Lecturer/Assistant Professor | Utrecht University
Conflict and Violence
Global

From the PYD-YPG to the SDF: the Consolidation of Power in Kurdish-Controlled Northeast Syria

Partnerships to achieve the Goal

This research examines the consolidation of power of the PYD (the Kurdish governing actor in northern Syria), and the YPG ( the military wing).

References

Journal article: From the PYD-YPG to the SDF: the Consolidation of Power in Kurdish-Controlled Northeast Syria (2022)
Peer Reviewed
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Co-authors:

About:

This research used a qualitative approach, combining conceptual analysis, interviews and process tracing.

Key events were identified within a broader historical catalogue of events. Within such events, process-mechanisms analysis was used to identify mechanisms that had causal effects. Potential interviewees were then found via former Facebook pages of the PYD and SDF, and anonymous interviews were conducted in Arabic or Kurdish. Limitations included incidences where sensitive terminology in the questions posed caused interviewees to refuse to continue. These questions were reformulated, and the problem rectified.

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Funding:

This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

  • For development
  • For Military & Defence
  • Syria
  • United States of America
  • community building
  • conflict
  • conflict resolution
  • territorial conflicts

Key points

  • The PYD-YPG initially relied on coercive consolidation against Kurdish rivals. To secure local and international support against Islamic State, it shifted to cooperative and cooptation strategies of power consolidation.

The research traces the historical conditions & processes leading to the creation of the Kurdish-led PYD-YPG party, & explains factors enabling it to consolidate political-military power in northeastern Syria during the country’s civil war. It also traces the process whereby the PYD-YPG played a leading role in establishing the multi-ethnic SDF, through which it managed to forge an alliance with the USA as its principal “local partner force” in the international coalition fighting against Islamic State in Syria.

Findings

  • Through its superior organisational skills and its ability to monopolise the means of violence after the Syrian government disintegrated in northeast Syria, the PYD-YPG successfully blocked rival Kurdish parties from competing for political-military power in this region.
  • The PYD-YPG's political-strategic astuteness meant they could avoid devastating military confrontations with the Assad's Syrian air force, thereby preserving their military strength and sparing the Syrian Kurdish population the worst consequences of the Syrian civil war.
  • In the fight against a formidable enemy like the Islamic State later in the civil war, the PYD-YPG was compelled to prioritise cooperative consolidation by forming alliances with Arab communities prepared to oppose ISIS.
  • The importance of maintaining cohesion and unity, through strict internal discipline, was a paramount factor in their successful consolidation of power.
  • The other key factor was the PYD-YPG's political-military success was the military support it secured from the USA.

    This gave the PYD-YPG (under the umbrella of the SDF) the capacity to fight ISIS toe-to-toe, and win. This SDF-US alliance also permitted them to deflect "terrorist" labelling from Turkey.

  • The PYD-YPG initially relied on coercive consolidation against its main Kurdish rivals.

    To secure local and international support against the Islamic State, it shifted to cooperative & cooptation strategies of power consolidation to enhance its internal and international legitimacy and popularity.

What it means

This research challenges western perceptions of militias as authoritarian terrorist organisations. Part of the social contract in Northern Syria requires people of a certain age to undertake military service in order to receive necessary resources and other benefits from the PYD. However, some Arab communities protested against this and, in response, the PYD amended their law and exempted non-Kurdish communities from military service. This counters the western-centric image of the PYD as an authoritarian group undertaking human rights abuses against civilians.

How to use

  • Policymakers and practitioners should be aware of their biases

Acknowledgements

Thank you to KPSRL

These insights were made available thanks to the support of KPSRL, who are committed to the dissemination of knowledge for all.

 

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Special thanks to Ramya Zwaal for preparation assistance

We would like to extend a special thank you to Ramya Zwaal, for their invaluable contribution in assisting the preparation of this research summary.

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Fumerton, Mario. 'From the PYD-YPG to the SDF: the Consolidation of Power in Kurdish-Controlled Northeast Syria'. Acume. https://www.acume.org/r/from-the-pyd-ypg-to-the-sdf-the-consolidation-of-power-in-kurdish-controlled-northeast-syria/