Stabilizing Syria's Northern Border
Stabilizing Syria's Northern Border (Image: Donkey Hotey / Flickr Commons)

By International Crisis Group

As the ICG sees it, the key protagonists in Northern Syria seem to agree on one thing only -- their interests are best served by intensifying rather than deescalating the fighting. As the lone stakeholder with significant influence over Turkey and the PKK-YPG, here's what the US should do to cajole them to the negotiating table.

On both sides of the Syria-Turkey border, uncompromising strategies are propelling further escalation and spillover of a dangerous conflict. Turkey is confronting both an ever-more implacable insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as advances in Syria of PKK affiliates like the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Should this continue, likely results include intensified bloodshed in south-east Turkey, a significant blow to the Turkish economy and expansion of violent instability into currently calm areas of western Turkey and north-east Syria. The Islamic State (IS), always keen to seize opportunity from chaos, has both incentive and capacity to help engineer it. What is especially troubling is not only the potential for greater upheaval in a suffering region, but also the extent to which the immediate calculations of each local protagonist (Ankara, the PKK and its affiliates and IS) lead it willingly to this abyss. Avoiding the dangerous unravelling this would entail may require immediate adjustments by the U.S., the lone actor with significant influence over both Ankara and the PKK-YPG camp.

To maximise its leverage over those parties and incentivise them to turn away from escalation and toward the negotiating table, Washington should shift its priority from “degrading and destroying” IS toward the broader, related goal of preventing further destabilisation (while continuing its fight against IS); make clear that PKK actions in Turkey will affect how the U.S. views its relationship with the YPG in Syria; and signal to Ankara that returning to a program of rights-based reforms and preparing the way for new talks with the PKK would enable the U.S. to strengthen its efforts to address Turkey’s transborder security concerns.

The war’s key protagonists seem to agree on one thing only: that their interests are best served by intensifying rather than de-escalating the fighting. This is true across conflict theatres, as seen in the approaches of Ankara and the PKK in Turkey; Ankara and the YPG in Syria and IS in both Syria and Turkey.

The Russian-Alawite Link

Russia might be prepared to pressure the Damascus regime into concessions – and perhaps even sacrifice Assad himself at a later stage – to present itself as an actor capable of delivering solutions. Yet, Moscow has shown no signs of lessening its backing for Alawite officials, as well as the top Alawite military and security tiers, whose disproportional presence in the state and security structure was a major factor in the tensions that fueled the 2011 uprising. The Vienna declaration emphasized the preservation of state institutions, which could serve as a justification to retain much of the Alawite-dominated military and security apparatus that has underpinned the power structure for the past five decades. The links between these groups and Russia have deep roots. Since the times of the USSR, Moscow’s relationship with Syria had centered on the Alawite ruling elite and officer class, many of whom had received training in Russia. After Assad succeeded his father in 2000, Russia also became more involved in Syria’s small but substantial oil and gas sector, where they often partnered with relatives of Assad. As war raged in the interior and the oil fields were lost to Islamic State or Kurdish militias, the authorities awarded a Russian company the rights for offshore gas exploration in the coastal waters around Latakia in 2013, although no actual exploration has taken place thus far. Even if Moscow were indeed to pull most of its troops out of Syria, it would retain the new airbase near the Alawite mountains – the nerve center of the intervention. Russia has thus secured a strategic foothold in the eastern Mediterranean, but it relies on continued close relations with the current power holders in Damascus.

Reversal of the Military Picture

Russia’s entry into the war occurred at a point when the Assad regime was clearly on the ropes. After the inauguration in January 2015 of the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, joint mediation by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey facilitated a new rebel coalition by the name of Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), which was mainly comprised of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist group with a history of tense – and often violent – relationships with Jabhat al-Nusra. Western-backed FSA brigades, while not forming a part of Jaish al-Fatah, contributed to significant advances by the new alliance by deploying anti-tank missiles, which helped to disrupt the supply lines of loyalist troops. By fall 2015, the offensive threatened to cut off Assad’s seat of power in Damascus from his home region on the coast, where the bulk of what has remained of the regime’s army and militia reservoir are recruited.

