This guest post comes to SOFREP from a YPG cadre involved in the front-line fighting against ISIS. -Jack
Merely fighting and winning battles is not all there is to winning a war like the one in Syria and Iraq. As militias grow and merge into something more akin to a regular Western army, supplies, ammunition, intelligence, and establishing relationships with local imams and villagers become crucial to success. Those things may not typically be the fighter on the ground’s responsibility, but to maintain a longstanding presence and network of support in an environment such as ours, by necessity—as I argued in the first article in this series—all YPG and PKK fighters (note that I say, specifically, fighters) are equally capable politicians.
Blossoming from militia to army
Something Western military officers first learn about is the Clausewitzian Trinity at their respective military academies (whereas in the PKK cadre, its officer class learn about Marxist theory—not very helpful). This trinity describes three essential elements of war: army, state, and government.
Where non-Western militias of Syria have evolved, and not intentionally, some have become Western-world equivalents. These armies are uniformed, with hierarchical command structures, governments (I use that loosely) which require popular support from the people, and so on. I even saw a copy of Clausewitz, in the original German, on the dead body of an ISIS commander near Sinjar (maybe he didn’t mind Clausewitz thought of himself as a Christian knight).
Take a look at this hideous, vile bunch of barbarians singing a rather provincial Arabic tune. ISIS are uniformed (mostly old Turkish Army clothing) now. The commander in the video is pretty obvious to pick out. He has the nicest gear and is leading them in song (and hopefully he’ll be the first one to take a Kurdish bullet).
Successful militias (like ISIS and the Kurds) have adapted to become something akin to an army, and an army in the field has both supply lines and operational needs beyond logistics—especially if they’re using the same uniforms, painting the same colors on their vehicles, and basically becoming a large conventional field army. The resource demands for keeping this in the field are complex, and difficult considering these organizations fielded only small militias just a few years ago.
Normally, supply lines, in order to be secured, require the consent of the people living in that general area. Rewards are offered for informing on your neighbor if he or she is not trustworthy or is an informer for one of the other factions. This is common practice and takes up more time than you’d imagine for local commanders to figure out who’s on their side and who’s secretly doing something else to them behind their back.
What’s also becoming common in today’s Syria is Vietnam-era use of Vietnamization, or using ‘hamlets’ to secure the area. This is where an envoy from one faction visits a village (without knowing if he will be simply captured and tortured before being videotaped as he is beheaded—a dangerous job) to tell the villagers they can A.) support his group, become armed, and be subsumed into their military hierarchy B.) remain civilians and relocate themselves inside a safe zone they have established or C.) become their enemies.
If the village chooses the last option, they should then be prepared to have three trucks come in the middle of the night that will shoot everyone down—women, children, and men—because that particular faction simply assumes by not siding with them, the villagers are now all enemy combatants. This is not common YPG/PKK practice, but all factions behave like this on occasion—even ours.
The moral, or lack thereof, of this story is something I witnessed time and and time again: manipulating the local population for your own ends is not only encouraged to achieve victory in a place such as this, it’s necessary for any militia that wants to maintain a long presence.
The other militias who lost the support of their local area simply lost the ability to deliver supplies to themselves. They’re now mostly relegated to being bystanders as more militias merge into ever-larger armies. For ISIS and the Kurds, without this foresight of knowing who’s around you, having a 5th column behind you when you advance in an area can be one of the worst strategic decisions you can make.
As such, all fighters of the YPG/PKK are politicians, because at a certain point, once you become senior enough, you’re suddenly in charge of a self-sustaining, operating, autonomous basic unit of 30 men and women fighters. The cadre will be expected to feed and clothe themselves without central command giving them things for an extended period of time.
Although refueling from a central node—in large towns such as Rabia where higher headquarters maybe located—is expected at some point, you’re basically on your own until you’re grouped with enough other units to form a large enough network to lose self-sufficiency.
Often, my old unit commander would venture into an unknown Arab village, having learned Arab tribal customs from years in this business (having fought the Israelis in the 1980s, the Turks in the 1990s, the KDP in 1996, and the Turks again in the 2000s), in order to tell this particular village to switch their allegiance from either Al-Nusra, ISIS, or even the Free Syrian Army, to the YPG.
