Initial support from the PKK, a practical understanding with the Assad regime, and emergent US support after the battle for Kobani help explain how the YPG/PYD became dominant in northeast Syria, but not how it maintained such dominance. This requires additional study of the YPG/PYD’s coercive, deal making, identity and basic service strategies enacted since 2011 to consolidate its power base (Box 1 provides definitions).[103] These strategies are discussed below.

Box 1
Strategies to maintain dominance deployed by the YPG/PYD (2011–2020) in north and northeast Syria

Coercive strategies are about intimidation, repression, assassination and forced recruitment of local elites and elements of the population in areas under YPG/PYD control that resist it. In other words, coercive strategies are about the rough edge of ‘domestic’ policing strategies employed by the YPG/PYD.

Deal-making strategies refer to the tactical partnerships the YPG/PYD has concluded to reduce external threats, increase its autonomy and improve its external legitimacy, such as by maintaining its relations with the Syrian regime, building a tactical partnership with the US, and creating the SDC/SDF to enable US arms deliveries and create the image of working with the Arab populations (tribes included) of Hasaka, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.

Identity strategies are about the introduction of Kurdish symbols and education to increase solidarity and in-group feelings among Syrian Kurds that, although far from uniformly, form the core constituency of YPG/PYD rule. They also refer to the introduction of new governance concepts to attract the mixed populations under YPG/PYD rule.

Basic service strategies include the provision of security, bread and other necessities that show the YPG/PYD is capable of providing minimum material governance benefits.

An important point to flag before discussing these strategies in-depth is that the area of Syria that was majority-Kurdish or Kurdish-only populated in 2011 is actually quite small.[104] In fact, only Afrin, Kobani, Amouda, Debersiya, Derik/Al-Malikiya, several Kurdish-majority towns in Hasaka, the Al-Ruz district of Damascus as well as the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo qualify. Cities like Hasaka, Qahtaniya, and even Ra’s al-Ain are patchworks of identities (Kurdish, Arab, Syriac, and Armenian etc). Tel Abyad and Raqqa only have small minority Kurdish populations, while Deir Ezzor is fully Arab.[105] It is therefore no surprise that the YPG/PYD frame their quasi-statebuilding project not in the mantle of Kurdishness, but in the language of equal rights for all (especially minorities). There is simply no way an agenda centred on the interests of ethnic Kurds will resonate in a sufficiently large territory to be viable. And yet, in addition to widening its conceptual appeal based on Öcalan’s concept of ‘democratic federalism’,[106] the YPG/PYD has had to bring significant coercive pressure to bear in both Kurdish and non-Kurdish-dominated areas to maintain its hegemony. This is discussed in more detail below (‘coercive strategies’).

Another important point to note is that a mixed rebel-paramilitary group like the YPG/PYD was always unlikely to acquire, consolidate and control territory in the midst of a civil war by means of participatory democracy or consensual enlargement. In other words, the four strategies of dominance discussed below are neither particularly new nor surprising given the existing literature on rebel group governance during civil war. This is why we have sought to extract key factors from the literature on rebel groups that influence the type of rebel governance that is likely to emerge under conditions of conflict (Box 2 below and Annex 2). We outline these factors here, then discuss YPG/PYD strategies to maintain dominance and, at the end of the Section, assess how these factors have worked out in northeastern Syria under YPG/PYD rule.[107]

Box 2
Factors influencing the type of governance/control by rebel groups

The seven factors below have been extracted from the existing literature on rebel governance in times of civil war. The studies we reviewed are listed in Annex 2 and present only a sample of what is available. Nevertheless, they provide a useful starting point for understanding what type of rebel governance is likely to emerge. All factors listed below represent sliding scales (i.e. not binary) and their assessment can vary at different periods of the same conflict.

(1) Fighting intensity that a rebel group faces (influences extent of governance)

High levels of fighting result in less focus and fewer resources being available for governance since the battlefield takes precedence. Low levels of fighting indicate a less fragmented rebellion, or less counterpressure from government forces, both of which facilitate limited dominance of a single/a few rebel groups. In this situation, more focus and resources are available in principle for the governance of any territories held by rebels.

(2) Firmness of rebel group territorial control (influences extent of governance)

A high degree of rebel territorial control suggests more permanent authority that is less at short-term risk of conquest by other fighting parties. A low or limited degree of rebel territorial control suggests a level of authority that is at risk of short-term erosion or overthrow. In the second situation, a rebel group has fewer incentives to invest in governance.

(3) Rebel group resources (influences extent and type of governance)

Rebel groups that rely mostly on ‘extractive’ resources (e.g. natural resources, smuggling/illicit activity) are less dependent on ‘collaborative’ resources (e.g. taxes and contributions). This is likely to result in less governance, or at least less attention to local expectations and priorities. If the opposite applies, rebel groups will be more inclined towards limited forms of participatory governance and pay more attention to local needs and priorities. Note that a rebel group’s resources also play a role in its ability to recruit and garner local support (especially when other livelihoods become scarcer during conflict), but this is less relevant to the nature of rebel governance.

(4) Extent of ‘proxy-ness’ of a rebel group (influences type of governance)

A high level of ‘proxy-ness’ suggests that a rebel group’s allegiance is largely transnational, that it receives critical material support from a specific sponsor abroad, and that local interests are less relevant. A low level of ‘proxy-ness’ indicates the rebel group is more locally rooted, generates critical material support from a diverse set of sources, and that local interests matter more. In the second situation, more ‘benign’ governance is more likely.

(5) Local resonance of rebel group ideology (influences type of governance)

A substantial level of alignment between rebel group ideology and local attitudes/perceptions facilitates tapping into local resources (legitimacy, material support, shelter, manpower and intelligence) but also necessitates a greater focus on symbolic and service delivery elements of governance (as opposed to coercive elements). In contrast, a poor level of alignment will tend to have the opposite effect as armed groups need to resort to coercion to extract resources and govern / retain control.

