The PYD-PKK Relationship Under Scrutiny
The leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has recently amplified its critique of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), and in particular of the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi. The old guard in the PKK are also increasingly demonstrating a clear inclination towards co-existence with the Syrian regime.
Recent remarks by the Qandil leadership also reflect two different approaches by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the SDF. Mazloum Abdi and those aligned with him try to follow a pragmatic political approach in northeast Syria, while Aldar Khalil, the main PKK-leaning figure within the PYD, follows and leads a different approach to Abdi’s. Using open-source data and relying on several interviews, this paper presents the two political approaches within the PYD/SDF.
The KCK Co-Chairs’ Criticism of the AANES and SDF
The two co-chairs of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the umbrella entity for the PKK and affiliated organisations, have criticised the AANES authorities on various occasions. In late 2020, Besê Hozat criticised the AANES for creating “false agendas” and for following up with the local population’s demands rather than raging a “revolutionary people’s war.” Likewise, Cemil Bayık criticised the Autonomous Administration and the SDF commander-in-chief for their reliance on the US rather than engaging in sincere political dialogue with the Syrian regime. In an interview in October 2021, Bayık emphasised the PKK’s historic relationship with Syria and Abdullah Öcalan’s personal friendship with the Assad family. He went further by insisting that confrontation or hostility between the PKK and the Assad family was unthinkable and confirming the PKK’s uninterrupted collaboration with the Syrian regime over the years. The timing of Bayık’s remarks was noteworthy as he spoke just a short time after Ilham Ahmed, President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), visited Washington.
A series of interviews with various figures in the administration were then published by AANES-affiliated media outlets in support of Cemil Bayık’s public statements. For instance, Aldar Khalil affirmed his readiness to conduct direct negotiations with the regime and asserted that the Syrian crisis needed to be solved in Damascus rather than in Geneva. These recent remarks and public statements, along with the emergence of rumours regarding the replacement of Mazloum Abdi with Mahmoud Barkhadan, have once again brought diverging approaches within the PYD/SDF to the fore.
The PYD/SDF’s Inclination Towards Localisation
Since its establishment in 2015, the presence of the SDF, which is known for its association with the PKK, has in many ways aggravated Turkey’s security fears and has also created a justification for the Turkish army to intervene in Syria. In theory, one way to reduce Ankara’s concern and to de-escalate further confrontation with the NATO member was to re-enforce the SDF’s autonomy and accentuate its local flavour. At least, this was the thinking in the US and what it demanded early on, and the local population seems to have agreed with this approach.
Indeed, a considerably large sector of the local population does not subscribe to the PKK’s ideology or its governance structure and style. There was a time when the population tolerated the organisation because of the greater threat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). But as normality has slowly crept back into their daily lives, the population’s tolerance has waned and demands for more inclusive mainstream social and political order are being made. Therefore, one can qualify the PYD and SDF’s localisation efforts not only as responses to foreign encouragement but also as products of realising their constituents’ aspirations and requirements.
Two Different Approaches Within the PYD/SDF
In reaction to these demands, two primary approaches within the PYD/SDF have become visible. A pragmatic and receptive approach has been led by Mazloum Abdi, and another more resistant traditionalist approach has been followed by Aldar Khalil. Although these two approaches are evidently perceived and identified within the organisation, a number of figures prefer to remain neutral.
Mazloum Abdi’s approach is premised on an aspiration to have a working relationship with Washington. To demonstrate their willingness, the top figures following the pragmatic approach have multiplied their efforts to cement a relationship with the US. The primary area in this partnership is military cooperation. In addition to joining forces in the fight against IS, Abdi willingly embraced the inclusivity required by his backers and allowed the presence of non-Kurds in the SDF in parallel with the localisation initiative. The inclusion of Arabs, Turkmens and other segments of society regardless of their organisational pertinence is evident across the board and involves a large number of individuals. The same concept has also been applied in other civil, economic and governance structures. The pragmatists have effectively tried to create a state-like entity in northeast Syria. To this end, they have allowed and encouraged the establishment of numerous local parties, military councils and civilian councils and have embraced an inclusive rhetoric that adheres to the Syrian national identity and embraces the “brotherhood of peoples.”
Unlike the pragmatists, the followers of the resistance approach see their future with Damascus and emphasise their desire to have a working relationship with the Assad regime. This side is very ideological, and its rationale is based on a rigid leftist ideology. The followers of this approach embrace an ‘armed group’ stance that is still stuck in the context and realities of the 1970s. In addition, taking into consideration the role that the US played in the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in Kenya in 1999, both the PKK and the pro-PKK wing within the PYD are suspicious of US intentions. For example, the PKK leadership constantly accuses the US, in particular of carrying out a plot against it and trying to make the PKK ineffective in Iraq and decrease its impact in northeast Syria. Indeed, the US views the PKK presence “as destabilising the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI) and does not want the organisation to strengthen its presence in the region, although the US has not taken concrete steps in this regard.” Moreover, the PKK leadership accuses the US of being hypocritical as it has been collaborating with the SDF/AANES while ignoring the PKK’s “significant impact” on the gains by the PYD/SDF in northeast Syria.
Manifestations of Divergent Views Between the Pragmatic and Resistance Approaches
Concerns among PKK cadres regarding Mazloum Abdi have become apparent in the recent period. Various areas of disagreement have become visible.
