Kurdish aspirations and the interests of the UK Contents

3Developments in northern Syria

28.The Syrian government has long viewed Kurdish identity as a threat, suppressing the group’s political and cultural rights and denying citizenship to many of them until 2011. The Syrian Kurds are characterised by many groups and factions. But the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with its predominantly-Kurdish armed affiliate the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is now the most influential group on the ground in much of northern and eastern Syria. It is not the sole Syrian Kurdish group or the oldest, and it has a prominent political opponent in the Kurdistan National Council (KNC).111 But, following its foundation in 2003, the PYD significantly expanded its areas of military and political operation as the YPG took territory from Daesh between 2014 and 2018. After 2015 it did so while operating as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition that includes non-Kurdish elements and that received military support from the Global Coalition against Daesh (including the UK). The FCO told us that the expansion of the PYD/YPG risked triggering new conflicts in the region,112 and that expansion is therefore the focus of this chapter.

29.The FCO acknowledges the role of the PYD/YPG in the fight against Daesh. It has said that “the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have made an important contribution to counter-Daesh efforts”.113 But the FCO was also clear that there were limits to the military support that the UK has provided. Unlike in Iraq, the FCO emphasised that “the UK has not provided weapons to any actors in the Syrian conflict” [emphasis in original].114 The military support that the UK had provided, the FCO said, was indirect and came in the form of “air strikes to support the campaign to liberate Raqqa and other areas of Syria”.115 The United States, by contrast, has provided weapons and direct military support to the SDF, including the YPG.116 The Foreign Secretary wrote, in response to a written question, that “the decision to provide arms is a matter for the US government”.117

30.The PYD told us that it does not seek independence from Syria. But it has declared a self-governed region in northern Syria, which it refers to as ‘Rojava’ or ‘the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’.118 The PYD has worked to establish governing structures in this region, which the group’s written submission strongly argues are in line with the UK’s values. It said that its model was based on local elections, and represented “the true expression of democracy”.119 The PYD also emphasised its commitment to gender equality and civil liberties,120 as well as arguing that “we have kept the door of dialogue and alliances open to all Syrian parties”121 while fighting Daesh on the ground.122 This region, we were told, also hosted large numbers of internally-displaced people.123 But the Syrian government rejects the declaration of this self-governing region, and has threatened to re-establish its own control by force.124 Because this region was declared unilaterally, the FCO said that the UK would not recognise it.125

31.A further consideration for UK policy is that Turkey sees the PYD/YPG as an integrated extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Like Turkey, the UK considers the PKK to be a terrorist organisation. Unlike Turkey, the UK does not apply that designation to the PYD/YPG, and it draws a distinction between that group and the PKK. The UK has diplomatic contact with the PYD (which the FCO described as “occasional”126 and “very infrequent”127), but the FCO said that it does not have “any contact” with the PKK.128 Despite the PYD’s denials, Turkey also accuses the PYD/YPG of committing a range of human rights abuses.129 Other parts of our evidence also referred to such allegations.130 The FCO said that it expressed “concern over reports of human rights abuses” to the PYD. But when asked whether the PYD had been intolerant of political opposition, the Middle East Minister the Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP replied “I don’t know the answer to that question”.131

32.The Embassy of the Republic of Turkey described the military support given to the PYD/YPG against Daesh as a “reckless course of action [that] poses a direct threat to the Turkish people and Turkish security”,132 saying that

[The] PKK and PYD share the same leadership cadres organizational and military structure, modus operandi, strategies and tactics. They both use the same propaganda tools and financial resources and conduct trainings in the same camps. The perpetrators of PKK terrorist attacks in Ankara of 17 February 2016 and of 13 March 2016; in Bursa of 27 April 2016; in Adana of 24 November 2016 and in İstanbul of 10 December 2016 were trained in YPG camps in Syria.133

In January 2018, and citing these security concerns, Turkish and Turkish-backed forces began a military operation to remove the YPG from the northern Syrian region of Afrin. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said that his country next intended to remove the group from Manbij in northern Syria.134

