The intentions of Syrian Kurds with self-administration

From the outset of the Syrian conflict, the PYD has pursued its own self-declared interests.

YPG Syria
YPG members make a V-sign next to poster of Abdullah Ocalan, jailed Kurdish leader, and a Turkish army tank in the background in Esme village in Aleppo province, Syria. [AP]

Shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial withdrawal of combat forces from Syria, the dominant Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) declared to form a ” federal democratic system” in the three cantons of Afrin, Kobane, and Jazira.

Collectively the PYD has dubbed these areas Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. The two events are linked, with the PYD working to create facts on the ground, so that it is positioned to play a role in future decisions about governance in Syria.

The PYD’s democratic federalism is a reference to the political vision of its leader, the imprisoned founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.

Despite fighting for Kurdish autonomy, the PYD – like the PKK – rejects the idea of nationalism, blaming the rise of the nation state and the creation of the modern nation state for oppressing Kurds.

After its formation in Turkey in 1978, the PKK first used force to try and push for an independent Kurdistan, before the group modified its approach in 1999, adopting this notion of “democratic federalism” or autonomy.

The objectives of PYD

The PYD, like the PKK, does not advocate for the creation of Syrian Kurdistan per se, but instead is pushing for an anarchic type political system, wherein decision-making is granted to a series of local councils.

This concept underpins the group’s current governance model in Rojava, albeit with important caveats: The PYD requires that its armed wing People’s Protection Units (YPG) prove security in areas under its control and insists that the leadership in Qamishli, the de facto capital, make economic policy.


regime have undermined its relations with much of the Arab majority anti-Assad opposition. The group, in turn, believes that the bulk of this opposition is too conservative in outlook and is allied too closely with Turkey – the PKK’s ostensible enemy.”]

This approach is at odds with the spirit of autonomy the PYD reportedly embraces, but is otherwise reflective of the group’s threat perceptions – and the PKK’s own history of fighting and defeating any rival group that challenged its authority in areas where it is dominant.

From the outset of its rule in Rojava, the PYD has made clear that intends to pursue this political model. Since taking control of Afrin, Kobane, and Jazira in July 2012, the group has drafted a constitution, held elections, and installed numerous local councils, co-chaired in typical PKK/PYD fashion, with a man and woman.

Controversially, the PYD has maintained relations with the Syrian regime. In Qamishli, the regime maintains a presence, while recent events clearly show links between the two in north Aleppo.

The PYD’s continued links to the regime have undermined its relations with much of the Arab majority anti-Assad opposition. The group, in turn, believes that the bulk of this opposition is too conservative in outlook, has a close relationship with Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, and is allied too closely with Turkey – the PKK’s ostensible enemy.

The group has also sought to gain international legitimacy, and has therefore reflexively rejected links to the PKK, owing to the latter’s designation by most Western governments and Turkey as a terrorist organisation.

The PYD is, without question, a group operating under an umbrella organisation, Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), founded in the mid-2000s by the PKK’s leadership.

In the summer of 2014, the group managed to gain widespread international acceptance, after its militia, the YPG, played a critical role in the rescue of Yezidis from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

International links

The United States, in particular, has cultivated close ties with the YPG, with the group now acting as the vanguard force in the current war against ISIL in Syria.

Russia has also established links with the group, first by allowing the PYD to open an office in Moscow, and then through a military partnership in northern Aleppo. The PYD’s general acceptance as a key actor in Syria has undermined Turkey’s efforts to isolate the group, both internationally and militarily, with the Arab opposition inside Syria.

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Turkey’s importance, both as a long-standing US ally and as the backer of much of the anti-Assad insurgency in the north, has allowed for Ankara to continue preventing the PYD from attending recent peace negotiations in Geneva.

As a result, the PYD is not represented at the Geneva talks. This explains why the group is continuing to push ahead with its own political ambitions, regardless of immediate widespread acceptance from the international community.

Russia has signalled support for a federal Syria, despite Assad’s refusal to think about dividing Syria politically. The Russian withdrawal of forces, in turn, is widely seen as Moscow increasing pressure on Assad to negotiate an end to the conflict with representatives from the anti-Assad opposition.

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To be clear, Russia is retaining forces in Syria, but its new posture may signal a change in the scope of its mission from shaping the battlefield to trying to use its military gains to negotiate a solution to the crisis on its own terms. The PYD is acutely aware of this, and is therefore pursuing its own self-declared political and military interests.

The US has indicated that it will not recognise a self-ruled Kurdish zone in Syria. However, the US military is reportedly building two air bases in PYD-controlled territory, and representatives from the US government have met key PYD leaders in Qamishli – bestowing upon the PYD a de facto recognition that its leaders are eager to exploit.


From the outset of the Syrian conflict, the PYD has pursued its own self-declared interests.

This latest declaration reflects this approach, further underscoring that the PYD will continue to pursue its declared intent: the creation of a federal Syria, wherein it has the opportunity to pursue its preferred model of governance.

From the PYD’s perspective, it has the support of the world’s superpower, the US, and a second great power, Russia. It will continue to balance these ties, while at the same time pushing ahead with its own agenda in Syria – and the region writ large.

Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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