Russian firepower altered this military landscape dramatically. By the time the ceasefire came into effect, Assad and his foreign militia allies were coming close to sealing off rebel areas in the north and interior. Aside from airpower, Moscow deployed multiple rocket launchers manned by Russian personnel with more obliteration capacity than the ones used by Assad’s army. Still, rebels offered stiff resistance and held key supply junctions in northern and central Syria, without which they would have been completely cut off. Even after the ceasefire, fighting has persisted along such strategic fronts. Russia appears to have provided Assad’s military with stronger armor and more advanced equipment since 2015. However, since Russia is reluctant to put a large number of soldiers on the ground, the regime would still need more involvement from its Shiite allies, which it cannot necessarily take for granted. Iran’s priority appears to have been securing Shiite areas and Shiite shrines in Syria, as well as territories along the border with Lebanon, thus guarding Hezbollah’s back and the supply corridors between the two countries. In contrast, the regime has struggled to hold territory on its own. Deeper Iranian involvement may be in the offing if rebels recover and go back on the attack.

Still, Russian bombardment dislodged the rebels from most of the high ground around Latakia by early 2016. Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane over the region in November 2015 prompted an escalation of the airstrikes, which forced most rebels to retreat to Idlib. Under Russian cover, regime forces and Hezbollah chipped away at northern supply junctures to opposition areas, squeezing rebels between the regime and Islamic State in the governorate of Aleppo, and in Hama and Homs further south. In private, rebel leaders criticized Turkey for what they described as provoking more Russian air attacks without increasing or upgrading their weapons supplies. By mid-February 2016, the raids had killed many rebel commanders among an estimated 2,000 anti-Assad combatants, as well as 1,400 civilians. A commander of the “Free Men of the Middle Mountain Brigade,” nominally part of Ahrar al-Sham, reported dozens of airstrikes in a single day on the town of Salma above Latakia, subsequently recaptured by the regime. Surviving members of the brigade largely withdrew to their home region near Jisr al-Shughour in the Idlib province, which is also defended by Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and Turkic fighters from central Asia.

The regime’s consolidation of the environments of Latakia placed it in a commanding position to attack Idlib and cut off vital road intersections leading south. But subsequent territorial gains in the interior have been limited, with rebels preserving main frontlines in Hama and Homs. In the two regions, the rebels appear more solidly implanted than in the north, partly because their commanders are reared in the local communities, and the groups do not prey upon the local population as much as further north.

Aleppo Strangled

Idlib has become the last remaining rebel inlet in the north after the road connecting Aleppo to the Turkish border near the town of Azaz was severed. In February 2016, parts of the Azaz corridor were taken by loyalist forces. Other stretches are under the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is in turn affiliated with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Operating out of Afrin to the northwest of Aleppo, the YPG militias have a tense relationship with the rebels of the region. The city itself, which was Syria’s commercial and industrial hub before the war, has been broadly divided between a regime-controlled western and a rebel-held eastern sector since 2012. With the Azaz corridor cut off, Assad’s forces closed in on Castello Road, Aleppo’s last land outlet not with the regime. YPG militia from the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud also attacked the road, in effect helping the regime to lay a near siege on Aleppo. Yet, in a rare attack in March 2016, fighters of Islamic State captured a road connecting the government-held sectors of Aleppo to the south, indirectly relieving pressure on the rebels in the city. Jund al-Aqsa – a Salafist brigade nominally part of Jaish al-Fatah – apparently participated in the attack, raising the specter of major defections to Islamic State should the rebels decide that their supposed Sunni allies have abandoned them, whether it be Turkey, the Gulf States, or Jordan. Islamic State itself has thus far been only a secondary target for the Russian attacks, despite the fact that their extremism has served as a major argument to justify the Russian intervention. One major exception has been the ancient city of Palmyra, where massive Russian bombardment prepared the ground for the capture of the city by Assad’s forces and associated militia, in the first defeat inflicted on Islamic State with Russian assistance.