(6) Internal structure of the rebel group (influences type of governance)

Out of necessity, all rebel groups are more or less authoritarian and violent. Yet, rebel groups that are more organisationally complex (e.g. having an embryonic political party or social movement in addition to an armed core) are more likely to engage in limited forms of participatory governance (without necessarily ceding control). Simpler ‘fighting only’ rebel groups are more likely to be inclined towards authoritarian governance.

(7) International perception of a rebel group (influences type of governance)

A rebel group that is perceived with sympathy at the international level may be more cautious about public displays of authoritarian governance (or try to cover these up) and more likely to introduce limited elements of more participatory governance with fewer human rights abuses. A rebel group that is perceived to be more akin to an extremist group is more likely to engage in authoritarian governance and/or commit human rights abuses.

Sources: These seven factors are extracted from the sources listed in Annex 2.

Coercive strategies

The establishment of YPG/PYD control over predominantly Syrian Kurdish-inhabited areas and beyond was possible because of the factors discussed in Section 1. The next step – maintaining dominance vis-à-vis competitors, enemies and dissenters – was achieved in part through a coercive strategy of repression and intimidation (discussed here), and in part through more benign deal-making, identity and basic service strategies (discussed in the following sections). However unsurprising it may be in a context of rebellion and autocracy, it is worth noting that coercion has been a key element of YPG/PYD rule from the beginning (including institutions like the Asayish and revolutionary youth groups). This holds true for the early days of the uprising as well as for the ensuing civil war and is still true today, even though it has been somewhat moderated by international coalition support and consolidation of YPG/PYD rule. But in the main, the YPG/PYD has so far not tolerated competitive political activity or governance independent of its own structures.

The evidence for this is clear-cut. For example, there was a series of attacks, arrests and disappearances or killings ascribed to the YPG and PKK in 2011/2012 that included Zahida Rashkilu, Mash'al Tammo (Kurdish Future Movement), Nasr al-Din Barheik (PDK-S), Juan Kotna, Jamil Omar, and a dozen members of the Assyrian Democratic Association.[108] Human Rights Watch also conclusively investigated the violent incidents in Amouda on 27 June 2013 when YPG forces used excessive force against anti PYD-demonstrators, killing at least six men that day and the next. Overnight, they also detained and beat around 50 supporters of the Yekiti Party at a YPG base.[109] One of our interviewees remarked: ‘The past two-and-a-half years have also seen at least eight unsolved killings and disappearances of the PYD’s political opponents in areas controlled by the PYD. The PYD has denied responsibility for all of them, but the lack of a credible investigation stands in contrast to its response after other security incidents, such as the rapid mass arrests after most bomb attacks.’[110] In brief and to paraphrase Sam Dagher, ‘as one of its first actions, the YPG cracked down on its rivals and all those who took part in peaceful protests against Bashar.’[111]

Office of the YPG/PYD in Ra’s al-Ain
Office of the YPG/PYD in Ra’s al-Ain

The PYD has argued that some of these interventions were necessary because the wartime environment required unity of effort against the many threats to the predominantly Kurdish-inhabited areas of Syria, in particular those of radical Islamist groups. In such a context, dissidence without the ability to join the armed struggle was not welcome. A PYD spokesperson told us: ‘The KNC and the other parties that are with them, they went out on Friday, the people went out on Friday from the mosque, and said Allah akbar, Allah akbar [God is great]. For one hour only. They finish and only return next week. The revolution is not this of course [author’s note: he suggested that revolution demands more active efforts and more frequent action].’[112] While the argument that protection against external threats brooks no dissidence has some validity, it is not clear why this required the killing of peaceful demonstrators. Such intolerance of opposition has parallels with the manner in which the PKK itself maintains internal discipline and has at times sought to suppress political alternatives in Turkey itself.[113]

The creation of the Self Administration in 2014 did not really change YPG/PYD dominance despite its veneer of collaborative partnership. This is mostly because the Self Administration is a structure that has been implemented top-down based on YPG/PYD conceived parameters (which are in turn based on Öcalan’s ideology of democratic confederalism) and does not exercise command over YPG forces. According to an interviewee linked with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Etilaf), ‘Today it is well known that the Self Administration is PYD. The basic decisions are taken by the PYD and, importantly, in Qandil also by the PKK. The Self Administration are Turkish Kurds, not Syrians. And when they meet you, they do not even let this be a secret. They bring the Turkish person to have a meeting with you…’[114] Allegations of direct PKK control are, however, categorically denied by the PYD who only acknowledge ideological affinity.[115] Be this as it may, the Self Administration is probably best seen as an effort to rule on the basis of Öcalan’s concepts, hemmed in by wartime resource and mentality constraints.[116]

During its fight against IS, the YPG/PYD resorted to coercive practices with some frequency. Reasons include the fact it was not necessarily welcome in the Arab-majority territories it acquired, the YPG/PYD framing of the FSA as a Turkey-linked construct in the north(west), (although some groups worked with the SDF against IS), and simply its own objectives of growth and control. In one of its most egregious acts against the revolution, in 2016 the YPG took the Arab-majority town of Tel Rifaat from the FSA with Russian air support.[117] As an Arab politician from Hasaka put it: ‘They took Tel Rifaat from the FSA. This was with the support of Russian warplanes. And they carried out a massacre and displayed the bodies of FSA fighters.[118] They also forcibly displaced people from the area. I visited camps in Northern Syria [Azaz, Bab al-Salama] with the Etilaf several times. The displaced fled to those areas and are in very bad humanitarian conditions. They are still waiting to return to their places of origin.’[119] The YPG did not necessarily engage in this aggression because of its antipathy towards the revolution, but to connect Tel Rifaat (FSA controlled at the time) with Manbij (IS controlled at the time) as part of its broader aim to create a contiguous territory from Afrin to Hasaka province. It nearly succeeded when it also captured Manbij from IS a few months later, despite US assurances to Turkey that the YPG would withdraw.[120] These YPG/PYD moves caused growing concern among Turkish political elites and triggered Operation Euphrates Shield (2016/17), in which Syrian opposition forces and the Turkish army took control of the area between Azaz, Jarablus and Al-Bab to expel ISIS and to prevent a contiguous YPG/PYD-controlled area from becoming reality.[121]

