Arabs Across Syria Join the Kurdish-Led Syrian Democratic Forces

This article was originally published in MERIP Magazine Summer 2020. The original can be found Here.

By Amy Austin Holmes

In 2012, as the so-called Arab Spring protests in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria descended into a brutal civil war, President Bashar al-Asad withdrew his forces from northern Syria to turn their guns on rebels in the south. Into the vacuum stepped the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, or PYD) and their armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, or YPG)—which set up a rudimentary Autonomous Administration in three cantons: Afrin, Kobane and Jazira. Surrounded by enemies, the three cantons that declared self-rule were not even connected to each other. As non-contiguous regions abutting the Turkish border, it was difficult and at times impossible to travel from one to the other or share vital resources. Their chances of survival were slim.

Led by Kurds, the YPG evolved over time into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): a multi-ethnic, multi-religious force in which all the indigenous peoples of the region are represented. Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Yezidis, Circassians and Turkmen have fought alongside Kurds to defend their homeland. By 2019, when the SDF had liberated all of Syrian territory from ISIS control, there were some 100,000 fighters (including SDF and Internal Security Forces) under the leadership of SDF commander-in-chief Mazlum Abdi, a Syrian Kurd and former Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) cadre.[2] The majority of his rank-and-file fighters, however, were Arabs. While conscription can account for some of this growth, it does not tell the whole story. Until today, the rules on mandatory conscription have never been implemented in several Arab-majority regions; in previous years there was even less enforcement. Furthermore, conscription is limited to one year and only applies to men. How was a sister militia of the PKK—an organization founded in Turkey that historically fought for an independent Kurdistan—able to successfully recruit and retain tens of thousands of Syrian Arabs for multiple years? What sort of political project did they create and endorse that retained the loyalty of an ethnically diverse coalition?Then in 2014 militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) surged across both the Turkish and Iraqi borders into Syria, declared Raqqa as the capital of their Caliphate and proceeded to establish a government that, among other egregious practices, sanctioned slave markets where Yezidi women and children were traded. In 2016, 2018 and 2019, Turkish military incursions into Syria—with help from what is now known as the Syrian National Army—aimed to dislodge the YPG from areas near the border, resulting in mass displacement of civilians including Kurds, Yezidis, Arabs and Assyrian-Syriac Christians.[1]

My field survey of over 300 SDF members reveals that there are three main reasons for the SDF’s success in recruiting and retaining Arabs: First, the SDF offered material incentives such as salaries and training opportunities.[3] Second, the existence of a common threat—first ISIS and now Turkey—solidified bonds between Kurds and Arabs and also prompted many to enlist. Third, the survey shows that many Arab members of the SDF support at least some, if not all, of the basic political principles upon which the SDF and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) are based.

The YPG Evolves Into the SDF

In September 2014, a joint operations room was established between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the YPG, known as Burkan al-Firat (Euphrates Volcano).[4] The ISIS siege of Kobane and ensuing US military support cemented the alliance between the YPG and a number of Arab units within the FSA, which led to the emergence of the SDF in October 2015. The United States had shifted its efforts to the YPG/SDF after previous attempts to train and equip other Syrian armed groups had been deemed unsuccessful—in part because some of those groups had links to extremist factions or were more interested in fighting Asad than ISIS. Henceforth, the SDF became the main partner force for the United States on the ground in Syria. In order to defeat ISIS, it was necessary to further expand the geographical reach of the SDF to Arab-majority cities such as Manbij, Raqqa, Tabqa and Deir Ezzor. In the course of this expansion, some Arab women were recruited as well. In July 2017, the YPJ (the women’s branch of the YPG) announced the creation of the first battalion of Arab women, the “Brigade of the Martyr Amara.”[5]Throughout the course of the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish-led YPG cooperated with Arab-majority armed groups. The YPG began to actively recruit Arabs just months after regime forces withdrew from the north, or at least since late 2012. The Shammar tribe’s Al-Sanadid Forces led by Bandar al-Humaydi was one of the first to cooperate with the YPG, starting in 2013. Active recruitment was underway during a series of battles along the Syrian-Turkish border centered around the city of Ras al-Ayn, which has a mixed Arab-Kurdish population (the city is known as Serekaniye in Kurdish and Ras al-Ayn in Arabic). Later in the war, virtually all of the Arab tribes had members in the SDF, including major tribal confederations and prominent tribes including the Al-Jabbur, Ageedat, Baggara, Busha’ban, Tay and others.

