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Syrian Democratic Forces

As their commanders on 23 March 2019 declared final victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) unfurled their yellow flag atop a bullet-ridden building in celebration. They celebrated the victory with the Dabke, a folk dance, and embracing each other, though with tears in their eyes for the loss of 11,000 fellow fighters killed in the long war against ISIL. The SDF fighters, the main ground ally of Western powers in the fight against ISIL, hoped that their military victory would help win them future autonomy within Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces is an entity the US stitched together mostly from PKK-affiliated Kurds as well as Arab fighters. The US is supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, mostly made up of Syrian Kurds, numbering at least 25,000 fighters, with a smaller element of Syrian Arabs, numbering perhaps 5,000 to 6,000 as of May 2016. The US is trying to increase the Arab numbers. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee 17 March 2016 that US and coalition forces were now working with a Syrian Democratic Force that had 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, including 5,000 Arabs — twice the number of Arabs fighters that had signed on just a month ago.

The SDF is a Kurdish-led multiethnic military alliance that played a key role in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Syria. The SDF liberated the last IS stronghold of Baghuz in eastern Syria last in March 2019 and now controlled more than one third of Syria's territory.

The SDF was founded in Syria's mainly Kurdish northeastern region in October 2015, and was made up of at least 15 armed factions, mostly fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units and the Free Syrian Army. The fighters included Christians, Arabs and about 500 foreign fighters. The group was originally a united coalition made up of the Kurdish People's Protection Units and Kurdish Women's Protection Units and several smaller groups. In December 2015 the SDF announced the formation of a Syrian Democratic Council, the political branch of the forces.

Turkey views the People's Protection Units (YPG), the main force within SDF, as part of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been engaged in deadly conflict with Turkish military for more than three decades. Ankara also opposes Washington's continued partnership with the SDF, demanding the U.S. stop supporting the Kurdish-led group. Turkey repeatedly threatened to carry out an offensive in SDF-held territory, particularly after the U.S. declared that it would withdraw most of its 2,000 troops from northeast Syria.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in late April 2019 announced the establishment of a new force made up of ethnic Armenians. "We will follow the path of our martyrs and resist until all the [ethnic] components of the north and east of Syria are free and build a decentralized Syria," said Masis Mutanian, commander of the new Armenian force, during remarks at the announcement ceremony on 24 April 2019. Ethnic Armenians made up nearly two percent of Syria's prewar population of 23 million, with a significant percentage living in the Kurdish-majority northeast. By mobilizing an Armenian brigade, the SDF is pronouncing to Assad that it is here to stay and that one of Syria's most vulnerable communities recognizes that fact by joining up with the SDF.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units [YPG] acknowledged that it was participating in the new alliance with Sunni Arab and Syrian Christian groups known as the Democratic Forces of Syria. That group held its first meeting 15 October 2015 in the Syrian city of Al Hasakah to discuss how to divide up the new US-provided ammunition between Kurdish, Arab and Christian rebel brigades.

The SDF acronym is a bit ambiguous, even when used by USG [US Government] sources. A few times SDF is expanded as "Syrian Defense Force". But the Syrian Defense Force members fight for the Assad regime, not against. Reportedly by December 2015 the Syrian government controlled most of the eastern section of the city of Aleppo, which included help from the Syrian Defense Force and the Iranian Quds forces.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, include Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs and others, have been an effective force in northern Syria and have put the enemy on its “back foot”. The Syria coalition is a group of groups - maybe 12 smaller groups of Syrian fighters who've been focused on fighting ISIL in the vicinity of Raqqa. And these 10 to 12 groups have coalesced together in an effort to multiply their combat power. The Arab fighters in the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say they also fight for the Syrian revolution against Assad.

The great majority of Syrian armed opposition groups, much larger than the Syrian Democratic Forces, also fight the Islamic State, but their main focus is against Assad. They will never join with the current Syrian government against the Islamic State. Even the Arab fighters in the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say they also fight for the Syrian revolution against Assad. The Russians want all these armed opposition forces to join with the current Syrian government, perhaps with some cosmetic changes. After the intense bloodletting and atrocities, it will not happen until there is a dramatically different national government.

The US got in contact through various ways with the leaders of these smaller groups who then came up with a overall group leader. The US exfiltrated about 20 of these group leaders to another location where they spent a week familiarizing them with the US train-and-equip program, given them some instructions on law of land warfare, et cetera, brought them back in and gave them their ammunition in October 2015.

