Arabs Across Syria Join the Kurdish-Led Syrian Democratic Forces
Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971
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.
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. 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?
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. 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
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.
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). 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.”
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.” 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.” And yet, despite these 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Rejecting Centralized Government
Ahmed was born in 1992 in Ras al-Ayn, a mixed Arab-Kurdish town along the border with Turkey. He belongs to the Tay tribe, which was used by the regime in Damascus to suppress the Kurdish uprising in Qamishli in 2004, when he was about 12 years old. His parents were farmers and his father had been conscripted into the Syrian Arab Army. Ahmed attended university for a year and claimed no prior political affiliation. In June 2016, when he was 24 years old, he joined the SDF. He was later promoted to become a leader of a unit, and fought in battles in Manbij, Raqqa, Shaddadi, Tabqa and Deir Ezzor. Among his reasons for joining the SDF, Ahmed wrote: “To fight for my nation and defeat all forms of terrorism and because of the Turkish threat, and fight for our land.” He also wrote, “All members of SDF do not want a centralized government. We don’t want Turkey to get anywhere near our land or our revolution.” The fact that Ahmed belongs to a tribe that was used to suppress the Kurdish uprising in 2004 and yet was still recruited and then promoted within the ranks of the SDF suggests that either the SDF has been able to overcome historical grievances and establish trust between ethnic communities or that Arab opposition to the Turkish occupation of Syria now overrides other concerns, or perhaps both.
Liberating Syria from ISIS Oppression
Mohammed was born in Raqqa in 1995 as a member of the Abu Ragab tribe. His father was a trader and had been conscripted into the country’s military, the Syrian Arab Army. Mohamed listed no prior political affiliation and had not finished high school, perhaps due to the conflict. In March 2013, Raqqa was captured by the armed opposition groups and held by various FSA brigades until ISIS took full control of the city in January 2014. Mohammed joined the SDF in January 2016 from the city of Raqqa when he was 21 years old. He took part in the liberation of his own city, as well as battles in Tabqa and Deir Ezzor. As the capital of the Islamic State in Syria, Raqqa was enormously important both in terms of its symbolism and strategic importance. Public executions were being staged on the city’s main square and Yezidis were traded in slave markets. Mohammed’s decision to join the SDF at that time was enormously risky: It would be another one and a half years before Raqqa was liberated from ISIS. He said: “I am a citizen who used to be oppressed before joining the SDF. I saw suffering at the hands of ISIS, but I have seen a bright light from the SDF. And I see that all the countries of the world have to come together to eliminate terrorism.”
Establishing a “Long Lasting Democracy”
Mona was born in Homs to a middle-class family in the year 2000. As the third largest city in Syria, Homs became a key battleground between the forces of the Asad regime and the armed opposition. She was about 11 years old when the regime began the siege of the city in May 2011. Three years later, the opposition left and the regime reclaimed it. Mona attended high school but never finished. In March 2017, when she was 17 years old, she joined the YPJ. She fought in the battle to liberate Raqqa. In the margins of the survey questionnaire, she wanted to convey an additional message: “I want the Coalition to stay and protect the area and establish a long-lasting democracy.”
Ending Turkey’s Colonization of Syrian Lands
Farid was born in the northeastern city of Al Hasakah in 1988. His family belonged to the Tufaehy tribe. Farid had finished high school and listed no prior political affiliation. His father was a public sector employee. In May 2015, Farid joined the YPG, even before the creation of the SDF. At this time, just a few months after Kobane had been recaptured from ISIS, the YPG was still a Kurdish-majority force. Farid was then 27 years old. He fought in battles in Al Hasakah, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Al Sheddadi. On the back page of the survey Farid advocated for the creation of a security zone between Syria and Turkey “so we can achieve stability in the region.” He also demanded “the returning of all lands that have been colonized by the Turkish occupation.” In contrast to other cities closer to the Turkish border including Afrin and Ras al-Ayn, Al Hasakah has not been occupied by Turkey or its proxy forces. And yet, as comments by Farid and others make clear, Syrians of both Kurdish and Arab ethnicities viewed the Turkish encroachment on sovereign Syrian territory as a form of colonization.
The SDF Should “Manage Syria in the Next Stage”
Hassan was born in Aleppo in 1999 to a middle-class family. His father was a businessman and his mother a nurse. Hassan finished high school and then joined the SDF from his hometown of Aleppo, although the city had never been under its control. As a teenager he would have witnessed how Aleppo was ruled by both the regime and by armed rebel groups. In January 2017, just one month after the Russian-backed Syrian army had recaptured Aleppo, Hassan joined the SDF. He was 18 years old at the time. The mere fact that someone from Aleppo would join the SDF suggests that the SDF has some appeal even in areas it does not control. In the case of Hassan, it would seem to indicate that he, as an Arab from Aleppo, preferred to leave his family and live under the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration than under Asad. Furthermore, his comments indicate that he views the SDF not just as a military force to defeat ISIS, but as a form of governance. He wrote, “I propose to the alliance to strengthen the support to the SDF because it is the only force that confronted and was able to end the terrorism represented by ISIS and it is trusted. And as you have seen there is freedom in the areas they control. The opinion of the community in the SDF is that it is an active force and able to manage Syria in the next stage.”
