Anatomy Of The Syrian Democratic Forces
Recoil|September - October 2019
Anatomy Of The Syrian Democratic Forces

We embed with the force that would defeat the islamic state

V. Kenneth

The monster that became the so-called“Islamic State” came to an end in an obscure Syrian town that might be lucky to show up on a printed map of the region. Baghuz is one of the southernmost towns in Deir Ez-Zor province, mere kilometers from the Iraqi border. It’s across the EuphratesRiver from Abu-Kamal, an AssadRegime-controlled town that formed an anvil the Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF) smashed against the last bastion of ISIS in Syria, supported by the Inherent Resolve coalition forces. This mixed force of young Kurds and Arabs, Muslims, and Christians paid a deadly toll for their victory in northeastern Syria. Few could probably have foreseen this battle in 2014when Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi took to the minbar of the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, proclaiming the “caliphate” toa worldwide audience.


Much more complicated than a unified and structured organization, the SDF is a direct by-product of the Syrian Civil War and the U.S. response to the so-called Islamic State. The core of the SDF was initially the male YPG and female YPJ units that formed the Kurdish defense forces in the area of Rojava (not to be confused with the Peshmerga, which belong to the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq). These units are still very much an active component of the SDF, and many fought in Baghuz alongside Arab and Christian Syriac units as well. These units are composed of “Military Councils” from different regions within Northeastern Syria. They form squad or platoon-sized elements that rotate to different fighting positions or assault formations together, only to be relieved and return home for leave before heading back to the front again. Occasionally, there are mixed groups, such as the odd Humvee crew or fighting position, but for the most part, groups of fighters are ethnically homogeneous.

One of the important points to understand about the SDF is that, overall, the force is more akin to that of an indigenous militia, not a conventional or professional force. A general training structure is run by each military council, and there’s a loose semblance of a chain of command. Fighters sign up for a basic term of service and can return home on leave. But there aren’t any formal specialized schools, there’s no semblance of rank insignia, and there are no standard operating procedures implemented force-wide. I’m in no way discrediting the SDF’s performance or conduct under fire (although like any force, there are both good and bad fighters and units), but simply am illustrating comparisons of the SDF to other foreign forces that readers might be familiar with, such as the Iraqi Army or Afghan National Army.


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September - October 2019