33.A year earlier, in January 2017, when the FCO had been asked directly about the risk of fighting between Turkey and the YPG, it had appeared reluctant to comment.135 The two sides, it said, were both fighting Daesh.136 But in November 2017 the FCO told us that Turkey aimed to prevent further expansion by the YPG,137 and that there was a risk of “military clashes”.138 When the Afrin operation began, the Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson wrote on Twitter that “Turkey is right to want to keep its borders secure”.139 But Bill Park, from KCL, cautioned that “it is far from clear that Turkish forces could militarily defeat [the YPG]”,140 and Guney Yildiz, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), warned that

it is inevitable that the campaign will drag out into a prolonged conflict and may spread to other Kurdish areas across Northern Syria. This will not only help ISIS—who have been held at bay by Kurdish forces—to regain a foothold in the region, from which to potentially launch attacks on Europe. It will also re-ignite conflict within Turkey between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the state […]. Mr Johnson’s support for the Turkish intervention is thus remarkable for its short-sightedness.141

34.It appeared from our evidence that military support provided to the SDF, by the Global Coalition including the UK, is likely to have benefitted the YPG. Although the FCO emphasised that the UK had not provided weapons to any group in Syria,142 it said that the UK has provided “military support” within Syria in the form of airstrikes.143 The FCO told us that “the UK does not provide any direct assistance to the YPG or PYD, but as part of the Global Coalition, has provided military support to the SDF”:144 the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’, a coalition of which the YPG is a part. While the FCO said that “we don’t regard the SDF as a YPG force”,145 it also said that the YPG was “a dominant force” in the SDF146 with a “significant presence”147 and “significant leadership role”.148 When asked directly whether UK airstrikes had benefitted the YPG on the ground in their fight inside Syria, the Minister for the Middle East replied that “if it is a fight against Daesh forces, then that is important, and important for the United Kingdom to support”.149

35.The UK has not designated the PYD or the YPG as a terrorist organisation. The Foreign Secretary, Mr Johnson, told the Committee that “we don’t share the perspective of the Turkish Government on this matter, though we are certainly aware of Turkish sensitivities”.150 When asked why the UK had designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation but not the PYD/YPG, the Middle East Minister Mr Burt replied: “because we believe they are separate organisations”.151 But our witnesses overwhelmingly argued that the PYD/YPG and PKK were linked. Some argued that these links were more abstract and historical (based on a common heritage and ideology, as well as a shared esteem for Abdullah Öcalan as a figurehead),152 while others described a deeper current relationship (involving common organisational structures and the exchange of weapons, fighters, finance, or other support).153

36.The FCO’s own view on the existence of links between the PYD/YPG and the PKK nevertheless appeared to be incoherent. Its statements routinely refer to “reported links”,154 and Amy Clemitshaw—the Head of the Eastern Mediterranean Department at the FCO—told us that “in terms of the existence of those links, it is not right for us to comment”.155 But, moments later in the same session, the Middle East Minister told us that “when we talk to the PYD-YPG in relation to this, we say that they should sever links with the PKK. The practicalities are that they are probably not doing that, so those links are there”.156 Mr Burt later said of the groups that “they have clearly got links. It is a messy situation on the ground”.157

37.The FCO was also ambiguous in its assessment of whether the PYD/YPG could be involved in the Geneva peace talks. The FCO emphasised the UK’s support for these talks158 and said that “all Syrians”159 should be involved. The Middle East Minister Mr Burt said that the process “does include Kurdish representatives […] through the Kurdish National Council’s participation”.160 But our evidence, including from the FCO, was clear that the Kurdistan National Council (KNC) consisted of political opponents of the PYD. The PYD itself told us that it had been excluded from the Geneva.161 It blamed Turkey for that exclusion.162 Mr Burt called the PYD “the main Kurdish actor on the ground”,163 and we asked him whether it should therefore be included in the Geneva process. Mr Burt replied that “there will not be a settlement in the region unless all voices are heard”,164 but that inclusion within the Geneva process was “a matter for [the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria] Staffan de Mistura to decide upon”.165

38.Although the UK says that it has not provided any weapons to any Syrian group, it has carried out airstrikes to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF consists of other units in addition to the YPG, but our evidence shows—and the FCO appeared to agree—that the YPG is the preeminent component in the coalition. Given how integral the YPG is to the SDF, UK military support to the SDF is likely to have assisted the YPG. The FCO should:

i)provide an assessment of whether the YPG has benefitted militarily from UK airstrikes.

ii)explain its future policy towards the YPG and SDF in all areas under their control, including whether the UK will continue to provide military or other support to the SDF after the defeat of Daesh.

iii)explain its position towards Turkish military intervention in northern Afrin, and other areas of northern Syria.