Ramifications in the South

In another blow to the opposition, Moscow’s intervention forced a near shutdown of the only other route available to the rebels: through the southern border with Jordan. The Jordanian establishment did not welcome what it perceived as the increasingly Islamist character of the Syrian revolt and feared a Muslim Brotherhood ascendency next door. Thus, the Kingdom mostly acted as a conduit for US and Saudi support to moderate rebels in the south and the suburbs of Damascus. As a result, jihadist groups failed to develop much traction in southern Syria, prompting for instance Jabhat al-Nusra to transfer a significant part of its fighters to the north. However, by the second half of 2015, Riyadh had shifted priorities to reverse the setbacks it had suffered in its intervention in Yemen. The United States, for its part, refocused efforts on creating proxies that would be willing to fight Islamic State without seeking the downfall of Assad.

After the Russian campaign started in September 2015, Jordan chose to accommodate Russia and accepted to set up what Moscow described as a “special working mechanism” with the Jordanian military. What exactly this cooperation entails remains unclear, although there are allegations that intelligence-sharing has helped Russia identify targets for its attacks. Support to the FSA brigades was largely cut off, forcing the rebels to withdraw from the strategically important Sheikh Miskeen military base, which was seized by Assad’s army and Hezbollah militia after heavy Russian bombing in January 2016. The Russian airstrikes on Sheikh Miskeen and other targets in the south coincided with increasing numbers of assassinations in Deraa, which killed about two dozen FSA commanders.

New US Proxies

The rise of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra contributed to growing American wariness that Syria could turn into another jihadist haven if Assad were to be deposed. As jihadist groups rampaged in Libya and Yemen, Washington objected little to the Russian offensive; instead, it worked with Moscow to convene the Geneva talks. Militarily, Washington strengthened the Kurdish YPG militia, which number in the thousands, and set up smaller Arab auxiliary forces, many of which were trained by US personnel in Jordan. These Arab forces mostly hail from tribes in the east of Syria and, although nominally independent, often cooperate closely with the YPG. One such force, called the New Syrian Army, made its operational debut in March 2016 when it launched – under the cover of US airstrikes – a failed attack on Tanaf, a Syrian border-crossing with Iraq that is also close to the Jordanian border. Tanaf had been controlled by Islamic State since the group overran eastern Syria in 2013 and killed those who refused to pledge allegiance. The Shueitat tribe of Deir al-Zor sustained many of these casualties, and now forms a main component of the Syrian New Army, alongside tribes from the Homs and Raqqa regions, whose lot also worsened under Islamic State.

By shoring up Arab clients, Washington can hope to prevent the jihadists from exploiting misgivings over perceived Kurdish expansionism and razing of Arab villages, which Amnesty International said amounts to war crimes.

Backing disgruntled tribes and Arab militia also allows Washington to bypass the FSA, which Washington rarely trusted, as well as other rebels who insist that the fight against Islamic State and Assad had to go in tandem, since his continued presence would only cause more extremism. Yet, their argument mostly fell on deaf ears. The US approach has also angered Turkey. Ankara has attempted to curb the expansion of the YPG along the border and challenged Russia’s unfettered hand in Syria without receiving much support from its fellow NATO members. Wary of a deepening split with Ankara, in March 2016 Washington opposed a unilateral PYD declaration of a “federal” region in northern Syria, without however being able to placate Turkish concerns. It was US airstrikes that helped the YPG to grab vast amounts of territory along the Turkish border.

Emboldened YPG

Turkish concerns about the Kurdish ascendency only deepened with the Russian intervention. Already backed by the United States, the Kurdish militia now have the option to also work with Russia, expand its land grab in northern Syria, and play Washington and Moscow against each other as it bids for support from both. Determined to advance to the Turkish border, the YPG attacked US- backed FSA units with the support of Russian airstrikes. The attack made the United States appear not in control of its YPG proxy, which Washington had touted as its most trusted ally in Syria in the fight against Islamic State. But rebels managed to hold on to Azaz, which is 10 km across the border. The town and the countryside to the east controlled by Islamic State are the only remaining obstacles between the Afrin enclave and the Kurdish-controlled cantons of Kobane and Qamishli in the east. Linking these areas would create a geographically contiguous area under Kurdish control along most of the Syrian-Turkish border – thus giving a significant boost to claims for Kurdish autonomy – and is hence a strategic goal for the YPG/PYD. For the same reason, it is also the ultimate strategic nightmare of Turkey, which finds itself in a renewed confrontation with the PKK.