As YPG control expanded and the war continued, it took recourse to another coercive strategy, namely forced conscription including child recruitment.[122] In a sense, this was a consequence of the war’s battlefield carnage and its insatiable appetite for new fighters. A Syrian Kurdish mother in Amouda told us her son was now in Deir Ezzor, guarding the Omar Oilfields. “He did not want to go but YPG forced him. He is very afraid as he has to review CCTV footage to check there are no IS militants coming. But how can he distinguish between one Arab or another? He was just here on leave for ten days and now he is back for two months. It is two months in Deir Ezzor and ten days off. For one year and a month. For a very small salary. He is very scared”.[123] Or, as an Assyrian representative put it: ‘They take youth from the streets and force them into military camps. There are military training camps everywhere in the area here.’[124]

Forced conscription significantly increased YPG fighting numbers, but the practice of also had a significant negative impact on the YPG/PYD’s local legitimacy. Child recruitment, moreover, is a war crime. In addition, many inhabitants of YPG-controlled areas fled or migrated because of the mix of repression and forced conscription it applied. For example, there are about 240,000 Syrian (mainly Kurdish) refugees from the country’s northeast in the KRI today and a number of Syrian researchers estimated there are about a million Syrian refugees from the northeast in Turkey, of which several hundred thousands are Syrian Kurds.[125] To some extent, however, the high level of poverty in northeastern Syria mitigates the flight and resentment generated by the YPG’s forced conscription practices because it offers a job and some livelihood prospects, despite meagre salaries.[126]

On a final note, the YPG/PYD has been able to use coercive strategies in part because it is not dependent on the local population for an appreciable part of its finances, even though it levies a range of local taxes. Much of its revenues accrue from the sale of oil from the fields it has conquered in northeastern Syria, financial support from the US to continue the fight against IS (salaries for fighters), and a thriving illicit smuggling economy.[127] This is not to say the Self Administration or SDC are well resourced, but rather that the use of coercion is likely to remain a feature of YPG/PYD governance as long as, especially, the oil/gas fields of eastern Syria remain under its control and its US partnership remains intact. It also means that the YPG/PYD will fight tooth and nail to maintain control over the area.[128]

Oil drills around Rumeilan
Oil drills around Rumeilan

In sum, coercion has been a key element of YPG/PYD governance and dominance throughout, but particularly in the early years of the civil war. To position itself as the pre-eminent Kurdish force protecting Kurdish communities and Kurdish identity, the YPG/PYD first suppressed and – when needed eliminated – Kurdish political rivals. This has avoided the emergence of an Iraq-type scenario where political power and armed force is split between KDP and PUK, creating tensions and risks as well as accommodation and compromise. Once dominant among Syria’s Kurds, the YPG/PYD commenced a gradual process of enlargement with US support after the battle for Kobani. Its conquests served the fight against IS as much as increasing its own sway over territory, people and resources. This included more and more areas where Syrian Kurds are a minority or where they are not present at all, necessitating further use of (the threat of) coercion as well as more co-optive tactics to maintain control (see Section 3).

In a sense, the YPG/PYD is stuck in a tense trade-off between size and legitimacy. Its aspiration for autonomy requires a certain size that cannot be generated based on Syria’s Kurdish-majority areas alone since these are too small. Connecting the three main Kurdish areas – Afrin, Kobani and Hasaka province – necessitates the occupation of Arab-inhabited lands. Furthermore, Kurdish communities have become smaller in relative terms due to Arabisation policies. In consequence, realisation of the required size can only be achieved through occupation of non-Kurdish areas and in times of war this inevitably requires the use of coercive methods. But such methods have undercut YPG/PYD legitimacy and popularity in these very same areas, as well as triggering three Turkish interventions, thus rendering moot the sustainability of the YPG/PYD’s presence in its current form.

Deal-making strategies

In times of civil war, deal making is essential to survival and growth, and the YPG/PYD has been no exception. Its initial ‘deal’ with the regime and its emergent tactical partnership with the US have been discussed extensively in the previous section and it is these arrangements that have been central to much of its success. As they are rather different in nature, the distinction between them needs to be made with care. Dealings between the YPG/PYD and regime take place on a much more informal and less visible footing,[129] feature the occasional fight,[130] and are inconclusive in terms of their desired end-state.[131] In contrast, the YPG/PYD’s alliance with the US was, at least initially, a highly visible tactical partnership with a single-purpose: eliminating IS from Syria.

In the category of ‘other deals’, there are also the relationships between the YPG/PYD and Arab tribal brigades to consider as expressed in the SDF, as well as with minority armed groups like one of the two Assyrian/Syriac Sutoro (linked with the Syriac Union Party). Finally, there are the relationships between the SDC/SDF[132] and the Arab population to be mindful of, especially in Deir Ezzor. In this regard, the SDC and SDF arrangements are partnerships that co-opt and connect newly-created political parties (by the YPG) and part of the Arab population (including clans and tribes) with the YPG/PYD in a marriage of necessity or convenience.[133] The creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) enabled the YPG/PYD to expand beyond both Kurdish-majority and -minority areas. It was and is a mixed force composed of (mostly) Arab, Kurdish and other minority fighters controlled by the YPG to give the fight against IS a more Arab face in Syria’s IS-held Arab areas. As the SDF expanded into such areas, the Self Administration did so too via the creation of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), co-opting key individuals from the area’s major tribes and enforcing compliance with its governance. Typically, ‘civilian’ bodies like the SDC have remained under YPG/PYD control.[134]

The savviness of the YPG/PYD has been to ensure that its deals with the regime and the US complemented one another and to have used its US partnership to create the SDF as a vehicle to extent its power base. That is to say, the YPG/PYD recognised the likely longevity of the regime as a powerful neighbour, never fully closing the door to it. At the same time it maximised the benefits from America’s reluctance to put its own boots on the ground in the fight against IS to increase its strength for the inevitable negotiations, or even showdown, with the regime. As Mazloum Abdi, the SDF’s commander, put it recently: ‘However, we remain in constant contact with the regime because we live side by side and we face common security problems.’[135]

