Centers of the future Syrian National Army (composition and challenges within the regional equation)
In a vast geographic area of north and northeast Syria wave the banners of the SDF, those forces composed of various sectarian and ethnic military groups. All of these different structures pose a unique state within the Syrian conflict, because they are composed of different religious, national, and sectarian military groups of Kurdish Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Chechens included within the SDF umbrella, all of which united with the objective of combating the ISIS terrorist organization in Syria.
The harmony and capability of the SDF in the fight against ISIS on the ground have imposed the SDF as a firm number in the military and political equation in Syria, and despite the complexities of this equation with regard to political interests, the international coalition forces, which are led by the United States, have provided continuous air support to the SDF against this terrorist organization. And the coalition’s support has not been limited to air strikes, but also included sending military reinforcements into Syrian territory in order to support these troops throughout their deployed areas, a step which angered – politically and militarily – the other armed Syrian opposition groups and certain regional countries.
Composition of the SDF
The SDF are composed of a group of military combat brigades and factions that include all segments of Syrian society where the SDF are deployed. These factions include:
First: People’s Protection Units (YPG): These are large military units composed mostly of Kurdish fighters along with many other Syrian components (i.e. – Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Chechens).
Second: Women’s Protection Units: Female Kurdish fighters as well as female Arabs.
Third: al-Sanadid (Courageous) Forces: Arab military forces most of which belong to the Shammar tribe, which is led by Sheikh Hamidi Dahham al-Hadi al-Jurba, ruler (var: governor) of the al-Jazirah sector in the democratic administratively-autonomous regions of Syria.
Fourth: Jaysh al-Thuwwar (Army of Revolutionaries): The fighters in this military faction belong to the areas of Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hamah, A’zaz, and al-Bab. Most of these forces are Arabs.
Fifth: Al-Jazirah Brigades Assembly: Composed of a group of military factions that belong to the Arab tribes, such as the Shammar, al-Sharabiyah, al-Jabur, and al-Bakkarah (var: al-Baggarah) tribes, along with a percentage of Chechen Syrian fighters descendant from the Syrian city of Ra’s al-‘Ayn.
Sixth: Al-Furat Brigades Assembly: Arab fighters that belong to the tribes of the Tal Abyad area and Raqqah countryside. These tribes include the al-Badu, al-‘Assaf, al-‘Afadilah, and al-Waldah tribes.
Seventh: Shams al-Shamal (Northern Sun) Battalions: These battalions operated with the Free Army before separating from them. They are composed mostly of Arab fighters and they currently represent the primary element of the Manbij Military Council.
Eighth: Thuwwar Manbij (Manbij Revolutionaries): Composed of Arab fighters formerly with the Free Army. They currently operate under the leadership of the Manbij Military Council.
Jund al-Haramayn: Arab fighters from the city of Manbij.
Tahrir al-Furat (Euphrates Liberation) Brigade: Most of the fighters are Arabs from Manbij City and the surrounding countryside.
Shuhada’ al-Furat (Euphrates Martyrs) Battalion of Jarablus: Most of the fighters are Arabs from the city of Jarablus.
Ahrar (Freedom Fighters of) Jarablus: These groups are comprised of Kurds and Arabs from the city of Jarablus.
Ahrar al-Bab: Arab fighters from al-Bab City.
Ahrar ‘Arimah: Arab fighters who announced that they joined the al-Bab Military Council.
Shuhada’ Qabasin (Qabasin Martyrs) Battalions: Most of their fighters are from the northern countryside of Aleppo. They joined the al-Bab Military Council.
Jabhat Thuwwar al-Raqqah (Raqqah Revolutionaries Front): Arab fighters who belong to the city of al-Raqqah.
Dayr al-Zur Military Council: Most of their fighters are Arab tribesmen from Dayr al-Zur.
Al-Bab Military Council: A mixture of Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen fighters from the city and countryside of al-Bab.
Jarablus Military Council: Mixture of Arab and Kurdish fighters from the city and countryside of Jarablus.
SDF Counter-Terrorism Military Activity
Since their establishment on 10 October 2015 the SDF have participated in numerous military campaigns against the ISIS terrorist organization, according to the following timeframe:
Liberation of al-Hul and the southern countryside of al-Hasakah Province.