In early November 2015 the Syrian Democratic Forces conducted an attack in Syria near Hawl from the northeast to the southwest, driving ISIL back and reclaiming about 255 square kilometers of ground. “It was a fairly straightforward, conventional offensive operation, where we estimated … several hundred enemy [fighters] were located in that vicinity. There was a substantial friendly force -- well over 1,000 participated in the offensive part of this operation. And they were able to very deliberately execute the plan that they had made themselves,” Army Col. Steve Warren briefed Pentagon reporters morning via video conference from Baghdad on November 4, 2015.

In December 2015 the Syrian democratic forces liberated territory held by ISIL in northern Syria. On Dec. 7, the Syrian Democratic Forces liberated the villages of Kan and Suwy, located south of Hawl, he said, noting that those villages give them a stronger foothold as they move toward Shadaddi. During a five-week campaign, the Syrian democratic forces had liberated nearly 1,000 square kilometers and coordinated with coalition forces for 142 strikes, he said. Those strikes, Warren added, have killed an estimated 500 enemy fighters and have destroyed 143 ISIL fighting positions, 43 vehicles and one checkpoint.

Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve said February 1, 2016 that in Syria, partnered with multiple groups willing to fight ISIL, the coalition has seen progress, the general said. “The Syrian Democratic Forces have made dramatic gains against the enemy in northern and eastern Syria, while the vetted Syrian opposition and other groups are holding the enemy back along what we call the Mara line in northwest Syria,” he said.

“They would not have been able to do any of that without coalition air support. They know that … They owe their existence really to the support that we are providing," MacFarland said. "And that's why they continue to work with us. And so far as I can tell, they have not turned away from us toward the Russians,” MacFarland said.

The American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces had not taken back a major Arab city from the Islamic State. The Syrian Kurds were wisely being very careful. If they focused mainly on their autonomous region, however, the rest of eastern Syria is a big space. It is not clear how the American-backed Arab fighters, who were limited in number, can retake it against a numerically superior Islamic State force, much less hold it against an Islamic State insurgency.

On 30 May 2016, SDF forces mounted ground operations in three villages to the east of the town of Manbij, 30 kilometers west of the Euphrates and to the northeast of the city of Aleppo. Within hours, SDF units were fighting IS in parts of the city. Before the Syria conflict erupted, the town of 100,000 had an ethnically diverse population of Arabs, Kurds and Circassians. The SDF also seized from IS two villages on the western bank of the Euphrates — al-Sandaliyah and al-Haloulah — with the help of more than a dozen U.S. airstrikes.

The SDF, which includes some small Sunni Arab armed groups and Syriac and Turkmen community defense forces, was shunned by most anti-Assad rebel groups, who feared — as the Turks do - that the Kurds are intent on establishing their own state along the border with Turkey. The main anti-Assad rebel political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, demanded guarantees from the international community that Sunni Arabs will be allowed to return to villages seized from the jihadist IS group by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is dominated by Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG. In 2015 rights groups accused the YPG of forcibly evicting Arabs and Turkmen and demolishing whole villages seized from IS — allegations the Syrian Kurds strongly denied. Despite Turkish and mainstream rebel objections to US support for the SDF, by mid-2016 there were no signs that Washington is re-thinking its anti-IS strategy in Syria. US officials said while they are sensitive to Ankara’s concerns about Syrian Kurdish political ambitions, they have little choice but to back the YPG as the Kurdish militia has proven to be an effective partner in the fight against IS. By May 2019 there was a growing discontent among local Arabs against Kurdish rule in Deir el-Zour. The Arab-majority province of Deir el-Zour is where Kurdish forces were mostly in charge of security and other services. But parts of the oil-rich province are controlled by Syrian troops and allied militias. Rising food prices, lack of services and arbitrary arrests of IS suspects led many frustrated locals to take to the streets in protest of the new administration. Such protests were expected, given the demographic and political composition in the Syrian province. There had been ethnic tensions in many areas controlled by the SDF for some time now, as many Arabs have been excluded from power-sharing. And the economic situation made it worse. Developments in Deir al-Zour were a product mainly of the oil sanctions which the Trump administration put into effect on Syria, including the sanctions on SDF entities trading in oil with the regime, and the sanctions on the Assad regime's oil imports which went into effect on 03 January 2019. The economy in these areas is very much integrated with the regime areas, which had a major impact.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2019 17:59:19 ZULU