for Kobani, The New Yorker, online, 26 February 2015.
ICG, Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s precarious rise in Syria, Middle East report no. 151, 2014.
Van Veen, E., E. Yüksel and H. Tekinis, Waiting for blowback: Turkey’s new regional militarism and its Kurdish question, The Hague: Clingendael, 2020.
See ICG (2017), op.cit.; Allsopp and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit.; Acun and Keskin (2017), op.cit.
After the total collapse of AKP-PKK peace negotiations in 2015, the rationale for PKK involvement in Syria grew only as Turkey doubled down on its securitised anti-terrorist approach against the PKK. Today, even the PKK’s Qandil stronghold is under quasi-siege through various Turkish military operations that have sought to cut PKK lines of supply between Turkey, Iraq and Syria. See: Van Veen, Yüksel and Tekinis (2020), op.cit.
For the evolution of the role of the Peshmerga in this broader picture: Fliervoet, F., Fighting for Kurdistan? Assessing the nature and functions of the Peshmerga in Iraq, Clingendael: The Hague, 2018.
Černy, H., ‘Ethnic Alliances Deconstructed: The PKK Sanctuary in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Internationalization of Ethnic Conflict Revisited’, Ethnopolitics, 2014, online (especially pp. 12–16).
Due to its geography and the general dependency of the KRI on oil exports and other trade via Turkey for part of its revenue. More recently also because of leadership contestation in the PUK after the dead of Jalal Talabani. See: Ali Saleem, Z. and M. Skelton, Assessing Iraqi Kurdistan’s stability: How patronage shapes conflict, London: LSE, IRIS and CRP, 2020.
The manner in which some of the Kurdish parties were established offer indications of their relations and alliances. For example, the PUK was established in Syria (1975) while the PYD was established with strong support from Talabani and his PUK (2003). See for example: Dagher (2019), op.cit. On regional relations see also: Wahab, B., Iran's Warming Relations with the PKK Could Destabilize the KRG, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2017, online.
In the material, but also in the ideological sense. For instance, by making Öcalan’s notion of ‘democratic confederalism’ the centrepiece of the PKK’s (and YPG/PYD’s) governance philosophy (at least on paper) in contrast to the KDP ideology-light, patronage-heavy methods of rule (as discussed more under ‘identity strategies’ in Section 2). See: Öcalan, A., Democratic confederalism, International Initiative edition, 4th edition, 2017, online.
Interview with a Syrian Kurdish-Arabic journalist in Istanbul on 21 August 2019. While these Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish fighters are viewed as Kurdish from a PKK/YPG perspective, from a Syrian Arab and a KNC perspective, they are considered foreign.
Gunes and Lowe (2015), op.cit.; ICG (2013), op.cit.; Rifai, O., ‘The Kurdish identity: From banishment to empowerment’, Syria Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2016.
Interview with a representative of the Syrian National Coalition, Istanbul, 19 August 2020.
Netjes, R., Why is it so difficult for the Syrian Kurdish parties to unite?, Acta Fabula, online 2020.
Gunes and Lowe (2015), op.cit.
See for instance: Allsop (2014), op.cit.
See Netjes (2020), op.cit.; for a more detailed assessment of the matter in the early years of the civil war: International Crisis Group, Syria’s Kurds: A struggle within a struggle, Brussels: ICG, 2013.
As a former senior US official put it: ‘It is hard to gauge who enjoys what support among Syrian Kurds. The culture of democratic political behaviour is at best just starting and the YPG repressed opponents, sometimes even killing them, prior to 2016. Some repression continues to the present day.’ Interview with a former senior US official by email, February 2020.
Allsopp and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit. Our own interviews suggest that this percentage may be exaggerated since many Kurds in the area support Apoism for the simple reason that it increases their job prospects with the PYD.
Allsopp (2015), op.cit. The CIA Factbook estimates a population of 2 million Syrian Kurds. See: link (accessed 19 August 2020). UN OCHA estimates the entire population of northeastern Syria at about 3 million today (including Raqqa and Deir Ezzor). See: link (accessed 15 November 2020). Due to the scale of displacement and flight between 2011 and 2020, all such figures should be viewed with caution.
