Members of the Syrian Elite Forces (SEF) on the eastern front in Raqqa. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
As the liberation of Raqqa city moves into its second week and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declares areas cleared of ISIS militants, Arab tribesmen known as the Syrian Elite Forces (SEF) are tasked with restoring civil order to the war-torn city.
“While they are not taking part in the SDF’s current seizure of Raqqah, they could in the future and their participation with the SDF after the city's liberation will be critical to restoring security and governance to Raqqah's citizens,” the spokesperson for the US-led global coalition to defeat ISIS, Col. Ryan Dillon, told Rudaw English.
There had been much concern by Turkey and others of a Kurdish force entering Raqqa, which is seen as an Arab city.
"The Syrian Elite Forces are a group of Arab citizens from Raqqah, displaced from their homes by ISIS," Dillon explained. "The SEF joined the SDF in 2016 in an effort to help liberate Raqqah."
Elements of the SEF help the SDF communicate with local tribes from areas in and around Raqqa, Dillon said.
“They consist of approximately 1,000 citizen soldiers,” he detailed, adding that they receive training similar to the SDF, but that their name is a bit of a misnomer in that they have not been trained in “counter terrorism tactics.”
Although, Dillon said, “The SEF fighters have demonstrated a willingness to risk their lives fighting ISIS, they show a determination to rid their areas of ISIS.”
The SEF are commanded by the former president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Ahmad al-Jarba.
"Now we are preparing for the battle of Raqqa," Jarba told Reuters in an interview in Cairo in February. "There is a training program with the coalition forces. We will be ready to enter this battle in force and we are in the process of preparing for it to liberate our lands."
The al-Ghad al-Souri (Syria’s Tomorrow) Movement, which is the political arm of the SEF, formed in March 2016. In September 2016 the group made an agreement with the Kurdish self-autonomous region in Syria’s Kurdish Rojava administration with respect to governance in their cantons. The group’s head hailed it as a “new chapter of brotherly relations between Arabs and Kurds.”
SDF spokesperson Talal Silo said the SEF were formed in December 2016, but will remain an independent force, separate from the SDF.
The SDF alliance is primarily comprised of the Kurdish-led, but diverse Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). Within the SDF are a number of groups including local Turkmen and Assyrian elements, and the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC).
“SAC consists of numerous Syrian Arab tribes from the northeast region of Syria as well as of individual fighters who have joined and been trained by US and Coalition forces after the liberation of their towns,” Dillon said.
The SAC is made of about 23,000 fighters, 13,000 of which are vetted, the press office of the coalition told Rudaw English in early February.
The coalition estimates the “enemy force inside Raqqah is about 2,500.”