This dual strategy almost failed in October 2019 when US forces acting as guarantors against greater Russian/regime pressure partially withdrew at the behest of President Trump, who had greenlighted the Turkish operation Peace Spring.[136] Had the US fully withdrawn in the following weeks or months, it is quite likely that regime-linked forces would have moved east of the Euphrates and then moved north to contest the core Kurdish areas of Syria.[137]

In addition to internal manoeuvring within the US administration,[138] the YPG/PYD was saved from full US withdrawal by the Trump administration’s shift in focus from anti-IS to anti-Iran. By 2019, this shift had turned northeast Syria from an area of rearguard action against IS into an essential area in terms of the Syrian regime’s recovery (by preventing access to its natural resources, which could be used for reconstruction) and in blocking an Iranian land corridor via the Ya’rubia border crossing (on the Iraqi side, Iran-linked PMF groups established control over the Tel Afar area in the offensive on Mosul in 2017). This shift also turned the YPG into somewhat more of a US proxy.[139] Additional factors that played a role include American admiration for the PYD’s stated goals of gender equality and inclusive local governance, as well as well the blossoming ties between the US military and YPG fighters.[140] While the US had always been clear about the temporality of its interests,[141] with time it nevertheless came around to officially supporting the idea of some kind of self-administration or decentralised self-administration for northeastern Syria.

All of this notwithstanding, the YPG/PYD had to call in border control support and protection from Russia and the regime immediately after Ankara’s launch of operation Peace Spring in 2019 to prevent the Turkish army and the Arab forces that fought with/for it from penetrating more deeply into northeast Syria than they ultimately did.[142] Its pragmatic relationship with the regime made it possible to do so swiftly. While the YPG/PYD is on speaking terms with Russia, this cannot be called a partnership in the sense of a relationship based on shared objectives. Rather, Russia seeks to reunite the YPG/PYD with the regime that is clearly not (yet) willing to entertain anything like a more federal governance structure for Syria if the informal negotiations between YPG/PYD and the regime are anything to go by.[143]

The SDF was created as early as 2015 to address two challenges that threatened the emergent alliance between the US and the YPG in their fight against IS. First, Turkey, among others, views the YPG as a franchise of the PKK and has always objected to US support for the organisation. Creating the SDF at least changed the perception of the US supporting a PKK-linked group directly. What did not go down well with Turkey is that the US prioritised the fight against IS over observing the legal ramifications of the YPG’s linkage with the PKK, which Washington itself marked as a terrorist organisation. The situation thus arose that US military aircraft took off from the same Incirlik airbase to bombard IS as did Turkish fighter planes to attack the PKK in northern Iraq.[144] Second, defeating IS would take the US-YPG partnership deep into Syrian Arab territory and it was not wise to do this with an overly YPG-dominated force, hence the need for an organization with a more mixed Arab-Kurdish composition.

While the degree of collaboration between the SDF and the Arab populations (tribal figures and clans are among its key structures) straddling the Euphrates varies for reasons that include existing networks and loyalties, material interests and the absence/presence of alternatives, perceptions of the SDF appear to be fairly similar.[145] They view it as a YPG-dominated force that is backed by the US and the SDC as its political wing, which has little actual sway over the YPG-dominated SDF although the latter formally became the defence force of the re-labelled Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria in 2016.[146] A journalist familiar with the matter put it to us as follows: ‘Those Kurdish advisers to Arab chairmen speak Sourani not Badjani (Kurmanji), the Syrian Kurds do not speak Sourani at all. I give you an example – the head of the local council of Deir Ezzor is Arab Ghassan al-Youssef, from the Shaitaat clan of the Ogeidat tribal confederation,[147] and they appointed an adviser to him, a Kurd. The latter decided everything. Ghassan al-Youssef allowed demonstrations of the Shaitaat after Baghouz was taken from IS, demanding that the Kurdish forces (SDF) leave the areas. This tribal pressure caused Souhad Kobani (a SDC leader in charge of the administration and base in Raqqa) to fire the Kurdish adviser, but then a new one was appointed who is a bit softer, a bit more ready to listen.’[148] In other words, there appears to be a continuous process of fine-tuning modalities of rule that maintain YPG/PYD control but also allow for some participatory governance (see Section 3 for more detail).

Another part of the picture is that the Syrian Arab tribes in Hasaka, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor are too weak and too divided to contest YPG dominance of the SDF, or PYD dominance of the SDC. Neither do they benefit from external sponsorship such as the SDF receives from the US. Formerly powerful structures of political allegiance, military mobilisation and social cohesion, tribes have become less authoritative and capable of collective action since the establishment of the Syian state as they were gradually co-opted.[149] National laws started to compete with tribal customs, police and army reduced the autonomy of tribal dispute resolution mechanisms, and the relevance of their armed might while national governance was centralised, in part by drawing tribal elites into it. The position of sheikh consequently lost status and today is less an active locus of power than it used to be, although tribes have enjoyed a revival of late due to wartime destruction and political crisis in some states in the region.[150] Tribes remain socially, and sometimes politically, relevant but they are no longer central linchpins of political, social and military might. An interviewee put it as follows: ‘Today it is impossible for the sheikh of a clan to make a reconciliation agreement with an international side, or with the Syrian regime, and have the whole clan walk after him. This is empty speech.’[151]

This state of affairs opens the door to competition for tribal clientelism, which is what we see unfolding in eastern Syria at the moment. Many tribes are divided. A Syrian researcher noted: ‘Parts are with the SDF, parts with the FSA, parts with the regime, and there are people with IS. From the same tribe. And everyone is saying that they have a tribal council. SDF has a tribal council and the regime has a tribal council, and everyone is saying the tribes are with me.’[152] In this context, the response to the US semi-withdrawal has been mixed. As Mohammad Hassan notes: ‘The response from Arab tribes in the north and east of Syria has been mixed. Those in al-Hasakah governorate are split between support for the regime, for Iran and for Turkey [Authors’ note: SDF seems missing]. Meanwhile, the decision of US troops to stay behind to protect the oil fields east of the Euphrates has worked in the favour of tribes in Deir Ezzor that refused to allow Assad, Iran and Russia to enter their lands’.[153]

In sum, the durability of YPG/PYD control over large parts of northeastern Syria depends on two temporary and fragile partnerships remaining intact. First, control endures as long as US forces remain to ward off both the regime and its allies, as well as Turkey and the FSA brigades/Syrian National Army (SNA) working with it. Second, it persists as long as the area’s tribes stay sufficiently ‘loyal’ to the YPG/PYD. In this context, relations between the YPG/PYD and the regime also serve as a safety net to cushion the blow should these partnerships between the YPG/PYD on the one hand, and the US and the main Arab tribes on the other, be ruptured.

