The Coalition’s Partner in Syria: The Syrian Democratic Forces

Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 9 July 2017

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) logo

The offensive to expel the Islamic State (IS) from its primary urban stronghold in Syria, Raqqa city, began on 6 November 2016 with shaping operations and commenced in earnest on 6 June 2017. Backed by the U.S.-led Coalition, the operation, known as EUPHRATES WRATH, is being carried out on the ground by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or Quwwat Suriya al-Dimoqratiyya (QSD). The SDF is formally a coalition of Kurds and Arabs—its announcement of the Raqqa operation named eighteen distinct sub-units. But the predominant force within the SDF is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the Arab SDF play a “secondary role of maintaining local security,” which is to say providing an acceptable face for the PKK’s administration in the Arab-majority areas it has captured. Examining the SDF’s composition, and the recent marginalization of Arab SDF groups, underscores the point.


In Syria, the PKK’s military forces operate under the name the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). The formation of the SDF was announced in October 2015 as an alliance of the YPG and the “Syrian Arab Coalition” (SAC). The SAC was unheard of until this moment. An American official acknowledged that the SAC was “an American invention”. The SDF itself, as a whole, was an American-suggested rebrand of the YPG to mask its PKK nature, intended to blunt the diplomatic blowback from Turkey, assuage the political concerns of the Arab populations under IS’s rule that the SDF was supposed to liberate, and circumvent the terrorism laws. It was conceded by all that the YPG was the backbone of the SDF, and U.S. airdrops of weapons—ostensibly bound for the SAC—went straight to the YPG, as the YPG’s commander, Sipan Hemo, publicly admitted.

In the two years since, the “SDF” has expanded the areas under its control to include a lot more Arab-majority zones and its forced conscription has altered the demographics of the force, though claims that the SDF involved in the Raqqa operation are three-quarters Arab—i.e. 34,000 out of 45,000—are deeply suspect. It is also somewhat irrelevant. Those Arab detachments are denied the most powerful weapons and kept away from frontlines, making them logistically and otherwise reliant on the PKK commanders, and before it ever gets to that stage the Arab recruits are only allowed into the SDF after they pass through, and submit to, instruction in the PKK’s ideology.

There is an SDF political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which purportedly contains a multitude of voices, though in reality is dominated by the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), which is itself under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the name of the PKK’s political infrastructure inside Syria. These various fronts provide layers of deniability about who is in charge. There actually are Syria-centric operatives within the TEV-DEM/PYD. But they are all subordinate to the PKK military commanders, who rule from the shadows and whom the Coalition campaign has empowered, making the political system in “Rojava” ever-more-dependent on the Turkey-centric PKK old guard.

[UPDATE: On 3 July, it was announced that the Shingal Women’s Units (YJS), the all-female wing of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), would be joining the anti-IS offensive in Raqqa. The YBS and YJS militias are constituent parts of the PKK, created from among the Yazidis in the Shingal (Sinjar) area of Iraq and controlled by a longstanding PKK commander. The deployment of Yazidi PKK operatives in Syria is not unusual: the PKK has, since it adopted the confederal model in 2003, operated “like a shell game, [where] the PKK leadership in Qandil shifts personnel between its affiliates and fronts”.]

The foreign fighters with the YPG/PKK have gathered under the banner of the “International Freedom Battalion” (EOT), and at least two of their number have officially participated in the Raqqa operation, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) and the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF), which was announced in March.


1. The Syriac Military Council (MFS) and the Bethnahrin Women’s Protection Forces (HSNB)

The MFS is one of the oldest allies of the PKK in Syria, and it would later follow the PKK’s messaging lead by creating an all-female wing, HSNB (which has pages on both Facebook and Twitter). Formed in early 2013 as an anti-regime outfit, MFS did not have much battlefield involvement in 2013, though it was reactivated at the end of the year and began diverting most of its attention to combatting the jihadi-salafists in north-eastern Syria. In January 2014, MFS was absorbed as a component of the YPG, though it retained tense relations with the Assad regime and the pro-Assad elements of the Christian community. MFS came to some attention in early 2015 as the U.S.-led Coalition began working with the YPG against IS, and later in the year was reported on for its abusive behaviour towards Christians it had been designated to administer governance to by the YPG. (This was around the same time as Amnesty International reported on the YPG’s destruction of property and ethnic expulsions.) MFS has firmly denied being a part of the PKK, and this is of course true, though they are dependent. MFS’ political wing, the Syriac Union Party, is part of TEV-DEM, and MFS has links of its own through the Church—independent of the YPG/PKK’s relationship—with the Russian government. MFS is part of the Raqqa operation, and has lost men in the battle for the jihadists’ Syrian “capital”.

