U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebels Are Becoming More Diverse
But the Kurdish YPG is still the biggest player
U.S. forces advising and assisting the rebel Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have apparently reported an increase in non-Kurdish fighters joining the group. The dominant faction of the U.S.-backed SDF has been the Syrian-Kurdish YPG, a group that’s carved out territory of its own.
The SDF also includes a hodgepodge of Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrian Christians. The SDF seized the Syrian town of Shadadi — a key transit hub between Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq — in February from Islamic State militants.
“Operations around Shadadi have been a good example of how the SDF continues to operate effectively while absorbing these new, diverse volunteers into the organization,” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters during a March 8 press conference. He estimated that non-Kurds now constitute approximately 40 percent of the group.
The YPG has been praised by many as a faction with a pluralistic agenda. But as with most things in the Syrian Civil War, the reality is a bit more complicated.
Early into the Syrian Civil War, the YPG made a point of working with Assyrian Christian fighters, and even recruited some Arab members into its ranks. The YPG has a socialist revolutionary ideology and is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, a group that both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization.
Nevertheless, both groups have received praise for their contributions to the war against the Islamic State. The YPG stopped the jihadist advance in Kobani, and pushed into Iraq to rescue Yazidi refugees after the fall of Sinjar.
During the battle for the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Rabia in September 2014, YPG fighters apparently maintained a network of informants among the local villagers from the surrounding area — most of them Sunni Arabs. However, Islamic State fighters apparently learned of the network and began executing local Arabs as the battle turned in favor of the Kurds.
The same month, several factions of the Free Syrian Army pledged to fight alongside the YPG in Syria. FSA militants also joined the YPG’s defense of Kobani.
During an October 2014 trip to the Syrian-Turkish border to cover the battle, War Is Boring contributor Vager Saadullah noted a phone call between a YPG fighter named Chiya and a Syrian Arab fighter with the FSA Shams Al Shimal Battalion. The Arab fighter told Chiya he would fight against the Islamic State even if he were the last man left in Kobani.
In several video releases, the YPG began using a logo that combined its own flag with that of the FSA’s. Photos emerged on social media of fighters holding both YPG and FSA flags to celebrate victories.
However, even as the YPG touted its reputation for inclusion, reports began to emerge of YPG fighters in Syria destroying Arab homes and cleansing communities of non-Kurds. In October 2015, Amnesty International released a report detailing its investigation into these allegations.
The group documented the YPG’s destruction of Arab and Turkmen homes, and sometimes entire villages in a “deliberate, co-ordinated campaign of collective punishment of civilians in villages previously captured by I.S., or where a small minority were suspected of supporting the group,” Amnesty stated.
“They told us we had to leave or they would tell the U.S. coalition that we were terrorists and their planes would hit us and our families,” a resident named Safwan told Amnesty.
YPG leaders for their part, while acknowledging that they had destroyed homes and neighborhoods, insisted they had targeted Islamic State agents or criminals who had disrupted the war effort.
Though the YPG does have Arab allies and has worked with some FSA factions, the group has continued to spar with others. It doesn’t help that the FSA has always been factionalized and has never had a true central leadership or platform. The green-white-black FSA flag is more of a general symbol of Arab resistance than the banner of a functioning organization. It’s a symbol used by many groups with very different agendas.
Above — Arab Free Syrian Army fighters stand in formation alongside Syrian Kurdish guerrillas during a 2014 video announcing an alliance between the groups. YouTube capture. At top — YPG fighters. Photo via Kurdishstruggle/Flickr
Syrian rebel groups have accused the YPG of being two-faced, accepting support from Washington while simultaneously working with the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad. The YPG is one of the few rebel factions to have mostly escaped Russia’s violent air campaign that has decimated many other anti-Assad groups and pounded the city of Aleppo — but largely left alone Islamic State’s strongholds such as Raqqa.
YPG commanders have denied working directly with Assad or having backchannel talks with Damascus. The YPG fought both the regime and the FSA in the early days of the Syrian revolution in an effort to unite the land that Kurds call Rojave — or western Kurdistan.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s intervention in the war has proven convenient. On Feb. 6, Russian airstrikes helped the YPG and a group militiamen from Jaysh Al Thwar — one of the YPG’s Sunni Arab allies — seize the strategic Tal Zinkah hill north of Aleppo.
Some Syrian Kurds do not like the YPG’s ambiguity toward Assad, and have opted to join the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga rather than join the YPG. “I don’t want to put myself in Syrian regime hands and fight for them,” a Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga fighter named Abdi told War Is Boring in 2014.
While Arab groups such as Jaysh Al Thwar and Shams Al Shimal have joined with the Kurds, the intensity of Russia’s air campaign and the regime’s apparent comeback has driven other rebels to fight alongside jihadist groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra.
But as long as the war continues to rage, the YPG will continue to be a dominant player.