39.The Turkish government considers the PYD/YPG to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and therefore considers it to be a terrorist organisation. The UK defines the PKK as a terrorist organisation, but does not define the PYD/YPG as such. The PKK and the PYD/YPG operate in different contexts, but the evidence to our inquiry clearly argued that they were linked. There is nevertheless debate about whether those links are abstract and historical, or deep and current.

40.The FCO’s view about the nature and extent of the links between the PYD/YPG and the PKK, or about whether those links exist at all, is not coherent. Its repeated reference to these links being ‘reported’ is not sufficient or credible. To have a clear policy the FCO should have a clear view. In light of the group’s influence in Syria, the FCO should clarify its own position on the relationship between the PYD/YPG and the PKK. The FCO should:

i)specifically answer whether it sees no links between the PYD/YPG and the PKK, OR it sees abstract and historical links (such as a common heritage or ideology or inspiration), OR it sees deep and current links (such as shared organisation, or the exchange of weapons, personnel, finances, training, or safe-havens).

ii)answer whether it sees a risk of the PYD/YPG providing support to the PKK in the future.

iii)explain, having refused to speculate a year ago about the risk of clashes between the YPG and Turkey, what prior assessments it made of the impact that the provision of military support to the SDF by the Global Coalition would have on the security of, and relations with, the UK’s NATO ally Turkey. It should provide an assessment of how the operation in Afrin will impact on these issues, as well as on the possibility of Daesh’s re-emergence in the region.

41.There is a high risk that the expansion of the PYD/YPG will result in new conflict in the region. Turkey has already moved militarily against the group. The Syrian government has threatened to do so. But the PYD/YPG has not been included in any way in the Geneva negotiations, which the UK supports as the sole way of resolving the Syrian civil war and determining the future of that country. Their absence is notable, given the extent of the PYD/YPG’s territorial and military influence in northern and eastern Syria, its apparent degree of popular legitimacy, and its claim to support democratic values. The FCO should clarify:

i)whether, given that the decision of who to invite to Geneva is ultimately that of the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, the FCO sees merit in recommending, either unilaterally or with its allies in the international community, to Mr de Mistura the inclusion of the PYD/YPG in order to avert future fighting and to ensure improved representation at the talks for the population of northern Syria.

ii)whether Turkey is blocking the diplomatic inclusion of the PYD/YPG.

iii)what level of engagement it has had, or plans to have, with the de-facto local administration in northern Syria.

111 A detailed account of the different Syrian Kurdish groups, including those allied with the PYD and the KNC, is contained in the submission by BBC Monitoring (KUR0022) ‘Syria’s Kurdish Region—Rojava’. The KNC is also mentioned by the submissions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) paras 4 and 22, and the submission from the Embassy of Turkey (KUR0027).

112 The FCO wrote that “in Syria, there remains a further (or continued) conflict between the Syrian Kurds and other groups, including: the Syrian regime, seeking to recapture SDF/PYD held territory […] and military clashes between the YPG and Turkey” (KUR0015) para 27. Other witnesses to make such warnings include Guney Yildiz Q45, Bill Park (KUR0013) paras 21 and 27, Kyle Orton, a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, (KUR0019) ‘Executive Summary’, and Alan Semo, the UK representative of the KRG, who said that he nevertheless preferred to see a negotiated solution to the tension (Q92).

113 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (TUR0010) para 21

114 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0030) ‘Q170–177: Relationship between the PYD and PKK’

115 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0030) ‘Q170–177: Relationship between the PYD and PKK’

116 See, for example, the reference to this decision by Professor William Hale, an Emeritus Professor at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), University of London, (KUR0005) para 12, and Kyle Orton, from the Henry Jackson Society, (KUR0019) para 2

117 PQ 106547 [on Syria: Armed Conflict], 9 October 2017

118 The PYD’s vision for this region is detailed in the party’s written submission, KUR0023.

119 Democratic Union Party (KUR0023), ‘The PYD’s vision for the Syrian solution’

120 Democratic Union Party (KUR0023), On the Rojava and Northern Syrian issue’

121 Democratic Union Party (KUR0023), ‘On the Syria issue’

122 Democratic Union Party (KUR0023), ‘On the legitimate self-defence issue’

123 See, for example, the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign (KUR0020) para 10 and Alan Semo, the UK representative of the PYD (Q79).

