Syrian Democratic Forces
|Syrian Democratic Forces|
قوات سوريا الديمقراطية|
Quwwāt Sūriyā al-Dīmuqrāṭīya
Hêzên Sûriya Demokratîk
Haylawotho d'Suriya Demoqratoyto
Flag of the Syrian Democratic Forces
|Active||10 October 2015 – present|
YPG & YPJ
Afrin & Sheikh Maqsood
Tell Abyad & al-Raqqa
Military councils and their independent militias
Political wingSyrian Democratic Council
|Leaders||SDF Spokesman: Talal Selo|
|Headquarters||Al-Qamishli (capital city)|
|Area of operations||
Deir ez-Zor Governorate
Militias and police forces of Rojava
|Battles and wars||
The Syrian Democratic Forces (Arabic: قوات سوريا الديمقراطية, translit. Quwwāt Sūriyā al-Dīmuqrāṭīya, Kurdish: Hêzên Sûriya Demokratîk, Syriac: Ḥaylawotho d'Suriya Demoqraṭoyto), commonly abbreviated as SDF or QSD, are a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen, Circassian and Chechen militias in the Syrian Civil War. Founded in October 2015, the SDF states its mission as fighting to create a secular, democratic and federal Syria, along the lines of the Rojava Revolution in northern Syria. The draft for the updated 2016 constitution of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava names the SDF as its official defence force.
The prime opponents of the SDF and their allies are the Salafist and Islamic fundamentalist groups involved in the civil war, in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Army of Conquest, Hawar Kilis Operations Room, Al Qaeda, Fatah Halab, Jaysh al-Halab and other Islamist groups and coalitions. The SDF has focused primarily on ISIL, successfully driving them from important strategic areas, such as Al-Hawl, Shaddadi, Tishrin Dam and Manbij.
Establishment and signatory groups
The establishment of the SDF was announced on 11 October 2015 during a press conference in al-Hasakah. The alliance built on longstanding previous cooperation between the founding partners. While the People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG) and the Women's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin, YPJ) had been operating throughout the cantons of Rojava, the other founding partners were more geographically focused.
Geographically focused on Kobanî Canton were the YPG's partners in the Euphrates Volcano joint operations room, several mainstream Syrian rebel factions of the Free Syrian Army label, who had helped defend the Kurdish town of Kobanî during the Siege of Kobanî. Euphrates Volcano was joined by Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa, once expelled by the al-Nusra Front and ISIL from the city of Raqqa for being allied with the YPG, who participated in the capture of Tell Abyad from the Islamic State.
Geographically focused on Jazira Canton were notably the Assyrian Syriac Military Council (Mawtbo Fulhoyo Suryoyo, MFS) and the Al-Sanadid Forces of the Arab Shammar tribe, both of whom had cooperated with the YPG in fighting ISIL for years. The MFS is further politically aligned with the YPG via the shared secular modernizing ideology of Democratic Confederalism of their respective founding parties, which in the Assyrian community translates into the Dawronoye movement.
Geographically focused on Shahba region was the Army of Revolutionaries (Jaysh al-Thuwar, JAT), itself an alliance of several groups of diverse ethnic and political background, who had in common that they had been rejected by the mainstream Syrian opposition for secular, anti-Islamist views and affiliations. However, most of the JAT component groups have always used the Free Syrian Army label and continue to use it.