Liberation of the strategic Tishrin Dam.
“Wrath of al-Khabur” campaign during which the city of al-Shadadi was liberated.
“Avenging the children, Alan and Judi” campaign.
Liberation of the strategic city of Manbij.
“Euphrates Wrath” campaign to liberate the countryside of al-Raqqah (ongoing).
As of the date of this study the total area controlled by the SDF, which includes the Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo, is estimated to be 34.800 square kilometers, which equals 18.79 percent of the total territory of Syria.
As of the date of this study, the total area liberated from ISIS by the SDF since their inception is estimated to be 15.400 square kilometers. These areas include large cities such as Manbij, Tal Abyad, al-Hul, dozens of sub-districts and towns, and hundreds of villages and farms.
Regarding the length of the battlefront, as of the date of this study the SDF are engaged against ISIS along 450 kilometers of front lines.
The SDF control vast areas of north and northeast Syria, and day by day they are turning into the largest military group in Syria – with regard to personnel and the capabilities that distinguish their fighters. Most of the SDF’s military factions received military training provided by the People’s Protection Units, which are known for their military tactics and capabilities, and the bravery of their fighters. These units have proven their ability to achieve victory, be that against a regular army such as the Syrian Army, or in guerilla warfare against the Nusrah Front and ISIS.
By tracking the deployment of the SDF throughout vast geographic areas of Syria, one will observe an increase in the number of personnel in their ranks, particularly with an influx of Arab tribesmen in the countryside of al-Raqqah, Manbij, Dayr al-Zur, and Jarablus.
This increase in the number of fighters is due to multiple factors from which the SDF have benefited, the most important of which are as follows:
One of those significant factors is the structure of the SDF and their reliance on the military councils in each region or city. These military councils are formed by their own people and they fight under a special flag representing the city or region. This is a strong motivation for the residents of these areas and cities to join the SDF. The Manbij Military Council, which was formed on 2 April 2016, is an example of these military councils.
There are also public relations offices that report directly to the SDF’s command council in the cities and towns liberated by the SDF. The public relations personnel mingle with local residents and listen to their opinions and complaints. They also hold SDF personnel accountable for any violations committed against the local residents. The public relations offices are usually staffed by tribal Sheikhs or prominent figures in the areas.
I add to that the operational and field comparison as revealed by the local residents in areas where SDF are deployed. Most of the cities liberated by the SDF, such as al-Hul, Manbij, and al-Shadadi, were occupied by other armed groups, beginning with the Free Army and the Nusrah Front, and ending with ISIS. These groups gave the local residents a taste of all types of oppression and bondage, which is quite the opposite under SDF control.
Part of the SDF’s strategy includes turning the cities over to local civilian councils after each city is liberated from ISIS. The local councils, in turn, form autonomous administrations comprised of residents of their own cities. The SDF turned the city of Manbij over to the Manbij civilian council currently running the city. The Manbij civilian council announced a democratic civilian administration for Manbij and the surrounding countryside on 20 February 2017. In addition to that, the support provided by the US-led international coalition to the SDF provides an additional incentive for local residents to join the SDF.
The SDF rely on ideological training for their fighters before they participate in military action. Academies exist throughout the areas of al-Hasakah, Manbij, and the al-Raqqah countryside, and the ideological lessons focus on denouncing extremism and espousing the concept of “brotherhood of the peoples,” which is based on justice, tolerance, and equality.
The leadership role of women in the SDF
The Women’s Protection Units are a primary component of the SDF. Most of the women are Kurdish, but there is also a mixture of Arab, Syriac, and Assyrian women. The foundations upon which these female units were established are based on denouncing the mentality of extremism and emphasizing the right of women to live freely and honorably, and to defend themselves against the masculine mentality hostile to women’s freedom. The Kurdish women have proven very capable in their awareness and strength in confronting the terrorist organizations, and they provided an example to be followed throughout the world. With the establishment and expansion of the SDF in majority-Arab areas such as al-Shadadi and the countryside of al-Raqqah, it was natural that the women’s pioneering experiment would also expand within the Arab regions. This was evidenced by the increase in the number of Arab women within the ranks of the SDF. Female fighter and official spokeswoman for the “Euphrates Wrath” campaign to liberate al-Raqqah, Jihan Shaykh Ahmad, provided the following statement for our study:
“The composition of the SDF’s Women’s Protection Units is not limited to Kurdish women alone, but also includes other female components, particularly Arab women. They join our units with extreme enthusiasm and at numbers that continue to grow as the SDF advance toward al-Raqqah. Our SDF military campaigns are accompanied by large awareness campaigns among the local residents, especially among the Arab women who have been suppressed by obsolete customs and traditions that oppose women’s freedom, as well as the suffering endured by Arab women at the hands of extremist organizations. We have special women’s awareness academies that explain women’s rights, equality between man and woman, and the right of women to organize and defend themselves. One of the main reasons Arab women join the SDF is the oppression, assault, and rape suffered by Yazidi women, which encouraged a great amount of free will in the Arab woman. The Arab tribes are very supportive of these ideas.”