In doing so, he promised weapons, money, and security. Sometimes, he would even bring the weapons just outside the village and would simply point with his finger and say, “There they are,” implying it’s either for them to use or they would be used on them.
Now, imagine 40 or so units within the YPG/PKK Army capable of doing this. It’s a chore, but if every fighter has the potential of manipulating the local population, of being both a civil-affairs spokesman—something of a lawyer, logistician, and a warrior—then that combination becomes useful. While few of these cadre actually speak Arabic, most originally coming from some far-flung, forlorn hamlet in the mountains of Turkish Kurdistan, most still figure it out.
YPG/PKK fighters from the perspective of the Arab villager, obviously, are considered not only outsiders but dangerous heathens (they are non-Muslims or quite Westernized Muslims for the most part). But the villagers don’t have much choice. As it turns out, ISIS are often considered as bad as the Communist heathens of the PKK. It’s funny when a religious zealot of an imam sides with the Communist faction; he’ll continue his sermons decrying how evil other Muslim sects are, apostates are, or heretics like us are, but is happy to receive weapons and the security the YPG/PKK flag on his house carries.
The only issue is, ISIS has become very adept at this formula as well. Take a look at this article, where ISIS use Kurdish jihadis as propaganda props to persuade the local population to support them. They’re quite aware that many of the local population, Kurds and Arabs, secretly inform the positions of ISIS and convey that and other information to the YPG. Some even go so far as to bury IEDs on the roads ISIS uses. Nothing like a taste of their own medicine, right?
Given supply lines in the Syrian desert are fragile, and local knowledge is important, this brings me to the second reason why all fighters are politicians in the YPG/PKK: to obtain accurate intelligence. The YPG and PKK cadre must be adept at figuring out who’s who. One of my friends recently moved to Kurdish Military Intelligence. I saw him at a checkpoint and I found he could immediately pick out who was from which village, their ethnicity, their tribe, their local dialect, and speak with them (he was one of the few who did speak Arabic, though with a heavy Kurdish accent).
Typically, he took a family and separated the men, women, and children. A usual PKK fighter will spend eight months at the Operations and Military Intelligence Academy in the mountains of Northern Iraq to learn this craft. From the best-practice manual, it’s believed that it’s most effective to speak (or interrogate) the children first—they’re usually pretty honest because they don’t have that bullshit meter yet.
“Oh, hi there, little one, did you see your parents carry anything shiny with them recently? Here’s some candy,” says the intelligence officer and PKK cadre.
“Yes, they have a lot of shiny things in their house!” says the Arab child.
“Well isn’t that grand? I guess it must be pretty cool to have so many shiny things in your house.”
“Sure, lots of people come and look at them all the time!”
“Well, that’s so nice isn’t it? We’ll talk to your parents about that.”
That was one conversation with a 12-year-old Arab girl. To be fair, the parents in this case owned up to it. So, to be in Kurdish Military Intelligence refers to figuring out how to use info like this if someone is infiltrating your ranks, if the tribal elder of a particular village is screwing you, or if your spies are telling the truth. It’s a job that really any cadre should (theoretically) be able to do, too.
The necessity of this ability, as strong as it’s become within the YPG/PKK, can be traced back to the original PKK and its war in Turkey. There, like in Syria, operatives needed to manipulate the local population for everything from supplies to information in order to preserve their autonomy. This memory has survived into the war today.
Generally, this led to a high degree of autonomy given to commanders in the YPG/PKK. For example, the mortar commander at Rabia has his own intelligence network that he refuses to hand over to military intelligence. Likewise, the senior commander of the army has his own intelligence network.
Even low-ranked fighters might have several informants on their phone, if not on their limited payroll. Now, why is this, you wonder? It’s not because intelligence equals information. Rather, if you are autonomous and you have your own information, you’re not dependent on another unit for information when you move to the frontline. The lack of overlap of information feeds into the self-sufficiency rule for the YPG/PKK.
The politics within this militia, which I argue is becoming something like a real army (and thus seems to have, too often than not, more than vague similarities to the vengeful inter-branch, inter-unit, inter-command political petty rivalries of Western militaries), means most anyone with a smidgen of imagination and initiative becomes political if he or she expects to do their job properly. If they can’t, they’re simply not entrusted with responsibility and are effectively demoted.
