What are the Syrian Democratic Forces?

War /

The coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) brings together militias of the Kurdish YPG and groups comprised of local Arab tribes. Currently, it controls territory covering the northeastern part of Syria, between the provinces of Al Hasakah and Deir Ezzor, situated to the east of the River Euphrates. Numerous US soldiers are present in the area and the anti-Isis international coalition is engaged in operations there.

The SDF coalition was formed in October 2015 in Al Hasakah, the capital of the Syrian province with the highest number of Kurds. It is, therefore, the area where for the last three years the militia fighters of the YPG Kurdish self-defence forces have been operating. Born out of the disorders that led in 2011 and 2012 to the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the Kurdish groups took possession of several towns where they form a majority of the population and the Arabs/Syrians are a minority.

In addition to being militia units the YPGs act as the government in the areas they control. Thus was born the self-proclaimed “autonomous region of Rojava“, a term that in Kurdish means “western” because the territory is considered the most western tip of Kurdistan. They established a form of government inspired by the so-called “Democratic Confederalism”, reflecting the ideology of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

When the role of the YPGs also became that of opposing the advance of Isis, they, therefore, favoured the formation of a coalition able to include not only Kurds. An alliance was formed within the SDF of groups formed by Arab tribes in eastern Syria as well as smaller groups that had once been affiliated to the FSA. The operation led to the SDF obtaining the support of the USA, with Washington financing and training the militias and sending special forces to the areas held by the pro-Kurdish coalition.

The core of the SDF is the Kurdish militia of the YPGs. The Kurdish self-defence force appears to be the largest group within the coalition. They also have both military and governmental experience gained in the areas controlled by them from 2012 onwards.

The struggle against Isis led the pro-Kurdish forces to occupy Arab majority areas. In order to avoid disputes with the population, in view above all of the direct support from the Americans, they favoured widening the coalition to encompass Arab groups. The SDF are therefore currently also composed, in addition to the YPG militias mentioned above, of the ex-battalions of the dissolved FSA, which were groups of Syrians that originally grew out of the protests against President Assad and representatives of several Arab tribes of the provinces of Al Hasakah and Deir Ezzor.

In total, the SDF have thousands of men organised as a fully-fledged army trained (as well as supplied and funded) by the United States. The SDF does not have an air force but they are guaranteed air support from the anti-Isis coalition led by the Americans.

The SDF coalition developed to give added impetus to the struggle against the ISIS Caliphate proclaimed in Mosul in June 2014 by the terrorist Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Until October 2015, the only forces supporting the war against ISIS in the east of Syria were the YPG Kurdish militias.

The YPG Kurdish militias gained popularity in the media at the time of the battle of Kobani, which saw the first military defeat of ISIS since the proclamation of the Caliphate. The antiIsis offensive of the Kurdish groups began from this small town defended by the YPG militias with a Kurdish majority.

The formation of the SDF strengthened the advance against the Islamic State, which at that time controlled a vast swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria covering almost 88,000 square kilometres. The first advances of the newly formed coalition with a Kurdish majority were made on the eastern front and, in particular, in the province of Aleppo.

At the beginning of 2016, the SDF managed to seize from Isis important pieces of territory in the north of Syria. In addition to creating a security buffer zone around Kobani, the SDF crossed
the Euphrates and advanced into some areas in the province of Aleppo.

In July 2016, the SDF reached the canton of Manbij, an important town both historically and strategically which had fallen into the hands of ISIS two years earlier. The area surrounding this important centre was captured from the Caliphate after several intense weeks of fighting.

Manbij is currently under siege from the SDF militia. The conquest of Manbij was a hard-fought battle, with the forces of the international coalition providing air support to the pro-Kurdish forces. Manbij was not liberated from ISIS until 16 August 2016. It was the first important non-Kurdish town seized by the SDF from the Jihadi militias.

Manbij has an Arab majority population but it did initially accept the presence of the pro-Kurdish SDF merely in order to put an end to the barbaric acts of Isis. When the SDF entered the town there was however an episode that today still appears very significant. Various images and photos taken just a few hours after the entry into the town of the pro-Kurdish forces show the Isis militiamen leaving the town in an orderly fashion. It was, it subsequently emerged, a withdrawal agreed with the SDF troops. The militiamen of the Caliphate on that occasion were guaranteed a safe passage from the town. This was the first such episode in the Syrian Civil

With the conquest of Manbij, the SDF managed to capture large expanses of territory now well beyond the areas traditionally with a Kurdish majority. The northeast of Syria is entirely in the hands of SDF troops, who are increasingly helped by the USA which is setting up military bases in these areas.

In 2017 a full-blown race began between the SDF and the Syrian army to capture Raqqa. Raqqa is the town that Isis chose as the capital of its self-styled and self-proclaimed Caliphate. Its capture was, therefore, an important strategic as well as symbolic objective. Both for the government in Damascus and the SDF it was crucial to get there first. The same went for Russia, President Assad’s ally, and also for the United States which, as mentioned above, backs the pro-Kurdish forces.