Responding to what it regards as PKK provocation in Syria, Turkey transported hundreds of Ahrar al-Sham and other fighters from Idlib through its territory to Aleppo to help defend Azaz against the YPG. Ankara also shelled newly captured areas and other targets related to the YPG, drawing US criticism but achieving little effect. Turkey had originally tried to preempt a YPG advance by proposing to turn most of the strip separating Afrin from the northeast into a safe zone that shields civilians from Assad and Islamic State. But the idea quickly ran into opposition from the United States, and even a drastic reduction in size – from an area 100 km wide and 25 km deep to the town of Azaz and its surroundings – failed to get it off the ground.

Turkey Bets on Losing Horses

The YPG’s territorial gains exposed Ankara’s failure to build an effective ally in Syria, despite early ties to the rebels. The north was home to the first defectors from Assad’s military who crossed into Turkey looking for safety and support. When the protest movement started and Ankara’s entreaties for genuine democratic reforms failed to convince Assad, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared himself de facto protector of Syria’s Sunni majority, yet avoided direct Turkish involvement. Turkey appears to have expected Assad not to last, and to see him replaced by a friendly regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Such a scenario would have placed Ankara in a prime position to reap economic and political benefits from a post-Arab Spring Middle East molded by Turkey and hinged on Syria.

Prior to the revolt, Syria became a vital transport link and a nascent commercial springboard from Turkey to the Levant and the Arab Peninsula, as Ankara cancelled visa requirements and struck trade deals that helped boost Turkish exports to the region.

Expecting an Islamist ascendancy after Assad, Ankara supported the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in its power struggles within the mainstream political opposition, which had organized itself formally in Istanbul in late 2011. But the Brotherhood’s control evaporated after Saudi Arabia elbowed its own allies into the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces in 2013.

Militarily, Ankara has thrown its support mainly behind Ahrar al-Sham. Despite battlefield gains before the Russian campaign, Ahrar al-Sham ended up deeply undermined by internal contradictions. Many of the fighters also loathed the heavy-handed tutelage by Turkish intelligence, not least in operational matters and frequent changes in the levels of supply and financial support. Similar to smaller rebel groups with links to Ankara, Ahrar al-Sham was also undermined by inconsistencies in Turkish support due to what many in the group and the wider opposition regard as differences over Syria between Turkey’s intelligence services and its military.

Still, Turkey helped to control the chronic differences within Ahrar al-Sham. Despite its Salafist foundations, many less-ideological members still saw the organization as part of a popular revolt to replace Assad’s rule with a pluralist system and resisted the domination of the jihadist wing. Such ideological divisions resurfaced, however, after Ankara helped nudge Ahrar al-Sham to participate in an opposition meeting in Riyadh in December 2015, where a unified political platform ahead of the Geneva talks was agree upon. The organization also suffers from internal tensions over alleged enrichment and privileges. For instance, complaints have been rife against the commander of Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib, Abu Khuzaima, who built a business from smuggling and extortion at the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing. Attempts by senior ranks in Ahrar al-Sham to remove Khuzaima failed, as the self-styled “Emir of the Border” has amassed a private army and a fleet of car-mounted machine guns.

Such differences have caused increasing numbers of defections to Jabhat al-Nusra, which is more self-reliant financially and perceived as ideologically coherent. Despite the cooperation of the two groups in the Jaish al-Fatah alliance, violence and turf warfare persisted between them. By late 2015 Jaish al-Fatah practically ceased to exist, and in March 2016 Jabhat al-Nusra took advantage of the ceasefire – from which it is explicitly excluded – to overrun a Western-backed FSA brigade based in the town of Ma’arrat al-Nu’maan, near Idlib. Yet they encountered an apparent popular backlash there, as the relative calm encouraged protests against Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib and elsewhere, as well as demonstrations echoing the peaceful demands for the downfall of the Assad regime at the beginning of the revolt. Across rebel Syria, the demonstrators appeared to be rejecting the jihadist takeovers as well as Assad.

