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



Verified academic

Assistant Professor

Faculty of Arts & Humanities

Utrecht University

Mario A. Fumerton is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Conflict Studies in the Department of History, at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. His research interest focuses on militias and civilian self-defense groups.


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

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.

Key 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.

How to use

Policymakers and practitioners should be aware of their biases. For example, western organisations and governments often have negative biases against all non-state armed actors (like militias), labelling them as "terrorists" targeting civilians. These biased assumptions and perceptions closes off possibilities in policymaking. On the contrary, evidence shows that not all militias/local defence forces intentionally target civilians, with some instead providing local order, leadership, resilience, and livelihood opportunities during armed conflict.

The full paper is not available open access

Van Wilgenburg, Wladimir and Fumerton, Mario (2022). ‘From the PYD-YPG to the SDF: the Consolidation of Power in Kurdish-Controlled Northeast Syria’. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.

About this research

Wladimir van WilgenburgLEAD

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

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UN Sustainable Development Goals

This research contributes to the following SDGs

About this research

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

This paper was co-authored


Wladimir van Wilgenburg

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What it means

This research challenges hostile Western perceptions of non-state armed actors, like militias. Part of the social contract in Northern Syria requires people of a certain age to undertake military service as a civic duty. However, in 2021-22 some Arab communities protested against this forced conscription. Although there was some violence, the PYD later amended the conscription law and exempted non-Kurdish communities from military service. This counters the western-centric image of the PYD as an authoritarian organisation perpetrating widespread and extreme human rights abuses against civilians.


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.

Let your research make a social impact

Ramya Zwaal prepared this research following an interview with Dr Mario Fumerton.