Syrian Democratic Forces – By Jonathan Spyer

(….) What comes next, I asked Colonel Talal Silu, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, at a facility in the city of Hasakeh. The SDF, whose existence was announced on October, is the 40,000 strong military alliance with which western air power and special forces are partnering at the present time in the war against the Islamic State. Silu, an ethnic Turkmen from northern Syria and a member of the ‘Jaysh al Thuwar’ (Army of Revolutionaries) group, is himself a living example of the purpose of the SDF.

The victories against IS at Kobani and in the area to its east were won by the combination of determined Kurdish ground forces and US air power.

This partnership works militarily. Politically, however, it is problematic.

The US is committed to the maintenance of Syria as a territorial unit.   The Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) is a franchise of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), and is widely believed by Syrian Arabs to be seeking to secede from Syria.   Yet more problematically, the PKK remains on the US and EU lists of terror organizations. And the YPG in Syria is fairly clearly the creation of the PKK, though spokesmen deny formal links.

The SDF, which brings in non-Kurdish organizations and fighters around the nucleus of the 30,000 member YPG, is intended to remedy this situation. It serves a purpose for both Kurds and Americans. It enables the YPG to present itself as an integral part of Syria. The Americans, meanwhile, can claim to be working with a multi-ethnic alliance, rather than a Kurdish nationalist force.

This latter aspect is of particular urgency because of Turkish concerns. The Turks have warned the YPG not to cross west of the Euphrates River. Ankara is concerned at Kurdish ambitions to acquire control of the entire long border between Syria and Turkey. At present, an isolated Kurdish canton in the area of Afrin in north west Syria remains cut off from the main area of Kurdish control. Areas of rebel and IS control separate the two.

Colonel Talal Silu, however, was not interested in discussing the intricacies of Levantine power politics on the morning that we met. What needed to come next, he told me, was heavy weapons.On October 14th, the US dropped 50 tons of ammunition to the SDF. This, the colonel said, was not enough for purpose. ’What they dropped was only enough to fight for two or three days. Not so useful.’

So what would be useful?

‘Heavy weapons, Tow missiles, anti-tank missiles…The Americans gave $50 million to people who did nothing. Saudi Arabia is supporting forces and providing high quality weapons. But we are the only force that is fighting IS seriously.’

Declining IS Morale

This sentiment was repeated again and again, as we followed the SDF frontlines down south of Hasakeh, to the last forward positions before the town of Shaddadah. The SDF liberated al-Hawl on November 16th, and is now pushing beyond it.

The remnants of IS rule were plainly visible as we drove through the town. ‘The Islamic Court in al-Hawl’ one painted structure proclaimed grandly. But the building was ransacked and deserted, and someone had painted a livid red YPG emblem above that of the former Islamist rulers. IS was on the retreat.‘If we had effective weapons, we could take Raqqa (the ‘capital city’ of the Islamic State) in a month’, said Kemal Amuda, a short and energetic YPG commander at a frontline position south of al-Hawl. ‘But the area is very large. And the airstrikes are of limited use.’

What would help? Once again; ‘Anti-tank weapons, tanks, armored vehicles.’

The reason why the kind of heavy weapons these commanders desire have not been forthcoming may relate to the provisional nature of the alliance underpinning the SDF.The west want to use this force as a battering ram against the Islamic State. But the Kurdish core of the force have other ambitions, which include the unification of the cantons and acquiring control of the border.  The western coalition may well prefer to neutralize the IS advantage in heavy weapons by employment of air power, rather than afford the Kurds an independent capacity in this regard.

But despite the absence of such weapons, and the political complications, the SDF is proving a serviceable tool in the battle against IS. The strategy appears to be to slowly chip away at the areas surrounding Raqqa City, in order to weaken the jihadis’ ability to amount a determined defense of the city. The loss of al-Hawl meant that IS also lost control of the Syrian section of Highway 47 from Raqqa City across the Iraqi border to Mosul, Iraq’s second city and the other jewel in the IS crown.

The later conquest of the Tishreen Dam by the SDF on December 27 further isolates Raqqa. The dam was the last bridge across the Euphrates controlled by IS. Its loss very significantly increases the time it would take for the jihadis to bring forces from Aleppo province on the western side of the river to the aid of the city if it were attacked.So the SDF, partnering with US air power, appears to be aiming to split the Islamic State in two, before attacking its most significant points.The YPG component, which accounts for the majority of the fighting strength of the SDF, is an irregular force. It lacks the resources and the structure of a regular army.   The fighters have only the simplest of equipment. No body armor. No helmets. Night vision equipment also appears to be absent. Medical knowledge and supplies are of the most basic variety.