First, Abdi’s growing popularity following the Kobani Battle that took place in 2014, his close contacts with US military officials and his foreign relations have annoyed the old guard in the PKK, leading them to think that Abdi is trying to overshadow the symbolic leadership of Abdullah Öcalan. The followers of the resistance approach within the PYD considered the relationship with the US that started in 2014 to be a temporary tactical step, but today they find that the pragmatists consistently call for a more diversified and sustained relationship with the US, as is evidenced in remarks by Mazloum Abdi and Ilham Ahmed regarding the continuation of the US military presence in northeast Syria. Therefore, “although Mazloum Abdi is undoubtedly part of the PKK, the organisation is consistently trying to weaken him by empowering other PKK cadres.”
The second issue creating tension concerned an oil agreement signed between the SDF and an American firm named Delta Crescent Energy LLC in summer 2020. Cemil Bayık criticised this agreement, stating that Syria is a “sovereign and internationally recognised country, and nobody can own the oil as it belongs to the whole Syrian society.” Although the oil agreement was an important project for the PYD/SDF to diversify its relationship with the US, the project lost its importance after the Biden administration decided not to extend the waiver granted to the firm in May 2021.
The third area of disagreement concerns two disruptive actions which have taken place in northeast Syria and are attributed to the Revolutionary Youth (the PKK-aligned Ciwanên Soresger) which directly takes orders from the PKK cadres: the burning of the Kurdish National Council (KNC)’s offices, and kidnappings of minors for military purposes. The Aldar Khalil-led side has mostly remained silent regarding these events. On the other hand, “Mazloum Abdi constantly shows his discontentment with regard to these two issues in his private meetings with KNC members. As a matter of fact, in the meetings he states that “he wants to put an end to the burning of offices and kidnapping of minors. However, he admits that he is not in a strong position to do this.”
Finally, Abdi and Khalil’s stances also diverge on the KRI and intra-Kurdish unity talks. Mazloum Abdi has consistently tried to get along with the KRI as the AANES is dependent on the Semalka border crossing. Following Operation Peace Spring launched by Turkey and its local ally the Syrian National Army in late 2019, Mazloum Abdi initiated US-sponsored unity talks between the PYD and its rival Erbil-backed KNC. These talks were in line with a US project to make the AANES a reasonable legitimate entity by diversifying its administrative positions. During the talks, the KNC consistently asked for the removal of non-Syrian PKK cadres from Syria, claiming that they have become the main reason for Turkey’s military interventions and the ensuing problems that have occurred in Kurdish-populated areas in northeast Syria. Mazloum Abdi acknowledged the presence of the non-Syrian PKK cadres within the AANES and the SDF and promised to remove them from their posts, but without specifying a timeframe. However, he failed to do this. According to Shalal Gado, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Left Party in Syria and the KNC representative within the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Mazloum Abdi “could not deliver on his promise as he is not the main decision-maker within the SDF. The removal of non-Syrian cadres could only be facilitated by a decision that will be made in Qandil.” As a result of the mutual distrust and unresolved various problems between the Syrian rivals, the unity dialogue failed and the KNC side is not optimistic about the talks being relaunched. 
In the coming period it is likely that the PKK will increase its clout and take a harsher stance in northeast Syria in parallel with the increasing Turkish drone attacks in Kobane and Qamishli. However, the PKK is under real pressure as it faces various challenges in Syria and in the KRI. The organisation is constantly subjected to Turkey’s military operations in the KRI and has faced an electoral defeat by Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) candidates in Sinjar. Moreover, the organisation lost a strong supporter, Lahur Sheikh Jangi, as he was expelled from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In fact, the more the PKK is pressured, the more violent the organisation becomes. Consequently, the organisation has taken a more aggressive stance regarding problems unfolding with the Peshmarga in the KRI.
Abdi, on the other hand, mostly remained silent during the KDP and PKK conflict, acting pragmatically to create an entity similar to that established in the KRI. Unlike Abdi, Mahmoud Barkhadan, who is a known PKK cadre within the ranks of the SDF and was the leading commander during the Battles in Kobani and Afrin, clearly sided with the PKK and threatened the KRI in the case of a new armed clash between the Peshmerga and the PKK. In this case, it is safe to assume that Mahmoud Barkhadan is acting in tandem with the Aldar Khalil-led side. It is possible for the PKK to replace Abdi with Barkhadan in the foreseeable future. In such a scenario, it is almost certain that the former cannot resist such a decision and will try to take on a new role in politics. In fact, Abdi has already shown his desire to take part in politics and devote his time to the political sphere. Depending on this, the PKK-leaning side within the PYD/SDF is likely to win against the Abdi-led pragmatist approach.
Such a scenario would play into the Syrian regime’s hands. The regime used Turkey’s threats against northeast Syria to gain the upper hand in the talks previously held between the Syrian Democratic Council and the regime in Damascus and at Khmeimim airbase. The deterioration of the PKK-KDP problems which recently resulted in the closure of the Semalka crossing is likely to embolden Aldar Khalil and like-minded figures as northeast Syria will further become dependent on Damascus after the closure. This scenario may create a chance for PKK-leaning figures to come closer to the regime, as they aspire. However, this will also come with a price as the AANES/PYD will have to make serious concessions.
* Mehmet Emin Cengiz is a Research Fellow at Al Sharq Strategic Research. He received his master’s degree from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the Middle East at Marmara University in 2020. Cengiz’s articles regarding the Syrian war and non-state armed actors have appeared in national and international media outlets and in think tanks. Cengiz’s research interests are the Syrian conflict, non-state armed actors, Turkish foreign policy, volunteer foreign fighters and regional Kurdish politics.
He tweets at: @EminCengiz92
 Written interview with an Iraqi Kurdish researcher who is based in Erbil and spoke on condition of anonymity, December 2021.
 Interview with a Syrian Kurdish researcher who is based in Istanbul and spoke on condition of anonymity, December 2021.
 Online interview with Shalal Gado, December 2021.
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* This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.