2. Minbij Military Council (MMC)

The MMC was set up in April 2016 ahead of the U.S.-backed, YPG/PKK-led operation to clear Minbij of IS. When that operation concluded in August 2016, the MMC was installed to administer the city. Composed mostly of Arabs, and under SDF colours, the MMC is supposed to be an example of diluting the YPG’s influence, when it is in fact a perfect example of the YPG gaining the political credit for ethnic diversity while maintaining its political monopoly. Meaningful decisions in Minbij are taken by the “Qandilians,” the PKK-trained operatives who control the YPG, who have ceded belts of territory near Minbij to the pro-Assad coalition to protect the PKK’s rule from Turkey and allowed the regime’s secret police free rein in the city.

Groups involved in the MMC include Liwa al-Salajaqa (The Seljuk Brigade) and Kataib Shams al-Shamal (The Northern Sun Battalion). Shams al-Shamal’s deputy, Adnan Abu Amjad, a Minbij native, was made the general commander of the MMC. Both the Seljuk Brigade and Shams al-Shamal are part of Jaysh al-Thuwar, but not only are they listed separately, sometimes subunits of Shams al-Shamal—the Euphrates Martyrs’ Battalion and Liwa Tahrir al-Furat, a unit associated with the famous Jabhat al-Akrad-origin commander, Sa’adun al-Faysal (Abu Layla)—are named as separate MMC members. The intention here is to “make it seem as if more [Arab] groups are a part of the SDF,” as Hasan Mustafa put it to me.

It was members of Shams al-Shamal, as part of the MMC, who were captured on video torturing an IS jihadist in March 2017, an offence for which five of them were brought before an SDF/YPG military court.

The MMC has been officially involved in the EUPHRATES WRATH operation.

3. Deir Ezzor Military Council

The Deir Ezzor Military Council was set up in December 2016. The Council is demographically mostly Arab—it even includes elements of the original FSA Deir Ezzor Military Council, which was among those whose appeals for American help were ignored in the months leading up to IS conquering the area in July 2014—but politically is a wholly owned project of the YPG.

The Council’s leader is Abu Khawla al-Deiri. According to Deir Ezzor 24, an opposition source, Abu Khawla was never part of the rebellion; he had operated a notorious criminal militia that operated in zones cleared of the regime while FSA-style rebels were busy defending the frontlines. Abu Khawla is also said to have been an informant at times for the Assad regime. Abu Khawla’s group allegedly set up a checkpoint on the Hasaka-Deir Ezzor road to block the advancement of IS in 2014, but they were overrun and many of his men killed, including his brother, Mohamed Rahab, who was sympathetic to the regime. Abu Khawla’s group swore bay’a (an oath of allegiance) to IS after this, Deir Ezzor 24 reports, though another of Abu Khawla’s brothers was executed when he impersonated an IS fighter and looted civilian homes. After this Abu Khawla fled to Tel Abyad and Turkey, before being recruited by the YPG to front their Deir Ezzor Military Council.

In February 2017, the Council was said to be part of the effort to disconnect Raqqa from Deir Ezzor. In June 2017, IS’s Amaq “News” Agency released footage of a captured member of the Deir Ezzor Military Council in Raqqa.

The Council, though its claims of 1,700 men are almost certainly wildly exaggerated, is a potential lever if the U.S. moves down the Euphrates River Valley into Deir Ezzor after IS is swept out of Raqqa city. After the Raqqa operation, there are proposals for the U.S.-led Coalition to clear IS from the Deir Ezzor using the SDF as the lead force, which would likely mean the YPG making the Council the face of its campaign, with anti-IS groups currently based in al-Tanf, but originally from Deir Ezzor, securing the perimeters to prevent IS escaping.[1] Deeply problematic as it the SDF/PKK model is for eastern Syria, for all the same reasons as Raqqa, it is a ready-made lever. But the U.S. has sent mixed signals about its actual intentions in Deir Ezzor, a province which has the added complication of the presence of the Iranian-led pro-Assad coalition—in other words, of the Syrian civil war, from which the U.S. has tried to isolate the anti-IS campaign.

