The evolution of the YPG/PYD during the Syrian civil war has been a convoluted process. It features both wartime tactics and pages from the authoritarian playbook, including deals with the-devil-you-know (the Syrian regime and Russia), repression of political opposition and civil society, the silencing of media, mobilizing support from external parties (PKK and US), conquest, and running a thriving informal/illicit economy. YPG/PYD evolution also brought about the establishment of Kurdish self-rule after decades of oppression, an effort to make community-level governance a bit more inclusive for parties linked with the YPG/PYD, the restoration of some basic services and the provision of reasonable security, although limited by wartime conditions. In the process, the YPG/PYD – along with the many Arab fighters who joined the ranks of the SDC/SDF, and with support from the US military – also rid Syria of IS, suffering thousands of casualties in the process.

What emerges from the analysis is an organisation that has ruthlessly pursued its objective of establishing and controlling its own autonomous territory and sphere of action. To achieve this, the YPG/PYD have fought in support of the regime in, for example, Aleppo and Tel Rifaat as well as against it in a number of skirmishes; battled with IS in Kobani and Deir Ezzor, for instance, as well as allowed it to withdraw in Raqqa; partnered with the US and yet worked with the regime in protecting oil assets and selling oil to it. Under conditions of war, it is not surprising that the YPG/PYD has achieved its current position through a mix of coercion and authoritarianism. The use of these means does, however, stand in stark contrast with the YPG/PYD’s self-professed values of democracy, gender equality and respect for human rights, all of which the organisation has liberally violated (in some cases likely to the point of committing war crimes). The rise of the YPG/PYD has also produced the paradoxical result that it established self-rule in parts of northeastern Syria by repressing other groups, especially Syrian Arab populations living east of the Euphrates river.

The YPG/PYD’s record is further muddled by the sway that an organisation external to Syria[217] – namely the PKK – holds over it. The nature of the links between them means that the YPG/PYD is not strategically autonomous, which is made clear, for example, through its continuous refusal to disavow the PKK publicly and expel both its cadres and fighters to advance its negotiations with the KNC. As it happens, the PKK pursues a regional agenda that includes conflict with several other entities – such as Turkey and the KDP. The YPG/PYD’s link with the PKK makes the support it seeks from external parties such as EU member states neither feasible nor appropriate. Moreover, PKK influence also amounts to a non-Syrian party exercising control over both Kurdish and non-Kurdish areas of Syria, which is problematic and creates resentment. This situation is by no means unique if one considers the present position of Hezbollah or other Iran-linked forces, but, as is the case with them, it makes conflict resolution more difficult.

Nevertheless, one could view the YPG/PYD instrumentally as a way to prevent a full return of the Assad regime, at least for as long as the US supports it, since the group withholds significant territories from Damascus. It should nevertheless be clear that Washington also pursues other objectives, such as keeping IS down and Iran out.[218] But the YPG/PYD can only maintain control over much of the areas it governs through repression. In the long term, this will create accumulating grievances and make the YPG/PYD more vulnerable to pressure from the regime and its allies.[219] In other words, it is an unstable situation that can play out in the form of three scenarios.

Scenario 1: Unconditional support from the US at similar levels to the present, and an abiding US military presence, will likely provide the YPG/PYD with a security umbrella against both regime forces and Turkey under the current US administration. This is likely to continue the status quo of the YPG/PYD ruling northeast Syria in authoritarian fashion, make the civil war more ethno-sectarian in nature and prolong the conflict. While such a scenario is arguably more attractive for northeast Syria than a return of the regime – if the aftermath of cease fire agreements elsewhere in Syria is anything to go by[220] – it is also unlikely to improve the area’s current underdevelopment. It will keep other external actors, like the EU, away and allow the PKK to continue to take its share of the area’s revenues. Should the US upgrade its military support to include economic/financial assistance, it will further strengthen the YPG/PYD’s dominating position and entrench exclusive governance practices, risking that the PKK will siphon off some of the resources involved.[221]

Scenario 2: A halt of US support to the YPG/PYD is bound to result in a return of the Assad regime as well as Russia.[222] If a US withdrawal is conditioned on a negotiated deal between the YPG/PYD and the Syrian regime that assures a significant measure of autonomy for northeast Syria, it could be a step towards the de facto reunification of Syria without prolonging the conflict or triggering another wave of regime repression. But while Damascus might do a deal with the YPG/PYD and tolerate a PKK presence in the Kurdish-inhabited areas of northeast Syria due to its longstanding relations with these groups, it would leave other ‘opponents’ of the Assad regime across northeast Syria to its mercy. There is also a near certainty of the regime reneging on any of its promises once US forces have fully departed. A rapid and unilateral US withdrawal would likely result in a collapse of YPG/PYD governance at best and another phase of civil war at worst.[223]