The ethnic composition of the SDF is related in all aspects to the liberation operations carried out by these forces. This important point completely refutes the lies propagated by factions or regional countries hostile to the SDF, which claim that the SDF are majority-Kurdish forces aspiring to occupy Arab regions or change their demographics. In this context Brigadier General Husam al-‘Awak, Chief of Public Relations in the SDF’s Command Council, provided the following statement for our study: “The SDF were founded on 10 October 2015. Their primary structure relied on a coalition of all components found within the Syrian al-Jazirah region – Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Turkmen, and Assyrians. The Kurdish component comprised the largest percentage of the SDF due to the fact that the areas liberated from the ISIS terrorist organization are majority-Kurdish areas, particularly the areas of Kobani. However, with the advance of the SDF, and with support from the US-led international coalition, the forces were able to liberate a large number of Arab areas, which led to a large number of Arabs joining the ranks of the SDF. The political cover (the Syria Democratic Council) for these forces was formed and they presented their political, social, and humanitarian ideas within the vision of a future in which all of the components participate in an inclusive social contract of the theory of a democratic nation, brotherhood of the people, and coexistence to achieve freedom and democracy for the people of the region, without ethnic, sectarian, or tribal discrimination. After the council was formed and the people learned about the vision for the future, prominent figures and Arab tribal Sheikhs of the areas went to the headquarters of the Syria Democratic Council and they asked to have their sons and daughters join the council just as they were doing with the SDF by participating in the fight to eliminate ISIS. Training camps were opened and anyone with military experience worked as a trainer, and anyone with no military experience was trained by Kurdish and Arab trainers. Arab tribes based in ISIS-controlled areas were contacted, and during this communication secret cells were formed to provide the SDF with information and to work covertly with them. We in the SDF Command Council believe that the size of the Arab component, specifically the sons of the Arab tribes, will reach 50 percent of the SDF within the next two months. And from here everyone must know that our forces have become a primary pillar and center of the Syrian National Army, and that high-profile support to these forces will provide the time and blood to eliminate terrorism and build an excellent relationship with all nations, based on achieving shared interests for the peoples of the region.”
In a statement made on 8 December 2016, Colonel John Dorian, the official spokesman for the US-led international coalition, confirmed that approximately 13,000 of the 45,000 SDF fighters make up the Arab component.
Based on the above information, it may be said that the cohesive organizational structure of the SDF, the competence of their fighters on the ground, the democratic concepts espoused within the organization, and their denouncement of hate and revenge when they turned liberated areas over to the civilian councils, have made the SDF a leading force when measured against all of the other armed groups fighting in Syria, most of which are dominated by Islamic or chauvinistic extremism. All of this has made the SDF a target for many of the foreign and domestic parties opposed to, or supportive of the Syrian regime, particularly the political and military groups and countries linked to Turkey and Iran, which fear any democratic model based on historical community diversity and the right of the people to decide their own fate; a model with complex internal community issues that refuses to resolve them through suppression of its people. The Kurdish cause is one of the biggest suppressed causes historically subjected to all types of ethnic and political cleansing in Iran and Turkey, especially since the Kurdish fighters are among the most established and effective groups within the SDF.
