Written Evidence from Kyle Orton (KUR0019)


About the author


Kyle Orton is a research fellow at the Centre for Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank focused on counter-extremism and security policy, domestic and foreign. He has a Master’s in social science from the University of Liverpool, and did his thesis on the effectiveness of the systems and policies dealing with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Working as an analyst of the Middle East, focused on Syria and the terrorist groups operating there, Mr. Orton recently completed an extended study on the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria, with particular reference to its recruitment of foreign fighters and the implications for Western policymakers. Mr. Orton has been involved in a number of conferences about counterterrorism policy at NATO forums and contributed to the writing of the United States Department of Defence's official history of the Iraq War. Mr. Orton has been published in numerous outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, The Telegraph, and so on.


Executive Summary


      The U.S.-led Coalition supported the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as the ground force in Syria against the Islamic State

      The PYD/YPG is a wholly integrated component of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent organisation originating in Turkey that many Western states, including Britain, recognise as a terrorist organisation, as does the European Union and NATO

      The PYD/PKK rules over an area of Syria it calls “Rojava” in an authoritarian and abusive manner that has destroyed all independent media and political opposition

      The PKK authorities derived legitimacy, where they had it among non-indoctrinated Kurds, mostly as a bulwark against the Islamic State, and have seen that legitimacy recede with the caliphate; this is not a stable system

      The PKK system now covers areas that are majority-Arab as a by-product of the anti-IS campaign, which is even less stable

      The PKK views its Syrian territorial holdings primarily as a springboard for its war against Turkey, and the Turkish government could intervene with force to eliminate this threat if and when the Coalition withdraws

      An explosive situation has been created by the Coalition’s ill-thought-through anti-IS policy, which has the potential to start another war on Syrian territory and in the meantime creates a political fertile situation for the Islamic State to undo the gains the Coalition made




This submission seeks to clarify a central issue before the Foreign Affairs Committee’s investigation into “Kurdish aspirations and interests of the UK”, namely which organisation the British government has supported against the Islamic State in Syria.


Britain’s anti-IS Partner in Syria


1. By September 2014, the Syrian uprising was three-and-a-half years old. The peaceful street demonstrations had given way to an armed revolt as the population sought to defend itself from the atrocities of Bashar al-Asad’s regime. Around 200,000 people had been killed,[1] the overwhelming majority by Asad’s government, which had been rescued in late 2012 by a massive intervention from the Islamic Republic of Iran.[2] The pro-Asad coalition pursued a deliberate policy of trying to eliminate engageable opposition elements, primarily through mass-use of air power, and to bolster extremists within the insurgency, which allowed the Islamic State (IS) to construct its caliphate in eastern Syria.[3] The intent was to face the Syrian population and the world with a binary choice between Asad’s dictatorial government and a terrorist takeover. The international community effectively took the bait. When the U.S.-led air campaign, Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, began in Syria in September 2014, it was solely against IS and al-Qaeda.[4] Asad was informed, via Iran, that his regime was off-limits.[5]


2. The first crisis of the Coalition’s intervention came in the Kurdish-majority town of Kobani (or Ayn al-Arab) in northern Syria. Despite the airstrikes from the Coalition, IS continued to advance, and the incident became an international media spectacle.[6] The town was held by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Within days, the U.S. began airdropping weapons to the YPG and provided more than 700 airstrikes over three months, fully three-quarters of all U.S. airstrikes in Syria.[7] The Kobani siege was broken, and the Coalition continued to deepen its alliance with the PYD/YPG, seeing it as an instrument to push back IS without getting involved in the wider Syrian civil war, something that was not possible with a Syrian rebellion.


3. The Syrian armed opposition has been at war with IS since early 2014, but insisted on maintaining simultaneous operations against the pro-Asad forces that it viewed as the greater threat to their lives and those of their families. The very limited TIMBER SYCAMORE programme that began in 2012, led by the Central Intelligence Agency, provided some subsidy and eventually some weaponry to the rebellion, but never developed a strategic intent and was never allowed to be scaled-up to the point where it would alter the balance of power.[8] The announcement, in May 2014,[9] of an overt, Pentagon-run train-and-equip (T&E) programme for rebels as “the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators” did not even begin for a year,[10] by which time the best candidates had been eliminated,[11] and then transpired to be intended against IS alone, which made it politically and practically impossible for most Syrian rebels.[12] The T&E programme duly collapsed in the summer and autumn of 2015,[13] and was formally suspended in October 2015.[14] (Some U.S. support to vetted anti-IS groups continued in a minimal way,[15] and a revised T&E programme was reactivated in July 2016, operating mostly in southern Syria. Britain recommenced involvement in October 2016.[16]) It was clear from the beginning that an IS-only programme could not work, but the U.S. administration of the day was determined to reach a nuclear accord with Iran and had been threatened by Iranian officials that Iran would walk away from negotiations if Tehran’s client regime in Syria was seriously challenged. It was this calculation that had President Obama stand down on his threat to forcibly respond to Asad’s use of chemical weapons of mass destruction in August 2013,[17] and it was this consideration that prevented the U.S. building an opposition force capable of deposing Asad. In effect, Syria was ceded to Iranian rule in exchange for the nuclear deal.