Identity strategies

Identity is a powerful enabler of governance and control anywhere in the world. In northeast Syria, the YPG/PYD has followed a dual strategy in this regard. On the one hand, it has sought to project a modern image – to the West in particular – that is premised on inclusive local governance (as a form of incipient democracy), minority protection and gender equality on the basis of Öcalan’s concept of ‘democratic federalism’.[154] On the other hand, it has sought to strengthen Kurdish identity and PKK teachings/curricula throughout the Kurdish majority and minority areas of northeastern Syria.

Suppression of Kurdish identity under the Nasr, Ba’ath and Assad(s) regimes, the fragmentation of the Syrian Kurdish political landscape, competition between the views of Barzani and Öcalan, and the mosaic make-up of the area[155] made a dedicated identity development effort essential for anyone seeking to exercise long-term control over northeastern Syria. At the same time, depending on what identity is to be promoted, such an effort could end up being as divisive as earlier regime efforts to suppress Kurdish identity. Moreover, historically speaking, identity formation has as much been the process of the (violent) centralisation of governance and the expansion of state services and capacity as it has preceded and triggered these processes. For example, the contemporary French state was built between roughly 1870 and 1914 by the gradual expansion of its capabilities to control and provide via the standardisation of measurements, the introduction of a monetary economy, better infrastructure, and the standardisation of education, taxation and law and order.[156]

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

As the repression of other political entities and views has already been discussed under ‘coercive strategies’, this section focuses more on the softer aspects of identity building. There are several elements to the YPG/PYD’s broader strategy to ‘Kurdify’ northern Syria along the lines of Öcalan’s ideology. Domestically, it has taken a few pages out of the regime playbook by renaming villages and streets based on their Kurdish names even though many today are made up of a mix of people, including Assyrians, Turkmen and Arabs. It initially applied the same recipe to the entire area under its control, originally called ‘West Kurdistan’. This subsequently changed to ‘the Autonomous Regions’, ‘Rojava’ (the west), ‘Federal Northern Syria’, ‘the democratic confederalist autonomous areas of northern Syria’, ‘the Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava’, the ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’ and, ultimately, the more bureaucratic but neutral sounding ‘Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’.[157]

The struggle for an appropriate name for the YPG/PYD’s governance project is not trivial given the area’s patchwork of population groups. The many shifts showcase the difficulty in reconciling different strands of Öcalan’s ideology. On the one hand, there is the notion of greater Kurdishness (reflected in the term ‘autonomy’), but on the other hand there is the idea of empowering other communities (reflected in the term ‘federation’). For the moment, YPG/PYD coercive control prioritises selective Kurdishness over inclusivity, in part because it keeps the many centrifugal (internal divisions) and centripetal (external pressures) forces on northeast Syria at bay and in part because it maintains the organisation’s position of power.

An alternative tactic would be to ally with the KNC via a negotiated agreement that brings the KDP into play as a sponsor of the northeast, but this requires surmounting longstanding mistrust between the KDP and PKK, reconfiguring the KDP-Turkish relationship (discussed more extensively in the next section), and finding some form of accommodation with the majority of Arab population in northeast Syria, who may not necessarily agree with the outcome of YPG/PYD–KNC negotiations. In short, this alternative approach is unlikely to work, especially given the close relationship against the PKK that is developing between Ankara and Erbil.

Another key plank of the YPG/PYD’s identity development strategy is educational. It introduced its own Kurdish curriculum to replace the state’s Arabic one and made it obligatory for Kurdish populations in northeastern Syria. It also initially closed Christian schools in Hasaka province that refused the new Self Administration curriculum. Such moves proved contentious given that the curriculum is neither internationally nor nationally recognised. Also, it does not teach students more than a minimum level of Arabic, for about an hour a week, even though it is the national language and a majority language in many areas. The result can be described as ‘voting with their feet’ since many families moved their children to schools in the regime’s ‘security square’ (i.e. the areas of Hasaka and Qamishli that remain under regime control). As one Qamishli resident remarked: ‘In the regime’s schools there are more than 100 students in every classroom because the people move their children from Amouda and from the countryside so that they can study at the regime’s schools. But in the Self Administration’s schools, each class has no more than 10 or 15 students.’ In addition, quite a few families moved their children to private educational institutions.[158] When the YPG realised that many people were choosing such alternatives, it closed a number of Christian schools (one such alternative) or sought to ensure that they accepted only Christian students. In the end, an agreement was reached that all ‘church’ [Christian] schools could keep teaching the regime curriculum without SDF interference in return for only accepting Christian students.[159] More recently, the Education Authority of AANES filed a lawsuit against a range of institutions that are still teaching the official Syrian curriculum (in Arabic), further increasing tensions.[160]

Underpinning the identity development efforts of the YPG/PYD is its adherence to the views and ideology of Abdullah Öcalan. This in itself has developed from emphasising Kurdish nationalism to a multi-ethnic society that includes all significant population groups. It is under the heading of ‘democratic confederalism’ that the YPG/PYD’s governance modernisation project is spoken about and marketed. Yet, the problem is that the primary identity appears to remain Kurdishness as echoed by the enduring and relatively authoritarian control by the YPG/PYD over northeastern Syria. This is indirectly confirmed by the YPG/PYD itself in remarks such as: ‘The PYD is an idea, present on the ground, we have a complete vision. The YPG is there to protect and defend the society. In the YPG there are Arabs, Syriacs and Kurds. It is a gathering from this society. It acted to protect this society. And everything should be in one hand.’[161] In other words, the accommodation of diverse interests under singular control of the YPG/PYD as a kind of protector and vanguard. This is arguably what the AANES and SDC represent today. In times of war, this is not a great surprise despite the obvious problems it raises. But the key question is perhaps rather what the system’s evolutionary ability is. If it opens up, it could bring about greater diversification and participation; if it freezes or buckles down, it could bring greater authoritarianism. The second is more likely if the conflict persists.

