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The rise and fall of the Syrian Democratic Forces

Just as surprising as President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon US allies in northeastern Syria and pave the way for Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring,” was the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) turn towards Moscow and Damascus to reach a settlement that would halt the Turkish attack.

16 October 2019

AMMAN—Just as surprising as President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon US allies in northeastern Syria and pave the way for Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring,” was the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) turn towards Moscow and Damascus to reach a settlement that would halt the Turkish attack. 

The most likely result of the ongoing developments in northeastern Syria is the end of the Kurdish project to achieve semi-autonomous rule. Turkey accuses the SDF of being a terrorist organization, whereas both the government in Damascus and the Syrian opposition have condemned the SDF for engaging in separatism and threatening the territorial integrity of Syria.

In the meantime, it seems that the most serious consequence of the current conflict in northeast Syria is the dashed hopes of equal citizenship for Syrian Kurds, alleviating them from decades of suffering, particularly since the Ba’ath Party seized power in 1963. 

Syrian Kurds, in general, have been subject to oppression and exclusion, while hundreds of thousands of them were denied all political and social rights after being stripped of Syrian citizenship in August 1962.

Concerns for the future of Syrian Kurds, however, are not assuaged by the fact that the SDF include also Arabs, Syriacs and Assyrians. More importantly, is that the SDF does not represent all Syrian Kurds and its formation was characterized by confrontations between prominent Kurdish political groups throughout the Syrian revolution.

The possibilities of the Syrian revolution

The outbreak of popular protests against President Bashar al-Assad in March of 2011 came seven years after what was termed the “Kurdish Intifada [Uprising],” which began in March 2004 in the city of Qamishli, before quickly spreading to Kurdish cities and neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo. The protests were met by severe repression at the hands of Syrian security forces, resulting in 30 people dead, dozens wounded, and hundreds detained in less than a week. 

The spark that ignited the intifada was a riot that took place during a football match between al-Jihad from Qamishli and al-Fotowah from Deir e-Zor. Clashes ensued and Kurds were subject to brutality by the security forces. These riots did not take place in a political vacuum, however, but were in fact preceded by a series of Kurdish popular movements demanding an improvement in regional conditions and the recognition of Kurdish cultural rights. 

Syrian Kurds, who represent the second-largest nationality in the country, quickly joined the protests in 2011. While the Kurdish city of Amuda in al-Hasakah province was the fifth demonstration site in Syria before protests spread to other Kurdish cities, the public demonstrations on May 20, 2011, were called “Azadi Friday” meaning freedom in Kurdish. Moreover, the political assassination of Mashaal Tammo on October 7, 2011, further galvanized Syrian Kurdish protestors to take to the streets.

However, the revolution, which represented an opportunity to alleviate the Kurds of their suffering and historical injustices, was also an opportunity for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), established in 2003 and deemed to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which enjoyed close relations with the Assad regime, allowing its fighters to train in military camps on Syrian soil albeit under the auspices of the Syrian security apparatus.

With the eruption of the Syrian revolution, the PYD announced the establishment of their military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), under the pretext of protecting protestors in Kurdish areas. The YPG, however, was later accused of preventing and suppressing anti-government demonstrations. 

These units have existed since the founding of the party, in the form of secret cells, and the bulk of their work has been dedicated to recruiting young Kurdish men and women and sending them to work with the PKK in the Turkish mountains. Additionally, the YPG used to collect financial donations, known as “Alikare” in Kurdish, to support the activities of the PKK. 

The death of the first Kurdish demonstrator on March 16, 2012, in al-Mufti neighborhood of al-Hasakah city, however, marked a turning point for the PYD in terms of their control over Kurdish regions in Syria. After his death, tens of thousands took to the streets to mourn the victim and condemn the killing of peaceful protestors.

Following this incident, the Syrian security services withdrew from the region, paving the way for the PYD to establish control. The party began its rule by expanding its military wing, the YPG, providing it with weapons and later establishing the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in 2012. 

The PYD refused to join the Kurdish National Council (KNC), established in October 2011. The council included 11 parties, later increasing to 15 Kurdish Syrian parties, before returning to the current 13 parties. 

In November 2013, the PYD announced the establishment of semi-autonomous rule, governing a region stretching from al-Hasakah province in the east, to Kobane in the north, and Afrin in the northwest province of Aleppo. 

From YPG to SDF

The rise of IS in eastern Syria and western Iraq, which reached its peak by their announcement establishing a “caliphate” in June 2014, prompted the formation of the “International Coalition against Daesh” in September of that year. While the Coalition relied primarily on Iraqi forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Sha’bi) militias to confront IS in Iraq, it allied with the YPG against IS in Syria.  

However, because the YPG is considered an extension of the PYD, which in turn follows the PKK – designated by many countries as a terrorist organization – the SDF was formed in response in October 2015. Thus, in addition to YPG fighters, the SDF also included non-Kurdish military factions.

The PYD relied on historical alliances with Arab tribes, such as the Shammar and al-Sharabiyya tribes. The Shammar tribe is one of the most powerful Arab tribes in the Jazira Region, constituting the al-Sanadid Forces. Additionally, the PYD allied with the Syriac Military Council, Suturo Christian Forces and other factions from various cities and towns in eastern Syria.

The most prominent Arab ally that joined the SDF at a later stage was the al-Shaitat tribe, one of the biggest tribes in Deir e-Zor and which was massacred at the hands of IS. Moreover, some factions that were among the Syrian opposition also joined the SDF, including the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, the Seljuk Brigade and the Manbij Turkmen Brigade.

With the successful elimination of IS in March 2018, the SDF became the second largest power in the country in terms of control over absolute territory – second only to Syrian government forces and their allied militias. They presided over approximately 30% of Syrian soil, which had previously included the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) until the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) advanced in these areas during “Operation Peace Spring,” forcing the SDF to seek a settlement with Moscow and Damascus.

What’s next?

Following a meeting between representatives of the SDF and Russian officials in the Russian airbase of Hmeimim in Latakia province in western Syria, an agreement was reached. It permitted the return of Syrian government forces to areas east of the Euphrates and in Manbij, currently under SDF control. 

While they did not formally announce the details of the agreement, in an interview with local media, Aldar Xelîl, a prominent leader of the AA, noted that the outcome of the meeting would limit the role of Syrian government forces to the border without encroaching “in any way on the cities in the AA.”

In contrast, news arrived indicating that Moscow and Damascus stipulated that the SDF must dissolve and integrate into the Fifth Legion, created and overseen by Russia. It would be a similar fate to that of Syrian opposition fighters who entered into “reconciliation” agreements with the Syrian regime. Although the stipulations entail the end of the SDF and the YPG, the agreement does not appear to guarantee the rights of Syrian Kurds in the region. Rather, it implies a return to the decades-old repression of Ba’athist rule.

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Rohan Advani and Lauren Remaley.

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