After a bloody battle against ISIS, the SDF is now emboldened. Yet it risks being locked in an irrevocable confrontation with Turkey.
The US-backed multiethnic military alliance led by the Kurdish YPG has liberated one third of Syria from IS control. The alliance has signaled that it is open to coordinating with Damascus to fend off a Turkish invasion.
The SDF’s Multi-Ethnic Character
As the YPG pushed into Arab-majority areas of Syria like Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour, the group had to allay local fears that it was attempting to impose a Kurdish state. The YPG adheres to the philosophy of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who envisions a decentralised ‘democratic nation’ based on local councils, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism.
The YPG has sought to broaden its appeal in the region it controls by seeking international recognition for its autonomous project, as well as by offering humanitarian and economic support. Yet Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has loosened several of the screws that held up the status quo in north-eastern Syria, leaving the SDF vulnerable.
The SDF’s announcement of an openness to the Syrian opposition suggests a change in strategy. This shift could lead to future discussions on mutual points of interest, including democracy, displacement and the fate of detainees. It might also provide a path forward for the YPG’s outstanding issues with Turkey and Turkish-backed armed groups in Syria’s northwest and northeast.
The SDF’s Policy of Non-Discrimination
As the YPG’s military and political organisations expanded, they began to work closely with local Arab tribes. By the time they entered the city of Raqqa in 2017, the SDF was a multi-ethnic force.
They implemented a system of co-chairs at all levels of government, including neighborhood communes. These positions are held by men and women.
This reflects the PYD’s transformation from a movement that promoted Kurdish nationalism and separatism to one that promotes ideas of co-existence, decentralization, and gender equality.
However, the SDF’s de facto control over parts of north and east Syria has not been a smooth ride for non-Kurdish residents. They have complained of poor economic conditions, forcible conscription into the armed forces, and discrimination in local administrations led by Kurdish officials. Activists say they have been threatened and even shot by local SDF security services. The ambiguity of US policy has also caused the SDF to tread a fine line between its US sponsor and Russia.
The SDF’s Political Project
The SDF’s emergence in Syria’s mainly Kurdish northeast was controversial. It includes small Sunni Arab armed groups and Syriac and Turkmen community defense forces, but is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. The YPG’s record on human rights, in particular its treatment of Sunni Arabs, has sparked concern that it will seek to create a Kurdish state along the Turkish border.
The United States hoped that including Arab groups would ease Turkey’s concerns, but the SDF remains dominated by the YPG and its pro-Kurdish allies. This is why the US has been pushing for the SDF to be recognised as a legitimate political entity in North and East Syria.
However, this is unlikely to be possible until the SDF can guarantee that it will not return areas it has captured to Assad control, as the latter’s regime does not want to lose its hold over them. In addition, a number of communities in SDF-held territory have protested rising food prices and lack of services under the SDF.
The SDF’s Arab Members
When the SDF first expanded into Arab-majority areas, Western analysts sounded alarm bells. They warned that Kurdish-dominated forces would impose their secular egalitarian ideology on non-Kurdish communities in northeastern Syria. They pointed to YPG-linked rights violations and the forcible removal of non-Kurdish residents from villages seized by the SDF as evidence of such an imposition.
In the years since, however, the SDF has continued to integrate Arab fighters and expand its sphere of influence. The group is now a powerful de facto semi-autonomous force in six regions — Jazira, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Hassakah, Tabqa and Manbij — in which more than half of the population are Arabs.
Despite this, most European governments limit their engagement with the SDF. This is partly due to their desire to maintain good relations with Turkey, whose pressure has prevented them from pushing harder for the SDF to make greater concessions to human rights and other concerns. They have also refrained from calling for the SDF to be brought into formal peace talks with the Syrian regime.