Before disarmament talks between Turkey and the PKK leadership broke down in July 2015, the organization's founding leader, Abdullah Öcalan, held regular meetings with members of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the PKK's political wing, in his prison cell. Considering the meetings part of a broader effort to broker an agreement, the government rejected requests for additional meetings upon the PKK's decision to unilaterally end the two-and-a-half-year cease-fire and return to violence.
Upon learning that Öcalan was meeting with HDP politicians back in 2013, I remember asking my sources in Ankara what they were talking about. According to security sources, Öcalan and his colleagues spent quite a bit of time discussing the situation in northern Syria. On multiple occasions, the source said, Öcalan had told the HDP delegation that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK's Syrian affiliate, must hold onto Hasakah, a governorate in northeastern Syria. "Öcalan told them letting the moderate rebels or the [Bashar] Assad regime regain control of the area would be unacceptable," a senior official said. "He repeatedly called for the creation of autonomous zones akin to the Swiss cantons."
A few months ago, the minutes of Öcalan's meetings with the HDP delegation appeared in print in Germany. Although there is no way to confirm the authenticity of the book's contents, it is important to note that the minutes bear notable semblance to what I was told by security sources back then.
The province of Hasakah recently made headlines due to clashes between the PYD's People's Protection Units (YPG) militia and regime forces. Violence recently erupted in Qamishli, a small town just a few hundred meters away from the Turkish town of Nusaybin, where security forces have been fighting the PKK. What makes the clashes in Qamishli particularly interesting for Ankara is that YPG forces across the southern border had been sending reinforcements and weapons to PKK militants in Nusaybin.
In light of Öcalan's statements, it is safe to assume that Qamishli and the rest of Hasakah province bear strategic importance to the PKK leadership and YPG. It is important to note that the area had not witnessed any major violent attacks since 2011. It is even more curious that the YPG and regime forces, which actively cooperated on multiple occasions, have turned against each other.
According to government sources, the PYD leadership had recently pressured the Assad regime to recognize a federal area in northern Syria. In return for creating a federal administrative system and leaving the PYD and YPG militants in northern Syria alone, the Assad regime would have been protected from rebel advances under the deal. Another highly placed source argued that Russia, which supports the deal, delivered the message on the PYD leadership's behalf but faced a strong reaction from Tehran and Damascus. In the end, Moscow distanced itself from the PYD-sponsored agreement and sided with the Assad regime. At this point, let's take a step back and recall that Turkey and Iran have stepped up diplomatic communications in recent months. Over the past month, Turkish and Iranian leaders met during two official visits and reaffirmed their commitment to Syria's territorial integrity. According to Turkish sources, the PYD plan was not welcomed by the United States either due to the risk of derailing the Geneva peace talks and further complicating the region.
Simply put, global and regional players are largely opposed to the PYD's push for a federalized government. Instead of waiting their turn, the PYD recently moved to hold a vote and form a federal government in northern Syria in an obvious attempt to get everything on paper before there is some kind of agreement over Syria's future. To be clear, hardly anyone took the PYD's controversial effort seriously, including the United States, which publicly came out against the declaration. Likewise, the Assad regime said the vote would have no legal implications.
At the heart of recent clashes between regime forces and the YPG lies the PYD's uncompromising effort to form a federal government without further delay. The PYD proposal not only turned two allies against each other but also frustrated Turkey, Iran and the West.
"The international community is slowly facing the fact that Turkey has been right about the PYD leadership all along," a senior government official said. "They have been pursuing a secret agenda under the pretext of fighting DAESH."
At this point, sources indicate that the PYD leadership lacks the manpower to maintain control over Hasakah, since the organization was able to keep the oil-rich province in their hands only because Assad had told local Arab tribes to cooperate. In this sense, the PYD leadership's most recent steps alienated a key ally in addition to raising questions in the West about their motives. The international community has concrete evidence supporting Turkey's claims about the group For the first time since 2011.
The PKK leadership, which, encouraged by the PYD's success in northern Syria, abandoned the disarmament talks with Turkey, has suffered heavy losses in recent months and came to regret their decision. Let's see if the PYD will have second thoughts about their plan after ignoring their allies' concerns and rushing to make their control of northern Syria official.