Basic service strategies

Longer-term occupation of territory by an armed group that is not entirely predatory[162] usually sees it providing at least some basic services such as security, justice, bread, healthcare, water and electricity. This helps the armed group being seen as a legitimate authority by the local population, constituting a viable alternative to the de jure government. Even radical extremist groups like IS in Syria/Iraq, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din in Idlib (Syria) are no exception to this basic principle. In response, the Syrian regime and its allies have consistently bombed facilities needed to produce such services – bakeries, health centres, water installations and the like – to stamp out any output legitimacy that their provision might generate for alternative contenders for statehood.[163] YPG/PYD-held areas constitute a notable exception as they have largely been spared such bombardment for reasons discussed in Section 1.

Regarding basic services, according to locals the YPG/PYD has provided the minimum. On the upside, the YPG did provide a decent level of security for the expanding number of communities under its control in northern Syria in the early years of the conflict (roughly 2011–2014). As protection is a scarce commodity in times of civil war, this was valued a great deal by many inhabitants of the area.[164] Nevertheless, at the same time the noted internal repression of alternative political visions created stains on perceptions of the group. When YPG/PYD expansion took off in earnest after the battle of Kobani, the security it provided became more of a mixed blessing since it was not welcome everywhere and acceptance of PYD-dominated governance was increasingly seen as the price for YPG-protection.[165]

Farmland lying fallow
Farmland lying fallow

Unsurprisingly, water, electricity and healthcare services have deteriorated significantly since 2011 due to wartime limitations, a lack of administrative technical experience and modest resources. The YPG’s capture of the Tishreen Dam in 2016 enabled limited improvement at the time, but substantial shortages remain.[166] Some local interviewees complained especially about having to pay bills twice: one to the regime and another to the Self Administration. They wondered aloud as to what happens to the oil revenues.

Income-generating activities are also in short supply despite the area’s abundance of rich farmland and natural resources (e.g. oil). High levels of poverty are common and possibilities for employment are largely centred on the PYD administration and YPG recruitment. Salaries are typically low and party loyalty is required. Such lack of alternatives also means that professed support for the YPG/PYD is unlikely to represent reality. As an interviewee put it: ‘People who go against them [YPG/PYD] do not have work, there are no businesses, life is very difficult. That is a big part of their support.’[167]

Despite being a newcomer to quasi-statebuilding, the PYD managed to maintain a fairly sophisticated, in part state-inherited, system of substate governance that carries out day-to-day administration. Currently called the ‘Autonomous Administration in Northern and Eastern Syria’, it has gone through various names and functional redesigns that at least demonstrate an effort to provide basic governance and administration in times of war and rapid change.[168] Views differ significantly on how inclusive the Autonomous Administration actually is in how it operates, and how it decides and allocates (aid) resources. While it is based on a fairly progressive ‘Social Contract’ (2014) as founding document, it also seems to be rather bureaucratic, slow and unduly influenced by both ethnic (Kurdish-ness) and security considerations (e.g. the internal security forces of the AANES are said to play a significant role).[169]

In sum, YPG/PYD service provision efforts operate under serious constraints. Some of these are beyond its control, such as being largely cut off from national grids and normal trade (excluding smuggling and barter), healthcare centres having been overwhelmed with the wounded, farmland lying fallow due to displacement, and the overall degradation into an informal war economy. But the YPG/PYD itself has contributed to other constraints. For example, its rhetoric, media coverage and battlefield behaviour fuelled Ankara’s suspicion of the YPG/PYD, resulting in the closure of border control points with a major economic impact (trade).[170] Internal repression and a lack of transparency regarding the distribution of oil, tax, wheat, barley and other revenues also hamper service provision efforts.

Taking stock: YPG/PYD strategies in times of war

Having surveyed the bundle of coercive, deal-making, identity and basic service strategies the YPG/PYD has pursued since 2011 allows us to return to the factors influencing rebel group governance (Box 2 above). Table 2 below offers a tentative comparison of wartime realities, ex-ante expectations of YPG/PYD governance, and the reality of such governance based on our analysis so far.

Table 2
Expectations versus reality of YPG/PYD governance in the sense of control

Factors influencing rebel group governance

Wartime reality in Syria’s northeast

Ex-ante expectation regarding the YPG/PYD

Provisional assessment of the YPG/PYD

(1) Fighting intensity that a rebel group faces

High in Kurdish areas until 2014/2015 (Kobani); lower thereafter

High in non-Kurdish areas until 2019 (defeat IS in Baghuz); lower thereafter

Increases in extent of governance after 2015 and 2018

Social Contract adopted in 2014

Creation of SDF in October 2015

Creation of SDC in December 2015

Limited commune and municipal elections in 2017[171]

(2) Firmness of rebel group territorial control

Firm after 2015 (Kurdish) and 2018 (non-Kurdish)

Increase in extent of governance after 2015

See above

(3) Rebel group resources

Mostly extractive (oil, checkpoints, border crossing, informal trade / smuggling economy), but also agriculture and direct US support

Less participatory governance

Participatory governance on paper but not applied in reality; opposition leaders in exile

(4) Extent of ‘proxy-ness’ of a rebel group

Strong linkage with PKK

Deals with US and Syrian regime / Russia

Less sensitive to local interests

Firm YPG/PYD control to the point of authoritarianism; suppression of Kurdish political opposition