Scenario 3: Greater long-term support from the EU and the US for a reconfigured political mechanism for running northeast Syria could have a positive effect on the quality of governance and the developmental prospects of northeast Syria if it can be carefully sequenced. It could also serve as counter to the Syrian regime. But it would have to be heavily conditioned. Support would require at least the following conditions to be met: a) the YPG/PYD cuts its link with the PKK, both publicly and practically; b) governance of AANES is reconfigured to include the PYD, the KNC opposition and Arab populations as equal parties; c) repressive practices, forced recruitment and disappearances come to an end; d) greater transparency of revenues[224] is established. The US sought to initiate this scenario through recent KNC – PYD talks but so far there is no indication that these conditions will be met in the near future.[225] This scenario also risks partition of Syria and it is not clear whether the majority of the northeast’s inhabitants are in favour.[226] Finally, it requires a radical policy change on the part of the EU, away from its demand for an elusive political transition.[227]

While scenario 2 – a conditioned US withdrawal – might be preferable for the future of Syria as a whole, the preceding analysis suggests that scenario 1 – muddling through – is more likely to characterise the near future. The only actor that can put pressure on the YPG/PYD to make the concessions that could allow for a shift towards scenario 3 is the US. But the extent to which it can do so credibly depends on its own priorities – in particular, the importance it attaches to preventing Russia and Iran from expanding their position in Syria, as well as its desire to ‘defeat’ the Syrian regime by economic means. As long as these objectives remain in play, Washington will continue to suffer from a principle-agent problem and the YPG/PYD will continue to capitalise on the situation.

Longer-term positive socio-political change requires scenario 3, which needs the YPG/PYD to become ‘more Syrian’ by engaging in an uncertain and risky transformation away from the PKK and towards the opposition KNC and Arab populations/tribes of northeastern Syria as key partners. While there is at present little chance of such a transformation being seriously considered within the organisation, it can be nudged in that direction by exploring what assurances of external protection against both the Assad regime and Turkey might be developed as enticement, as well as what arrangements could be put in place to enable greater access to Turkish markets. Reaching such quid pro quo’s require backroom negotiations between the US, EU, Turkey, KDP and YPG. Given noted US limitations, a key task for the EU going forward is to create the space in which these conversations can take place.

The use of the term ‘external to Syria’ is based on the internationally recognised boundaries of the Syrian state. From a PKK perspective, these boundaries are less relevant due to its focus on the Kurdish transnational community as primary political entity. Hence, it would not necessarily consider itself ‘external’ to Kurdish-inhabited parts of Syria’s northeast.
See : Szuba, J., Outgoing Syria envoy reflects on Turkey, the Kurds and what everyone got wrong, Al-Monitor, online, 2020.
See, for example: Dukhan and Al-Hamad (2021), op.cit.
For example: Sosnowski, M., ‘Negotiating statehood through ceasefires: Syria’s de-escalation zones’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 31, Issue 7-8, 2020.
Consider for example the recent deal between the SDF and Delta Crescent Energy on oil exploration in northeast Syria. The contradictory public statements from, respectively, Cemil Bayik (against, PKK) and Mazloum Abdi (in favor, SDF leadership) on its merits remain somewhat puzzling. See: link (accessed 17 December 2020).
See: link (accessed 7 February 2021); Lund, A., From Cold War to Civil War: 75 Years of Russian-Syrian Relations, Stockholm: Swedish Institute for International Affairs, 2019, online.
This scenario is elaborated in greater detail in: Ford, R., U.S. Strategy in Syria Has Failed: Washington Must Acknowledge That It Can’t Build a State, Foreign Affairs, January 2021, online.
Some estimate the budget of AANES at around USD 2,5 billion per year. See: Al-Ghadhawi (2020), op.cit.
While the YPG/PYD and SDF have become more circumspect with regard to any PKK linkages since about 2018 by putting Syrian Kurdish commanders forward, removing some posters of Öcalan and emphasizing their ‘local-ness’ more than before, such ‘changes’ appear to be mainly of an optical nature. An exception, if it happens, could be the recent suggestion by Mazloum Abdi that PKK cadres should start leaving. See: ICG (2020), op.cit.
In the first scenario partition might be temporary. The current de facto partition is unsettled, i.e. between the four areas controlled by Turkey/the opposition, the YPG/US-held northeast and the regime-held rest of the country.