- People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG)
- Women's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin, YPJ)
- Al-Sanadid Forces
- Syriac Military Council (Mawtbo Fulhoyo Suryoyo, MFS)
- Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa
- Euphrates Volcano
- Army of Revolutionaries (Jaysh al-Thuwar, JAT)
- Brigade Groups of Al-Jazira
- Lîwai 99 Muşat
Size, growth and composition
At the time of its founding in late 2015, The Economist described the SDF as "essentially a subsidiary of the Kurdish YPG". With continuous growth in particular due to Arab groups and volunteers joining, as of March 2016 only an estimated 60% of the men and women in the SDF fighting force were ethnic Kurdish. Growth in particular of ethnic Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian participation in the SDF has since continued. In an interview on the first anniversary of the SDF's founding, spokesman Talal Silo, an ethnic Turkmen and former commander of the Seljuq Brigade, stated that "we started with 13 factions and now there are 32 factions", and that "90 percent" of the SDF growth since it began its operations were ethnic Arab. In the context of the November 2016 Northern Raqqa offensive, The Economist claimed the SDF fighting force to be comppsed of "about 20,000 YPG fighters and about 10,000 Sunni Arabs".
- At the end of October 2015, the tribal group Suqour al-Badiye Brigade joined the SDF to fight ISIL in the southern countryside of Hasakah province.
- On 15 November 2015, the FSA group Euphrates Jarabulus Brigades, formerly part of the al-Tawhid Brigade, announced its accession to the Syrian Democratic Forces.
- On 2 December 2015, the Arab Deir ez-Zor Governorate-based tribe al-Shaitat joined the SDF, sending fighters to al-Shaddadah. On 6 January 2016 an additional 400 joined.
- On 5 February 2016, a group called Martyrs of Dam Brigade from an Arab village called al-Makhmar liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces in the Tishrin Dam offensive joined the Northern Sun Battalion and the SDF.
- On 28 February 2016, a group called Martyr Kaseem Al Areef Battalion from Sarrin formed and joined the Syrian Democratic Forces through their member Jaysh al-Thuwar.
- On 10 March 2016, a group called Jund al-Haramayn Brigade joined the Syrian Democratic Forces through Jaysh al-Thuwar group, the Northern Sun Battalion. They are a former member of the Army of Mujahedeen group called the 19th Division. They operate in the Northern Aleppo Governorate countryside, and also have a presence in Aleppo city and Kobani.
- On 12 March 2016, it was reported that more than 200 locals from the earlier liberated areas around the town of Shaddadi joined the SDF, most of them Arabs.
- On 19 March 2016, it was reported that a group under the name of Liwa Ahrar al-Raqqa ("Free Raqqa Brigade") joined the SDF. The group had earlier been known under the name of Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah ("Jihad in the Path of God Brigade") and had in September 2014 been part of the Euphrates Volcano operations room.
- On 2 April 2016 the SDF established the Manbij Military Council with the goal of securing the city of Manbij and its surrounding countryside (Manbij offensive). The council also includes a newly established group called the Manbij Turkmen Brigade which joined the Northern Sun Battalion of the Army of Revolutionaries.
- On 20 June 2016, a group called the Tel Rifaat Rebel Battalion, with 250 members, joined the SDF.
- On 23 June 2016 in the al-Shaddadah area, 158 Al-Shaitat tribesmen from the FSA group Al-Nukhbat Brigade, which was not yet an SDF component group at the time, defected to join the SDF component group Siqur el-Badiye, consisting of members of that tribe.
- On 14 August 2016, after securing Manbij, the SDF established the al-Bab Military Council with the goal of securing the city of al-Bab and it's surrounding countryside.
- On 21 August, in a similar fashion to the establishment of the Manbij and al-Bab Military Councils, the SDF established the Jarablus Military Council with the goal of securing the city of Jarablus and it's surrounding countryside. The council also includes the newly established group, the Manbij Revolutionary Brigades. The commander of the council, General Sattar Jader from Jarabulus Hawks Brigades, was assassinated the next day, a suspect was later arrested.
- On 13 September 2016 the al-Nukhbat Brigade, consisting of members from the al-Shaitat and Shammar tribes and led by Ahmad Jarba, joined the SDF. While some of its members already had earlier defected and joined the SDF, the event was considered a major political coup for the SDF, as Jarba (who also is the cousin of Al-Sanadid Forces leader Hamidi Daham al-Hadi) was the former President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and now agreed to work with the Syrian Democratic Council framework instead.