4. By the time the T&E programme actually started in the spring of 2015, the U.S. had essentially given up on it and thrown all its weight behind the alliance it fell into with the PYD/YPG in Kobani.[18] The YPG is not a professional force, however, and this was especially evident in Raqqa, with the YPG’s inability to conduct urban warfare. IS had adapted to the Coalition’s campaign,[19] blunting YPG tactics, and the Coalition was reduced to bridging the gap with airstrikes that destroyed the city, though left thousands of IS members and their supporters and families to escape.[20] Still, the cumulative effects over three years of Coalition money, weapons, intelligence, and a de facto no-fly zone have built the YPG militia into a formidable governing apparatus over more than a fifth of Syria’s territory.


5. The Coalition assistance is often underemphasised by the YPG’s supporters when the group is presented as the most effective anti-IS force. Rhetoric aside, it is true that the YPG had some innate advantages over the Syrian rebellion, particularly in terms of unity and tactical proficiency. The reason for this is that the PYD-YPG over the rebels because they had spent three decades at war with a NATO army.


6. PYD and YPG are the names used by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) when operating on Syrian soil. The PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by most Western states, NATO, and the European Union.


7. The PKK’s founder, and still its leader from his prison cell on Imrali Island in Turkey, is Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan became politically aware in the early 1970s and shortly after his release from prison in October 1972, where he had been held for seven months after he was picked up by Turkish police at a demonstration, Ocalan formed an underground group that formally espoused a mixture of Kurdish nationalism and Marxist-Leninism, and unofficially included a cult of personality around Ocalan.[21] The PKK was formally founded in November 1978, initially as an outright separatist group (later its demands were moderated). As the political and security situation in Turkey deteriorated, the PKK spent its energy fighting other Leftist and Kurdish groups, trying to monopolise the support base for its ideas.[22]


8. The September 1980 coup in Turkey ushered in a violent military regime that effectively dismantled the PKK infrastructure in the country. Ocalan had fled to Syria before the coup, and the remnants of his organisation joined him there. The PKK would establish relations with Saddam Husayn’s Iraq and the Islamist regime in Iran, but its most important relationship was with the Asad regime in Syria. The Syrian government was engaged in a dispute with Ankara over damming rights on the Euphrates and the Hatay Province, which Asad claimed was Syria’s. The PKK became a weapon in Asad’s foreign policy against Turkey, and the PKK’s free rein to recruit within Syria meant the discontents of Syria’s own Kurds were deflected against Turkey, rather than the corrupt and repressive system in Damascus. The PKK was also a tool in the armoury of the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. had a very close relationship with Syria, and the various Palestinian terrorist groups that trained the PKK, and the Soviets used the PKK to destabilise a frontline NATO state.[23]


9. The PKK did not begin its war against Turkey until 1984, after rebuilding in Syria and Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon under the watch of Asad and the Soviet Union, and the war itself was launched from Iraq. The war proceeded at a lower level until the early 1990s when it seriously escalated. By the late 1990s, despite a vast criminal infrastructure in Europe underwriting the PKK’s insurgency—extorting the Kurdish diaspora, narcotics, human trafficking, the smuggling of more prosaic goods like cigarettes, and money laundering—it was beaten back. Ocalan was captured and the PKK withdrew into the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.[24]


10. The Anglo-American no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991 had unintentionally provided succour for the PKK in the Qandil Mountains and the 2003 removal of Saddam secured this space as the Iraqi Kurds consolidated their autonomous zone. With the military reverses of the late 1990s, and the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the PKK understood the need to dissociate from its negative brand, so that it could appear more local and “nationalist” in the Kurdish-majority zones outside Turkey, and circumvent the terrorist designation and connotation in the War on Terror era.


