One of the many unexpected turns of the Syrian conflict has been the rapid rise and enduring relevance of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their associated political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This development was largely made possible by three factors. The first is the substantial transnational support that the YPG/PYD received from the Iraq-based, Turkish-origin Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the early years of the Syrian civil war. Their linkage remains strong today, to the point that the YPG/PYD cannot independently take strategic decisions. The PKK-YPG connection is inextricably connected with another key factor, namely the YPG/PYD’s informal arrangement with the Syrian regime that combines a long-term cease-fire with ongoing trade and the provision of limited mutual support. This deal provided the YPG/PYD with space and additional resources for growth in 2011/2012, for example in the form of state assets. Finally, the YPG/PYD struck up a tactical partnership with the US after the battle for Kobani against Islamic State (IS) in 2015. This partnership remains active today, even though US objectives have partially shifted from defeating IS to countering the Syrian regime and Iran.

Turning to the present, it bears noting that the YPG/PYD is many things at the same time, making assessment of its role in the Syrian conflict a complex undertaking. At one level, the YPG/PYD is the result of a longstanding relationship between the PKK and the Syrian regime in a context of decades of ruthless regime repression of Syrian Kurdish political representation. This combination enabled a fast rise of the YPG as quasi-paramilitary organisation with the PYD as associated political party, as well as the group’s establishment of control over the patchwork of communities of northern Syria. It also helped repress the revolution, in part by not joining it. At another level, the YPG/PYD nevertheless also ‘freed’ Syria’s Kurdish areas (and others) from longstanding repression of the Assad regime and largely saved Kurdish YPG-held northern Syria from the ravages of civil war. The paradox here is that it replaced the Assad regime with an authoritarian system of its own. Moreover, the YPG/PYD has become a US-linked armed group in control of resource-rich areas of Syria that are not, however, populated chiefly by Kurds, with the aim of keeping the Syrian regime and Iran out. This creates a situation in which the US supports a group that is linked to the PKK, which both the US and its NATO-ally Turkey label as a terrorist organisation. At a deeper level, the YPG/PYD is also a consequence of Turkey’s longstanding denial of greater Kurdish rights and autonomy, manifested in part by the violent suppression of groups that aspire to it by political or militant means. In this fight, the PKK viewed the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011 as an opportunity to gain advantage through the YPG/PYD. Yet, among other developments, its move into Syria aggravated the conflict with Turkey even further. Finally, at a more generic level, the YPG/PYD is a product of civil war in which opportunities arise for those with arms, funds and recruits to establish new political order(s).

Irrespective of the precise balance of factors and forces, the reality today is that the YPG/PYD runs northeast Syria in a fairly autocratic fashion despite promises and some efforts at more inclusive governance. It does not tolerate dissent, regularly commits human rights violations (at times possibly war crimes) and, with US support, controls parts of Syria where it is not necessarily welcome. At the same time, it also provides basic security and services and keeps the Assad regime at a distance. Paraphrasing an anonymous resident of Raqqa in Enab Baladi (a Syrian media organisation): ‘it is the best of the worst’ – compared with the Syrian regime, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State (IS).

Efforts to make the PYD-run Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES) or the PYD-dominated Syrian Democratic Council (which runs Arab-majority areas – roughly southern Hasaka, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces) more inclusive, have so far met with limited success. Negotiations between the YPG/PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) stumble over the willingness of the former to publicly – and practically – cut ties with the PKK, implement effective power-sharing arrangements, and increase transparency regarding financial flows. The absence of prospects for a broader resolution of the Kurdish question in Turkey itself also plays an important role, since it means that the Turkish military continues to put significant pressure on the PKK in both Turkey and Iraq – enabled by the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – which makes resolution of the Kurdish question in Syria less attractive to the PKK.

In our analysis, there is only one actor with sufficient leverage over the YPG/PYD to put pressure on it to change course towards a more inclusive and rights-based governance arrangement for northeast Syria: Washington. Yet, the US suffers from a principle-agent problem as long as it values the YPG/PYD to keep eastern Syria out of the hands of other actors like the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran. It is for this reason that continuation of the status quo is the more likely short-term scenario, which means that the YPG/PYD retains authoritarian control over northeast Syria under US protection, and that the civil war will continue in stalemated form. It is a profoundly unattractive situation for other external actors who can offer support, such as the European Union (EU), to engage with.

Regarding longer-term change that is more positive, the ball is mostly in the court of the YPG/PYD as it faces an important choice: either it remains an entity that is strategically dominated by the PKK and that is under pressure from all sides – Turkey, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the Syrian regime and Russia – without improving either the political or economic prospects of northeast Syria; or it begins an uncertain transformation into a more Syrian organisation that could play a role in a more inclusive governance system for northeast Syria and facilitate the area’s reconstruction. Given the limitations on US action noted above, the EU especially should use all the diplomacy it is capable of mustering and all the tools it can mobilise to cajole and pressure the YPG/PYD into the second direction because it has a higher likelihood of being less violent, bringing more long-term stability, and enabling greater human development.

As a transition creates vulnerability, enabling it will require some form of assurance of external protection against both the Assad regime and Turkey, as well as an arrangement that enables greater access to Turkish markets. Reaching such quid pro quo’s require backroom negotiations between the US, EU, Turkey, KDP and PYD. A key task for the EU going forward is to explore and create the space in which these conversations can take place.