In recent weeks, the U.S. had been more prepared to defend its forces at Tanf—striking at pro-Assad forces three times to deter their moves against the Tanf base. It seemed possible the U.S. was working toward a coherent policy to destroy IS and counter Iran in Syria. Then on 24 June, CENTCOM spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon put on record an incredible statement: “If [the pro-Assad coalition] want to fight ISIS in al-Bukamal and they have the capacity to do so, then that would be welcomed. We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We are in the killing-ISIS business. That is what we want to do, and if the Syrian regime wants to do that and they’re going to put forth a concerted effort and show that they are doing just that in al-Bukamal or Deir Ezzor or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places”. It now appears that the prospect of a meaningful reset of U.S. policy toward something that would produce a stable, durable outcome in the Fertile Crescent is over.

4. Self-Defence Forces (HXP)

The HXP is not an offensive force but essentially the police of Rojava, and for that reason—to provide more reliable interface with the populace—the HXP units are drawn, by compulsory conscription of young men and women, from the local populations over which the YPG/PKK has come to rule. The conscription law, long one of the PKK’s most controversial policies, was introduced in June 2014 and extended in Kobani in June 2017, three months after the activation of laws making YPG-held areas formally a one-party regime. The main Kurdish opposition umbrella group, the Kurdish National Council (KNC or ENKS), strenuously objects to the conscription policy; the prospect of female conscription is one of the main fears Arab tribes in Raqqa voice about the prospect of YPG rule; and Arab youth in particular have fled from YPG-held areas to avoid serving in the Rojava security forces.

5. Jaysh al-Thuwar (The Army of Revolutionaries)

Formed on 3 May 2015, the best anatomization of Jaysh al-Thuwar has been done by Hasan Mustafa. Though an early prototype of the attempt to add Arab detachments to the YPG to form a multi-ethnic force, Jaysh al-Thuwar also proved an early prototype of the model whereby the YPG converts such forces into dependencies and force-multipliers for its own political project. Jaysh al-Thuwar “is pretty much just a YPG front group,” Mustafa told me. “The most telling piece of evidence being the fact that they fielded the T-72s in Efrin that the YPG possessed”.

Jaysh al-Thuwar contained elements of Harakat Hazm and Jabhat Thuwar al-Suriya (Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front or SRF), two U.S.-supported groups that had been attacked and disbanded by al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, over the preceding six months.

The main Hazm component of Jaysh al-Thuwar, Liwa Shuhada al-Atareb (The Atareb Martyrs’ Brigade), had not joined at the founding but about two weeks later. Shuhada al-Atareb then broke away from Jaysh al-Thuwar a year later and joined Jaysh al-Mujahideen, which became Jabhat Ahl al-Sham in late 2016 when it merged with Kataib Thuwar al-Sham and Bayarek al-Islam. In January 2017, al-Nusra violently reshaped the northern insurgency in advance of its reorganization and renaming as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS); the first group it dispersed was Jabhat Ahl al-Sham, which took shelter by formally pledging allegiance to Ahrar al-Sham.

The SRF components that joined Jaysh al-Thuwar were the 99th Infantry Brigade and Liwa al-Qaqa. The 99th Infantry Brigade is led by Ahmad Muhammad Sultan and remains part of Jaysh al-Thuwar. Liwa al-Qaqa has since split away and become the Northern Democratic Brigade (see below).

Other founding units of Jaysh al-Thuwar that remain under the group’s brand are: Kataib Shams al-Shamal, which had been a constituent of Tajamu Alwiya Fajr al-Hurriya (The Dawn of Freedom Brigades), a group that essentially collapsed with Shams al-Shamal’s withdrawal; Jabhat al-Akrad (The Kurdish Front); and Liwa al-Salajiqa (The Seljuk Brigade).

There have been additions to the Jaysh al-Thuwar tent, such as the parts of Division Thirty or the New Syrian Forces (NFS) that survived the mauling by Jabhat al-Nusra in the summer of 2015. The NSF was the foredoomed U.S. effort to co-opt anti-Assad rebels as an anti-jihadi strike team, putting them in the impossible position of being seen as mercenaries without even the meaningful protection of their sponsor. Another addition is the Homs Commandos Brigade, a small Arab group pushed out of its home province by the open Hizballah intrusion into Syria in 2013. It regrouped in YPG-held areas and came under the SDF. Its leader, Abu Rami al-Homsi, was killed in Rif Aleppo late last year.

