Updated: Nov 24
The Women’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin or YPJ for short) have attracted much attention over the last decade. Formed in 2012, the YPJ is an all-female fighting unit that took part in the war against the Islamic State and continues to take part in the Syrian Civil War, defending the territory of Northern Syria, primarily from Turkey and its proxies but also against the Assad government. The goal of the YPJ is to promote gender equality and promote Kurdish cultural rights.
History & Foundations
The Democratic Unity Party (PYD), a Kurdish political party launched in 2003, was created by Syrian Kurds who had been influenced or worked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK - who has been waging a war against Turkey since the 1980s). The PYD promotes Kurdish cultural rights and political autonomy and until 2011, it operated underground as its activity was suppressed by the Arab nationalist Syrian regime.
When the Syrian Civil War began, the PYD chose to go a third path, siding neither with the opposition nor the Syrian government. Instead, it would focus on protecting Kurdish inhabited areas and consolidating its control over the movement. In 2012, the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, was formed with the aim of defending Kurdish areas as the PYD began exercising political control over Kurdish inhabited territory. YPG units were mixed, with women playing a prominent role alongside men. A year later, the YPJ formed as a way of further putting into practice the PYD’s ideological commitment to women’s equity. (1)
Throughout the war against ISIS, the YPJ gained international fame. Images of keffiyeh clad, Kalashnikov wielding women fighting the Islamic State resonated heavily with western onlookers. The idea of women fighting against fundamentalists appealed to Europeans and Americans, who often associate the authoritarianism of Middle Eastern governments with misogynistic policies. From early stages such as Kobani and rescuing Yazidi genocide survivors in 2014 to the final battle at Baghouz in 2019, the YPJ played a heavy role in the Islamic State’s defeat.. The US began backing the YPG and YPJ in 2015 to help complete its anti-ISIS objectives; under the banner of the Global Coalition, the YPJ became one of the biggest factions of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF expanded the US backed anti-IS mission in Syria to include non-Kurdish elements; through this, many Arab and Syriac Christian women found their way into the ranks of the YPJ or other SDF aligned groups. (2)
Apart from the war with ISIS, the YPJ has seen action combatting the Turkish military and its Syrian proxies. It also has combatted the Ba’athist forces of Bashar al-Assad and its Iranian allies on previous occasions, including at the Battle of al-Hasakah in 2015.(3) In certain cases, such as in the very conservative Deir Ez-Zor area, the SDF has been careful to not use the YPJ in combat roles for fear that such a move could further strain its relationship with locals. In these instances, such as during the 2023 tribal uprising in the area, the YPJ did not participate in offensive actions but still played a support role.(4)
Objectives & Ideology
The PYD subscribes to democratic confederalism, a brand of libertarian socialism crafted by the PKK’s imprisoned founder Abdullah Ocalan. Democratic confederalism can be summarized as a focus on establishing and fostering local governance, cultural rights and autonomy (this element earning it Arab, Christian, and Yazidi allies), communal economics, environmentalism, and women’s equity.(5) As far as the YPJ is concerned, the focus on women’s liberation is, of course, the most vital.
Kurds in Turkey are particularly conservative, making opportunities for women difficult. In this light, the PKK and its different wings can be viewed as revolutionizing its own community while at the same time fighting for its larger self-determination. Ocalan first made this appeal to women in the 1990s and some have speculated that it had more to do with the need for numbers than ideology; regardless, his message has resonated both with Kurds and other regional populations.(6) His quote “that society cannot be free until women are free” is often repeated, and the YPJ’s slogan of “women, life, liberty” became the motto of the 2022 protests in Iran against the mandatory hijab law and the Islamic Republic.(7)
Military & Political Abilities
At first, the YPJ could only muster small arms and Toyota pickups for its military operations. As the west intervened to counter ISIS, they received weapons from the US, including M4s and light vehicles such as MRAPs and Humvees. Notably, the US does not supply the YPJ or any other element of the SDF with anti-tank or anti-air weapons which could be used to level the balance of power with Turkish military forces. The group still has a stockpile of RPGs and Kornet anti-tank missile launchers.(8)
In a 2021 interview, commander Newroz Ahmed reported the YPJ’s strength to be 5,000 members, though others have reported much higher numbers.(9) The group is criticized for its recruitment of child soldiers; a UN report estimated it and the YPG had the greatest number of child recruits of any faction in Syria at around 280.(10) Its experience and leadership capability is further degraded by Turkish drone strikes. In the summer of 2022, three prominent YPJ fighters, including Jiyan Tohildan, were killed by a drone.
Politically, women have greater autonomy and rights under the PYD system than anywhere else in the region. Most political entities are required to have one male and one female co-chair and 40 percent women’s representation is mandated.(11) As mentioned earlier, this system is made flexible in certain areas to prevent angering more conservative populations.