Conclusions and Recommendations

By March 2016, six months of Russian bombing had turned rebel formations into isolated pieces on a chessboard, besieged and without scope to fortify one another. Internal strife and turf wars reinforce this fragmentation. The cessation of hostilities, which forbids the capture of new territory, has given rebels some breathing room. But they are still under enormous pressure. Riyadh, their main Arab backer, remains bogged down in Yemen, which it regards as more vital to its security, and is looking for a way out. Having pushed the opposition to go to Geneva, Saudi Arabia may well go along with a deal that eventually removes Assad without fundamental changes to the system, allowing Riyadh to clinch a symbolic victory of taking out a main Iranian ally. In reality, Tehran has been making de facto territorial annexations in areas it regards as strategic, relying on Hezbollah and Iraqi militia as well as Syrian Shiite auxiliaries trained and equipped by Tehran. Moscow, which appears keen to reclaim some of the international clout it enjoyed in the pre-1990 bi-polar world order, may eventually engineer an exit for Assad, thus underlining that it can deliver solutions. But Russia has shown little interest in a political settlement that goes beyond scratching the surface of the current regime, let alone establishing accountability for violence and war crimes, or a genuinely representative political order. More in tune with the Russian approach would be to trade democratic demands against a token expansion of the Sunni facade of the regime by co-opting a number of opposition figures.

The regime, for its part, has shown no interest in a transition. It appears to regard the cessation of hostilities as a piecemeal prelude to rebel capitulation along the lines of the “National Reconciliations” that occurred in besieged areas between 2013 and 2015. Rebel surrenders in all but name, these agreements were often followed by new arrests and forced recruitment into Assad’s army.

As long as the Alawite security core, which is largely invisible, stays intact, Moscow’s interests – along with the authoritarian political order in Syria – will be preserved. Under this scenario, meaningful opposition will remain confined to activists in exile, which is likely to become permanent for the thousands of dissidents and peaceful activists who fled torture and death. Germany and some EU countries, as well as the United States, appear currently to be interested in achieving a lasting solution to the conflict according to the international framework, which calls for an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers and the continuity of a functioning government. German politicians should resist tendencies to take democratic window dressing at face value that is motivated by the urge to end the refugee crisis and what they see as the militant threat from Syria in the wake of the Brussels attacks, and instead insist on a thorough reform of the security sector.

As long as the security apparatus and government militias operate beyond any control and accountability – and opponents are imprisoned, tortured, and killed – the return of a sizeable number of the mostly Sunni refugees is not likely, nor would it be safe or humane to send them back.

Procedurally, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura had envisaged the Geneva process to establish four tracks, including one concerning the “military, security and counter-terrorism.” But with the international focus on curbing jihadists in Syria, there might be a tendency to sweep the arbitrary powers and entrenched sectarianism of the security sector and the flaws in the judicial system under the rug.

The more immediate issue is to uphold the ceasefire. One way to convert the cessation of hostilities into a durable arrangement would be for Germany and other members of the ceasefire taskforce to formalize the deal and establish a transparent monitoring and sanctioning mechanism. This would make it more difficult to change the status quo through violence and also make Russia and the United States more accountable.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire remains fragile. For example, Turkey, which has been alarmed by the Kurdish advance, could substantially increase flows to the rebels, encouraging them to strike back. Robbed of intensive Russian air support, Assad may try to play Iran off against Russia and renew the push – with backing from Shiite militia – to cut off the remaining outlets that link opposition areas in the interior to Turkey.

If the rebels give up, as the regime hopes, they may join the refugee trek to Europe, or try to blend back into civilian life, with some continuing clandestine or terrorist insurgent activities. So far, rebel weakness wreaked by the Russian strikes appears to have benefited mainly Jabhat al-Nusra and, to a lesser degree, Islamic State. Renewed conflict looms, together with further radicalization of Syrian Sunnis, if Alawite control of the police state and the latter’s domination over society continues.