Turkey and the SDF
Turkey does not hide its hostility toward the SDF. On the contrary, it openly declares its hostility as it engages in the Syrian crisis. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict Turkey has stymied the Kurdish military and political developments in Syria (Rojava, Kurdistan), because if the Kurds in Syria get their national rights, then the more than 25,000,000 Kurds in Turkey will be stirred up. From early on in the Syrian revolution Turkey has taken preemptive steps by supporting Syrian Arab armed groups for the purpose of engaging in battles against the Kurdish forces. This is clearly evidenced by Turkey’s support for the Ahrar al-Sham and Nusrah Front groups in the battles of Ra’s al-‘Ayn on the Syria-Turkey border. That support was obvious when photos of those groups crossing the Syria-Turkey border were posted on social media. It was no secret to anyone. After failing to control the city of Ra’s al-‘Ayn (Sarikani), Turkish intelligence resorted to gathering young men from Dayr al-Zur, al-Raqqah, and al-Hasakah, into refugee camps in Turkey, and they worked on winning over the tribes and prominent Arab figures from the aforementioned areas, with the goal of forming parallel military forces hostile to the Kurds in Rojava. These parallel forces would be a future alternative to international coalition forces in possible upcoming battles against ISIS in cities such as al-Raqqah and Dayr al-Zur. This coincided with the decreased influence of ISIS and increased influence of the People’s Protection Units.
The announcement made by the SDF regarding its efforts in the countryside of al-Hasakah and al-Raqqah, to form armed brigades comprised of tribesmen from al-Hasakah and the countryside of al-Raqqah, delivered a decisive blow to Turkey’s plan to utilize the tribesmen in those areas, especially after the United States of America, Turkey’s NATO ally and leader of the international coalition, supported the project.
It goes without saying that the progress made on the SDF’s project, and support for this project from the international coalition, will reduce Turkey’s chances of realizing their aspirations in SDF-controlled areas, and will gradually weaken Turkey’s hopes for gaining field control – through the use of subordinate groups – over areas in the countryside of al-Hasakah, Dayr al-Zur, and al-Raqqah. All of that pushed Turkey to make a decision to intervene directly in Jarablus to stop the advance of the Kurds toward ‘Afrin, especially after these forces liberated the city of Manbij. This is in addition to Turkey’s ongoing undeclared war against those forces, as Turkey continues to fight the SDF and seeks to eliminate the SDF through a number of methods:
Turkey does not recognize the SDF, nor do they recognize the name “Syria Democratic Forces,” in their official correspondence or their media. They link the SDF to the People’s Protection Units which, in turn (according to Turkey), are a product of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party which, according to NATO and the EU, is designated as a terrorist organization. This subject may be the primary subject of Turkish diplomacy, linking the SDF to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and demanding that the international coalition, particularly the United States of America, cut off the support and thwart the SDF project.
Turkey intentionally misconstrues the SDF project, labeling the SDF as separatist forces aiming to displace Arabs and change the demographics in areas where they are deployed. Turkey also relies on the Syrian opposition, which is loyal to Turkey, to portray the SDF as forces loyal to the Assad regime within the Syrian society, which would cut the SDF out of any negotiations in which the armed factions participate to determine the future of Syria, or any ceasefire negotiations.
Turkey may resort to a policy of breaking up the brigades and armed factions under the umbrella of the SDF, by planting agents and exploiting financial motivations to persuade SDF members to defect.
Turkey also resorted to assassination operations targeting prominent SDF leadership. The SDF accused Turkish agents of assassinating the commander of the Jarablus Military Council, ‘Abd-al-Sattar al-Jadir, on 22 August 2016.
In addition, there is the possibility of an assault on Manbij City by factions supported by Turkey (Euphrates Shield factions), to create sufficient space for any future safe areas.
Position of Iran and the Syrian Regime regarding the SDF
It is not hidden from anyone following the Syrian matter the extent of Iranian power and influence over the decisions made on the strategy in Syria, specifically with relation to the Kurds in Syria. Iran’s situation is the same as in Turkey. The Iranians are afraid of the Kurdish expectations and their impact on the internal situation in Iran. Kurdish nationals represent one of the largest groups in Iran. Their expectations and hopes will increase and it will impact Iran (eastern Kurdistan).
With the Kurds’ role in Syria growing and their community efforts to form political and military organizations by announcing autonomous administration in the areas of Rojava, Iran realized the danger of the situation and immediately made a decision to limit the Kurdish growth in Syria by starting to create tribal Arab militias, especially in al-Hasakah Province (al-Jazirah).