Concerns have been raised regarding the high rate of attrition in this force, including of fighters who suffered wounds which ought to have not been fatal had skilled medical attention been close at hand.

But despite all this, they appear to get results, and morale was clearly high among the young combatants that I interviewed in the frontline areas south of al-Hawl and Hasakeh.A particularly striking element was the constantly repeated refrain that the Islamic State fighters suffered from severe attrition and noticeably declining motivation.As we passed through an eerily silent and seemingly deserted frontline area close to the Basil Dam 30 km east of Shaddadah, I came across a group of YPG men defending a position about three kilometers from the first lines of the jihadis.

The officer commanding this group refused to give his name or to be recorded. ‘Journalists aren’t really supposed to be around here,’ he remarked with a smile. Nevertheless, in the conversation which followed, the commander gave a precise description of the changing tactics used by the jihadis, and what in his view this portended for the fight against the Islamic State.

Once, the jihadis had attacked en masse.   The order, as described by the commander, was that a number of ‘suicide cars’ – vehicles filled with explosive and intended to be spread panic among the defenders – would be the first to appear. These would be followed by suicide bombers on foot, who would try to enter the positions of the defenders and detonate themselves. Then a mass of ground fighters would follow behind, with the intention of breaking through the shocked defenders.

These methods had been effective, but also very costly in terms of manpower. Now, however, the jihadis were evidently seeking to preserve the lives of their force. Their tactics had changed accordingly. They moved in smaller groups, preferring to leave only token forces to defend areas subjected to determined attack.

The change, suggested the commander, derived from a dwindling flow of eager recruits, when compared to the days of summer, 2014. ‘Formerly they were attractive as conquerors. Their power derived from intimidation and imposing terror,’ he concluded. ‘This has now gone.’

This decline in the stream of recruits for Islamic State probably explains an amnesty announced in October 2015 for deserters from the group’s ranks, as revealed in a recent trove of IS documents leaked to British researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi. The announcement suggests that IS can no longer maintain in their entirety the ruthless and draconian methods that characterized its early stages. The need for manpower precludes this.

The turn to international terrorism by IS in recent months is probably also explained by its loss of momentum in Iraq and Syria. IS needs ‘achievements’ to maintain its ‘brand.’   Its slogan, famously is ‘Baqiya wa tatamaddad’ (remaining and expanding). But expansion of its actual territorial holdings is no longer taking place. The downing of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 on October 31, the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13 and the series of attacks in Turkey suggest that action on the global stage may form a kind of substitute for gains on the battlefield closer to home

An Expanding US Presence?

What is most striking about the large swathe of northern Syria now administered by the Kurds is the atmosphere of near normality which is maintained there. This was not always the case. This reporter first visited ‘Rojava’, as the Kurds call Syrian Kurdistan, in early 2013 – just a few months after the regime pulled out of most of north-east Syria.

At that time, the security structures put in place by the Kurds were rudimentary and somewhat chaotic. And the remaining regime presence in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakeh far more extensive.

By the end of 2015, however, the rule of the PYD and its allies has taken on a look of solidity. Pictures of the martyrs are everywhere, testimony to the high cost that the establishment and maintenance of the enclave continues to exert. But the checkpoints of the YPG, and the presence of both the Asayish (paramilitary police) and the ‘blue’ police force established by the Kurds leave no doubt as to who is in control here. The US decision to partner with the Kurdish de facto force in this area is an acknowledgement of this achievement. Finding physical evidence of the American presence, however, is a challenge. YPG commanders interviewed were insistent that the process of calling in airstrikes was handled by the YPG alone, via a control room which was in contact with the US forces. The Americans, in this telling, were responsible only for advising and some training of forces.

Yet it seems likely that the small complement of US special forces committed to Syria (up to 50 operators, according to the official US announcement) are doing more than simply training and advising. In neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, evidence has already emerged of the ground involvement of US special forces in operations against IS. It is likely that similar events are taking place, away from visibility, in Syria too. According to a recent report in the leading regional newspaper Al-Hayat, plans are afoot to broaden the US presence, with the construction of a base in which, according to a western official quoted by the paper, ‘US experts will reside and from which they will travel to battle lines with ISIS.’ The base, according to al-Hayat, is set to be built outside the town of Derik (al-Malkiyah), deep in the heart of the Kurdish controlled area in north east Syria. These reports, if they have substance, suggest a deepening of the military alliance between the US and the Kurds of Syria.