Approach to Resistance
The YPJ operates as a conventional light military force. Since the defeat of the Islamic State, it has focused more on counter-terrorism, however it also stands prepared to engage with Turkey or its proxies in the event of attacks. In the event of a collapse of the Autonomous Administration, the YPJ would likely become a guerilla force to combat any Turkish military effort as its conventional means of combating Ankara would be degraded fairly quickly. Turkey accuses the YPJ of taking part in terrorist activities across the border, however no proof of this exists.(12)
International Relations and Potential Alliances
The YPJ is seen as an extension of the PKK by Turkey and thus deemed a terrorist group by Ankara.(13) Turkey has regularly carried out drone strikes on YPJ members, notably killing three of its most notable commanders in the summer of 2022. Unless there is a wider peace process, it is unlikely Turkey will ever come to view the YPJ as anything but an enemy.
The YPJ relies heavily on US assistance, as does the SDF as a whole. American air power helped pave the way for the defeat of ISIS; Washington’s training and equipment continues to be vital to anti-ISIS operations to this day. While the US can be counted on as far as countering ISIS and Axis of Resistance elements (Assad, Iran, and their proxies), America is more than willing to allow Turkey to degrade the YPJ’s abilities so long as it does not interfere with its own goals.
While Iran and Assad are antagonistic, Russia plays a more neutral, albeit far from friendly role with the SDF. Assad continuously labels the SDF as separatists, despite their insistence that they seek greater autonomy under the Syrian system rather than secession.(14) Moscow backs its ally Assad in all disputes with the SDF, but seems to indicate they prefer a situation where the SDF is eventually incorporated into the Syrian Army rather than destroyed all-together.(15) Russia also vetoes certain Turkish military actions as it controls the airspace over a fair amount of the AANES’ territory, though they use the same power cynically when seeking concessions out of Ankara.
As far as other Kurdish parties are concerned, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are the most relevant to the YPJ and SDF. The two parties control the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, the only other area where Kurds enjoy some form of autonomy. The KDP has strong ties with Turkey and its Syrian branch is starkly opposed to the PYD and its activities. Ideologically the two are opposed as well; the PYD seeks inclusion and decentralization whereas the KDP is nationalistic and wants an independent Kurdistan. By contrast, the PUK is more favorable to the PYD; it provides material and logistical support to the SDF, particularly in the field of anti-terrorism. It sees the armed Kurdish movement in Syria as a way of countering the KDP’s influence.(16)
The position of the YPJ, SDF, and AANES long-term is not promising. They have no political backer willing to recognize them or broker a favorable deal with the Assad regime. What happens to the YPJ’s many fighters in the future will be unclear, though many will likely continue to resist. Regardless of whatever comes its way, the YPJ’s impact on women’s issues in the Middle East will likely be felt for some time.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Lemmon, G. T. (2022). The daughters of kobani: A story of rebellion, courage, and Justice. Penguin Press.
(2) - Ibid
(3) - Vice. (2015, August 13). Kurds assert control of Hasakah: The Battle for Rojava (dispatch 3). YouTube. https://youtu.be/jqYEva7VE-I?si=b5jNMcT5Fwj7sFUY
(4) - Zaman, A. (2023, September 7). Syrian Kurdish commander Kobane acknowledges Arab grievances as tensions ease in Deir Ezzor. Al-Monitor. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/09/syrian-kurdish-commander-kobane-acknowledges-arab-grievances-tensions-ease-deir
(5) - “democratic confederalism is the equal unity of diversities.” Peace in Kurdistan. (2023, March 6). https://www.peaceinkurdistancampaign.com/democratic-confederalism-is-the-equal-unity-of-diversities/
(6) - Marcus, A. (2009). Blood and belief: The PKK and the Kurdish fight for Independence. Combined Academic.
(7) - Bayram, S., & Mohtasham, D. (2022, October 27). Iran’s protesters find inspiration in a Kurdish revolutionary slogan. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/10/27/1131436766/kurdish-roots-iran-protest-slogan
(8) - Babb, C. (2017, February 2). US supplies first armored vehicles to Syrian fighters. Voice of America. https://www.voanews.com/a/us-provides-syrian-democratic-forces-with-guardian-armored-vehicles/3702817.html
(9) - Flock, E. (2021b, July 19). “now I’ve a purpose”: Why more Kurdish women are choosing to fight. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jul/19/came-to-fight-stayed-for-the-freedom-why-more-kurdish-women-are-taking-up-arms
(10) - Abrahams, F. (2022, October 27). Syria: Kurdish forces violating Child soldier ban. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/07/10/syria-kurdish-forces-violating-child-soldier-ban-0
(11) - Stein, A., & Burchfield, E. (2019, August). The future of Northeast Syria - Atlantic Council. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/The-Future-of-Northeast-Syria.pdf
(12) - Thomson Reuters. (2022, November 14). What is the Syrian Kurdish YPG?. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/what-is-syrian-kurdish-ypg-2022-11-14/
(13) - Ibid
(14) - Ghossoun. (2019, November 16). President al-Assad: The American presence in Syria will generate military resistance which will exact losses among the Americans, consequently force them to leave. Syrian Arab News Agency. https://www.sana.sy/en/?p=178449
(15) - News, S. (2022, November 29). SDF demands a Russian mediation to agree with Al-Asad. Shafaq News. https://shafaq.com/en/World/SDF-demands-a-Russian-mediation-to-agree-with-Al-Asad
(16) - Alaca, M. (2023, April 28). Roots of the rift between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan’s puk. The Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/roots-rift-between-turkey-and-iraqi-kurdistans-puk