- On 1 October 2016, 250 fighters from Manbij formed the Euphrates Liberation Brigade as part of the Manbij Military Council and the SDF.
- On 14 October 2016, the FSA group Free Officers Union numbering in the hundreds joined the SDF.
- On 31 October 2016, an all-female battalion was established within' the al-Bab Military Council.
- In early November 2016, a 'battalion' from the Sham Legion defected and joined the SDFs Manbij Military Council. Also during this period, the former leader, along with remnants of the main FSA faction Owais al-Qarani Brigade from Al-Thawrah joined the SDF.
- On 20 November 2016, 200 fighters completed training joined the SDF and then where sent to participate in the Northern Raqqa offensive.
- On 27 November 2016, 260 fighters joined the Manbij Military Council and formed the Manbij Hawks Brigade.
- On 1 December 2016, the Shahba Brigade, made up of locals from al-Bab was established, and joined the SDF.
Support by the United States, France and other Western nations
On 12 October 2015, the Pentagon confirmed U.S. C-17 transport aircraft having dropped 100 pallets with 45 tons of arms and ammunition over SDF-controlled territory in Rojava. Polat Can, spokesman of the SDF component militia People's Protection Units (YPG), identified the freight as being "assault rifles, mortars and ammunition, but no TOW anti-tank missiles nor anti-aircraft weapons". The airdrop came only days after the Pentagon had officially abandoned its failed $500 million train-and-equip program of "moderate rebels" fighting ISIL.
On 17 March 2016, the day after the declaration of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter praised the SDF component militia People's Protection Units (YPG) as having "proven to be excellent partners of ours on the ground in fighting ISIL. We are grateful for that, and we intend to continue to do that, recognizing the complexities of their regional role."
During the SDF's May 2016 offensive against ISIL in Northern Raqqa, U.S. Special Forces were widely reported and photographed to be present, and to wear badges of YPG and YPJ on their uniforms.
On 21 May 2016, General Joseph Votel, commanding general of U.S. Central Command, completed a secret several-hour-long trip to northern Syria to visit several locations where there were U.S. special operations forces and meet with local forces the U.S. was helping train to fight ISIL. The visit came as the first of 250 additional U.S. special operations forces were beginning to arrive in Syria to work with local forces. The commander overseeing the war in Syria, at the end of a long Saturday spent touring SDF bases, said "We do, absolutely, have to go with what we've got".
During the SDF's summer 2016 Manbij offensive against ISIL, the U.S. Air Force as well as special operation forces of several Western nations supported the SDF advanve. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that next to US special forces, also German and French forces were taking part, with Germany officially denying and France confirming.
After two Syrian air force SU-24´s started air strikes in Al-Hasakah, on 19 August 2016, near where coalition forces were conducting operations on the ground, coalition aircraft arrived and the Department of Defence spokesperson has said that "It troubles us when we see regime air strikes in Hasakah in an area where it's well known by everybody, to include the Assad regime, that the coalition is actively engaged in operations against Isis", implicitly recognizing that elite troops are training and supporting the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the area.
During the late summer 2016 Turkish military intervention in the Syrian Civil War in Shahba region, U.S. Special Operations Forces embedded with SDF forces, to successfully deter Turkey and Turkish-backed jihadi rebels from attacking SDF forces south of the Sajur river. Further, the United States Department of Defense confirmed that U.S. Special Operation Forces were flying U.S. flags in the town of Tell Abyad in Kobanî Canton to deter Turkish harassment shelling or attacks against SDF forces there.
Late September 2016, the U.S. spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR) confirmed that the SDF, including the YPG, is also part of the "vetted forces" in the train and equip program and will be supplied with weapons. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, condemned this and claimed that the SDF are "endangering our future".
Early October 2016, media reports highlighted construction work on another military airfield in SDF controlled territory for operations of U.S. air assets, in the vicinity of Al-Shaddadah in Jazira Canton, in addition to the two airfields the U.S. is widely reported to already co-operate there, Abu Hajar Airport in Rmelan in Jazira Canton and one airfield at the village of Septe south of Kobanî in Kobanî Canton.