The SDF consists nominally of 8 separate militias. The other elements of significance (apart from the YPG and its female section, the YPJ) are the Jaysh al-Sanadid (Army of the Brave) group – an armed formation of the Shammar tribe in Syria, the Syriac Military Council, which represents the Syriac Christians of northern Syria and the Jaysh al-Thuwar (Army of Revolutionaries), which is a gathering of a number of small, non-jihadi groups who emerged from the Free Syrian Army and the rebellion against Assad.

Of these, the Sanadid is the most numerous and serious, numbering perhaps 5000 fighters. I visited the palatial residence of the leader of Sanadid, Sheikh Hamidi Daham al-Hadi , outside the village of Tel Alo, and attended a funeral of three fighters of the movement that took place at a cemetery adjoining the village. The Sheikh acknowledged the primary role of the YPG in the SDF, and noted that the alliance of Sanadid and YPG represented the latest chapter in a long history of cooperation between the Kurds and the Shammar tribe in northern Syria.The Shammar are a large Beduin tribe, with branches across the Middle East and a long standing rivalry with the Saudi monarchy, who Sheikh Daham al-Hadi, notably, describes as ‘the first ISIS.’

The presence of the Shammar in the SDF is significant because if the force is to proceed further southwards, it will need the support or at least the acquiescence of Sunni tribes in the area. So far, only the Shammar and the Shaitat tribes have linked up with the SDF.

The other component parts of the SDF are less numerous, but of equal political importance, each in their own way. The Syriac Military Council, with perhaps 2000 fighters, is the third significant military presence in the SDF. The small, fragmented rebel groups of the Jaysh al-Thuwar number only a few hundred fighters each. And while these groups contain skilled fighters who have been at war ceaselessly for five years, their general level of organization as observed is clearly not on the same level as that of the YPG.

But the political usefulness of the Arab rebels as a presence in the SDF has nevertheless been demonstrated in recent days.When the SDF captured the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates River from IS on December 27th, this technically involved a violation of a red line previously issued by the government of Turkey to the Kurds.In a statement issued on July 1, 2015, the government of Turkey issued a statement forbidding any action west of the Euphrates River by the Kurds.

The capture of the Dam brought SDF fighters west of the river. But Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu subsequently said that as far as he was aware, it was Arab fighters who had crossed over.This statement by the Turkish prime minister perhaps reflected the limited options Ankara has for enforcing its red lines, now that Russian air power is engaged in the skies over Syria.

But it also was certainly a product of the ambiguity inherent in the very nature of the SDF, which enabled the Turks to save face by ‘interpreting’ the move west of the Euphrates in a way which previously would not have been possible.

What happens next?

As of now, the slow and grinding offensive of the SDF and US air power against Islamic State looks set to continue. It constitutes the main military effort against IS in Syria.

There remains an obvious contradiction in it, between the political differences of the Kurds and those of the Americans regarding Syria’s future. For the Kurds, apart from the issue of uniting the cantons, the SDF represents the military part of a much larger political project. This is intended to result in the establishment of a federal Syria with a ‘constitution recognizing the rights of all minorities.’   On December 10th, after a two day conference in Derik, it launched a political wing, the Syrian Democratic Assembly.

Neither this assembly, nor the PYD, have been invited to the talks in Vienna intended to negotiate an end to the war in Syria. But this war, in truth, currently looks nowhere close to conclusion. In the meantime the Syrian Kurds have carved out an enclave constituting over 20% of the territory of the country in which something approximating normal life is able to take place.

This alliance is currently moving forward against the Islamic State.

The jihadis are far from a spent force. On January 15th, they launched a ferocious counter-attack against Assad regime forces in the Deir el-Zur area. A massacre of civilians followed.     The remaining IS capacity for murder should not be underestimated.

Still, as we crossed the Tigris River from northern Syria to Iraq, two memories remained particularly vivid.The first was of Kobani. As we entered the ruined city, a celebration was taking place. About a hundred young Kurds were dancing in an open area, Kurdish music blaring from a primitive sound system, with the ruined, macabre buildings casting their shapes all around.

The second was of a clump of strange mounds that we found by the roadside in the desert south of al-Hawl. These, on closer inspection, were the torn corpses of a group of IS fighters – killed perhaps in an airstrike.Their foes had covered them lightly with earth before continuing south. The sightless eyes stared skyward. The war against Islamic State and the larger war of which it is a part are far from over. But on this front at least, the direction is clear. The SDF is moving forward.