The controversial backing for the People's Protection Units (YPG), a representative of the PKK in Syria, by the U.S. has faced great criticism internationally. The PKK is a designated terrorist organization that follows Marxist and nationalist values. It is blacklisted by Turkey, the U.S., NATO and the EU. Many human rights organizations have criticized the PKK/YPG for its use of child soldiers and human rights abuses in Syria. Thus the U.S. backing for the organization is incomprehensible.
The PKK emerged in 1978 and has since evolved strategically and theoretically. The organization, once concentrating on Marxist-Leninist ideology alone, now holds the ideology of democratic communalism as well. Being inspired by the work of Murray Bookchin, the organization aims to create an ecological society whereby communes exist in what it labels the "four regions of Kurdistan" – the southeast of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
When the Syrian civil war erupted towards the end of 2010, the conflicts between different groups, factions and the regime caused a power vacuum, allowing other groups to fill this void, and take advantage of this situation. The YPG is one of these groups. The power vacuum gave the YPG an opportunity to practically apply its form of governance and form communes as dictated by its ideology, but this did not come alone.
Under the pretext of "the war against Daesh," the U.S. backed various groups in Syria, most prominently the YPG. This backing has accelerated the modus operandi of the organization to create independent self-governing communes. The group tried to stitch together a terror corridor in Syria and Iraq bordering southern Turkey. The nations in the region have voiced their concerns against this backing, saying such military support for a terrorist group will only cause more deprivation within the region and fuel more terrorist activities.
Ignoring Turkey and others' concerns, the U.S. supplied the YPG with 3,000 truckloads of arms and ammunition of the latest technology. Some of these arms include cruise missiles, Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) and shoulder-launched surface to air missiles (MANPADS). All of which were given in the name of "fighting against Daesh" and beating the extremists, but the power vacuum only got deeper with foreign intervention.
According to various reports and documentation, arms and ammunition given to the YPG by the U.S. were smuggled across the borders, through the Amanos Mountains to help the PKK's domestic terrorism activities, specifically towards tourism within the Aegean region. The smuggled weapons ended up in the hands of the People's Defense Forces (HPG) the PKK's military wing in Turkey and subsidized the PKK's terrorist activities within southeastern Turkey in 2015. There have been numerous reports of arms and explosives supplied by the U.S. be used against the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), the police and Kurdish civilians who do not agree with the group's activities or ideology.
The PKK/YPG's activities and human rights violations have also taken their toll in Syria and Turkey. The YPG continuously violate international humanitarian laws regarding the use of child soldiers. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC 2000) clearly states in article 4(1) and 4(2) that "Armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a state should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years" and "States and Parties shall take all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use, including the adoption of legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalize such practices."
The U.S. support for the YPG has drastically destabilized the Middle East, adding fuel to a flame that was already present. Forceful conscription of youth and minors have broken up families and taken the lives of many civilians in Syria and Iraq, affecting the regional social fabric. The fresh recruits will heighten trans-border violence and ongoing conflicts, in addition to the U.S. supplied weapons smuggled through the Turkish borders as well.
All in all, it is quite peculiar to see the change of doctrine from "eliminating the terrorists wherever they are" (the Bush doctrine) to "having the terrorist as one's ally" on the ground in the conflict. What is more concerning is the U.S. support of terrorist groups as proxies could allow for these organizations to grow stronger, thus posing dangers to the Middle Eastern geography as a whole. Considering all the above, the question arises: Is the terrorist of yesterday the ally of today?
* Istanbul-based researcher on international terrorism and conflict
* Researcher at the IHH Social and Humanitarian Research Center