Though the individual groups have often played down the Jaysh al-Thuwar branding in the two years since its founding, the group has occasionally been revitalized for political purposes. One such occasion was to issue a statement opposed to Turkey’s intervention in Syria in August 2016 and to be made a formal part of the Jarabulus Military Council, an alternative body that claimed an intention to govern Jarabulus, the border town that was the first centre liberated from IS by Turkey’s Operation EUPHRATES SHEILD.

Units under the Jaysh al-Thuwar brand have participated in Operation EUPHRATES WRATH.

5b. Jabhat al-Akrad (The Kurdish Front)

Jabhat al-Akrad, composed mostly of Kurds, was founded with Free Syrian Army (FSA) branding and was originally a sub-component of Liwa Ahrar al-Suriya when it was announced in January 2013. But Jabhat al-Akrad always had within its leadership members who were known to be close to the PYD/PKK, and it is likely that Jabhat al-Akrad was a whole-cloth creation of the PYD as a means of establishing influence in the Sunni Arab areas that the PYD needed to conquer to link up its cantons. Abdulbaqi Yousef, a member of the anti-PYD Kurdish Unity Party (Yekiti), said “Jabhat al-Akrad is part of the PYD militia, nothing more than that”. Redur Khalil, the PKK veteran who for a long time the YPG’s official spokesman, said Jabhat al-Akrad are the “true revolutionary forces inside the Free Syrian Army. In Aleppo, they fought against the regime. We have good relations with Jabhat al-Akrad. They support us, and we support them. We are different entities, and we are different forces”.

Jabhat al-Akrad had been semi-dormant after it was ejected from Tel Abyad by Jabhat al-Nusra and then-ISIS on 30 June 2013. Jabhat al-Akrad was expelled from the FSA’s Aleppo Military Council on 15 August 2013 because of its (alleged) collaboration with the PKK and the Assad regime. Jabhat al-Akrad regained a presence in January 2014, participating in joint operations with the rebellion against ISIS. On 28 February 2014, ISIS called it quits in Azaz, and Jabhat al-Akrad, Liwa Asifat al-Shamal (The Northern Storm Brigade), and Liwa al-Tawhid moved in.

During the siege of Kobani, Jabhat al-Akrad was a founding member of the YPG-dominated Burkan al-Furat (Euphrates Volcano) operations room on 10 September 2014. Jabhat al-Akrad was then a founding member of Jaysh al-Thuwar in May 2015. Like most of the others, Jabhat al-Akrad gradually dropped the Jaysh al-Thuwar branding over 2016, though retains membership. The group manned positions in the YPG-controlled districts near Efrin in the Aleppo countryside and in Shaykh Maqsud in Aleppo city. On 9 July 2016, Jabhat al-Akrad officially abandoned the FSA branding and adopted a Kurdish name.

5c. Liwa al-Salajiqa (The Seljuk Brigade)

Formed in 2013 in the Aleppo countryside, the Seljuk Brigade was part of the Sulayman Shah Brigade, a Turkomen coalition that, like many Turkomen rebel groups in northern Syria, was backed by the Turkish government. The Seljuk Brigade broke away from Turkey and from the Sulayman Shah alliance and joined with Jaysh al-Thuwar in mid-2015. In October 2015, the group became the only noteworthy Turkomen unit in the SDF, and the Jaysh al-Thuwar branding fell away over time. The brigade was apparently deployed in the Hawl offensive in Hasaka Province in November 2015. The Seljuk Brigade was founded by, and is led by, Talal Silo, a defected colonel from Assad’s army whose Turkoman ethnic identity made him an ideal messenger for the SDF, which duly made him into a prominent spokesman.

