Since the summer of 2012, the beleaguered Syrian regime has all but abandoned areas predominantly inhabited by Kurdish populations. So far, the main beneficiary of this situation of quasi-autonomy for a “West Kurdistan” (as it is referred to in Kurdish political geography) appears to be the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitiya Demokratik, or PYD)—a powerful Syrian Kurdish group established in 2003 by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants of Syrian origin in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. The largely bloodless withdrawal of the Syrian army and security forces in the north and northeast of the country—as well as tensions between the PYD and other revolutionary actors—has given rise to a host of accusations and suspicions about the group’s motivations, as well as its national and regional designs.

In a remarkably short time, the PYD has succeeded in setting up a well-armed military of about 10,00 fighters, known as the Popular Protection Units (or Yekineyen Parastina Gel, or YPG), as well as local, self-organized civilian structures under the label of the “Movement for a Democratic Society” (Tevgera Civaka Demokratik, or TEV-DEM). In theory, the PYD shares power with some 15 other Kurdish parties (who form the Kurdish National Council, or KNC) in the framework of the Kurdish Supreme Council, which was established in July 2012 through the mediation efforts of Massoud Barazani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan and leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Yet on the ground, the PYD is dismissing its council partners as nothing more than proxies for Barazani himself, whose close relationship with Turkey the PYD deeply mistrusts. Additionally, the PYD has prevented any armed Kurdish presence besides its own loyalist Populist Protection Units; most recently, armed altercations were reported with the Kurdish Union Party in Syria (Yekiti) in the towns of al-Darbasiyah and Qamishli. 

The PYD and YPG have also repeatedly clashed with fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who themselves are connected to the KNC through the Syrian Opposition Coalition—particularly in the mixed town of Ras al-Ayn (Serekani) on the Turkish border. Fighting continues to flare up despite all attempts at mediation. The PYD have also repelled attempts by the FSA to enter Kurdish areas in and around Aleppo and have accused Turkey of instigating and supporting the forays of Islamist elements (such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ghuraba Al Sham) into Kurdish areas. 

The tension between PYD and FSA (as well as with other revolutionary elements) have given rise to accusations that the PYD is, in fact, acting as a sub-contractor for the Syrian regime. In late December, Arab tribes attacked PYD offices in the mixed city of al-Hasakah in retaliation for previous regime violence against protesters, and accused the party of collaboration with the regime. But while the position taken by the PYD certainly complicates the situation for the FSA and its Turkish backers (and therefore provides an objective benefit for the Syrian regime itself), there is little evidence for active cooperation between the two sides. Areas controlled by the PYD are occasionally targeted by the regime, if only on a much lesser scale than those where the FSA is present. Moreover, there is little reason to believe that the structures of Kurdish self-government that have since developed could even survive should Bashar al-Assad ever manage to reclaim control over the whole of Syria. Yet tensions between the PYD and FSA imply the clear danger of worsening relations between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in this part of the country—with sizable Christian communities caught in the middle. 

The second major accusation leveled against the PYD—often by an increasingly nervous Turkey—is that the party is nothing more than a front for the PKK. Officially, the PYD denies any such damaging affiliation. Yet, even if one disregards the origins of some prominent PYD leaders in the PKK, the group’s language, its symbols (most visibly, images of imprisoned PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalan),  and its organizational structures (not least among them, a visible presence of female fighters in the lower ranks) mirror those of the PKK. Moreover, it is unclear how the Syrian Kurds could have set up (and by themselves, no less) the logistical and structural framework to form an effective military force of more than 10,000 fighters.

At the same time, there is little evidence thus far of Kurdish fighters attempting to infiltrate Turkish territory from Syria. While the PYD and the PKK leadership are concerned enough to deny Turkey any pretext for direct intervention—authorized by the Turkish parliament in early October 2012, without specification where exactly it may occur—their priority is to build autonomous structures and military forces. This priority fits into PKK’s broader strategic shift since 2000, which abandons the call for a unified, independent Kurdish state and instead strives for Kurdish autonomy within existing state borders. Establishing a second autonomous Kurdish area (after Iraq’s) that puts one of the post-PKK organizations in charge of the quasi-state structures (and eventually, a role in negotiating Syria’s future) appears far too precious an opportunity to be jeopardized. In addition, the rugged territory to the north and northwest of the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, where the PKK headquarters are located, offers far better inroads into Turkish territory than the Turkish-Syrian border region—most of which is fairly accessible and comparatively easy to monitor from the Turkish side.

Still, since the outset of the crisis in Syria, PKK operations have been picking up across southeast Anatolia, with a notable increase of fighters of Iranian-Kurdish origin among the reported casualties on the Kurdish side. Interestingly, however, operations of the PJAK (the Iranian version of the PKK) on Iranian territory have nearly ceased. Some reports even advance theories whereby a strategic alliance has been forged between the PKK and Iran in attempts to put the heat on Turkey and re-stabilize Assad. Yet even without such an explicit realignment, the conflict over the Syrian crisis was bound to undermine Turkish-Iranian security cooperation on the border region. From an Iranian perspective, turning a blind eye to Kurdish infiltration of Turkey offers the double benefit of both putting the squeeze on Turkish Prime Minister Tayyeb Erdogan in retaliation for his support for the Syrian revolution, while also directing the separatist efforts of its own restive Kurds elsewhere.

These developments appear to have added new dynamics to the long-standing struggle for leadership within the PKK, between its acting leader Murat Karayilan and Bahoz Erdal/Fahman Hussein (often referred to as “Dr. Bahoz”), the former commander of the People's Defence Force (Hêzên Parastina Gel, HPG) from 2004 until he was sacked by Karayilan in 2009. Erdal, a younger leader who supports military action, appears to have made a comeback in 2011, as events in Syria improved the margin for such an approach. Time and age are clearly on the side of Erdal (provided he continues to successfully avoid being captured or killed), and so is his Syrian background—and control of a quasi-state is bound to boost the weight of the Syrian element in the overall PKK structure. Thus, it can be expected that the Syrian crisis will accelerate the generational change within the PKK toward a younger, more radical leadership. For the moment, the leadership is in the advantageous position of being able to put military pressure on Turkey on one front while demonstrating a capacity for maintaining stability in the midst of chaos on another. 

Recent Turkish efforts to reopen negotiations with imprisoned PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalan may in part reflect the extent of fears of the PKK’s intentions and the corresponding urge to reign in the group’s more militant elements. Turkey has few other options to address a situation it has partly created for itself with its hard line on the Assad regime and its policy of Kurdish suppression. None of its allies south of the border—neither the FSA nor Massoud Barazani—has significant potential to put pressure on PKK or PYD. A full-fledged invasion into Syrian (or Iraqi) territory would only galvanize the local population behind the parties and expose Turkish troops to guerilla warfare on foreign and intensely hostile terrain—a situation in which regular armies rarely fare well. But that may just be the PKK’s preferred scenario. 

Heiko Wimmen is a researcher at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and coordinates its project, “Elite Change and New Social Mobilization in the Arab World. Müzehher Selcuk is a research assistant at the Berlin-based Forum for Public Security.