The twists and turns in the Kurdish quest for equal rights and greater autonomy have been many over past decades. One of the more intriguing developments in this journey has been the meteoric rise of the People’s Protection Units (YPG; an armed group) and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD; a political party) since 2011. Controlling roughly between 20 and 30 per cent of the country’s territory (see Figure 1 below),[1] including much of Syria’s oil, gas and wheat-producing areas, the YPG/PYD has become a fixed feature in the conflict map of the Syrian civil war. The question is not whether it will endure once the civil war tapers off, but in what form and, specifically, with what status.

The rise of the YPG/PYD has many of the elements of the greater Kurdish struggle.[2] It features the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) providing large-scale support to the YPG/PYD in the form of staff, resources and experience once the opportunity arose with the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011. The YPG/PYD has also been pragmatic in seizing any support it could get, preserving good relations with the Syrian regime since 2011, and building a tactical partnership with the United States (US) after 2014/2015. Such deal-making has been instrumental in maintaining its autonomy and extending it into Arab-majority areas of Syria. In contrast, the YPG/PYD did not join the revolution against Assad.[3] The story of the YPG/PYD also contains the usual divisions between the Kurds themselves. For example, the Kurdish National Council (KNC; also Syrian) protests against the YPG/PYD’s autocratic methods, its links with the PKK and with the Assad regime. Finally, the rise of the YPG/PYD features an existential fight: first with Islamic State (IS) and then with Turkey.

The YPG/PYD used a number of opportunities that arose in the course of the initial uprising and the subsequent civil war to good tactical effect. For instance, it built on Syrian regime weakness to gain dominance and establish a limited alternative governance structure; it used the fight for Kobani as a source of pride among Syrian Kurds as well as inspiration for the international community in its fight against IS);[4] it exploited the US focus on IS to obtain temporary patronage; and it projected the image of inclusive local governance as well as gender equality to enamour Western policy makers. The YPG/PYD also made poor strategic decisions, such as expanding beyond Syria’s Kurdish heartlands[5] – triggering both Turkish offensives and Syrian Arab resistance – suppressing all Kurdish political opposition, yielding Afrin to Ankara, and failing to anticipate the timing of a (partial) US withdrawal. The balance remains undecided.

This report analyses the role of the YPG/PYD in the Syrian civil war as a ‘hybrid coercive organisation’. That is to say, an organisation that simultaneously competes and cooperates with the government on whose territory it operates (here: the Syrian regime) with intensity and modalities depending on the overlap of interests on particular issues.[6] Building on a number of recent publications about the Syrian Kurds,[7] the purpose of our research is to obtain a better understanding of the nature, objectives and methods of the YPG/PYD as a ‘hybrid coercive organisation’ involved in a quasi-statebuilding project during an internationalised civil war. The primary audience of the report are Western opinion-, policy- and decision-makers engaged with the Syrian civil war and we hope it will help them to craft policies and initiate interventions that are feasible and appropriate to the situation in northeast Syria.

As to the relationship between the PYD and YPG, based on available evidence we use the analogy of ancient Sparta, i.e. where the ‘army’ (YPG) dominates the ‘state’ (PYD, in this case a political party).[8] This stands to reason in a situation of war preceded by autocracy. As to the relationship between the YPG/PYD and the PKK,[9] we view these organisations as closely intertwined in terms of their ideology, leadership and combat forces to the point that, at present, the YPG/PYD cannot make autonomous decisions on strategic issues.[10] These require agreement from the PKK. However, this does not necessarily mean the YPG/PYD is a proxy or ‘under full control of’ the PKK since there is both US influence and the YPG/PYD’s own ‘Syrian’ faction to consider.

Section 1 sketches broad factors that mostly pre-date 2011 and help to explain the rise of the YPG/PYD after the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. Section 2 analyses the main strategies of dominance and governance that the YPG/PYD has deployed to establish an alternative centre of governance to the Assad regime. Section 3 discusses short- to medium-term challenges to the YPG/PYD’s project of establishing governance and control in northern Syria. The report concludes by highlighting a number of scenarios based on the current power configuration in the area.

Figure 1
YPG/PYD territorial expansion in northern Syria from 2015 to 2017 (part 1)
YPG/PYD territorial expansion in northern Syria from 2015 to 2017 (part 1)

Source: Balanche, F., Sectarianism in Syria’s civil war, Washington DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2018 (reproduced with permission).

Figure 1
YPG/PYD territorial status in northern Syria in late 2020 / early 2021 (part 2)
YPG/PYD territorial status in northern Syria in late 2020 / early 2021 (part 2)

Source: Omran Center for Strategic Studies, 2021 (reproduced with permission).

Depending on the point in time under consideration. Figure 1 offers snapshots in 2017 and 2021.
On this broader struggle: Natali, D., The Kurds and the state: Evolving national identity in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005; Marcus, A., Blood and belief: The PKK and the Kurdish fight for independence, New York: New York University Press, 2007.
Filkins, D., The fight of their lives, The New Yorker, 2014, online.
These are Afrin, Hasaka and Kobani/Ayn al-Arab.
See: Van Veen, E. and F. Fliervoet, Dealing with tools of political (dis)order: Coercive organisations in the Levant, The Hague: Clingendael, 2018.
For a more detailed analysis of the military structure(s) of the YPG and SDF, as well as their relationship with the PYD and SDC respectively: Mulla Rashid (2018a), op.cit.
Turkey, the US (1997) and EU (2002) have designated the PKK a terrorist organisation. This re-labels an ‘internal armed conflict actor’ as ‘a terrorist group’, which is reflected in the 2018 judgment by the European General Court (case T-316/14, here). It rejects Council implementing regulations from 2014 to 2017 that give effect, i.e. impose restrictive measures, to the PKK’s listing as a terrorist organisation. The Court found that the Council failed to state sufficient reason (in other words, it failed to provide adequate evidence).
See, for example: Van Dam, N., Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, London: IB Tauris, 2017; ICG, The PKK’s fateful choice in northern Syria, Middle East report no. 176, 2017; Stein, A. and M. Foley, The YPG-PKK connection, Atlantic Council, online, 2016 (accessed 19 October 2020). This view of the YPG-PKK relationship is also supported by many of our interviews (see ‘Methodology’).