The Road to ar-Raqqah: Background on the Syrian Democratic Forces

The composition and behavior of the force that recaptures ar-Raqqah City will in part determine the long-term success of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is the U.S.’s most effective partner fighting ISIS in Syria, but it has limitations that risk undermining the gains it makes on the ground. The SDF, although dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), is not monolithic. The SDF coalition consists of Kurdish, Arab, Syriac Christian, and Turkmen groups. The U.S. built the SDF in late 2015 by recruiting a “Syrian Arab Coalition” to fight alongside the YPG and other local militias. The SDF continued to attract Arab fighters in the lead up to operations against ISIS in ar-Raqqah, including the recent inclusion of members of the Free Officer’s Union, a group of several high-ranking Syrian Arab Army defectors, in October 2016. 

The YPG nonetheless continues to dominate the SDF, despite increased efforts by the U.S. to diversify the coalition and recruit additional Arab fighters. The SDF remains dependent upon the YPG for logistics and experienced fighters, providing the YPG with outsized leverage within the coalition. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization due to the group’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), placing the SDF in direct conflict with Turkey. Local Arab and Turkmen populations in northern Syria also oppose the YPG, accusing the group of “ethnic cleansing” and forcibly displacing local communities. Moreover, the YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), intends to create a semi-autonomous federal region in northern Syria, which Turkey, Arab opposition groups, and other Kurdish parties oppose. The SDF’s effort to advance towards ar-Raqqah City and thereby expand Kurdish influence further into traditionally Arab terrain threatens to exacerbate these tensions and escalate into a more violent Arab-Kurdish and intra-Kurdish struggle in the region.