The Seljuk Brigade was named as part of the YPG’s Al-Bab Military Council, formed days after Minbij fell in August 2016, a clear signal of intent to continue to push west of the Euphrates, in violation of promises made to the U.S.—that were relayed to Turkey—that the YPG would withdraw from Minbij once IS was out and hand over to locals to govern the city. The YPG’s attempt to use Minbij as a springboard to push toward al-Bab and Jarabulus, on their way to linking up their cantons in Efrin, was a key factor in triggering the Turkish intervention, Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD, on 24 August 2016. Turkey was determined to thwart the YPG’s maximalism, and having taken Jarabulus within hours of moving into Syria, the Turks and their allies captured al-Bab in February 2017.

The Seljuk Brigade was utilized as part of the YPG’s political warfare against Turkey’s intervention, pledging—with Jaysh al-Thuwar and Kataib Shams al-Shamal (both non-Kurdish SDF groups)—to fight Turkey and its allied rebel groups.

On 10 September 2016, a commander of the Seljuk Brigade, Hani al-Mulla, was cut down by an unknown assassin near al-Bab. This was the second assassination of an SDF-aligned Turkmen commander in a month. Abdulsettar al-Jaddir was assassinated on 22 August 2016 in northern Syria.

5d. Kataib Shams al-Shamal (The Northern Sun Battalion)

Kataib Shams al-Shamal (KSS) originated in or around the Aleppo “super-group” Liwa al-Tawhid, and was for a time part of Tajamu Alwiya Fajr al-Hurriya (The Dawn of Freedom Brigades), a splinter coalition as Liwa al-Tawhid fractured. Composed of Arabs and Turkomen, KSS was entwined with the YPG from early 2014 and became well-known for participating alongside the YPG in Kobani, still formally as part of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades. In May 2015, KSS joined Jaysh al-Thuwar (The Army of the Revolutionaries), breaking away from—and effectively collapsing—the Dawn of Freedom Brigades. Under the Jaysh al-Thuwar banner, KSS was involved in the takeover of Tel Abyad in June 2015. KSS joined the SDF when it was formed in October 2015 and was involved in the SDF’s first victory against IS in al-Hawl the following month. KSS has largely ceased to use the Jaysh al-Thuwar branding. KSS was a founding member of the Minbij Military Council and was among the leading components in clearing IS from Minbij, the city from which many of KSS’s members originate.

6. Liwa al-Shamal al-Dimoqrati (The Northern Democratic Brigade)

Originating as Liwa al-Qaqa in the Jibal al-Zawiya area of Idlib Province, the unit passed through the Liwa Ahrar al-Suriya alliance and then joined the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), the alliance of mainstream rebels, led by Jamal Marouf and his Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The SRF was destroyed by Jabhat al-Nusra in November 2014 and Liwa al-Qaqa fled to Efrin, held by the YPG/PKK. The group joined Jaysh al-Thuwar and the SDF in 2015.

In February 2016, Liwa al-Qaqa severed its ties to Jaysh al-Thuwar’s brand but remained under the SDF and shortly thereafter changed its name to the Northern Democratic Brigade (NDB). In November 2016, as the pro-Assad coalition completed its unmerciful conquest of the rebel-held areas of Aleppo city, the NDB called on rebels to surrender their positions to spare the city and to join the SDF/YPG. This was not received favourably since the YPG had helped the pro-Assad coalition impose the siege that broke the rebels’ resistance, and then openly assisted in its completion.

In mid-June 2017, the NDB put out pictures of its fighters capturing several buildings within Raqqa city.

Earlier this month, the NDB was the conveyor of the messaging by which the SDF threatened Turkey and tried to incite a nationalist reaction from the rebels against Turkey’s presence in Syria. Though unlikely to succeed given the northern insurgency’s dependence on Turkey, there is actually a political nerve being struck here: there is a lot of resentment among the opposition because Turkey sold Aleppo city to the Russians in exchange for Moscow not disrupting the EUPHRATES SHIELD area via its allies in the pro-Assad coalition or the YPG/PKK.

7. Liwa al-Tahrir (The Liberation Brigade)

A small Arab group, Liwa al-Tahrir was formed in September 2014 as part of the YPG-led Burkan al-Furat operations room that defended Kobani from IS. Led by Abdulkarim al-Ubayd (Abu Muhammad Kafr Zita), Liwa al-Tahrir was involved in the capture of Tel Abyad by the YPG from IS in June 2015, and the group joined the SDF later in the year.