  • The PKK and Turkey should refrain from further escalation and reopen communication, quietly if necessary. At minimum, both should refrain from increasing violence. The PKK should not expand trenches in the south east, make autonomy declarations or conduct attacks elsewhere, including bombings in western cities. That would remove the need for Turkey to declare additional curfews in Kurdish areas; Ankara should also refrain from escalating in Syria or areas of Turkey already under curfew and should take additional measures to ensure humanitarian protection of and provision for civilians. [17] Simultaneously, it should quietly reopen communication with Abdullah Öcalan, who despite his imprisonment wields potentially decisive influence within the PKK’s transnational organisation. Once it has initiated contact, Turkey should also enable resumed communication between Öcalan, Qandil and representatives of the HDP (the Kurdish movement’s legal political party), which will be necessary if Öcalan is to push the organisation back to a political track.
  • The U.S. should use its influence and leverage to shape expectations, temper hubris and address fears on both sides. At least in private, it should unify and clarify its messaging, which has not been understood by many actors in the field, in part because it has not been consistent: that regardless of how the PKK and YPG leaderships portray their relationship, the U.S. will hold both accountable for the actions of either on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border. The U.S. reluctance to publicly affirm the unity of the two is understandable in light of its domestic constraints, since linking the YPG to a group listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) would mean the loss of a valued partner against IS. But political hoops the U.S. has to jump through at home have policy consequences in northern Syria and Turkey, where many still hold out hope – and others fear – that the U.S. will invest more and more deeply in its alliance with the YPG, its ties to the PKK notwithstanding, enabling both to achieve their objectives without the necessary compromise.
  • The U.S. should emphasise its commitment to the security of Turkey’s border, including the principle that YPG-held territory should not be used in support of PKK insurgent activity within Turkey. It should also stress to the YPG that it, and its allies within the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), should avoid further confrontation with Turkey-backed, anti-IS rebels in Aleppo and refrain from any further advance west of the Euphrates until a framework for seizing and administering that area is agreed with Turkey and its rebel allies (see below). Concomitantly the US should reaffirm its support for a role for the YPG and its political front, the PYD, within a united, pluralistic Syria.
  • Turkey should formulate a concrete reform agenda to address Kurdish demands on rights and enable free public debate on controversial issues such as decentralisation, so that confidence in the viability of political solutions is restored among the constituencies of the Kurdish movement in Turkey

These steps, vital to the region’s security in the short term, could have long-term benefits. Though challenges are substantial, stabilising the Syria-Turkish border region would ultimately help the protagonists mount a more effective campaign against IS. They all agree on the ultimate necessity of driving IS from its territory between Marea (east of Afrin) and the Euphrates, but at present a cooperative division of labour – among YPG/SDF, Turkey-backed rebels, Turkey and the U.S. – is impossible, since each, except perhaps the U.S., at present is more afraid of one of its potential partners than of IS. An alliance could be consolidated only if each came to believe that its broader interests were likely to be secured in the day-after dispensation. That could include arrangements for a corridor enabling secure YPG transport between Afrin and YPG-held areas east of the Euphrates, while handing control of the surrounding territory to a combination of Turkey-backed rebels (which could control the border with Turkey) and SDF components allied with the YPG (which could secure the YPG’s transport corridor).

Such a deal could deliver a significant blow to IS and establish a model for positive-sum arrangements in sensitive, contested parts of northern Syria. But it will not happen unless the YPG, PKK and Turkey, with U.S. help, first adjust course to stabilise their own relations.



[1] The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkarane Kurdistan, PKK), founded by Abdullah Öcalan in 1978, has (in the words of a 2012 Crisis Group report) “spawned a bewildering alphabet soup of entities”. Between 2005 and 2007, it created an umbrella organisation, the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Ciwakên Kürdistan, KCK), containing its affiliates in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria; the term PKK now technically denotes the Turkey affiliate but in practice is often used to refer to the transnational organisation as a whole (a practice applied in this briefing). The Syrian affiliate technically has several entities (and acronyms), the most important of which are its principal political body, the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD), and armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG). Officially, the PYD and YPG operate under the leadership of and take ideological inspiration from Öcalan (imprisoned in Turkey since 1999), but are organisationally independent; in practice, Syrian Kurdish PKK cadres with years of service in Qandil (the organisation’s northern Iraqi mountain base) dominate the YPG leadership and are the decision-makers within the self-proclaimed “autonomous administration”, the broader organisation established to govern areas under its control in November 2013. In short: while PYD and YPG leaders clearly enjoy a degree of tactical autonomy, on strategic matters the integration of PKK, PYD and YPG leadership structures – and the intense discipline and ideological commitment among Qandil-trained cadres – suggest they will continue to function as a single, multi-faceted organisation for the foreseeable future. In any case, because this briefing focuses primarily on military dynamics, it uses YPG as shorthand to refer to the broader organisation’s Syria affiliate. Crisis Group interviews and observations, Qamishli, Syria, December 2015, March 2016; see also Crisis Group Middle East Report N°151,Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria, 8 May 2014; and Europe Report N°219, Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement, 11 September 2012; also Alev Erhan and Aaron Stein, “Mapping ‘the Kurds’: an Interactive Chart”, 15 March 2016,

