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Origins of the Syrian Democratic Forces: A Primer

Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis page, provides an in-depth look at the Syrian Democratic Forces, their overall political agenda, the group’s masked connections to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and what he believes to be their impending inclusion in the Geneva III talks.

Written by Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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The Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, is a coalition of Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Syriac Christian fighters, but is completely dominated by its Kurdish element, which is a powerful and well organized militia known as the Popular Defense Units, YPG, with an all-female branch called the Women’s Defense Units, or YPJ. These organizations, in turn, are Syrian front groups for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. The other militias involved in the Syrian Democratic Forces are either long-standing PKK allies or proxies, such as the armed wing of the Syriac Union Party, or more recent allies drawn from the Sunni Arab tribal landscape in this part of Syria and from the remains of small Sunni Arab rebel groups crushed by the so-called Islamic State.

The coalition as a whole receives American air support for operations against Islamic State, as did the YPG/J before it. That started in the Battle of Kobane that began in autumn 2014, which was enormously successful—really the first major battlefield defeat inflicted on Islamic State. It has provided the template for US-PKK cooperation. In addition, the Pentagon has picked out a number of these little Arab groups that work under the SDF umbrella as favored recipients of arms and support. It terms them, collectively, the Syrian Arab Coalition, though no one else seems to use that name.

The idea is to use the SDF as an incubator to breed Sunni Arab militias able to take over where Kurdish territory ends and push deep into Islamic State’s heartland, which is in the Sunni Arab tribal region that connects Syria with Iraq. Relying on the Kurds in that region would create resentment among other Syrian and regional allies, and it would risk pushing locals into the arms of the jihadis. Also, it’s not obvious that the Kurds are interested in dying for U.S. interests that far away from their own home areas. They have many other priorities, chief among them to try to secure their population, to keep Turkey out of Syria and to link the Kurdish enclaves in Kobane and Efrin, which are separated by territory held by Islamic State and rival Turkey-backed Sunni Arab rebels north of Aleppo. In those battles in northwestern Syria, the SDF fighters seem to have received some level of Russian support, but they do not enjoy any U.S. backing – though they like to pretend they do, in order to sell their war on Turkey’s allies as part of the “War on Terror.” Of course, this has embarrassed the Pentagon in front of other American allies, but what can be done? All sides in Syria, including the United States, must balance between allies that do not fully share their own interests.

What matters more in Washington is that the SDF is doing a splendid job against Islamic State in Kurdish territory and on the fringes of it, where no one else is up for the job. In this way, the SDF has established itself as an irreplaceable local ground troop component of the international coalition led by the U.S. Air Force. Seeing no other option, and very happy with results so far, U.S. policymakers have simply decided to ignore Turkish and Sunni Arab rebel complaints – it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

So that’s the primary purpose of the SDF, but there’s also a more subtle political side to it. For the Americans working on these issues, it’s a convenient way of adding another degree of separation between them and the PKK, which is officially sanctioned as a terrorist group in the United States. Since the PKK is not threatening attacks on the United States and has emerged as its most important ally in the struggle against Islamic State in Syria, you would think that the logical response would be to declassify the group or find some more permanent way of circumventing legal obstacles. But the terror listing was originally done to appease Turkey, which is a far more important U.S. ally. The U.S. is not eager to press this issue, particularly not now that the Turks and the PKK are back at war inside Turkey. Also, American political debate tends to collapse into incoherent domestic posturing as soon as someone says “terrorism,” so perhaps the White House has been wise in avoiding to press the point.

The coalition is equally useful for the YPG/J and the PKK more generally, not only because they get arms and other kinds of support. It also helps rehabilitate them politically and provides a great platform to engage in public diplomacy. Since the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces, they’ve set up a political branch called the Democratic Syrian Assembly, DSA. This is made up of two main components.

The first consists of representatives from the various Kurdish groups ruling northern Syria, including the Rojava self-governing cantons and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) and a few others. These are all PKK proxies like the YPG/J. You also have the Syriac Union Party’s corresponding political fronts, and other local allies that are more or less closely linked to the overarching PKK-backed structure in this part of Syria.

The other main element of the SDF is a loose network of Syrian leftists and other secular activists, most of them connected in one way or another to Haytham Manna, a Europe-based human rights activist from the Deraa Governorate in southern Syria. These groups—particularly Manna himself—are well versed in regional Syria diplomacy, with useful links to all sides, including the opposition, European states, U.N. diplomats, parts of the Arab League, Egypt, Russia and so on. On the other hand, they are not popular in the broader Sunni Arab and more Islamist-dominated Turkey- and Gulf-backed opposition that forms the mainstay of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad. They are also very few in number and have zero relevance on the battlefield inside Syria. Nevertheless, they are useful to the Syrian Kurds as a way of raising their political profile because they provide added political influence and help obfuscate the fact that the SDF/DSA is mostly an ethnic-Kurdish thing and a vehicle for the PKK’s Syrian operations. Manna and his allies would, for their part, find it very difficult to gain a seat at the table if they had not jumped on the SDF bandwagon.

Manna has now been elected one of two co-presidents of the DSA, operating in exile. llham Ahmed from TEV-DEM holds the other seat, although the longstanding PYD leader Saleh Muslim Mohammed is far more visible as a representative of this segment of Syrian Kurdish politics. The fact that Ahmed and Muslim are more or less interchangeable in diplomatic talks, despite belonging to two different organizations, is of course because both actually represent the “hidden” PKK structure that underpins the whole political order in northern Syria’s Kurdish areas. Though the interests of Manna’s people and the Kurdish bloc might not correspond perfectly, they are closely allied and have been so even before the creation of the SDF and the DSA. They have fundamentally shared interests in a secular and multisectarian Syria, with minimal Turkish and Gulf state influence, but with some role for Russia to balance out American or Saudi hegemony. It’s also a convenient way for both to reinforce their relations with the United States and European nations that already back the SDF militarily. If you give them guns, how can you say no to their political representatives?

At the time of writing, it is not clear if the DSA bloc will be able to join the planned first round of Geneva III peace talks, but there is no doubt the Kurds will be drawn into the process at some stage, Turkish objections be damned. The SDF/DSA construct will almost certainly be helpful in making that happen.

Top image: Kurdish fighters of the YPG flash victory signs on May 20, 2015, as they sit on their pickup on their way to battle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, near Kezwan mountain, northeast Syria. Drawing on thousands of fighters from Syria’s mix of religious and ethnic groups, a U.S.-backed alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces has emerged as the most effective fighting force against Islamic State in Syria. (Associated Press)

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