11. The PKK’s rebrand had already begun by the time Baghdad fell to U.S.-led coalition forces in April 2003. Officially, it had renamed itself the Freedom and Democracy Congress of Kurdistan (KADEK) at its Eighth Congress in April 2002. Shortly afterwards, it began experimentation with a “confederal model”, setting up its first local vehicle, the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK), to participate in Iraqi Kurdish politics. In time, there was a stated change in ideology, away from Marxist–Leninism to an ideology known as “Democratic Confederalism” that ostensibly envisions an eco-anarchistic, stateless democracy imbued with feminism.[25]


12. The power of the Iraqi Kurdish factions ensured that the PCDK remained marginal, but the idea took hold.


13. In October 2003, the PKK set up the PYD in Syria. Ocalan’s brother Osman claims to have personally established the PYD in the Qandil Mountains. The word “Kurdish” and “Kurdistan” were avoided so as not to antagonise Asad. Though Damascus has supposedly expelled the PKK in 1998 after Turkey threatened war, and some of the PKK’s military presence had been scaled down, the eviction was far from total. The remnants were simply rebranded as the PYD.[26] After the Kurdish anti-regime riots in Qamishli in March 2004, the PKK even formally re-established a military presence in Syria, the YPG. once again eschewed any ethnic marker in the naming. The YPG name remained hidden until 2012.[27] Though the Asad regime intermittently cracked down on the PYD between 2003 and 2011, as it did with IS in the same period despite a consistent level of support for IS’s operations in Iraq,[28] the PKK’s activities were allowed to carry on in their essentials inside Syria.[29]


14. In 2016, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (EUROPOL), the agency that tackles organised crime in the E.U., assessed that the PKK’s fundraising in Europe had increased and the proceeds had been used “to fund the group’s armed wing HPG (Hezen Parastina Gel, People’s Defence Forces) as well as the group’s counterpart in Syria, the PYD … and its armed wing, YPG”.[30]


15. The PKK expanded in Iran in 2004, creating the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). Unlike the PYD/YPG, which remained politically operational for several years before exposing its military activity, the PJAK began its armed campaign publicly within a year of its announcement, and has proven—not least because of its shelter on the Iraqi side of the Qandil Mountains—the most formidable of the Iranian Kurdish insurgent groups when it chooses to confront the Islamic Republic.[31] A ceasefire was put in place between the PJAK and Iran in September 2011, though sporadic clashes have occurred since April 2016.


16. Also in 2004, as the 1999 ceasefire with Turkey unravelled, the PKK created the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), an urban special forces unit that “deniably” conducts the anti-civilian atrocities in western Anatolia that the PKK uses in an attempt to terrorise Turkey into concessions.[32]


17. The Coalition countries have insisted in their strategic messaging that there is a distinction between the PYD/YPG and PKK. The U.S. government has marshalled various arguments to try to enforce this distinction.[33] Such arguments are self-evidently politically motivated, given their inconsistency with the U.S. policy in every other area. For instance, in 2009, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the PJAK “for being controlled by the terrorist group Kongra-Gel (KGK, a.k.a. the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK)”.[34] The U.S., in late 2016, acknowledged the PKK’s control over its Yazidi militias in Sinjar, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS).[35] Until 2015, after the Coalition’s alliance with the PYD/YPG began, the U.S. government’s counter-terrorism authorities reported clearly, and publicly, that the PYD was a component of the PKK.[36]


18. The reality of the situation is now evident, assuming it wasn’t before, to many Coalition officials, particularly those who have dealt directly with the YPG and been told directly that answers have to be sought from Qandil.[37] Many YPG members are foreign PKK operatives—from Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.[38] It was obvious around the time that the PYD’s leader, Saleh Muslim Muhammad was allowed to return to Syria from Qandil that he had brought thousands of PKK fighters with him.[39] When Asad abandoned areas of northern Syria in 2012, handing over to the PYD in a deal likely mediated with Iran, even more PKK militants flowed into Syria.[40] PKK operatives coming into Syria from Turkey simply change their patches at the border from PKK to YPG.[41] The overlap in membership gets more complete at the more senior levels.


19. The PYD/YPG hierarchy is composed of four interlinked layers. The most senior YPG officials are entirely “Qandilians”, the PKK-trained cadres who have been with the organisation back to at least the 1990s. The next layer down, the visible YPG leadership, is composed of around 80% Qandilians. The heads of the military brigades, the Asayish (police) and other security organs that are the backbone of governance away from the front lines are nearly half composed of Qandilians. Finally, the rank and file of the YPG and the PYD-run civil administration bodies are made up in their majority of locally recruited Kurds, though Qandilians hold the key nodes all the way down the governance network, keeping tight control over the Rojava territories, deciding on everything from budgets to the appointment of commanders to the distribution of supplies.[42]


20. The PKK’s leadership structure was reshuffled in mid-2013, and Turkey-centric radicals took the helm from the more negotiation-oriented leadership that was also more willing to decentralise so that the PKK’s operations in each of the four Kurdish-majority zones—in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran—were more autonomous.


