Why America Should Care About the YPJ in Syria
The Syrian Conflict is one of the most complex and confusing in modern history. Making sense of the dozens of actors and their motivations is a daunting task. However, complexity and difficulty cannot be counted as an acceptable excuse for America’s failure. America has failed to embrace and support elements within the conflict that demonstrate values consistent with ours. The Kurd’s embrace of western democratic values, ethics, and principles is an island of hope in an ever expanding sea of darkness called Islamic Extremism.[i]
The best example of a group worthy of our attention, care and support is the northern Syria all-female self-defense unit, the Women's Protection Units (or Women's Defense Units - YPJ) - and they represent the most progressive female movement in the Middle East.
The Kurds Take a Stand
At the onset of the Syrian Conflict in 2011, the historically oppressed Kurdish ethnic minority of Northern Syria took the matter of self-defense into their own hands creating the People’s Protection Units (YPG).[ii] The YPG was responsible for defending the predominantly Kurdish population from the both the Syrian Regime and militant Islamic extremism. By early 2014, the YPG found itself in a life and death struggle with al-Qaeda aligned militias such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, and later in 2014 with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Known by most Americans for their extensive use of suicide attackers, these Islamist militants had developed a darker reputation within the Kurdish and ethnic minorities communities of Iraq and Syria for their atrocities towards women. Islamic militants believed that Kurdish women, and women of religious sects other that Sunni Islam, were nothing more than war trophies to be taken and disposed of in ways only the most twisted minds could imagine.[iii] Although some tales of these atrocities have reached western media, many are too horrific to be honestly communicated in western media and are only spoke of in hushed tones. In a radical break from the traditional role of women in the Middle East, Kurdish women refused to allow this to continue, and took a stand.
Pushing Back and Fighting for Survival
Facing death more horrific than any faced by men, Kurdish women decided not to go quietly into the night; they took up arms and established a female defense unit known as Women’s Defense Unit or “Yekîneyên Parastina Jin” (YPJ). As the female component of the local defense force, Kurdish women in the YPJ began cutting their teeth alongside the men of the YPG in battles against Islamic militants across northern Syria. However, it was the siege of Kobani which became cause celebre for the Kurdish resistance and the YPJ. The six-month long siege was the first failure by ISIL to secure an urban area against which it launched a major assault. The losses on both sides were enormous, but it was the YPJ whose sacrifice was the most acute. Hundreds of young Kurdish women lost their lives, but through it dozens of talented YPJ commanders emerged. The atrocities committed by ISIL fighters against YPJ fighters fueled the YPJ leadership to take a prominent role in the counter-offensive and defeat of ISIL in Kobani. They then used this experience as a spring-board to solidify their position in senior military command roles not previously afforded women within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the self-defense umbrella organization under which the YPJ fights. The positions the YPJ commanders began to occupy within the SDF following Kobani were unprecedented in Northern Syria, as well as throughout the Muslim world.
Even by American standards, the positions filled by YPJ Commanders and fighters in the SDF can be considered as extremely progressive. The YPJ are represented in every fighting formation within the SDF at a rate reflective of their overall percentage within the SDF. YPJ fighters are present in every front line infantry squad and hold combat command positions at every level. Further, although the YPJ are initially trained separately and managed slighted differently from a career perspective, YPJ fighters and officers are not restricted from any position or role.[iv] This model has proven extremely effective, and while the majority of the YPJ are Kurdish women, its ranks continue to swell with Arab and Yazidi women who recognize this opportunity to demonstrate their resolve and carve out a new role for women in Syria and the Middle East.
As of the date this article was written, the US led Coalition of Special Operations Forces is assisting the SDF in a campaign against the ISIL stronghold in Raqqa, Syria. The overall SDF Commander of this operation is a YPJ general officer.
Driving Societal Change
Once the YPJ had succeeded in demonstrating their equality on the battlefield, they returned to their homes and began asking hard questions about the roles of women in the new society the SDF was carving out in Northern Syria. YPJ commanders surmised that if women were respected competent commanders and fighters in matters of defense, they should have an equal voice in governance as well. Their courage and sacrifice was recognized, and as the local government known as the Federation of Northern Syria (NSR) developed, it did so as a reflection of the YPJ. In the NSR, women are represented at a near 50% rate at every level of governance and political representation. While this certainly exacerbates some cultural issues for the traditional Sunni Arabs that live in some of the NSR governed areas, the NSR recognizes the progressiveness of their system and is patient with the acceptance of the societal change they are attempting to instill. Syrian Kurdish women understand it may well take a generation or more to meet their goals, but time will not stop them.
Here’s the Rub
Despite increasingly autocratic and despotic tendencies, the Government of Turkey and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan enjoy broad US political support as a NATO ally. Unfortunately, Erdogan and the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) view the development of a western aligned Kurdish autonomous region in Northern Syria as an existential threat. This fear is based on the political and ideological alignment of Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s Kurdish based insurgency, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) with whom the Government of Turkey is currently engaged in a vicious war that has displaced 350,000 people.[v] Additionally, the development of the NSR, and its progressive western policies, undermines Erdogan’s desire to ensure that post conflict Syria is staunchly Islamic and ideologically aligned with his political party, the AKP. Erdogan and the AKP are furious with the US Military’s collaboration with the SDF due to its association with the PKK. Erdogan and the AKP have, and will continue to utilize every ounce of political influence they exercise within the USG and US Military to derail and undermine any future USG SDF relationship. In large part, this friction explains why the average American is so unaware of the YPJ’s situation, despite the obvious hallmark qualities of the movement.
With a little bit of luck and education, US politicians could well take a hard stance in support of the YPG/YPJ. This will certainly cause issues with our NATO ally Turkey. The US needs to embrace and defend the only positive development of the entire Syrian Conflict. The goal of the SDF is the establishment of a continuous semi-autonomous predominantly Kurdish region across Northern Syria, founded on western democratic values and with groups like the YPJ at the vanguard. Without question, this is the best possible outcome the US military and US Government could deliver for the American people at this stage of the conflict. Moving forward with the moral conviction to support groups like the YPJ openly and fully is the right play.
Amnesty International . (2014). Escape From Hell: Torture and Sexual Slavery In Islamic State Captivity In Iraq. London: Amnesty International Ltd. .
Centre on Religion and Politics. (2015). When the Castle Falls: Ideology and Objectives of the Syrian Rebellion. London: The Tony Blair Foundation.
Sheppard, S. (2016, October 26). What the Syrian Kurds Have Wrought: The Radical Unlikely Democratic Experiment in Syria. Retrieved from The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/10/kurds-rojava-syria-isis-iraq-assad/505037/
Stephens, M. (2014, September 12). IHS Jane's 360. Retrieved from Analysis: YPG - The Islamic State's Worst Nightmare: http://www.janes.com/article/43030/analysis-ypg-the-islamic-state-s-worst-enemy
Tavakolian, N. (2015, April 02). Time . Retrieved from Meet the Women Taking the Battle to ISIS: http://time.com/3767133/meet-the-women-taking-the-battle-to-isis/
[i] (Centre on Religion and Politics, 2015) In their report “When the Castle Falls” the Centre on Religion and Politics estimates that as of late-2015, 60% of the Syrian Opposition can be considered Islamic Extremists.
[ii] (Stephens, 2014)
[iii] (Amnesty International , 2014)
[iv] (Tavakolian, 2015) “We are here now to take back the role of women in society.”
[v] (Mandiraci, 2016)