Thus, to feed your guys and gals, to do your job, you must become a political animal. The political nature of a military bureaucracy will surprise many, but not anyone who’s be inside of one.
This brings me to my last point. It refers more to the state (or in the case of the PKK, the party) and the people aspect of the Trinity. While I could devote 10 articles to the YPG/PKK’s ideology (which, as it turns out, the two groups have differing ideologies due to their geographical position, as the YPG are in Syria and the PKK originally came from Turkey and Northern Iraq), the ideology of the cadre in particular is central to understanding how political fighters are required to be.
When you, as a PKK cadre member who just graduated from the officer’s academy in Northern Iraq, know the chances of actually going to a frontline unit are probably two out of five, you’ll try not to screw it up. Still, I’m always surprised by the varying quality of PKK cadre members. From what I see, good ones retain a basic combination of the following:
- Able to act as a Soviet Kommisar with the political qualities I referred to above
- Brave enough to tell someone to charge to their death
- Emotionally and political jaded, with a glimmer of indifference. You don’t want to be the one who constantly asks himself at night why he doesn’t understand the whims of the party.The actual initiation of a PKK cadre member follows these three traits closely. After a new leader is appointed by a committee of his peers who decided that he or she would be the right fit for the unit (nowadays, choices are somewhat sparse, however), the new commander will come and form a school circle with his fighters and explain to them the politics of the day.
I’ll describe one such meeting, or Techmill (Kurdish for self-criticism session):
“Havals (comrades)!, it’s great to meet all of you. For those who do not know me, I’m Haval Candel, I have been in the party for 10 years, and I promise to work with you and learn how your unit works. I understand there have been issues with discipline; fighters waking up at different times. I’m telling you this will stop now. To do this, we’re all going to the frontline as a unit, we will stay there for at least a month, and we will observe the highest discipline. Anyone unwilling to follow this will leave the unit and be back at the base in no time.
“Now, some of you know about the politics of why we’re fighting in (insert random town here). Well, we are fighting for the Kurdish people, we are their protection force. We come from many different backgrounds, Arab, Kurd, Assyrian, or Turk. Our job is to defend the ideals of Abdullah Öcalan, which in this case means everyone has the right to live in a tolerant society. To do this, we must fight the Daash to the bitter end.
“The next month will be very difficult (it was September), and Bahoz Erdal (commander of all Kurdish forces from the PYD) says the Daash are planning an attack on Rabia. If so, we will attack and take their part of Rabia as Haval Dr. Bahoz Erdal said we would. Abdullah Öcalan has released a new letter from prison saying that taking Rabia is important for our movement—and as you know, this movement will eventually spark an international revolution. Our movement, do not forget, promises that all people will work together for a common goal. Our strategic aims are to take Rabia, for now, so let’s go do this.”
So, that’s a typical speech, and actually one of the shorter ones someone who’s senior cadre might make. He maps out why we’re there, what the problem is, what the solution to the problem is, and what we will be doing while we’re at this particular place. There was one guy who gave an hour-long speech. Given he was speaking in Turkish and not Kurdish, I couldn’t understand a darn thing he said. At the end of the speech I asked a comrade what he said.
“He says…yoni…don’t retreat!”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Yoni! Don’t retreat. Is important, no?”
These meetings take place every day or every other day. They either last an hour or a minute. I prefer the latter. The higher up you are, the more you’re expected to say. I take my meetings like I like my sushi—in small pieces.
One my favorite meetings was quite plain: “Okay. Everyone do their job. If you don’t do your job there will be problems that will be resolved once we win this war.”
That was one of the more concise and effective meetings, only necessary when in charge of an assorted band of border guards who wish they were not there.
Above all, the structure of the YPG/PKK requires that being good at your job not only means being a good fighter, but a very, very good politician as well. This somewhat realistic stance seems to be working. From what I see from our enemy, ISIS, they’re not too shabby at it either.
So, we have our work cut out for us.
The next article in this series will talk about some of the unique characteristics of fighting in the YPG/PKK against ISIS. For example, why the YPG observe the Clausewitizan Trinity quite carefully in order to legitimize themselves in front of a skeptical local population, and as an impetus to fight battles ranging from Sinjar to Kobane. Careful attention by the leadership to what the population thinks shapes these battles, too.