Map of Northern Syria, Crisis Group/KO, May 2017. Based on UN map no. 4204, Rev. 3 (April 2012).

When the SDF began to expand beyond the Kurdish heartland into Arab-majority areas, Western analysts observing from afar rang the alarm bells. Some academics and think tanks claimed this move would mean the imposition of “Kurdish rule” over Arabs. Others predicted it was doomed to fail because self-respecting Arabs would never concede to being part of a Kurdish militia with links to the PKK. Yet others suggested that conservative Arab tribes viewed the secular-egalitarian ideas promoted by Kurds as an “alien ideology.”[6] One think tank analyst was so troubled that he recommended the United States should work to “control the YPG’s provocative behaviors and limit its ideological indoctrination of northeastern Syria’s communities.”[7] And yet, despite these predictions of impending failure, the SDF continued, year after year, to incorporate more and more Arabs into its ranks.

Despite predictions of impending failure, the SDF continued, year after year, to incorporate more and more Arabs into its ranks.

To be sure, the expansion of the SDF and self-administration across north and east Syria was not always welcomed by Arab communities. The increase in Arab rank-and-file fighters has not yet been accompanied by an equally significant increase of Arabs in leadership positions, although Arabs have been promoted within both the military and civilian structures of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The secular and gender-egalitarian ideology is not embraced by some more conservative members of society. In the spring of 2019, I attended a meeting at the Tribal Reconciliation Center near Tabqa, where more than 50 representatives from the various Arab tribes in the region were in attendance.[8] These tribes had been cooperating with the Autonomous Administration for several years and seemed to be on friendly terms. Yet none of the tribes had sent female delegates to represent them. In the far eastern part of Syria, I met with the head of a major tribe who referred to the YPG as “our friend.” But he also indicated some displeasure because his traditional title of “sheikh” was less frequently used than in the past: In an attempt to undo tribal hierarchies, administration officials are encouraging people to use the term al-raey, which means shepherd.[9] Over the course of more than six hours, I toured the expansive grounds and met several dozen people, again without encountering a single woman. But during my visits to ramshackle YPJ outposts in Manbij, Raqqa, Al-Sheddadi, Tabqa, Ain Issa, Al-Hasakah and elsewhere, I met many Arab women. They had all enlisted in the YPJ voluntarily, as there is no conscription for women. Many of them were eager to tell their stories.

Kurdish officials are taking various measures to ease Arab concerns over Kurdish domination. The very name of the governing entity was changed to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and the Kurdish term Rojava was dropped in December 2016.[10] Although this decision angered some Kurdish nationalists, it was justified by the expansion of the territory beyond Kurdish-majority areas. The official logo recognizes the linguistic diversity of the region, and is in four languages: Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac-Aramaic and Turkish. Furthermore, in 2018 the de-facto capital or administrative center of the region was moved from Qamishli to Ain Issa, an Arab town.

By 2019, the SDF was in de-facto control of approximately one-third of Syria. The territory they defend from incursions by ISIS, the Turkish government and Syrian government forces is an ethnically and religiously diverse region. These six regions—Jazira, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Tabqa, Manbij and Euphrates—are governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which operates semi-independently of Damascus. The Arabs who inhabit these six regions are not a homogenous group. While some Arabs have protested the policies of the Autonomous Administration, others openly endorse the new political project.

Arab Apocis?

The ideology espoused by the Autonomous Administration is inspired by the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founding members of the PKK. Fleeing persecution in Turkey, he spent some 20 years in Syria. During this time, he cultivated ties to the Syrian regime under President Hafez al-Asad and to a number of leading Arab figures, in addition to the Kurdish minority. After he was forced to leave Syria and was captured and imprisoned by Turkey in a maximum-security prison on the island of İmralı, he turned to writing and formulating a new paradigm for the Kurdish struggle. Inspired by an eclectic assortment of scholars, ranging from Murray Bookchin to Immanuel Wallerstein, the ideology that emerged is referred to as Democratic Confederalism. The nation-state is no longer a prize to be obtained but is now seen as part of the problem that led to the subjugation of Kurds in the first place, along with that of women and other minorities, and therefore to be avoided.

