The SDF posted this photo of SEF fighters on August 25. Photo: SDF Press
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Some Arab citizens displaced by ISIS in Raqqa who were previously in their own unit called the Syrian Elite Forces (SEF) are now falling under the command of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Leaders from seven battalions of the Bakara and Shuaat tribes announced in an SDF statement on Friday that they were “separating from the SEF and joining the Deir ez-Zor military council and the SDF.”
The statement said their work had previously been too vague, lacked seriousness and a clear goal.
The leaders pledged their fighters to the SDF thanking them for “the opportunity to join in fighting terrorism.”
The US-led Global Coalition has backed the ground forces of the SDF to combat ISIS in Syria. At least half of the 50,000-strong SDF is comprised of fighters with allegiances to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
In 2016, the SEF were formed and are led by Ahmad al-Jarba, the former president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
Their role has been assist the SDF to communicate with local tribes in and around Raqqa, the Coalition told Rudaw of the 1,000-strong force in June.
“There are SEF fighters enlisted in the SDF training pipeline now. The SEF fighters have demonstrated a willingness to risk their lives fighting ISIS, they show a determination to rid their areas of ISIS,” said US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, the Coalition’s spokesperson.
Dillon explained the SEF leadership was vetted and received training on the Law of Armed Conflict.
Despite their name, Dillon said they “have not been trained by the Coalition, nor have they specialized in counter terrorism tactics.”
At the time in June, the Coalition hinted that the SEF could play a larger role.
“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,” explained Dillon.
The three-pronged offensive to retake Raqqa began on June 6 with an alliance of militias pledging to rid the city of ISIS militants.
"The great war will begin with the participation of the Army of Revolutionaries (Jaysh al-Thuwar), Jabhat al-Akrad, Democratic al-Shamal Brigades, Tribal Forces, Maghawir Humus Brigades, Siqur al-Raqqa, Liwa al-Tahrir, Seljuk Turkmen Brigade, Hamam Turkmen Martyrs Battalion, Sanadid Forces, Syriac Military Council, Manbij Military Council, Deir ez-Zor Military Council, Self-Defense Forces, Asayish Forces, YPG/YPJ and Nuxbe Forces," read a YPG statement at the time.
Brett McGurk, the US Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition, said on the American television channel CBS on Friday that “About 60 percent of the city has now been cleared.”
Coalition-backed forces have also retaken areas immediately south of the Euphrates River, and there had been reports in early August of Kurdish fighters pushing south towards Deir ez-Zor.
"As far as Deir ez-Zor, we'll have to see what happens after ISIS has been defeated in Raqqa,” Dillon told Rudaw English in mid-August. “We'll have to see where everyone else is on the battlefield.”
Mattis told reporters on Monday in Jordan that the Middle Euphrates Valley stretching from Al-Qaim in Iraq to the Syrian City of Deir ez-Zor will be liberated in time. He called this area "ISIS's last stand."
It has been described as race to Deir ez-Zor, which is seen as geographically significant and where many ISIS fighters fled to from Raqqa, Mosul in Iraq and elsewhere.
The Syrian army and forces aligned with the Russian-backed regime have also been advancing towards Deir ez-Zor from the west and south.
"You see, ISIS is now caught in-between converging forces," Mattis added. "So ISIS's days are certainly numbered, but it's not over yet and it's not going to be over any time soon."