SDF fighters in northern Syria. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — The United States has been vocally consistent in its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria — and more recently within that force — the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), but details of who exactly the SAC is not well known.
Last week, high-ranking US commanders tweeted photos and voiced support for the fighters it is and will be backing in northern Syria in the fight against ISIS, and this week the US Central Command’s (CENTCOM) media office underscored that ethnicity is not a criterion for membership to join the SAC.
“Approximately ninety percent of the SAC are Arabs. The SAC invites all Syrians to train and join the SAC formations to liberate their country from ISIS destruction. Neither leaders of SAC formations nor the U.S. use ethnicity as a criteria to join the counter-ISIS coalition,” CENTCOM told Rudaw English via email.
The SDF is a coalition of groups battling ISIS in Syria. The primary force in the SDF is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The SAC emerged in the fall of 2015 when the United States renamed a loosely coordinated group of Syrian opposition factions mostly comprised of Sunni Arab groups, Voice of America reported on October 6, 2015, citing unnamed US officials who were present for a National Security Council meeting at the Pentagon attended by then-President Barack Obama.
US Army Lt. General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS, said this week that SAC fighters now comprise the majority of the SDF. The commander visited a training range near the Syrian city of Kobane on the Turkish border last week, after which US Central Command tweeted several photos of "faces, soon to face ISIS," which appeared to show Kurdish fighters.
“I'll say that we have watched and operated along-side the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which about 40 percent are composed of YPG Kurds, the People's Protection Units (YPG); and about 60 percent now are composed of the Syrian Arab Coalition,” Townsend said during a teleconference this week with Pentagon reporters.
The figures represent a majority shift by the SAC within the SDF, which had been previously seen as majority Kurdish YPG.
“Our numbers are somewhere around 50,000 for the SDF, for the Syrian Democratic Forces. That's a big number and that is not the number it was a year ago,” said Elissa Slotkin in January when she was acting assistant US secretary of defense for international security affairs.
Slotkin’s figure of 50,000 SDF fighters coupled with a recent statement by the US-led coalition of 23,000 SAC fighters indicates more than 25,000 SDF-aligned fighters fall outside of the SAC designation.
“The SAC is made of about 23,000 fighters, 13,000 of which are vetted. These are the only ones we train and equip,” the press office of the coalition confirmed to Rudaw English in early February.
The composition of these groups is more obscure than their nomenclatures indicate. In an effort to try to understand the make-up of the SAC, Rudaw English queried CENTCOM in late-February.
“The Syrian Arab Coalition is made up of 23,000 fighters compromising 15 local Arab tribes and local fighters of all ethnicities from recently liberated territories,” CENTCOM stated in its response, in addition to its claim of 90 percent of SAC being Arab.
The US-led coalition not wanting to take ethnic sides is likely practical. The SDF has been described by US officials as the most effective ground force in Syria and CENTCOM summarized its observations of the SAC’s battlefield performances.
“The SAC has demonstrated a willingness to risk their lives fighting ISIS. Their dedication has played an instrumental role in successfully eliminating ISIS from more than 6,000 square kilometers in northern Syria,” CENTCOM stated.
“They consistently show motivation, leadership and a desire to eliminate violent extremism from their lands. SAC formations are actively engaged in the fighting along the-SDF front lines in the isolation of Raqqah.”
Townsend dismissed Turkish concerns about the YPG being a threat to Turkey.
“Of those YPG fighters, I mean, I've talked to their leaders, and we've watched them operate. And they continually reassure us that they have no desire to attack Turkey, that they're not a threat to Turkey,” he said. “In fact, they desire to have a good working relationship with Turkey and I have seen absolutely zero evidence that they have been a threat to or supported any attacks on Turkey from northern Syria over the last two years.”
Moreover, the US has said it holds the leadership of the Syrian Arabs in the north of the country accountable through vetting in accordance with the requirements of US federal law.
“Leaders of Syrian Arab groups fighting ISIS in northern Syria are vetted by the Department of Defense as required by Section 1209 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, the legal authority under which the Department of Defense can assist appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition,” CENTCOM wrote, “for the purpose of defending the Syrian people from ISIS, protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threat of terrorism, and promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.”
Townsend expressed the impossibility of vetting all Syrian Arab forces, but the number is increasing.
“As far as training Syrian Arabs goes, yes, I said before that we had trained over 3,000. I think the number now is over 4,000, right at that. We just graduated some here recently. I think that there are a large number of Syrian Arab forces already in the field. So, it's not necessary or possible for us to train all of them. We are training more Syrian Arab forces to thicken the force that's in the field now. And as I said, that number is over 4,000.”