Instead of an independent Kurdistan, Öcalan urged the Kurdish movement to work toward attaining a stateless democracy.[11] The political entity he envisions is to be premised on secularism and full equality between all people, regardless of gender, religious or ethnic identity. Those who support these ideas are often referred to as Apocu or Apocis, meaning the followers of Öcalan, whose nickname is Apo. Historically his supporters were Kurds, but some of his newer ideas have also been embraced by Arabs. The emergence of Arab Apocis may be one of the many unexpected twists of the Syrian conflict, signifying the appeal of the Rojava revolution beyond Rojava.

As soon as the Autonomous Administration assumed de-facto control over parts of north and east Syria, officials lost no time in putting these ideas into practice. A co-chair system was established where all leadership positions—from the most powerful institutions down to neighborhood communes—are held jointly by a man and a woman. The current co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) is Ilham Ahmad, who represents the Autonomous Administration during high-level diplomatic visits outside of Syria. The SDC was created in 2015 as the assembly of political parties and organizations that represents north and east Syria. The liberation of Raqqa was led by Rojda Felat, a female commander of the SDF/YPJ. Arab women and men have also benefited from this system. Layla Hassan and Ghassan Al Youssef act as co-chairs of the Deir Ezzor Civil Council, the largest governorate under SDF control and home to oil resources.

Surveying a Non-State Actor in a War Zone

Between 2015 and 2019, I conducted the first field survey of the YPG/SDF in all six regions of north and east Syria under the control of the SDF. Although my sample included members of each ethnic and religious group in the region including Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs, Assyrians, Armenians, Yezidis and Turkmen, here I focus on Arabs since they now constitute the majority of rank-and-file fighters and yet are frequently omitted from analyses of the SDF. Scholars, journalists, think tank analysts and government officials still incorrectly refer to the SDF as a Kurdish force.

In order to allow the voices of Arab members of the SDF to be heard, I provide brief profiles of six Arabs from six different cities across Syria. Two of these cities were taken over by ISIS militants: Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Two other cities had at one time been under the partial or full control of other armed opposition groups, referred to for the sake of simplicity as the FSA: Ras al-Ayn and Al Hasakah. In the spring and summer of 2019, at the time of my survey, these four cities were under the control of the SDF. Finally, two of the six Arab SDF members I discuss here are from Aleppo and Homs, cities that were never under the control of the SDF. A number of additional respondents come from yet other cities outside SDF control, including Idlib, which seems to indicate that the SDF holds a broader appeal. My survey data also shows that Arabs from virtually all the major and minor tribes in Syria have been incorporated into the SDF (the respondents self-identified as belonging to 46 different tribes or sub-tribes). The six individuals I cite here are from different geographical regions of Syria, different class backgrounds and have different modalities of engagement with the SDF. Some of them became leaders of military units and fought in numerous battles against ISIS, while others did not take part in combat operations. Finally, I have also selected both male and female members of the SDF. To protect their identities their real names are not used.

For all six individuals, the timing of their decision to join the SDF indicates that they did not do so out of opportunism. On the contrary, joining the SDF entailed risks, especially for women.

Five of the six respondents I cite here were selected precisely because they enlisted in the SDF between May 2015 and March 2017, during a very chaotic and uncertain period of the war when the SDF had neither yet emerged as the clear victor against ISIS nor was the only game in town. The last person to join of the six individuals I discuss here is Rania from Deir Ezzor. She enlisted in 2018, at a time when ISIS still controlled territory in Deir Ezzor. Hence, for all six individuals, the timing of their decision to join the SDF indicates that they did not do so out of opportunism. On the contrary, joining the SDF entailed risks, especially for women. Anyone who joined the SDF from a city that was under the control of ISIS, or who joined from territory never controlled by the SDF, did so at great personal risk. Because these Arab men and women remained within the SDF for as long as they did, also suggests a continuing commitment to the organization.

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Amy Austin Holmes is a fellow at the Wilson Center and former associate professor at the American University in Cairo and visiting scholar at Harvard University.