For the past several months, the United States has been planning and executing airstrikes on Islamic State targets with the help of the YPG, a Kurdish military unit that is affiliated with the PKK, and one of America’s best allies against ISIS.
What is the YPG?
The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, is the military component of the PYD, or the Democratic Union Party, a pro-Kurdish political party in northern Syria. The PYD is the political party in charge of Rojava, also known as Syrian Kurdistan, or Western Kurdistan.
The YPG has an all-female group called the YPJ, or Female Protection Units. Many Kurdish women from all across the Kurdish region are fighting in the YPJ, including Zind Ruken, an Iranian Kurd who left Iran to fight for the YPJ, leaving behind a brutal police crackdown and pressure to marry a man she’d never met.
The YPG and YPJ have been trained by the United States to mark Islamic State ground targets so that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes can precisely drop bombs on high-value targets.
How is the YPG connected with the PKK?
The PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, is a political organization that has been operating out of Turkey for several decades. Founded and led by a man named Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK has used terrorism to disrupt the Turkish government, who the PKK has accused of forcibly suppressing Kurdish culture.
Although Abdullah Öcalan has been in jail since 1999, the PKK continues to operate inside and outside of Turkey. Most notably are its bases in the Sinjar Mountains and the Qandil Mountains (both in Iraq), which have been recently targeted by Turkish airstrikes.
The PKK is affiliated with several pro-Kurdish political movements in other countries including the PYD (and YPG) in Syria, the PJAK, or Party of Free Life of Kurdistan in Iran, and the HPG, or People’s Defense Forces in Iraq.
The PKK affiliates (PYD, PJAK, HPG etc.) espouse the same political philosophy, known as “Democratic Confederalism.” Pillars of this philosophy include equality for women, equal treatment for religious and ethnic minorities, democratic election and governance, and a free and independent Kurdish state. Some of the affiliates, like the YPG and PYD, are less vocal about their calls for a free and independent Kurdish state, but all affiliates believe in the aforementioned core principles.
Why is Turkey Upset With the PKK?
For decades, the PKK has been using terrorism techniques, such as car bombings, to disrupt the Turkish government. The PKK claims that the Turkish government suppresses Kurdish culture, and that the Kurds deserve a free and independent homeland.
Since 2012, Turkey had been pursuing a peace process with the PKK, but this has fallen apart in recent months, as the PKK has continued to attack Turkey, claiming that the government is not doing enough against the Islamic State, which is terrorizing Kurds in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey has labeled the PKK a terrorist organization, and is trying to counter the PKK’s influence in Syria because it wants to prevent the PKK from having a safe haven from which it can attack Turkey.
Why Is the United States Cooperating with the YPG and not the PKK?
The United States has been cooperating with the YPG to strike Islamic State because it is one of the only pro-Western, moderate political movements in Syria. Furthermore, United States officials have described the YPG as a capable military partner in the fight against Islamic State.
On the other hand, the United States still lists the PKK as a terrorist organization, and has condemned the PKK’s attacks in Turkey. This is due, in part, to appease Turkey, who is a NATO ally.
Even though the organizations are intricately tied to one another, they each serve different purposes for the United States, which is concerned with “degrading and destroying” the Islamic State on the one hand, and retaining Turkey as a NATO ally on the other hand.[Read more at the Wall Street Journal]