Kajjo, S., Prospects for Syrian Kurdish unity: Assessing local and regional dynamics, Washington DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2020 (annexes).
The Rojava Peshmerga were formed in 2012/2013 in the KRI as a KDP-trained force and were formally linked with the KNC in 2015. See: Netjes, (2020), op cit; Allsop and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit.; ICG (2014), op.cit.; Kajjo (2020), op.cit.
Also: ICG (2014), op. cit.
Dukhan argues that it was in these more rural areas that protests against the regime commenced as high levels of social capital within tribal communities enabled them to confront regime agents more readily. Dukhan (2020), op.cit.
Lister, C., The Syrian Jihad: The evolution of an insurgency, London: Hurst & Co, 2017.
Interview with a KDP-S representative, Istanbul, 21 August 2019 and follow-up exchanges in 2020.
On the PYD’s Co-Presidency: link (accessed 5 February 2021).
See this useful backgrounder by Carnegie Middle East: link
Interview with a KDP-S representative in Qamishli, 2 October 2019 and Istanbul 10 January 2020.
Interviews with KNC representatives, Istanbul, 21 August 2019; several interviews with KDP-S representatives, Istanbul, 19 August 2019 and Qamishli, 2 October 2019; Interview with a former SOC member, Istanbul, 27 August 2019. The regime oiled the wheels by releasing a number of PKK-linked people from prison in early 2011.
Interview with a high-ranking former official of one of the Syrian intelligence services, Istanbul, 19 August 2019; Interview with a KNC representative, Istanbul, 21 August 2019. A further meeting between PYD co-chair Salih Muslim and KDP-S leader Abdulhakim Al-Bashar reportedly took place in Tehran in August 2013, presumably with the idea of forming a broader Kurdish front in favour of the Assad regime in exchange for warfighting support and promises for the future. See: Allsopp and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit.
See also: Dagher (2019), op.cit. and ICG (2014), op.cit. Allsop and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit. are not clear on the matter and seem to accept the YPG/PYD’s denial of the existence of such a relationship. Annex 1 contains a synopsis of nine leaked (verified) documents that clarify that the regime relied on the PKK/YPG to suppress protests in the northeast and to maintain trade.
Interview with a Syrian researcher from Tel Abyad, Istanbul, 11 March 2020.
Interview with an SDC spokesperson, Qamishli, 2 October 2019; Interview with a Syrian activist from Tel Rifaat, Istanbul, 20 February, 2019; Interview with a PYD representative, Ra’s al Ayn, 5 October 2019. The PYD explanation is that the regime withdrew due to greater needs elsewhere.
Similar border control posts proved essential to enable the influx of PKK equipment and fighters into Syria.
Interview with a high-ranking former official of one of the Syrian intelligence services, Istanbul, 19 August 2019; see also: Phillips (2020), op.cit.
Interviews with Assyrian opposition representatives (to the regime and PYD), Qamishli, 1 October 2019.
Interview with a high-ranking former official of one of the Syrian intelligence services, Istanbul 11 August 2019; Interview with a KDP-S representative, Istanbul, 17 August 2019. Annex 1 contains a synopsis of seven leaked (verified) documents that indicate PKK/YPG-regime collaboration in respect of oil extraction and trade.
Interviews with a Syria analyst, Istanbul, 14 August 2019;Interview with a representative of the Assyrian community, Qamishli, 1 October 2019;, online (accessed 6 November 2020).
Interview with a former Dutch official by email, December 2019.
Interview with a Syrian Kurdish-Arabic journalist, Istanbul, 21 August 2019; see also: ICG (2014), op.cit.; Stein, A. and M. Foley, The YPG-PKK connection, Atlantic Council, January 2016, online.
Several interviews with SOC representatives, Istanbul, mid-late August 2019.
Interview with a KNC representative, Istanbul, 21 August 2019.
Interview with a SOC representative, Istanbul, 27 August 2019; Interview with a high-ranking former official of one of Syria’s intelligence services, 11 March 2020.
Interviews with a Syrian/Arab politician from Hasaka, Istanbul, 19 August 2019 and 4 February 2020; Interview with a Syrian Kurdish-Arabic journalist in Istanbul, 21 August 2019.