21. Cemil Bayik (Cuma) became the overall commander of the PKK, replacing Murat Karayilan (Cemal), who became the commander-in-chief of the PKK’s military units, the HPG. The HPG leader whom Karayilan replaced, Nurettin Halef al-Muhammed (Nurettin Sofi), became the leader of the YPG.[43] One of al-Muhammed’s deputies, it appears,[44]  was Ferhat Abdi Sahin (Sahin Cilo), a former commander in the HPG,[45] and the other was Fehman Husayn, who became the second-in-command of the HPG and has long been rumoured to be one of the most important power-wielders in Rojava.[46]


22. The executive committee of the YPG continually rotates to prevent any one person gaining too much power. In May 2015, al-Muhammed was replaced as head of the YPG by its current leader, Sabri Ok, a Kurd from Turkey who is close to Bayik and a KCK executive member.[47] Another Turkish citizen, Duran Kalkan, appears to have some sway over deployments in Syria,[48] though whether he is in the country is unclear.


23. Other Syrian-origin PKK commanders in Syria directing the YPG project from the shadows are: Nasr Abdallah; the governor of Hasaka Province, Lewend Rojava; “Serdar Derek”; and “Taulim”. The visible YPG leaders, Nuri Mahmud (Karwan), a recent resident in Damascus and the official spokesman of the YPG, Sulayman Khalil Hassan (Redur Xelil), the spokesman for the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, Ahmad Abdulqadir Abdi (Polat Can), the YPG representative to the Coalition, and Mahmud Muhammad (Xebat Derik), plus the political leadership of the PYD—Ilham Ahmed (Ronahi Efrin), Walid Fahim Khalil (Aldar Khalil), Hediya Yusef, and “Rojin Ramo”—are all Qandilians.[49]


24. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the formal partner organisation of the U.S.-led anti-IS Coalition, was created in October 2015 as a front for the YPG/PKK.[50] The SDF is theoretically a coalition between the YPG/PKK on one side and Arab, Turkoman and Christian units on the other. Most of these groups are dependencies—or by now outright proxies—of the PKK, and the independent factions that joined the SDF have been marginalised.[51] The U.S. Department of Defense claims that non-YPG fighters constitute three-quarters of the SDF.[52] This is very likely exaggerated; it is also irrelevant. The ethnic diversity of the SDF has not altered the PKK’s political monopoly over the SDF, since all new recruits to the SDF—many of whom are Arabs—have to accede to the PKK’s political ideology,[53] nor has it challenged the military domination of the PKK over the SDF. In short, the policy was subverted by the PKK to provide more acceptable local administrators for its statelet, embedding the PKK’s hegemony, which the Americans intended to dilute when pressing for this policy.[54]


25. To call the PYD and PJAK (and PCDK) “affiliates” or “sister groups” of the PKK—let alone to say that they are “linked to” or “an offshoot of” the PKK—gives a misleading impression of distance between these purported organisations and the PKK. Even if the interchangeable membership of these components—PKK, PYD, PJAK, (and PCDK)—was ignored, they are, by their own admission, organically connected entities under a unitary chain of command, gathered within the Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK), a transnational political structure commanded by Abdullah Ocalan.


26. As a paper for NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism explained: “The PKK’s relationship with its affiliates is … one of an inseparable strategic leadership body exercising direct command and control over only nominally distinguishable units. … Like a shell game, the PKK leadership in Qandil shifts personnel between its affiliates and fronts, attempting to obscure the true nature of the organization and circumvent international terrorist labels. In this sense, the PKK truly has no affiliates, rather three fronts and three names consisting of the same personalities, leadership, ideology, and history of terrorism. … Far from just being a PKK offshoot or affiliate, PJAK and the PYD are part and parcel of the organization.[55]




27. The Rojava system that the PKK runs in Syria is, despite its media and messaging campaign stressing themes like democracy and women’s rights, an authoritarian, militarized, and exclusivist regime. The PYD/PKK inherited its regime almost wholesale from the Asad regime, hence some Kurds referring to the PYD the “Kurdistan Ba’th Party”.[56] The PYD has used its long-standing advantages in organisation and infrastructure because of its alliance with the regime to monopolise power.[57] The upcoming elections in Rojava are meant to legitimize the PKK’s rule, but there is no possibility that they will be any more free or fair than plebiscites held in the fallen Soviet Union. Thousands of Arabs have been banned from participation in advance.[58] The Kurdish opposition has been broken:[59] its leaders assassinated and exiled,[60] its offices burned down, its rank-and-file beaten up, kidnapped, and tortured (often in that order).[61] Because of this, the Kurdish opposition is in no condition, organisationally, to compete in an election even if barriers, such as the formal legislation making Rojava a one-party system[62] and a stifling atmosphere of intimidation, were not in place. Added to this, the PKK continues to create fake parties, and to elevate marginal individuals to run as “independents” who are totally dependent on the PKK, to confuse internal and external observers, giving the appearance of a pluralistic system while all choice is actually suppressed. This is not a stable system.