YPJ Must “Continue Fighting Until Women are Freed”
Rania was born in 1999 in Deir Ezzor, an eastern governorate along the border with Iraq. Her family belongs to the Ageedat tribe, one of the largest tribes in the area, which also has members living in Iraq. This region is commonly referred to in Syria as the “remote provinces” and is distinctly “tribal, rural, and marginalized.” It is also where ISIS had its last stronghold, in Baghouz. Rania never attended school. As a teenage girl she lived under the sway of ISIS for at least two years. She reported that one member of her family had been killed by ISIS. In 2018, when Rania was just 19 years old, she decided to join the YPJ. At the time, this was an exceedingly brave decision for anyone, given that ISIS still controlled Baghouz. But as a teenage Arab woman from Deir Ezzor, she would have likely had to convince members of her family and tribe to allow her to enlist. As an additional comment on the survey, she wrote: “We want the YPJ to continue fighting until women are freed.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces is the only armed group in Syria that has a policy of not discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender, which has allowed the SDF to develop into a truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious force. This radical egalitarianism clearly appealed to non-Arab minorities who suffered under decades of pan-Arabism promoted by the Baathist regime of the Asad family. Kurds from the far corners of Kurdistan were galvanized by the promise of the Rojava revolution. What is less well appreciated is that Arabs have also embraced these ideals and practices.
The Arab men and women discussed here have diverse class and educational backgrounds. They come from territory controlled by the SDF as well as territory controlled by the Asad regime. What they have in common is that they all joined the Kurdish-led SDF—rather than other armed opposition groups, most led by Arabs—and they joined the SDF at considerable risk to themselves. Why? One reason is because they all appear to support at least one or more of the key ideas inherent in Democratic Confederalism, which guides the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration and the SDF. These key principles include decentralization instead of rule by the central government in Damascus, a sense of brother or sisterhood among ethnic groups instead of sectarianism, gender equality and rejection of ISIS and other forms of religious extremism. Finally, I found that a large number of Arab respondents rejected the Turkish occupation of Syria and demanded that the land be returned to Syria. Contrary to analysts who portray the conflict as one solely between Turkey and the Kurds, my survey shows that Arab SDF members also view the Turkish incursions and expanding Turkish presence as an illegitimate foreign occupation of Syrian land.
The future remains uncertain. Much depends on whether Russia and Iran will continue to back Asad in his quest to retake all Syrian territory and whether the US-led Coalition will maintain its presence in the northeast. The SDF faces ongoing threats from the Asad regime, Turkey and ISIS cells. The Turkish intervention in October 2019, however, did not lead to a disintegration of the SDF, or even to any serious defections, as some had predicted.
Analysts have thus far tended to ignore those Arabs who support the political project in north and east Syria. Several observers have amplified the voices of those Arabs who are critical of it, perhaps because that narrative fits more easily into the simple trope of sectarianism. When the SDF’s policy of non-discrimination is seen in the context of the ideological transformation of the PYD-aligned movement from one that promoted Kurdish nationalism and separatism to one based on the notions of co-existence and decentralization, it should come as no surprise that the PYD’s political project would appeal to non-Kurds—or at least appear as more compatible with their own views. Understanding the dynamics that undermine sectarianism in the Autonomous Administration—or perhaps how it is being overcome—is a crucial analytical task and political challenge.
[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.]
 “Displacement and Despair: The Turkish Invasion of Northeast Syria,” Refugees International, November 13, 2019.
 “Operation Inherent Resolve,” Lead Inspector General Report to the US Congress, April 1, 2019–June 30, 2019, p. 29-30.
 Amy Austin Holmes, “SDF’s Arab Majority Rank Turkey as the Number One Threat to NE Syria: Survey Data on America’s Partner Forces,” The Wilson Center, October 2019.
 Harriet Allsopp and Wladimir van Wilgenburg, The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity, and Conflicts (Bloomsbury: 2019), p. 71.
 The announcement was made on Twitter on July 10, 2017: “Announcing the first battalion of Arab women: Martyr Brigade Amara.” https://twitter.com/cihan_shekh/status/884470244969992192?s=20
 Patrick Haenni and Arthur Quesnay, “Surviving the Aftermath of the Islamic State: The Syrian Kurdish Movement’s Resilience Strategy,” European University Institute, Research Project Report, February 17, 2020.
 Written Testimony of Charles R. Lister, Senior Fellow and Director of Countering Extremism and Terrorism, Middle East Institute to the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa Sub-Committee, February 6, 2018, p. 5.
 Interviews at a gathering of the Tribal Reconciliation Center near Tabqa in March 2019. I made a short video with one of the speakers, available here: https://twitter.com/AmyAustinHolmes/status/1102320294818205696?s=20
 Interview with the head of a large Arab tribe in eastern Syria, July 2019.
 The word Rojava is derived from the word “roj” which means “sun” in Kurmanci. Rojava means Western Kurdistan, or the land where the sun sets. Kurds refer to the other three parts of Kurdistan as Rojhelat, or Eastern Kurdistan (in Iran), Bakur or Northern Kurdistan (in Turkey), and Başûr or Southern Kurdistan (in Iraq).
 Renée In der Maur and Jonas Staal in dialogue with Dilar Dirik, eds, “Stateless Democracy with the Kurdish Women’s Movement,” New World Academy Reader #5 (BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, 2015).
 On June 29, 2019 General Mazloum signed a United Nations action plan to end the use of minors in the SDF. Anna Varfolomeeva, “SDF Signs UN Plan to End Use of Children in Syrian Conflict,” The Defense Post, July 2, 2019.
 Hassan Hassan, “What ISIS Did to my Village,” The Atlantic, April 27, 2019.
 Fabrice Balanche, “The Fragile Status Quo in Northeast Syria,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 1, 2020.