124 See, for example, Assad sets sights on Kurdish areas, risking new Syria conflict, Reuters, 31 October 2017, and Land we took is ours, say Syria’s victorious Kurds, The Times, 10 January 2018

125 The FCO told us that “while a range of Kurdish groups will play an important role in any settlement for Syria, we would not support a unilateral push for autonomy by the PYD or any other group. The UK continues to support the territorial integrity of Syria and has made clear that the exact nature of Syria’s eventual political settlement, federal or otherwise, will be for all Syrians to determine as part of the political process in Geneva” (KUR0015) para 23.

126 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 9

127 Q166 [Amy Clemitshaw]

128 Q166 [Amy Clemitshaw], Q169

129 Embassy of the Republic of Turkey (KUR0027)

130 See, for example, alleged restrictions placed on political opponents of the PYD discussed by Robert Lowe, from the London School of Economics and Political Science, (Q116) and BBC Monitoring (KUR0022) ‘Syria’s Kurdish region – Rojava’. Kyle Orton, from the Henry Jackson society, described the governing system established in northern Syria as “an authoritarian, militarized, and exclusivist regime” (KUR0019) para 27.

131 Q183 [Alistair Burt]

132 Embassy of the Republic of Turkey (KUR0027)

133 Embassy of the Republic of Turkey (KUR0027)

134Erdogan: Ground operation in Syria’s Afrin begins”, Anadolu Agency, 20 January 2018

135 Oral evidence: UK’s relations with Turkey, HC 615, Q241: when asked about the risk of fighting between Turkey and the YPG, the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas the Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan MP replied that “I’m not sure it is helpful to speculate”.

136 See, for example, “Written evidence from Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan MP”, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (TUR0042) Section 3, and The UK’s relations with Turkey: Government Response to the Committee’s Tenth Report of Session 2016–17, para 20

137 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 11

138 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 27

140 Bill Park (KUR0013) para 22

141UK too complacent on Turkish Syria intervention”, European Council on Foreign Relations, 23 January 2018

142 See Q189, and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0030) ‘Q170–177: Relationship between PYD and PKK’

143 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0030) ‘Q170–177: Relationship between PYD and PKK’

144 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 9

145 Q195

146 Q169

147 Q195

148 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 9

149 Q197

150 Oral Evidence from the Foreign Secretary November 2017, HC 538, Q106

151 Q179

152 See for example the argument of Guney Yildiz in Q29, Q33, and Q45 (including Footnote 16). BBC Monitoring also referred to the shared influence of Abdullah Öcalan for the groups, while also saying that the PYD describes itself as “organisationally different” from the PKK (KUR0022) ‘PKK’. The PYD’s representative in the UK, Alan Semo, also said of his party and the PKK that they “did not have any organisational links” (Q84).

153 For example, Professor William Hale from SOAS called the PYD/YPG and PKK “closely linked” (KUR0005) para 9, and Robert Lowe argued that “you cannot separate the PYD from the PKK. The PYD would not exist if the PKK did not exist. It was founded out of the PKK party complex and structure” (Q121). Kyle Orton, from the Henry Jackson Society, used his submission (KUR0019) to make the argument that “the PYD/YPG is a wholly integrated component of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)” (Executive Summary).

154 For example, in its written submission, the FCO referred to “the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is reportedly linked to the PKK” (KUR0015 para 4). In a subsequent letter, the Middle East Minister Mr Burt said that “we are aware of reported organisational and ideological links between the PYD and the PKK” (Burt Letter Q170–177: Relationship between the PYD and the PKK”). Amy Clemitshaw, the Head of the Eastern Mediterranean Department at the FCO, told us that “we are aware of reports of links between the PYD and the PKK” (Q166).

155 Q167

156 Q169

157 Q173

158 Q182

159 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (KUR0015) para 23

160 Q187

161 Q74

162 Q82

163 Q186

164 Q187

165 Q187

9 February 2018