28. The major source of passive legitimacy the PKK regime had in Syria is the threat from the Islamic State; the popularity of the Rojava authorities increases the nearer one gets to the frontlines. As the caliphate recedes, the deficit in legitimacy will be further made up with force. Such an arrangement is inherently brittle. Additionally, as the Rojava area grows—and the U.S. and Coalition likely draw down—the already-existing dynamic of the PKK-ruled areas’ integration with the Asad-controlled zone will become more pronounced, either in piecemeal fashion as in Minbij, where the Asad regime’s secret police are allowed to operate in exchange for the regime paying for public services, or some more formal arrangement, likely allowing the regime greater authority over Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in exchange for autonomy guarantees in core Kurdish-majority zones.


29. The problems the Rojava regime has in durability in Kurdish areas are redoubled in the Arab-majority areas over which this system has been extended as a by-product of the anti-IS campaign, and that is without considering potential reactions by Turkey to the formation of what it regards as a terrorist statelet on its border. Turkey’s view is not unreasonable. The PKK fundamentally remains focused on Turkey, and sees Syria as a springboard for this war. Thus, the PKK is invested in military capacity to fight the Turkish army—not political and social structures that secure wide buy-in from Syrians. This necessitates continuation of a militarized and abusive form of governance to retain control—a dynamic the Coalition’s policy has unwittingly reinforced.[63] The lack of forward planning by the Coalition has set up a tense and unstable situation that entrenches the Islamic State politically, and opens space for other jihadi-salafist groups to operate. If this tensions boils over into another war between some combination of the several contending parties, it would undo entirely even the military gains of the anti-IS operation.


November 2017



[1] ‘Syria death toll “more than 191,000”’, BBC, 22 August 2014, available at: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28892552, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[2] Smyth, P., ‘The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects’, The Washington Institute, February 2015, available at: www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-shiite-jihad-in-syria-and-its-regional-effects, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[3] Henman, M., ‘Syrian military and ISIS have been “ignoring” each other on the battlefield’, IHS Janes, 11 December 2014, available at: www.janes.com/article/46898/syrian-military-and-isis-have-been-ignoring-each-other-on-the-battlefield, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[4] ‘Syria: U.S. begins air strikes on Islamic State targets’, BBC News, 23 September 2014, available at: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29321136, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[5] Hafezi, P., L. Charbonneau and A. Mohammed, ‘Exclusive: U.S. told Iran of intent to strike Islamic State in Syria—source’, Reuters, 23 September 2014, available at: www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-usa-iran-idU.S.KCN0HI2F220140923, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[6] The U.S. public posture on 8 October 2014 was expressed by Secretary of State John Kerry: the U.S. “strategic objective” was to target “the command and control centers, the infrastructure” of IS to “deprive [it] of the overall ability to wage [war]”, and that objective was achievable even if Kobani fell to IS, “horrific as it is to watch in real time”. By 20 October, Kerry had reversed himself. “It is a crisis moment, an emergency where we clearly do not want to see Kobani become a horrible example of the unwillingness of people to be able to help those who are fighting ISIL,” Kerry said. Kobani was now a “prize” and letting it fall would be “irresponsible”. See: ‘U.S.’s Kerry hints Kobani not strategic goal, buffer zone merits study’, Reuters, 8 October 2014, available at: www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-usa-kerry-idUKKCN0HX1TG20141008, last visited: 2 August 2017; ‘Turkey to let Iraqi Kurds reinforce Kobani as U.S. drops arms to defenders’, Reuters, 20 October 2014, available at: www.reuters.com/article/mideast-crisis-turkey-iraq-idINKCN0I90WX20141020, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[7] Weiss, M. and H. Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Updated Edition) (Regan Arts, 2016), pp. 261-264.

[8] Lister, C., ‘The Free Syrian Army: A decentralized insurgent brand’, Brookings Institution, November 2016, available at: https:// www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/iwr_20161123_free_syrian_army.pdf, last visited: 20 November 2017.

