A recent article in The Nation by Roy Gutman has generated considerable controversy, as the article attempts to highlight what it portrays as the more unsavoury and neglected aspects of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)- the main Kurdish faction operating in Syria and linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)- and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitute the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.
The article does raise some valid points for discussion. In general, there is a tendency to romanticise Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria- a trend exemplified in a piece by Michael Totten, in which he urges Trump to “back the Kurds to the hilt and give them the green light to declare independence.” Such a simplistic assertion overlooks complications like the sharp political division between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq led by Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PYD-administered areas in Syria, the financial crisis afflicting the KRG and its inability to become economically independent, and the lack of a vision for real independence in the PYD’s approach to governance that is heavily influenced by the thinking of PKK luminary Abdullah Ocalan. Besides, there are real problems concerning the behaviour of Kurdish forces towards Arab populations in both Iraq and Syria, with cases of destruction of homes and villages documented by human rights monitors (cf. here). Political authoritarianism in the Kurdish entities should also be a major concern: Masoud Barzani still clings to the KRG presidency despite the fact that his mandate expired long ago, and the PYD’s harsh behaviour towards its political opponents cannot be ignored.
However, acknowledging these issues should not blind the reader to the clear problem with Gutman’s work: namely, the author’s biases for the Syrian opposition and Turkey that have been evident for years. As such, he uncritically relays dubious testimony that a serious and fair-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny. This fault becomes most apparent in Gutman’s claim that the YPG and the Islamic State (IS) “have often worked in tandem against moderate rebel groups,” which I will focus on in particular here. Elaborating on this claim, Gutman asserts that “again and again, in towns where the YPG lacked the manpower or weapons to dislodge the rebels, IS forces arrived unexpectedly with their corps of suicide bombers, seized the territory and later handed it over to the YPG without a fight.”
Gutman attempts to support this narrative with cases such as Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province. What he completely omits is that on numerous occasions in 2013 and January 2014, rebel groups worked with what was then called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) against the YPG. For example, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS and other rebel militias worked together to expel the YPG from the important northern border town of Tel Abyad in August 2013, only for ISIS to take over the area in January 2014. It is rather strange that Gutman cites Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in a bid to support his narrative, since video evidence that explicitly mentions ISIS-Ahrar al-Sham coordination against the “PKK dogs” in Husseiniya can be found from early January 2014. The coordination eventually fell apart later that month as ISIS proceeded to subjugate all other rebel groups in Hasakah province amid wider infighting with rebel forces across northern and eastern Syria. As for the notion that Tel Hamis was yielded to the YPG without a fight, that claim can only be described as a travesty of the truth. The YPG lost numerous fighters in the extended campaigns to take Tel Hamis, with abundant ‘martyrdom’ commemorations to be found on social media.
The notion that the YPG and IS are in collusion with the latter supposedly yielding territory to the former without a fight is a recurring trope. For instance, it is repeated on multiple occasions in Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla’s book that consists of interviews with IS defectors. The fact that this notion is repeated so many times does not make it any more true. The biases of the sources making these claims as well as the wider tendencies in the region towards conspiracy theories have not been sufficiently taken into account. On the wider level, even when we do suppose or note a withdrawal without a real fight, there are simpler and more logical explanations that need not entail a conspiracy, such as manpower issues, the assessment of a particular location’s strategic importance or lack thereof, and the like. For example, IS yielded the border town of Jarabulus to the Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces in August 2016 without a real fight: the reason for this withdrawal is that IS probably determined that the town was not worth defending and that better defensive positions needed to be taken up further south within Aleppo province. As it so happens, the recent fight for the IS stronghold of al-Bab has proven to be protracted and difficult for the rebels participating in Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation. In a similar vein, the YPG’s relatively swift capture of Tel Abyad in 2015 was not the result of a joint YPG-IS conspiracy against the rebels: rather IS’ fighting lines in the area had largely collapsed on account of devoting so much manpower and resources to the fight for Kobani in a wasteful attempt to show defiance in the face of so many coalition airstrikes.
The question of the U.S. relationship with the SDF going forward is an important one as the issue of who takes the key IS-held areas in Syria of Raqqa city and Deir az-Zor continues to be discussed. American attempts to deny SDF links with the PKK are not only absurd but also harmful in handling relations with Turkey. However, debates need to be held on serious grounds rooted in facts and credible evidence. Gutman’s work here has fallen far short of those standards. Unfortunately, similar problems in his reporting with regards to the PKK can be traced in his earlier work. In an October 2012 article for McClatchy purporting to offer an inside account of the PKK, Gutman relayed in an almost entirely uncritical manner the testimony of a supposed PKK defector to Turkish authorities, including claims that the PKK prohibits Islamic practices like daily prayers for its fighters and tells them that the Kurds’ religion is Zoroastrianism and that they should worship fire. The latter two claims are particularly absurd because the association of Zoroastrianism with fire worship is in fact a calumny against the Zoroastrian religion.
It is apparent that Gutman’s opinion biases have had and still have a problematic impact on his reporting. This matter needs to be highlighted rather than showing uncritical deference simply because Gutman once won a Pulitzer Prize, just as we should not show uncritical deference to Seymour Hersh’s claims of rebel responsibility for the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks in 2013 simply because he also once won a Pulitzer Prize.