In late summer of 2016, al-Ubayd had complained that the YPG was monopolizing decision-making within the SDF and had tried to get Liwa al-Tahrir to attack FSA-branded groups in Minbij. Because “we fought together with the YPG for three years,” al-Ubayd thought there was enough camaraderie that the YPG would alter its course on these things. Instead, “they want to terminate us,” he said. The YPG blockaded Liwa al-Tahrir, as they did with the Tribes Army component of Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa at the end of 2015, and as they were simultaneously doing with the group again—denying water and supplies—because the Arab SDF units had dissented from the YPG. In September 2016, al-Ubayd and most of his men defected from the SDF and joined the mainstream rebel groups associated with Turkey’s Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD.

The remnants of Liwa al-Tahrir in the SDF have participated in the Raqqa operation.

8. Liwa Suqour al-Raqqa (Raqqa Hawks Brigade)

Composed of Raqqawi Arabs, LSR splintered from Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa (see below) last year.

Possibly the event for which the group is best known is the 11 April 2017 “friendly fire” incident, when the Coalition accidentally bombed and killed eighteen LSR fighters engaged in anti-IS operations at the Tabqa Dam. There was a minor furore when it seemed for a brief period that LSR would withdraw from the SDF because the YPG had called in the airstrike, but the crisis passed, and LSR was given a lot of the credit in SDF messaging when the group completed the liberation of Tabqa on 10 May.

The group has been dogged with accusations of connections to the Assad regime, and one of its subunits actually did go over to the regime, raising Assad’s flag over its village in in Rif Raqqa in February. LSR moved against the group, Tajamu al-Shamal, and expelled it.

On 31 May, the YPG attacked LSR’s makeshift headquarters in the Tel Abyad district, at the Ghanem petrol station. The YPG was trying to make arrests it seems; LSR fought back and several people were injured. LSR was driven from its positions, into territories further south toward Raqqa city.

LSR has been involved in the EUPHRATES WRATH operation against Raqqa city.


1. Quwwat al-Sanadid (The Sanadid Forces)

The Sanadid Forces are a tribal militia led by Humaydi Dahham al-Hadi al-Jarba, the shaykh of the Shammar tribe, and commanded more directly by al-Jarba’s son, Bandar al-Humaydi. Dahham’s organization, previously known as Jaysh al-Karama (The Army of Dignity), was not part of the uprising against Assad and formed solely as a local self-defence force. While it is alleged that the Sanadid Forces are linked to the pro-Assad, Iranian-controlled National Defence Force (NDF) militias, the Shammar was the only tribe that refused to take part in the Assad-directed mobilization of Arab tribes to put down the Kurdish uprising in 2004.[2] As early as 2013 Dahham had struck an alliance with the YPG to try to keep the jihadi-salafists out of the Shammar areas on the Iraq-Syria border. Dahham and the YPG failed and were overrun and expelled in March 2013, but the Shammar militias and the YPG reconquered the Yarubiya zone in October 2013. The Sanadid Forces then helped the YPG capture Hasaka Province, which roughly maps the zone the YPG calls the “Jazira Canton,” of which Dahham is the president.

The Sanadid Forces are not, even on their own inflated account of 4,500 fighters, large enough to be a military difference-maker, yet there is potential for the Shammar to help determine the direction of significant sections of north-eastern Syria by playing a role as a mediator between Arabs and Kurds, as Dahham did in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Husayn. (Dahham lived in Erbil from 2003, and returned to Syria in 2009.) The Shammar are not as large in Syria as Iraq, where they have their main branches, but the Shammar retain prestige and they were the de facto governing authority in the Jazira region, which Dahham now nominally rules again, before the onset of “modernization” and the coming of the centralized Syrian state.

That said, as Kheder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur have written, the Shammar-YPG relationship has actually created division among the Arab tribes in eastern Syria. Dahham’s proposal for the coordination of all Arab groups in the Jazira was rejected by the YPG and these groups themselves. The tribes’ fear a reimposition of Shammar hegemony, so prefer to deal with the YPG rather than Dahham to gain security for their local areas. This “cast[s] doubt upon the PYD’s claim that the Jazira Canton administration embodies the true will of ‘the Arab tribes’,” as the authors note. The fear of the Shammar—and indeed the YPG—has led to many tribes in the area retaining their links with the Assad regime. For the YPG, a disunited tribal and political landscape among the Arabs under its rule is the feature, not the bug. “The similarity of [the YPG] strategy [of dealing with tribes individually] to that adopted by the Islamic State,” Khaddour and Mazur write, is a reflection of “a legacy of Syrian state policies that aimed to create divisions between the tribes and even among their members. It displays a concern for the threat, however remote, that a unified Arab tribal population might pose to outside actors”.

2. Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa (Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Front)

Originally known as Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (The Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade), the group was formed in September 2012 as a merger of several groups around Raqqa. LTR sometimes used Islamist-style imagery, but it was always primarily an anti-Assad nationalist group.

When Raqqa city fell to the insurgency in March 2013, it fell to a conglomeration of forces coming from outside, of which LTR was one. In the months after, LTR was part of the rebel effort to clear the regime from surrounding zones, notably Division 17, Brigade 93 and the Tabqa airbase. This period coincided with emergence of ISIS as a public entity in Syria and its schism with Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIS took charge of Raqqa city in August 2013 and expelled units like Ahfad al-Rasul. LTR tried to adapt itself—adding “al-Islami” to its name at one point—and when al-Nusra announced a return to the city in September 2013, LTR joined up as a means of protecting itself from ISIS. Al-Nusra made a serious effort, by proselytism and other means, to integrate LTR into its ranks; it didn’t take. In January 2014, the rebellion and al-Nusra went to war with ISIS, and it is quite clear that LTR and al-Nusra coordinated badly. In all practical senses, LTR’s relationship with al-Nusra ended around the time of the rebels’ anti-ISIS uprising, but it was in April 2014 that al-Nusra issued a formal notice of dissociation.

LTR, often in alliance with another FSA-branded group, Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabil Allah, that had been displaced to the Kobani area, continued sabotage operations against ISIS into the summer of 2014, but the cause was lost and soon the newly-renamed IS was besieging them in Kobani. LTR joined the YPG-dominated Burkan al-Furat (Euphrates Volcano) operations room, and as the YPG-led forces broke out of Kobani and moved toward Tel Abyad it was announced that only LTR would remain in Arab-majority areas and repentance was offered to collaborators with IS. Discarding all Islamist colouring, LTR reverted to FSA symbolism and became the PYD/YPG’s primary means of outreach to the tribes. LTR tried to organize a political track independent of the YPG for a post-IS Raqqa, but failed, and the YPG also retained tight control of the levers of real power in areas LTR nominally administered.

Even in this period where it was most weak, LTR did not fully subsume itself to the YPG: it had some independent capacity and politically it retained a program that, for example, opposed to the “division of Syria,” a rebuke to the perceived secessionist intentions of the YPG. With LTR signing onto the SDF in October 2015, and an intake of Arab recruits, LTR recovered some ground. One Arab unit—itself of recent creation—that joined the SDF was Jaysh al-Ashair (The Tribes Army), whose members originated mostly around Tel Abyad. LTR combined with the Tribes Army and rebranded as Jaysh Thuwar al-Raqqa (JTR).

JTR became somewhat assertive. On 15 December 2015, the Tribes Army issued a strong statement calling on the YPG to stay out of Arab-majority areas, to hand over Tel Abyad to local rule, and also for an investigation by the United Nations into the alleged war crimes—particularly forced displacement and destruction of property—by the YPG against Arab populations in northern Syria. The YPG reacted immediately by imposing a crippling siege against the Tribes Army until it suffocated it and the group dissolved itself on 5 January 2016. The YPG has often been accused of keeping the Arab units in its orbit weak and dependent, and reacting harshly if that condition is threatened.

JTR participated in Operation EUPHRATES WRATH at its inception in November 2016, allowing the YPG to claim diversity and local legitimacy, but JTR was soon sidelined. JTR’s leader, Abu Issa al-Raqqawi, demanded that Arab units lead the fight into Raqqa city and that in the aftermath the local residents be allowed to choose their own government, rather than having YPG-hegemonic structures imposed on them. “That’s why we took to the streets in 2011, for freedom and rights,” Abu Issa said. The YPG placed Abu Issa under “village arrest” for this and JTR was marginalized.