[9] ‘Full transcript of President Obama’s commencement address at West Point’, The Washington Post, 28 May 2014, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/full-text-of-president-obamas-commencement-address-at-west-point/2014/05/28/cfbcdcaa-e670-11e3-afc6-a1dd9407abcf_story.html, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[10] ‘Turkey, U.S. to start train-and-equip plan for Syria rebels May 9—Turkey’, Reuters, 2 May 2015, available at: www.reuters.com/article/uk-syria-crisis-training-idAFKBN0NN0EV20150502, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[11] Sensing a threat, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, moved to pre-empt the U.S. by eradicating the most powerful, Western-aligned rebel groups—and the U.S. did nothing. The rebel groups’ request for additional support so they could combat al-Qaeda, made in the summer of 2014, had already been denied, and the parsimony of the ammunition supplies meant some were supplied with an average of 16 bullets per month each. See: Entous, A., ‘Covert CIA Mission to Arm Syrian Rebels Goes Awry’, The Wall Street Journal, 26 January 2015, available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/covert-cia-mission-to-arm-syrian-rebels-goes-awry-1422329582, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[12] Hamidi, I., ‘Syrian Opposition Fighters Withdraw from U.S. “Train and Equip” Program’, Al-Hayat, 22 June 2015, available at: syrianobserver.com/EN/News/29382/Syrian_Opposition_Fighters_Withdraw_from_U.S._Train_Equip_Program/, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[13] The U.S. had effectively sought to create a military unit, known as Division Thirty or the New Syrian Forces, from among the rebels to fight IS. When the NSyA entered Syria, it was attacked by al-Qaeda, and the U.S. continued to withhold serious protection. See: Shaheen, K., ‘U.S.-trained Syrian rebels killed and leaders captured by al-Qaida affiliate’, The Guardian, 31 July 2015, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/31/us-trained-rebels-killed-captured-syrian-al-qaida-affiliate-nusra, last visited: 2 August 2017; Weiss, M., ‘Did a U.S.-Trained Syrian Rebel Commander Defect to al Qaeda?’, The Daily Beast, 23 September 2015, available at: www.thedailybeast.com/did-a-us-trained-syrian-rebel-commander-defect-to-al-qaeda, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[14] Shear, M. D., H. Cooper and E. Schmitt, ‘Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS’, The New York Times, 9 October 2015, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/10/world/middleeast/pentagon-program-islamic-state-syria.html, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[15] Weiss, M. and N. A. Youssef, ‘Big Win Over ISIS Could Mean a New War’, The Daily Beast, 1 June 2016, available at: www.thedailybeast.com/big-win-over-isis-could-mean-a-new-war, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[16] ‘UK military operations in Syria and Iraq: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report’, British Parliament, 8 March 2017, available at: https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmdfence/1065/106502.htm, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[17] Solomon, J., The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East, (Random House, 2016), pp. 229-30.

[18] Youssef, N. A., ‘U.S. Sidelines Its $500M Syrian Rebel Army’, The Daily Beast, 11 August 2015, available at: www.thedailybeast.com/us-sidelines-its-dollar500m-syrian-rebel-army, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[19] Orton, K., ‘The Islamic State Adapts to the Coalition Campaign’, The Syrian Intifada, 3 October 2017, available at: https://kyleorton1991.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/the-islamic-state-adapts-to-the-coalition-campaign/, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[20] ‘Raqqa’s dirty secret’, BBC, 13 November 2017, available at: www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/raqqas_dirty_secret, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[21] Marcus, A., Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York University Press, 2007), pp. 23-32.

[22] ibid., p. 34.

[23] Orton, K., ‘The Forgotten Foreign Fighters: The PKK in Syria’, The Henry Jackson Society, 17 August 2017, pp. 13-16, available at: henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/3053-PYD-Foreign-Fighter-Project-1.pdf, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[24] Orton, K., ‘The Forgotten Foreign Fighters: The PKK in Syria’, The Henry Jackson Society, 17 August 2017, pp. 16-24, available at: henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/3053-PYD-Foreign-Fighter-Project-1.pdf, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[25] The PKK had dropped its demand for independence after Ocalan was imprisoned, but continued with demands for autonomy. In March 2005, Ocalan issued a notice renouncing claims to the nation state altogether. Ocalan wrote his doctrine, composed after exchanges with the American communist-turned-anarchist Murray Bookchin, in a 2011 pamphlet. See: Ocalan, A., ‘Democratic Confederalism’, 2011, available at: http://www.freeocalan.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Ocalan-Democratic-Confederalism.pdf, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[26] Tayiz, K., ‘The PKK’s cross-relations’, The Daily Sabah, 27 August 2015, available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/opinion/2015/08/27/the-pkks-cross-relations, last visited: 2 August 2017; Yahya, H., ‘The PYD & the PKK: two sides of a coin’, The Hill, 10 May 2016, available at: thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/279169-the-pyd-the-pkk-two-sides-of-a-coin, last visited: 2 August 2017; Gunter, M. M., Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War (Hurst, 2014), pp. 40-42.

