The withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria, announced in April, has raised concerns about the fate of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Analysts have warned that the United States’ apparent intention to simply walk away, without establishing measures to protect the SDF, will embolden enemies, as the Syrian regime tries to regain dominance over opposition-held areas and Turkey seeks to smash the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara labels the YPG a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
While the US statement does highlight the external threats facing the group, not much attention has been paid to the SDF’s internal divisions, which pose equally significant dangers to its existence. As military gains against ISIS have propelled the counterterrorism effort into a new phase, the SDF coalition – one of the most effective non-state armed groups in the country– is in danger of coming apart at the seams, with lasting consequences for the Syrian war as a whole.
The frequent, albeit under-reported, clashes that have been occurring among SDF factions result from flaws in the group’s very founding. The coalition was created in 2015 with United States support to establish a multi-ethnic force comprising various Syrian communities, including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen, to fight ISIS in Syria. But the alliance did not emerge organically as the outcome of cooperation between its constituent groups. Instead, the SDF was established as a result of a direct request by Washington, which sought a channel to support the YPG without creating a major crisis with Turkey.
The YPG, while a member of the SDF, has brokered deals with smaller armed groups with different ethnic and religious identities. This is meant to make it appear more inclusive and to lend legitimacy to its capture of areas such as Raqqa, where Arabs are in the majority. The SDF’s relatively short lifespan as a coalition has not given its factions time to reach consensus on problems that arose during its founding, including important decisions about the alliance’s flag, core objectives and defining ideology.
The modest size and capabilities of most SDF member groups make the YPG the backbone force of the coalition, placing it in a position to make unilateral decisions. Its size, discipline and strong ties with US forces have reinforced its position as the de facto leader, leaving it in charge of the group’s budget, the appointment of front-line and regional commanders, the distribution of military supplies and coordination with the US military.
That dominance almost immediately started causing internal power struggles among factions in the coalition. According to the International Crisis Group, the SDF is only nominally a mixed Syrian force. Non-Kurdish commanders, in reality, lack any authority. The YPG and a few PKK-trained cadres function as a shadow command chain through a top-down rule that prevents local commanders and fighters from becoming influential. To maintain its dominance, the YPG has repeatedly come into conflict with factions and individuals that have threatened its disproportionate authority.
For example, the YPG reportedly used its influence to exclude the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade as a group from participating in the offensive to capture Raqqa last year, but allowed the Brigade’s fighters to participate as individuals. This was widely perceived as a tactic to rein in the growing power of the Brigade, which had been viewed as a threat to the YPG’s attempts to monopolize power.
Competition between SDF factions is even more intense over new recruits. In October 2016, the YPG detained 25 Kurdish fighters who joined the SDF’s Sanadeed Army, held them at a military training camp andreportedlyforced them to join the YPG instead. The Sanadeed Army leadership responded by threatening to pull its tribal fighters out of the coalition. Although the situation did not escalate further, the basic dynamics remain. In a similar case, members of the Elite Forces group, who fought alongside the SDF in the battle for Raqqa, told this writer that they had been excluded from the offensive in July 2017 after opening their ranks to local volunteers and new recruits.
Administration of the group remains another area of contention, as theYPG has attempted to install a governance model in SDF-controlled areas that mirror traditional Kurdish-led structures. Many non-YPG factions have reportedly opposed such a structure, which is dominated by PKK-trained cadres, because it does not accommodate local participation. For example, when the YPG decided to form a governing civilian council in Raqqa in April 2017, the Political Office of Liwa Thuwar Al Raqqa, an allied rebel group, rejected the proposal on the grounds that it did not represent Raqqa residents. Similar disputes have been reported between the YPG and the Deir Ezzor military council, the only force comprising local Arab fighters operating under the SDF umbrella.
There is no doubt that the YPG’s strict command-and-control capabilities have enabled it to increase the SDF’s discipline and performance. Yet, by failing to address the internal divisions and competitive forces, especially as the threat posed by ISIS on the battlefield wanes, it threatens the alliance’s unity and stability in areas under its control.
Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.
AFP PHOTO/Delil Souleiman