In the summer of 2017, Isis appeared to be retreating on many fronts as the terrorists began to stop defending areas they had conquered. Both the Syrian army and the SDF troops advanced
across all the areas conquered by the Jihadis in 2014 and 2015. Soldiers loyal to Assad, in particular, reconquered the central desert of the country and the pro-Kurdish forces took the eastern part.

Eventually it was the SDF that got to Raqqa first.

The town first came under siege during the summer of 2017. The conquest of the capital of the Caliphate seemed to be only a question of days. But things got complicated: despite the help of the US air force which hit Raqqa heavily, the SDF took a long time to advance. The pro-Kurdish forces showed that they had little expertise in urban warfare and the capture of the town appeared very slow. The fighting was street by street, house by house. Raqqa did not fall under October. The town paid a high price: the town centre appeared raised to the ground, eviscerated by bombing and fighting. On top of that, there was another problem: Raqqa, like Manbij, is an Arab rather than a Kurdish town. The SDF administration was therefore not looked upon favourably.

Once the SDF took possession of the areas seized from Isis, there arose the problem of how to administer them. Replacing the Islamic State meant the SDF being obliged to provide at least basic services to the population. Above all restoring water and electricity but also schools and hospitals: the task facing the SDF did not appear very easy from this point of view.

In some cases, the Americans, in addition to the logistical support, also provide assistance to the SDF in order to set up fully-fledged organs of control and government in the areas to the east of the Euphrates. Whilst in the areas taken back by the Syrian army Assad’s government can immediately restore the administration that had been placed in during peacetime but for the SDF, however, the challenge appears to be having to start from scratch and train new administrative apparatuses.

Not only the inexperience but also the small number of men who are for the most part engaged in fighting creates difficulties. But, first and foremost, the SDF appears to have a difficult job on its hands administering the areas under its control above all because of tension between Arabs and Kurds. As stated, the SDF is capturing various Arab majority towns and, despite the
presence of local tribes in its ranks, it is difficult to get many citizens to accept an administration different from that of Damascus.

The tensions at times turn to protests and classes, something which has occurred on several occasions in Manbij. The militias of the SDF are not exempt from criticism from some international organisations who say that attempts, in some cases, at ethnic cleansing have been found. There is talk of episodes in which the Arab population have been deliberately driven out in order to make some population centres Kurdish majority. These are often isolated episodes but in some cases they have been shown to have occurred. Until today there has been no lack of tension, even if the situation would seem to be more under control thanks, amongst other things, to talks conducted more or less behind the scenes with the authorities in Damascus. It is possible to envisage a post-war scenario in which, in exchange for greater autonomy for the Kurdish majority areas, the Syrian government regains control over the Arab territories held by the SDF.

The talks between SDF and the forces loyal to Damascus have intensified since 2018 when the pro-Kurdish forces realised that they had to negotiate with the Russians and Syrians to avoid succumbing to the threats from Erdogan’s Turkey. Erdogan fears the formation of a vast autonomous Kurdish region on the border with his country, a situation that makes the authorities in Ankara suspicious of cooperation between the SDF forces and the PKK active in Turkey, which is considered a terrorist movement.

To prevent northern Syria from becoming a sort of “corridor” in Kurdish hands, Erdogan launched two military operations in the north of the country. He did so after getting the green light from Russia, which now had good relations with Ankara after the failed coup of July 2016.

The first operation was launched in the autumn of 2016 and took the name of “Euphrates Shield”. Turkey sent its armed forces and the Islamist militias over which it has a decisive influence in the Jarabulus area. This is an area in the province of Aleppo where at that time ISIS was still present. It seemed that the SDF could advance from Manbij and join up with the pro-Kurdish forces that controlled the enclave of Afrin, creating a huge Kurdish region. That is why Erdogan speeded up the military operation and captured territory around Jarabulus. A small pro-Turkish region was created that acted as a buffer between the SDF territories of Afrin and Manbij.

The second Turkish operation was launched in January 2018 and targeted Afrin. Here there was a full-frontal clash between Turkey and the pro-Turkish forces and the SDF, in large part belonging to the YPG militias. Within just a few weeks the Kurds were defeated by the forces sent by Ankara. The operation, called “Olive Branch“, ended even before the spring.

For months now there has been talk of a third military operation, this time targeting Manbij. This situation makes it necessary to intensify the contacts between the SDF and the government in Damascus in view, amongst other things, of the announced US withdrawal from eastern Syria.

2019 began with the sensational announcement by Donald Trump of the withdrawal of US forces from Syria. The decision was driven by the imminent defeat of the Islamic State in the Arab country. As stated, this is one of the reasons why the SDF are having to engage in dialogue with the government in Damascus. At the same time, the pro-Kurdish forces launched their last offensive against the Caliphate.

The black flags of Isis now fly only in Baghouz, a small village between the Euphrates and the border with Iraq. It is in this village that the final battle is being fought and when it is over the SDF will be able to declare victory over the Caliphate after four years of fighting.