Who are the Syrian Kurds except PKK/YPG Militants?

International news agencies and media organizations are particularly inclined to conflate “Syrian Kurds” with members of the PKK/YPG terrorist group. Failing to acknowledge the Turkish-FSA Operation Olive Branch as a counterterrorism measure, these media organizations have distorted this undertaking as one such that targets “Syrian Kurds”. Just as it is not appropriate to equate “Muslims” with groups such as DAESH, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram, it is equally inappropriate to use the term Syrian Kurds interchangeably with the PKK/YPG.

This begs the question, what other political and/or armed Kurdish groups are presently active in Syria and of whom do they comprise?

Armed Groups

Syrian Kurds have constituted major elements of many existing armed organizations within the Syrian opposition, just as they established several armed groups of their own. Barring existing terrorist organizations such as DAESH and Al Nusra, which are also known to contain Kurdish members, armed Syrian Kurdish groups can be categorized into two main groups: those who have founded separate organizations within the Syrian opposition or else have joined existing organizations within the opposition, and members of the Syrian Peshmerga.

There are currently a multitude of armed opposition groups of Syrian Kurdish origin. A prime example is the Martyr Meshaal Temmo Brigade, which is a participant of Operation Olive Branch, and whose namesake is an notable Syrian Kurdish activist and supporter of the Syrian Revolution who was assassinated by the PKK/YPG as a result of their placing a bounty on his head. A similar such group is the Kurdish Liberation Movement, comprising solely of Syrian Kurds and which emerged from those areas liberated during Operation Euphrates Shield. The movement has adopted a banner resembling that of the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, replacing the sun in the latter with a crescent moon. This adjustment was made as a political statement, as a crescent moon was considered to be more religiously suitable. Other armed Syrian Kurdish organizations cooperating with Turkey include Suwar al Kurd, Liwa Salahaddin, and Ajnad al Haseke, among numerous others.

In addition, there is a large number of Syrian Kurds cooperating with Turkey without establishing a separate militia, of which roughly one thousand are known to be engaged within Operation Olive Branch under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. For instance, the Levant Front (Jabha Shamiya) which constitutes the backbone the National Army’s Third Corps and is on good terms with the Kurdish tribes residing in the areas liberated in Operation Euphrates Shield, is known to incorporate a large number of Syrian Kurdish fighters. Similarly, Kurdish fighters and commanders of the group known as the Elite Army (Jaysh al Nukhba), which is itself another constituent of the aforementioned National Army, have carried out critical missions during Operation Olive Branch.

As has been reported in the press, 400 specially trained members of the Kurdish Hawks Brigade had taken part in Operation Olive Branch as a sub-group of Firka Hamza. Many Syrian Kurds fleeing PKK/YPG repression in Syria’s eastern regions have joined the Eastern Army (Jaysh al Sharqiya) group. Likewise, many Kurds fight under the banner of the Operation Olive Branch constituent Muntasar Billah Brigade, itself a Turkmen group.

In addition to those Kurds who have participated in operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, there are also a great many Kurds among the opposition in the Idlib and western Aleppo regions. While the “Kurdish Camp” within Ahrar al Sham is currently facing regime forces in western Aleppo, the Ahrar-allied Kurdish Islamic Front operates mainly in the Idlib region.

Separate from these Kurdish groups allying themselves to the Syrian opposition is what can be seen as a second category of non-PKK/YPG Kurdish fighters, the Syrian Peshmerga. These are aligned with former-KRG president Masoud Barzani, and number at roughly 5000 members. While being mostly located in Northern Iraq where it had engaged in a short-lived conflict with the PKK in Sinjar, this group  became known to the Turkish public during DAESH’s siege of Ayn al Arab (Kobani), as the entirety of the Syrian Peshmerga had passed through Turkish territory during that event. Notwithstanding its lack of operation in Syria, the Kurdish National Council (ENKS) can be seen as the group’s political wing in the country.

Political Organizations

There also exist in Syria several political organizations other than the PYD which function to provide political cover for the PKK/YPG, with the latest being the “Future Syria Party”, founded in Raqqa at the behest of the US. However, Syrian Kurds have founded a variety of other political parties other than the PKK/YPG, both within and without Syria, and there are also many more preexisting parties in which they are members.

Among the most prominent of these Syrian Kurdish political organizations is the Barzani-allied ENKS. The ENKS was established as a result of a merger between the KDPS, KDPU, KDPP, TÇKS, PNDKS, ŞPKS, PYDK ve PPKS. The ENKS constitutes a member of the Syrian opposition and the Istanbul-based National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces group. While the ENKS currently has offices in Iraq and Germany, those in Syria have been repeatedly subjected to attacks by the PKK/YPG.

The majority of Kurdish political figures assassinated and imprisoned by the PKK/YPG have been members of the ENKS and its sub-groups. The former leader of the ENKS, Ibrahim Biro had abruptly been abducted by PKK/YPG terrorists and subsequently deported from Syria, threatening him with death should he return. Due to the closeness of the ENKS with Turkey, particularly regarding the Northern Iraqi independence and the Kirkuk issues, the organization is seen as a “Turkish Agent” by the PKK/YPG and its outlets. The ENKS had participated in the Astana process as a representative of Syrian Kurds.

The ENKS’ position on the PKK is more complex. While some sub-groups view the latter as a terrorist organization, others do not. Unfavorable sentiments towards Turkey became more prominent in the aftermath of the independence referendum in Iraq as well as the Kirkuk issue. Further, the ENKS opposes Operation Olive Branch. This caused tension between the ENKS and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. Operation Olive Branch also instigated a good deal of internal dispute within the ENKS and caused some components to split from the group.

Aside from the ENKS, the “Afrin Liberation Congress” is another pro-opposition political group, comprising of nearly on thousand Kurds, Yazidis, and Alevis from Afrin and whom have fled PKK/YPG repression. This congress has come to major decisions on the governance of Afrin after the Turkish-FSA operation, and has established necessary institutions to this effect. With Turkish support, a 30-strong local assembly will provide local administration functions for the region.

There is also a large number of Syrian Kurdish politicians within the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces as well as other opposition groups. Such independent Syrian Kurdish politicians who work with the Syrian opposition and Turkey are quite significant and carry considerable influence.

In addition to all of these political and/or armed organizations, there are also several Syrian Kurdish civil society groups who cooperate with Turkey and reject the PKK/YPG. These groups, which focus on a wide spectrum of issues from humanitarian aid to education, operate for the most part in Northern Iraq and Turkey. For its part, the PKK/YPG has sought to stifle the formation of potential alternatives to itself through repressive policies and terrorist tactics.

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Ömer Özkizilcik works as analyst for the Middle East Foundation in Ankara and is the editor of Suriye Gündemi