[27] Gold, D., ‘Meet the YPG, the Kurdish Militia That Doesn’t Want Help from Anyone’, Vice News, 31 October 2012, available at: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/yv5e75/meet-the-ypg, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[28] The Asad regime underwrote the operations of the IS movement in Iraq from its arrival there in 2002, facilitated the foreign fighter networks that ran across its territory and supplied the majority of the suicide bombers to IS during the American regency in Iraq. A vast IS infrastructure, overseen by Asad’s military-intelligence apparatus, had existed in eastern Syria for nearly a decade by the time the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. In line with one of Asad’s policy goals in backing IS in the first place, to export an internal security problem, occasionally the regime acted against IS—arresting certain operatives for varying amounts of time, for example, and even some shootouts with especially intransigent jihadists. For an overview, see: Lister, C., The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Hurst, 2015), pp. 37-47.

[29] Gunter, M. M., Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War, p. 42.

[30] ‘European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2016’, EUROPOL, 1 December 2016, p. 35, available at: https://www.europol.europa.eu/activities-services/main-reports/european-union-terrorism-situation-and-trend-report-te-sat-2016, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[31] Zambelis, C., ‘The Factors Behind Rebellion In Iranian Kurdistan’, CTC Sentinel, 1 March 2011, available at: https://ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-factors-behind-rebellion-in-iranian-kurdistan, last visited: 2 August 2017; Milburn, F., ‘Iranian Kurdish Militias: Terrorist-Insurgents, Ethno Freedom Fighters, Or Knights on the Regional Chessboard?’, CTC Sentinel, 4 May 2017, available at: https://ctc.usma.edu/posts/iranian-kurdish-militias-terrorist-insurgents-ethno-freedom-fighters-or-knights-on-the-regional-chessboard, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[32] Orton, K., ‘The Forgotten Foreign Fighters: The PKK in Syria’, The Henry Jackson Society, 17 August 2017, p. 27, available at: henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/3053-PYD-Foreign-Fighter-Project-1.pdf, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[33] For example, see the statements of the State Department in May 2016 (“[It is] our belief that the YPG is not connected to the PKK”); October 2016 (“[There is] a clear line between the PKK’s operations and activities and the regional Kurdish forces [i.e. the YPG]”); and November 2016 (“We do not associate the YPG [with the PKK]”). Even after the new administration came in, in March 2017 the State Department said it “disagree[d] with … linking the YPG with the PKK”. See: ‘Daily Press Briefing’, U.S. Department of State, 27 May 2016, available at: https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/05/257787.htm, last visited 2 August 2017; Daily Press Briefing, U.S. Department of State, 7 November 2016, available at: https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/11/264175.htm, last visited: 2 August 2017; ‘Department Press Briefing’, U.S. Department of State, 8 March 2017, available at: https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2017/03/268295.htm, last visited: 2 August 2017; ‘Daily Press Briefing’, U.S. Department of State, 13 October 2016, available at: https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/10/263089.htm, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[34] ‘Treasury Designates Free Life Party of Kurdistan a Terrorist Organization’, U.S. Department of The Treasury, 4 February 2009, available at: https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg14.aspx, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[35] ‘Daily Press Briefing’, U.S. Department of State, 15 December 2016, available at: https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/12/265692.htm, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[36] ‘Counterterrorism Calendar 2014’, U.S. National Counterterrorism Centre, 15 January 2014, p. 125, available at: https://kyleorton1991.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/national-counterterrorism-centre-2014-counterterrorism-calendar.pdf, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[37] Author interview with a regional intelligence official, April 2017.

[38] Stein, A. and Foley, M., ‘The YPG-PKK Connection’, The Atlantic Council, 26 January 2016, available at: www.atlanticcouncil.org/component/content/article?id=28272:the-ypg-pkk-connection, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[39] Allsopp, H., The Kurds of Syria, p. 208.

[40] ‘The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria’, International Crisis Group, 4 May 2017, available at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/176-pkk-s-fateful-choice-northern-syria, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[41] Author interview with a regional analyst who embedded with the PKK, October 2017

[42] Author interview with a senior regional intelligence official, 27 April 2017.

[43] Author interview with regional intelligence official, July 2017

[44] Soylu, R., ‘Archives, testimonies confirm PYD/YPG’s organic link with PKK terror organization’, The Daily Sabah, 19 February 2016, available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2016/02/20/archives-testimonies-confirm-pydypgs-organic-link-with-pkk-terror-organization, last visited: 22 July 2017.

[45] After Turkey launched airstrikes against YPG/PKK bases in Syria on 25 April 2017, U.S. soldiers were deployed to make a show of solidarity, and the YPG ensured that the soldiers were walking side-by-side with Sahin, one of the most-wanted men by the Turkish government, further alienating two NATO allies and bringing the U.S. ever-closer to defending an outright alliance with the PKK. See: Chulov, M. and Hawramy, F., Ever-closer ties between U.S. and Kurds stoke Turkish border tensions, The Guardian, 1 May 2017, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/01/tensions-rise-along-the-turkey-syria-border-pkk-ypg-erdogan, last visited: 22 July 2017.