However, Shia Iran will have difficulties organizing the Arabs tribes, which are Sunni. These tribes have connections to tribes in Iraq that have complained of poor treatment at the hands of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
For Iran to establish these militias in Syria, specifically in areas under the influence of Kurdish forces, and to overcome the sectarian obstacles, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard began plucking the strings of Arab nationalism by forming these militias as an option to overcome the classic obstacles that they have (i.e, religious / Shia). In fact, in 2013 Iran began to form these militias by relying on the Syrian Security Service and Lebanese Hizballah officers. Iran took advantage of the presence of the Syrian regime in certain security quadrants of al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli, to be used as a foundation to form these militias.
Iran provided these groups and the military factions with resources, Hizballah members trained them, and Syrian Intelligence (National Defense and the commando militia) monitored them. The groups then faced strong opposition from Kurdish forces until the situation escalated to confrontation and street fighting in al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli. The “Kurdish units” crushed them until there was nothing was left but a semblance of a presence in the security quadrants.
After the liberation of Tal Hamis and Tal Barak by the People’s Protection Units, the issues began to flow in a direction contrary to that which Tehran and their tools wanted. The young Arab men from the tribes in those areas began to join the People’s Protection Units and the recruitment increased with the announcement of the establishment of the SDF. That pushed Iran to coordinate with the Syrian regime, with support from Hizballah officers, to engage in new efforts by gathering tribal leaders and Arab tribal figures, and using the phrase “liberation of the Arab Rif” (Arab countryside) to refer to areas of the al-Hasakah countryside. These calls did not receive widespread Arab tribal support, for a number of reasons, primarily due to the fact that the Kurdish units worked well with locals, and because most Arab Sheikhs in the area were opposed to this project. This pushed the Syrian regime services to impose the draft on young men and employees of government institutions. Even this initiative was rejected by democratically autonomous security services, specifically the internal security service (Asayish), leading to some skirmishes with the Syrian regime in al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli.
Despite the complete failure of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in establishing these militias in the countryside of al-Hasakah, they are still doing everything they can to establish a Sunni tribal military force in agreement with the Syrian Regime, which is expected to seek to enforce its authority on the Kurdish areas once the internal fronts in Syria have calmed down. For the past two years, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard worked on forming militias comprised of young men from Dayr al-Zur Province with direct assistance from the Syrian regime. The purpose of these militias is to liberate Dayr al-Zur and Tadmur (Palmyra) with cooperation from the Iraqi PMF, which announced on more than one occasion its willingness to enter Syrian territory. On 16 November 2016 the Secretary General of the Iraqi Badr Organization, Mr. Hadi al-‘Amiri, said on that the Iraqi PMF had received a request from the Syrian president to enter Syrian territory after liberating Mosul from ISIS.
On the other hand, the formation of the SDF, and its advance deep into Arab tribal areas in the countryside of al-Hasakah, al-Raqqah, and Dayr al-Zur, along with wide-scale acceptance of these forces from the tribal members, posed a direct threat to the Iranian project. The area into which the SDF is advancing, and militarily and organizationally controlling, is land where, presumably, the Iraqi PMF and the militias formed by Iran in the countryside of al-Raqqah and Dayr al-Zur will meet. We refer here to areas on the Iraq-Syria border. This will mean that the Iranian scheme as we outlined above will fail.
The SDF recently announced the formation of the Dayr al-Zur Military Council, which falls under the umbrella of the SDF. On 17 February 2017, this new military council liberated the first villages in Dayr al-Zur Province beginning at the administrative borders of al-Hasakah Province. This military council gained thousands of young tribesmen from Dayr al-Zur in record time due to the good reputation of the SDF among the local residents. This is due to the fact that the local military councils in each province are led by their own people and they fight under their own flag, with support from the US-led international coalition. These are all incentives for the local (Sunni) community in Dayr al-Zur Province to join the ranks of the SDF and reject the Iran-backed Shia militias. In this manner, the SDF will be located on the ground at the land bridge which Iran wants to build between Iraq and Syria through Dayr al-Zur, Tadmur (Palmyra), and the Homs regions bordering Lebanon, where Lebanese Hizballah is located.
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