Late October 2016, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, said that the SDF would lead the impending assault on Al-Raqqah, ISIL's stronghold and capital, and that SDF commanders would plan the operation with advice from American and coalition troops.
From November, more than 300 U.S. Special Operations Forces were embedded to train and advise SDF fighters in the Raqqa offensive.
Alleged internal conflicts between SDF factions
In November 2015, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa merged with the Tribal Army to form Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa to became part of the SDF. After some tensions between the group and the People's Protection Units (YPG), on 6 January 2016 the group allegedly issued a statement claiming it was disbanding. Later the same month, some sources claimed that the Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa reappeared, announcing it had decided to rejoin the SDF.
Turkey has at various times tried and failed to incite tensions along ethnic lines within the SDF. At the height of one such attempts after the start of the summer 2016 Manbij offensive, Sheikh Farouk al-Mashi, an ethnic Arab former member of the Syrian parliament and designated co-chairman of the Manbij City Council, stated: "I have a Syrian ID, and Kurds have a Syrian ID. Let those people who talk against us in Turkey and Europe come here and fight ISIS. Why this distortion in media about problems between Kurds and Arabs?" Ethnic Kurdish fellow co-chairman Salih Haji Mohammed stated: "In our social contract, we say we want to have good relations with neighboring countries like Turkey. Any country that does not interfere in Manbij and our areas, we will have good relations with." A fighter gave his perspective as "we have Arabs, Kurds, nobody knows how many exactly, we all work under the SDF-forces".
In September 2016 during the Turkish military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, the leader of small SDF component group Liwa al-Tahrir, Abdul Karim Obeid, defected to the camp of Turkish-backed rebels with 20 to 100 of his men, citing opposition to alleged YPG domination of the SDF, while SDF sources suggested he was displeased with the civil administration of the Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava replacing warlordist political rule in the Free Syrian Army style. The remaining fighters stayed with the SDF.
Also In September 2016 during the Turkish military intervention, some Arab sources reported that Liwa Ahrar al-Raqqa clashed with the YPG, however two days later the Liwa Ahrar al-Raqqa's commander said that news about the clashes and defections were false, he denied that such clashes had ever happened.
In mid-November 2016, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa's political bureau, which has strong connections with Turkey, condemned the SDF's Raqqa offensive led by the YPG. This caused tensions between the group's political bureau, who opposes the YPG, and the overall leader and military commander of Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa, Abu Issa, who is allied with the YPG. Some members of Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa left the group and joined the SDF's Liwa Ahrar al-Raqqa in response to the tensions.
- Syrian Civil War
- List of armed groups in the Syrian Civil War
- Syrian Democratic Council
- Movement for a Democratic Society
- Democratic Union Party (Syria)
- Federalization of Syria
- Rojava conflict
- Foreign relations of Rojava
- Rojava–Syrian government relations
- YPG–FSA relations
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- Syria_Rebel_Obs (10 November 2016). "IMPORTANT - Liwa Thuwar #Raqqa political bureau was many times in conflict with its military leader, Abu Issa, that's the problem" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
- Syria_Rebel_Obs (10 November 2016). "Stop saying "Liwa Thuwar #Raqqa left #SDF" : brigade is few, and MORE IMPORTANT, besieged de facto by #SDF bases around its HQ" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
- Syria_Rebel_Obs (11 November 2016). "LOCAL SOURCE - Fighters from Liwa Thuwar #Raqqa left #HQ during night and joined #SDF Liwa Ahrar #Raqqa (former Liwa al-Jihad)" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
- Official website (Arabic)
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- Fehim Taştekin: "US backing ensures Arab-Kurd alliance in Syria will survive", Al-Monitor, 8 September 2016
- "The Syrian Democratic Forces" Formed By Various Factions, 21 October 2015 on YouTube