(5) Local resonance of rebel group ideology

Limited given the modest popularity of ‘Apoism’ in Syria

Greater use of coercive strategies to extract resources and retain control

Substantial use of coercive strategies to eliminate internal division and retain control over non-Kurdish areas

(6) Internal structure of the rebel group

Armed group with a political party

Limited forms of participatory governance

Limited forms of participatory governance (paper vs. reality as above)

(7) International perception of a rebel group

Positive but tactical (US)

Neutral to sceptical (most European countries)

Limited forms of participatory governance

Limited forms of participatory governance

(paper vs. reality as above)

Primarily, Table 2 suggests that the relative independence of the YPG/PYD vis-à-vis the local population of northeast Syria (given its deals with the Syrian regime and the US, the role of the PKK, as well as its exploitation of the area’s natural resources and its role in the illicit economy) has enabled the organisation to use greater repression and limit the creation of meaningful participatory governance structures than otherwise might have been the case. Simply put, the YPG/PYD has constructed its current territorial control via deals external to Syria’s Kurdish population. The table also indicates that pressure for positive change will have to come from external parties like the US or Europe.

This section has also highlighted the core tension in the YPG/PYD’s overall project. It seeks to establish an autonomous area through a federal type of structure, but the Kurdish-populated areas of Syria are too dispersed and too intermixed to enable a Kurdish-dominated and populated federal unit. Based on the location and density of their population, it is more likely for the Syrian Kurds to be part of several different federal units. As this is not the YPG/PYD’s objective, its solution to the problem is to increase the territories under YPG/PYD control. Yet, this creates a new challenge in the sense that it also brings new constituencies to the table, such as Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen and smaller minority groups, who want a say in the matter of how such territories are run. Thanks to the lingering threat of IS and abiding US support, the YPG/PYD can afford to deal with these groups in a top-down manner for now, co-opting and repressing them as needed.[172] But to thrive in the longer term requires the YPG/PYD to enlist greater US and at least some European support that is unlikely to be forthcoming unless it changes the mix of its strategies of dominance and control.

YPG/PYD reluctance to share power with the KNC indicates that this shift is unlikely to take place in the short term.[173] To paraphrase Eugene Weber: ‘conditions will likely have to change before their wartime expression will change’.[174] A compromise in northeastern Syria will be particularly hard to realise without parallel progress on the Kurdish issue in Turkey, given how the PKK connects both theatres. In consequence, the YPG/PYD is likely to continue to rely on a mix of coercive and co-optive strategies in the near to medium future based on a Leninist vanguard type logic, i.e. implementation of Öcalan’s notion of bottom-up democratic confederalism by the party. This reflects a more totalitarian understanding of revolutionary struggle.