Interview with a KNC representative, Qamishli, 2 October 2019; Interview with a PDK-S representative, Istanbul, 21 August 2019; Interview with a Syrian/Kurdish politician from Hasaka, 4 February 2020. The funeral of Mash’al Tammo led to several more deaths. See: link.
Interview with a Syrian activist, Amouda, 1 October 2019; See also: Human Rights Watch, Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-run Enclaves of Syria, HRW, online, June 2014; link or (both accessed 5 February 2021). The YPG apologized for the event in June 2020 – seven years later – but no one was held accountable: link (accessed 26 February 2021).
Dagher (2019), op.cit.
Lister (2017), op.cit. Even though there were also Islamists speaking out against the revolution. See, for example, this clip from a Jaish al-Islam commander: link (accessed 12 February 2021).
For example, the fighting in and around Ra’s al-Ayn between Jabhat al-Nusra (plus some of its allies) and the YPG in July 2013 set off a longer chain reaction of conflict between Islamist and YPG forces in northern Syria.
Adraoui even makes such a case for Jabhat al-Nusra. See: Adraoui, M., ‘The case of Jabhat Al-Nusra in the Syrian conflict 2011–2016: Towards a strategy of nationalization?’, Mediterranean Politics, 24:2, 260-267, 2019; also: Lister (2017), op.cit. The legitimacy of such groups resulted in part from their fighting successes (output legitimacy), but also from the absence of corruption in their ranks and their more disciplined behaviour.
Lister (2017), op.cit.
Van Veen, E. and I. Abdo, Between brutality and fragmentation: Options for addressing the Syrian civil war, The Hague: Clingendael, 2014; Lister (2017), op.cit.
Filkins, D., When bombs aren’t enough, The New Yorker, online, October 2014.
See: link (accessed 21 August 2020).
Lister (2017), op.cit.
Interview with a Syrian Kurdish-Arabic journalist, Istanbul, 21 August 2019; see also: Amnesty International, We had nowhere else to go: Forced displacement and demolitions in northern Syria, London: Amnesty International, 2015; UN Human Rights Council, A/HRC/34/CRP.3, 10 March 2017, online (accessed 5 February 2021).
See, for example: Human Rights Watch (2014), op.cit.; also: Interview with a Syrian Kurdish-Arabic journalist, Istanbul, 21 August 2019; Interviews with a Syrian politician from Hasaka, Istanbul, 19 August 2019 and 4 February 2020; on the matter of legitimacy: Mulla Rashid, B., The Autonomous Administration in Northern Syria: Questions of Legitimacy and Identity, Istanbul: Omran Center for Strategic Studies, 2018b, online.
For instance: Mogelson, L., America’s abandonment of Syria, The New Yorker, online, 20 April 2020. The outgoing US Envoy, Ambassador James Jeffrey, recently cast doubt on the precise extent of the US ‘withdrawal’. See: link (accessed 18 November 2020).
Interview with a high-ranking former official of one of the Syrian intelligence services, Istanbul, 11 March 2019.
KNC representative, Qamishli, 2 October 2019.
See, for example: Phillips (2020), op.cit.
For an initial assessment at the time: Krajeski (2015), op.cit.
See: link (accessed 6 November 2020).
See: link (accessed 9 October 2020).
See, for example: link (a demonstration against SDF rule in August 2020 in Dibban (Deir Ezzor province) after the assassination of sheikhs of the Ogeidat and Baggara tribes, demanding from the International Coalition that the area be ruled by its people and not by a militia [referring to YPG/SDF]); link (both accessed 2 December 2020).
Several interviews with tribal sheikhs and local residents in the summer of 2020 in southern Turkey.
Interview with a high-ranking former official of one of Syria’s intelligence services, Spring 2020; echoed by another interview with a KNC representative, Qamishli, 2 October 2019. See also: link (accessed 21 August 2020).
For an in-depth study of paramilitarism: Üngör Ümit, U., Paramilitarism: Mass violence in the shadow of the state, Oxford: OUP, 2020.
Van Veen and Fliervoet (2018), op.cit.