Western perceptions of YPG units as liberal havens misrepresent the group’s history

By Kit Roberts


THE Kurdish units have taken on an almost mythical status for being at the forefront of the fight against Daesh in Northern Syria, even being the subject of a Hulu series, but portraying them as a haven of progressive liberal values imposes a western lens on their practices. 

When looking into the YPG in Northern Syria, one story always surfaces and resurfaces. It portrays the YPG in particular as the nemesis of Daesh.

This, supposedly, is because Daesh fighters believe that if they are killed by a woman, their death will not be rewarded as that of a martyr. So what could be more horrifying than a group of women in camouflage pointing AK-47s and RPGs at them? For Daesh, their own death is a means of reward, take that reward away and its terror returns.  

The story understandably captured the imagination of western commentators. Western activists have even gone to join the YPG. 26-year-old British activist Anna Campbell was killed in Syria by a Turkish missile in 2018.

She described why she had chosen to join the Kurdish forces: “I wanted to participate in the revolution of women that is being built up here and fight, and join also the weaponised fight against the forces of fascism and the enemies of the revolution.”

Although she did not have any previous connection to the Kurdish struggle for regional autonomy, Campbell was so moved that she ultimately died for it. 

Italian activist Eddi Marcucci took a similar view, saying that the YPG: “cannot be reduced to war, to the tools they use – what they are doing is something greater.”

The brushing aside of violence as a “tool” in service of a grander ideological idea suggests something more than simply trying to survive against Daesh. It’s chilling in and of itself that violence is seen here by Marcucci as a necessary means to a greater end.

What is problematic is the use of the Kurdish struggle by western activists as a means of improving their own worldview. It is co-opting the fight of a group of people who have been thrust into a hugely hostile environment to talk about their own “development”.

Meanwhile, in 2014 Human Rights Watch issued a condemnation of the YPG on the grounds that they were recruiting underage boys and girls into their armed units. This was further supported by a UN report in 2018, which gave a nauseating account of the use of children in combat roles. 

It said that: “Verified cases were attributed to groups self-affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (1,112); ISIL (1,068); the Kurdish armed groups (the People’s Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units and Asayish), including under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (415).”

The report goes on to say that recruitment of child soldiers spiked around 2017/18. Despite some efforts to reduce the number of children in the ranks, there still remain problems with the YPG regarding the use of children in both support and combat roles. 

The YPG also has some affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, themselves designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU, and the US. They carry out frequent attacks in Turkey, including bombings. 

It is only really feasible to define them as a positive force because of who their opponents are in Daesh, rather than the practices they themselves use. 

Knowing all this, it is unnerving that the YPG are still viewed as a force for liberalisation in the region, and chosen by western activists as a means of living out fantasies of military revolution.

Talking to a Syrian friend in Beirut, one of the first things they brought up when the PKK and YPG were mentioned was not their supposed great stand for liberalism and feminism, but their use of child soldiers. 

The YPG understand how they are perceived as well. They understand that many western liberals and progressives view them positively. They have been able to position themselves as an ally against Islamism.

The PKK itself has its roots as a Marxist militant group founded in the 1970s, initially forming to demand an autonomous Kurdish state. Today, they have scaled back their demands, fighting for a greater degree of self-governance.

The truth, as always, is more complicated than the good guys vs. bad guys narrative. It seems unlikely that Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi families who have lost loved ones to the YPG and PKK’s nearly fifty year struggle for autonomy will share the western perception of them as a liberalising force.

The YPG’s role in destroying the Daesh caliphate is extremely important, but trying to place western values on them simply because they use women only units is misleading. “Equality” sounds pretty hollow when used to describe equal use of boys and girls as child soldiers.


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Featured Image: Pixabay

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