[2] “Turkish President Erdoğan rules out ‘negotiation’ with PKK”, Hurriyet Daily News, 4 April 2016.

[3] For an explanation on the role of Qandil-trained cadres in Syria, see fn. 1 above.

[4] Anthony Lloyd, “Revenge will be ours, pledges Turkey’s most wanted man”, The Times (London), 15 March 2016. Cemil Bayık, a PKK founder, is part of its three-member executive committee.

[5] Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, March 2016.

[6] Crisis Group interview, senior Turkish security official, January 2016; for more on apparent logistical support from YPG-held areas of Syria to PKK operations in Turkey, see Katrin Kuntz, Onur Burçak Belli and Emin Oezmen, “Children of the PKK: the growing intensity of Turkey’s civil war”, Der Spiegel, 12 February 2016.

[7] For background on rebel factions in Aleppo and the U.S. role in supporting them, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°155, Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War, 9 September 2014. For more on clashes between the YPG, its allies and Aleppo rebel factions, see Sam Heller, “Are CIA-backed Syrian rebels really fighting Pentagon-backed Syrian rebels?”, War on the Rocks, 28 March 2016.

[8] See “An alarming new escalation in the Syria war”, Crisis Group In Pursuit of Peace Blog, 24 November 2015.

[9] Crisis Group interviews, Qamishli, March 2016.

[10] While the “cessation of hostilities” agreement – negotiated by Washington and Moscow and partially observed, with notable breeches daily, by the regime and non-jihadist rebel groups – has significantly reduced violence in much of Syria since 27 February 2016, intermittent clashes between the YPG (and allies in the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF) and rebel factions in Aleppo have remained a dangerous flashpoint. YPG forces are within reach of severing the lone remaining supply line to rebel-held areas in the city. YPG sniper-fire along the road has produced civilian casualties; rebels have countered with indiscriminate shelling on the YPG-held neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsud, resulting in significant civilian casualties, including a reported eighteen killed on 6 April. See “Turkey | Syria: Flash Update – Eastern Aleppo City”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 25 February 2016,; also “18 dead in Syrian rebel shelling on Kurdish area: monitor”, Agence France-Presse, 6 April 2016.

[11] See Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°47, Russia’s Choice in Syria, 29 March 2016.

[12] PKK-Turkey dynamics had been heading toward escalation during spring and early summer 2015, but an IS attack, perhaps inadvertently, was the spark to the powder keg. The PKK held Ankara responsible for the 20 July 2015 IS bombing targeting Kurdish activists in Suruç and retaliated two days later, claiming responsibility for killing two Turkish policemen. The Turkish military responded against PKK facilities in Qandil, resulting in the collapse of the de facto ceasefire, as PKK-linked militants escalated attacks within Turkey in turn.

[13] Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.

[14] Crisis Group interview, Qamishli, March 2016.

[15] As State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner put it on 22 February 2016, “[w]hat we’ve said, and we’ve said this last week as well and our policy has not changed, is that we believe the YPG is not affiliated with the PKK”. For a summary of publicly available evidence, see Sam Heller, “PKK Links, Nusra Parallels Make Syrian Kurds a Troubling U.S. Partner”, World Politics Review, 14 March 2016.

[16] Crisis Group has argued for slowing the U.S.-led coalition’s military operations against IS to allow political preparations for the day-after to catch up. Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit.

[17] For more on curfews and associated Crisis Group recommendations, see Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°80, The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur, 17 March 2016.