[46] Winter, C., ‘Turkey’s Syrian Kurdish Dilemma’, Ekrud Daily, 4 August 2012, available at: ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2012/8/turkey4072.htm, last visited: 22 July 2017.

[47] Author interview with regional intelligence official, July 2017

[48] ‘PKK readying to deploy next to Syrian wing to stop FSA fight against DAESH’, The Daily Sabah, 30 August 2016, available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2016/08/31/pkk-readying-to-deploy-next-to-syrian-wing-to-stop-fsa-fight-against-daesh, last visited: 22 July 2017.

[49] ‘The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria’, The International Crisis Group, 4 May 2017.

[50] Hubbard, B., ‘New U.S.-Backed Alliance to Counter ISIS in Syria Falters’, The New York Times, 2 November 2015, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/03/world/middleeast/new-us-backed-alliance-in-syria-exists-in-name-only.html, last visited: 2 August 2017; ‘American General Explains Rebranding the YPG Away From the PKK’, YouTube, 22 July 2017, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVZCIel_2Xw, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[51] Orton, K., ‘The Coalition’s Partner Against the Islamic State: The Syrian Democratic Forces’, The Henry Jackson Society, 9 July 2017, available at: henryjacksonsociety.org/2017/07/09/the-coalitions-syrian-partner-against-islamic-state-the-syrian-democratic-forces/, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[52] ‘Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Dorrian via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq’, U.S. Department of Defense, 15 March 2017, available at: https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1119873/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-col-dorrian-via-teleconference-from-bag/, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[53] Orton, K., ‘The Coalition’s Partner Against the Islamic State: The Syrian Democratic Forces’, The Henry Jackson Society, 9 July 2017.

[54] Sly, L., ‘U.S. military aid is fueling big ambitions for Syria’s leftist Kurdish militia’, The Washington Post, 7 January 2017, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/us-military-aid-is-fueling-big-ambitions-for-syrias-leftist-kurdish-militia/2017/01/07/6e457866-c79f-11e6-acda-59924caa2450_story.html, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[55] Ferris, J. and A. Self, ‘Dead Men Tell No Lies: Using Martyr Data to Expose the PKK’s Regional Shell Game’, NATO’s Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism, 5 May 2015, available at: http://www.coedat.nato.int/publication/datr/volume8-2016/01-Dead_Men_Tell_No_Lies.pdf, last visited: 2 August 2017.

[56] ‘Kurds and the Revolution of Dignity’, YouTube, 16 March 2017, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkMOAejS3Bs, last visited: 22 July 2017.

[57] Tanir, I., Wilgenburg, W.V., Hossino, O., ‘Unity or PYD Power Play? Syrian Kurdish Dynamics After the Erbil Agreement’, The Henry Jackson Society, 15 October 2012, available at: henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/HJS_Unity-or-PYD-Power-Play_-Report.pdf, last visited: 22 July 2017.

[58] ‘Thousands of Arabs excluded from elections in Syria’s Kurdish-majority north’, Syria Direct, 2 August 2017, available at: syriadirect.org/news/ -thousands-of-arabs-excluded-from-elections-in-syria’s-kurdish-majority-north/, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[59] Orton, K., ‘Crackdown Continues in Syrian Kurdish Areas’, The Henry Jackson Society, 12 May 2017, available at: henryjacksonsociety.org/2017/05/12/analysis-crackdown-continues-in-syrian-kurdish-areas/, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[60] Nasreddin Birhek and Kawa Khaled Hussein are prominent cases. There is also Bahzed Dorsen, who disappeared in 2012 and has not been heard of since. See: ‘Aleppo: Nasruddin Birhik succumbs to his injuries following assassination attempt’, KurdWatch, 24 February 2012, available at: kurdwatch.org/index.php?aid=2464&z=en, last visited: 22 July 2017; ‘Kurdish activist detained by the PYD, found dead near Afrin’, ARA News, 3 October 2013, available at: aranews.net/2013/10/kurdish-activist-kidnapped-by-pyd-found-dead-near-afrin/, last visited: 22 July 2017; ‘Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-run Enclaves of Syria’, Human Rights Watch, 19 June 2014, available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/06/19/under-kurdish-rule/abuses-pyd-run-enclaves-syria, last visited: 22 July 2017.

[61] For example, about 150 people were arrested in 2013 and roughly 100 in 2014, according to lists of dissidents persecuted by the PYD provided to author by Kurdish activists, May 2017

[62] ‘Kurdish Self-Administration Poised to Ban Kurdish Opposition Parties’, Enab Baladi, 15 May 2017, available at: syrianobserver.com/EN/News/32472, last accessed: 20 November 2017.

[63] ‘The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria’, The International Crisis Group, 4 May 2017.