An underlying issue that complicates statements like this is of course the longstanding policy of Arabisation of originally Kurdish-inhabited areas under the Assads. On this topic: Allsopp (2014), op.cit. We take 2011 as the benchmark since it represents the key baseline for understanding current realities and because it is unlikely that the policy of Arabisation can be undone (although it arguably ought to be compensated for at some point in the future).
Balanche, F., Sectarianism in Syria’s civil war, Washington DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2018 (especially p. 52); Allsop and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit.
Öcalan, A., Democratic Confederalism, International Initiative, online, 2011.
Interview with a KNC representative from Qamishli, 10 January 2020, Istanbul; Interview with a SNC Assyrian representative and a SNC Arab representative, 19 August 2019 and 11 March 2020, Istanbul; Interview with a representative of the Association of Independent Kurds, 22 January 2021, Istanbul. For some context: link (accessed 2 December 2020).
HRW (2014), op.cit.
Dagher (2019), op.cit.; see also: ICG (2014), op.cit.; on a similar incident in Burj Abdou in Afrin (2013): Rebz News, 2020, online (accessed 14 February 2021). The YPG apologized for the events in Amouda in June 2020, seven years later: link (accessed 26 February 2021).
Interview with a PYD representative, Ra’s al-Ayn, 5 October 2019.
See: Marcus (2009), op.cit.
Interview with a Assyrian representative, Qamishli, 1 October 2019; see also: Omran Centre for Strategic Studies, Centralization and decentralization in Syria: The concept and practice, Istanbul: Fourth annual book, 2018.
Interview with a PYD representative, Ra’s al-Ayn, 5 October 2019.
Allsopp and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit. analyse it extensively, but somewhat inconclusively.
Interview with Christoph Reuter (journalist with Der Spiegel), by email, 6 October 2018; Phillips (2020), op.cit.
link (accessed 9 November 2020).
Interview with an Arab politician from Hasaka, 19 August 2019, Istanbul; see also: Al-Khateb, K., Displaced Syrians demand to return, seek regime-YPG exit, Al-Monitor, online, 2019.
Frantzman, S., Turkey’s War in Syria Was Not Inevitable, Foreign Policy, online, 2019; Business Insider, 2016, online (accessed 9 November 2020).
Cockburn, P., War in the age of Trump: The defeat of ISIS, the fall of the Kurds, the conflict with Iran, London: Verso, 2020.
The text of the enabling law of the Self Administration can be consulted here (accessed 14 December 2020); see also: UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/HRC/45/31, 2020, online; Zaman, A. and D. Wilkofsky, Child recruitment casts shadow over Syrian Kurds' push for global legitimacy, Al-Monitor, 2020, online; Szuba (2020), op.cit.
Interview with Kurdish woman, 7 October 2019, Amouda.
Interview with Assyrian representative, 1 October 2019, Qamishli.
Interview with a KNC representative on 2 October in Qamishli; see also: link (accessed 19 October 2020). Interviews with Syrian Kurds in Istanbul, 2018-2020, Suruc, Sanliurfa and Mardin in August 2020, as well as in Istanbul January 2021.
Eyewitness account of one of the authors during travel and research in the northeast; see also: Butter, D., Syria’s economy: Picking up the pieces, London: Chatham House, 2015; World Bank, The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria, Washington DC: WB, 2017.
See: link (accessed 9 November 2020); Kajjo (2020), op.cit.; Phillips (2020), op.cit.; Dagher (2019), op.cit.
It appears that the YPG/PYD initially perceived the remaining presence of the Syrian regime in Qamishli and Hasaka as a means to forestall problems with local Arab communities worried about domination by Syrian Kurds. Source: Interview with a PYD official in 2013.
Phillips (2020), op.cit.
International Crisis Group, Prospects for a Deal to Stabilise Syria’s North East, Brussels: ICG, 2018.
We posit the relationship between SDF and SDC as similar to the one between YPG and PYD, i.e. in times of war following decades of authoritarianism, the military core holds sway over the political wing.
Allsopp and Van Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit.; Omran (2018), op.cit.
Zaman, A., Syrian Kurdish commander sees chance to ease tensions with Turkey under Biden, Al-Monitor, online, 2020 (accessed 12 November 2020).
Philips (2020), op.cit.
Even though local tribes do not necessarily regard the YPG/SDF positively, this is even less the case for the regime given that the protests started in tribal areas and thousands of tribesmen linger in regime prisons. See for instance: Dukhan (2020), op.cit.; several interviews with tribal leaders in southern Turkey in the summer of 2020.
See: link (accessed 19 November 2020).
It is not really its size that matters, but rather the credible threat of swift retaliation from US bases in Al-Tanf, Iraq or further afield in the Gulf. The Wagner Group found that this threat was real in February 2018. See: New York Times, online, 2018 (accessed 12 November 2020).
Interview with a senior former US official by email, 2020.
As aptly summarised by Mazloum Abdi himself here: ‘Our military ties with the United States are very good, but we consider our political relations to be insufficient. Despite all our efforts, they have not attained the desired level.’See: Zaman (2020), op.cit.
As most of the area covered by operation Peace Spring is Arab-populated, some of the Turkey-linked Syrian forces viewed the offensive as ‘liberation’ from the YPG – ironically also Syrian, except for some of its PKK contingents. See: link (accessed 12 February 2021).
ICG (2018), op.cit.; Kajjo (2020),op.cit.; Sayigh, Y., What’s Happening in Idlib?, Carnegie Middle East Center, 2020, online; Zaman (2020), op.cit. It should also be recalled that the Syrian government’s official ideology rejects decentralisation. Neither does it have any experience with decentralisation. Implementing such a policy would be difficult under more peaceful circumstances. Plus, the Syrian authorities surely noticed that the relative autonomy of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq did not stop it from a bid for full independence in 2017.
Stein and Foley (2016), op.cit.
Larger tribes in Northeast Syria include the Al-Baggara and Al-Ogeidat tribal confederations, as well as the Shammar, Al-Jabbour, Al-Qais, Taj, Albu Saraya, and Al-Walda.
Allsopp and Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit. Note several ambiguities on p. 121.
The Shaitaat suffered particularly from IS when its fighters put hundreds of its tribesmen to a gruesome death in 2014. See: link (accessed 2 December 2020).
Interview with a Syrian journalist of Arab-Kurdish descent, Istanbul, 21 August 2019.
See for instance: Jabar, F. and H. Dawod, Tribes and power: Nationalism and ethnicity in the Middle East, London: SAQI, 2003 (although they maintain, especially in the Iraqi context, that tribes remain capable of socio-political action); Ahmed, A., The thistle and the drone: How America’s war on terror became a global war on tribal Islam, Washington DC: Brookings Institute, 2013.
Dukhan (2020), op.cit.; Jabar and Dawod (2003), op.cit.
Interview with Syrian researcher from Tel Abyad (Al-Qais tribe), Istanbul, 4 February 2020.
Ibid; see: Heras, N., The Battle for the Tribes in Northeast Syria, Geneva: GCSP, 2020.
Hassan, M., Arab Tribes in al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor Choose Their Allies, Chatham House, 2020, online.
It should be kept in mind that Öcalan has been incarcerated since 1999 and that his ‘thought leadership’ is mediated through other leading PKK figures via his lawyers and other visiters to Imrali island. This means that interpretation and interference are likely to play a role in claims made, and directions issued, on Öcalan’s behalf.
See, for example: Balanche (2018), op.cit.
Weber, E., From peasants into Frenchmen: The modernization of rural France, 1870-1914, Stanford: SUP, 1976. See also: Bayly, C., The birth of the modern world: 1780–1914, London: Blackwell Publishing, 2004; Scott, J., The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland southeast Asia, New Haven: Yale, 2009.
Allsopp and Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit.
Interview with a KNC politician in Qamishli, 2 October 2019, Syrian analyst, Istanbul, 11 December 2019.
Several interviews with residents in northeast Syria in October 2019. See also: Safi, M., Closure of Syrian Schools: Another Bleak Sign for Christians in Syria, The National Review, 2018 online (accessed 15 November 2020).
Hardan, M., Authorities in northeast Syria struggle to impose Kurdish curriculum, Al-Monitor, 2021, online.
Interview with a PYD representative, Ra’s al-Ayn, 5 October 2020.
Or, in terms of Mancur Olson, that is a ‘stationary’ as opposed to ‘a roving’ bandit. See: Olson, M., Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships, Oxford: OUP, 2000.
ICG (2014), op.cit.
Several interviews in northeast Syria, October 2019; several interviews in southern Turkey, August 2020.
Sary, G., Kurdish self-governance in Syria: Survival and ambition, London: Chatham House, 2016.
Interview with a Syrian Kurdish resident of Amouda, 7 October 2019.
The evolution of the PYD’s organizational structures are discussed in more detail in ICG (2014), op.cit.; Allsop and Wilgenburg (2019), op.cit. and Sary (2016), op.cit.
Sary (2016), op.cit.
Only parties linked with the PYD participated in the local elections. The KNC did not compete as party, although a few KNC-linked individuals did.
For example, it dominates the SDF and SDC with the effect that these are not (yet) vehicles for shared military and civilian governance, but rather for control.
See, for example: Netjes (2020), op.cit.; Kajjo, S., Prospects for Syrian Kurdish Unity: Assessing local and regional dynamics, Washington DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2020.
The original text speaks of ‘criminal expression’. Weber (1976), op.cit. (p. 55).