3. Quwwat al-Nukhbat (The Elite Forces)

Sometimes called the Syrian Elite Forces, the group was founded in April 2016 by Ahmad al-Jarba, the former president of the Syrian National Coalition, who is from the same Shammar tribe as the leader of the Sanadid Forces, though he is not a close relative. The Shammar are a transnational confederation and al-Jarba has close connections to the Saudi government. A number of fighters broke from the Elite Forces joined the SDF in June 2016 and, in September 2016, al-Jarba brought the whole outfit under SDF colours. Al-Jarba claimed 3,000 fighters, which is likely an exaggeration, but the Elite Forces have shown effectiveness on the ground, helping cut the final supply line from Deir Ezzor to Raqqa on 6 March 2017.

AL-Jarba’s intention was to make peace with the reality of the American decision to go into Raqqa with the SDF and to try to shape that decision by putting forth an Arab force that could front the operation and provide for something other than YPG excluvism in governance for the aftermath. That effort not appears to have failed. Earlier in the week it was reported that the Elite Forces had been retreating from battle against IS in Raqqa; the Elite Forces suggest they are being denied access to resources. In either event, last night the Elite Forces confirmed that the YPG had asked them to hand over their positions and leave the Raqqa operation—making independent Arab components of the SDF very thin on the ground.

*                  *                  *


[1] The Tanf units consist of three main parts, supported by the Military Operations Centre (MOC), the coordination node in Amman overseen by the U.S. and Jordan. These units, primarily directed against IS, are based inside Syria, in the deserts near the Jordanian border. First, there is Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra (The Army of the Revolutionary Commandos), once known as Jaysh Suriya al-Jadid (The New Syrian Army, NSyA), which is led by Muhannad al-Talaa, who was a leader of the original, FSA-branded Deir Ezzor Military Council. Maghawir al-Thawra was originally part of Jabhat al-Asala wa-Tanmiya (Authenticity and Development Front), which was primarily a Saudi-backed funding mechanism to the secular-leaning defected officers, tribal forces, and anti-jihadist salafis, before it acquired U.S. backing. The group is small but by all accounts well-trained. Second, there is Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya (The Army of the Lions of the East). Led by Tlass al-Salama (Abu Faysal), Usud al-Sharqiya has a similar history to Maghawir al-Thawra, a former Asala-affiliated unit from Deir Ezzor that has begun taking in recruits from the areas it now holds in Rif Dimashq. Finally, there is Quwwat al-Shaheed Ahmad al-Abdo (The Ahmad al-Abdo Martyrs’ Force), which, unlike the other two, is rooted in eastern Rif Dimashq, around Eastern Qalamun, notably the cities of Nabek and Dumayr. Similar to the other two groups, however, Ahmad al-Abdo Forces are led by a pair of defectors, Colonel Bakour al-Salim and Captain Ahmad Tamer. The group has reportedly seen a “cooling of relations [with the Coalition] … over the last few month”. Usud al-Shariya and Ahmad al-Abdo are formal parts of the FSA’s Southern Front; Maghawir al-Thawra does not appear to be, though it has links with the SF.

[2] The Shammar tribe also has external links to the Gulf. Humaydi Dahham al-Hadi is virulently hostile to Saudi Arabia, part of what he describes as a need to avenge the Wahhabi warriors of Arabia having destroyed the last Shammar emirate. The Rashid emirate was formed in Ha’il, part of the Najdi heartland of the Wahhabis, in 1836 after the Egyptian ruler, Muhammad Ali, acting in the name of the Ottoman caliphate, crushed the First Saudi State. The Shammar statelet spent almost its whole existence at war with the reconstituted Saudi-Wahhabi realm, and was victorious in bringing down the Second Saudi State in 1891. Ultimately, though, the Shammar were defeated, overrun in 1921, the most important victory other than the conquest of the Hijaz in the Saudis knitting together the Kingdom that was formally proclaimed in 1932. Humaydi wants to see the Saudi government overthrown and the country broken up. “We are already working on that,” Humaydi said in an interview in October 2015. For this reason, Qatar has backed Humaydi and his Sanadid Forces. Some other Gulf states, notably the United Arab Emirates, where Humaydi has actually lived, have connections to the SDF as part of their policy of off-setting Turkey in Syria. The Saudis extend support to other elements of the Shammar tribe, and has engaged in various petty squabbles with Humaydi. The Saudi engagement with the Syrian tribes, however, is not concentrated on the Shammar, nor the increasingly-large SDF Arab formations like the Minbij Military Council. The primary interest is on larger confederations in strategic areas, particularly the frontiers.


Post has been updated


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