Ahead of battle against Islamic State in Syria’s northeast, one faction hesitates to join SDF

The new anti-Islamic State (IS) alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the “beginning of military operations” on Sunday “that will continue until all the areas of Al-Hasakah occupied by the IS terrorists are liberated.”

The SDF, formed approximately three weeks ago, consists of a mixture of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), including female units, Arab and Assyrian forces, and describes its multi-ethnic alliance as “a national force for a future Syria.” Their operations are already backed by coalition airstrikes, and it is the SDF that is expected to receive American military aid ahead of the battle against the Islamic State for A-Raqqa.

The SDF announcement comes two days after Jabhat Thuwar A-Raqqa, a major rebel faction consisting of the Liwa Thuwwar Raqqa and the Tribes’ Army (Jaish al-Ashair), declared the adjacent A-Raqqa province a military area: “We declare A-Raqqa province a military zone, and everyone must stay away from the centers and locations in which there are members of IS to protect your lives and safety.”

As they share a common enemy and prepare for the same battle, Jabhat Thuwar A-Raqqa appears to be a natural ally for the SDF. But Muhammad al-Hadi, a Jabhat spokesman, tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou that they have “not yet decided” whether to be part of the newly formed SDF.

“Cooperation with the SDF does not serve these goals and principles.”

Q: Jabhat Thuwar A-Raqqa recently announced the imminent approach of the battle to drive IS from A-Raqqa in a video by its leader, Abo Essa. Given that Liwa Thuwwar Raqqa is part of the Euphrates Volcano operations room, why was the announcement made independently?

Abo Essa did not announce the beginning of the battle for liberation, but rather declared all of A-Raqqa province a military area and said that the battle will begin soon.

The announcement came from Jabhat Thuwar A-Raqqa because it is the main pillar of the liberating forces, and will lead the others within the Euphrates Volcano operations room.

Q: Two days after Abo Essa’s announcement, the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the beginning of operations to take control of southern Al-Hasakah. Is there coordination between Jabhat Thuwar A-Raqqa and the SDF? Are you part of the SDF?

Jabhat Thuwar A-Raqqa has not yet decided whether it will be a part of this army.

Any military alliance made must serve the national interest, and work to realize the goals and principles of the Syrian revolution and to build Syria on a foundation of equality, justice, freedom and citizenship.

Cooperation with the SDF does not serve these goals and principles.

Q: You said that your joining the SDF would not serve the interests of the revolution. Is the presence of Jaysh al-Sanadid, which previously fought with the regime, and is now in the SDF related to your not having joined?

We [Jabhat Thuwar A-Raqqa] are not free in our choices, as we are charged with implementing the goals of the revolution by the Syrian people and building a Syria in which there is no Assad, no security forces and none of those whose hands are stained with the blood of the Syrian people.

[Ed.: Jaysh al-Sanadid is a reportedly regime-aligned, anti-IS tribal militia. It is one of the groups making up the SDF.] 

Q: There has been a lot of talk about expected military aid from the USA. Does the announcement of the battle indicate that aid has arrived and the arrangements for the battle are complete?

We are fully prepared for the coming battle. As for weapons and support, if the [US-led] coalition wishes to serve the goals and interests of the revolution, then Jabhat Thuwar A-Raqqa will certainly cooperate and coordinate with it.

Q: Will the YPG take part in your battle against IS in A-Raqqa, or provide support without actually participating?

The YPG in the Euphrates Volcano operations room will take part in the battles to liberate A-Raqqa. 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Mateo Nelson

Mateo Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Mateo holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.