Syria’s SDF: US-backed anti-IS alliance

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The Syrian Democratic Forces is a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters that has led the fight against the Islamic State group The Syrian Democratic Forces is a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters that has led the fight against the Islamic State group AFP/File
Beirut (AFP)

The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, alongside the US-led coalition.

Wednesday it overran the last village held by IS in eastern Syria, confining its once vast cross-border “caliphate” to two small hamlets, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

The following day a top SDF commander said the IS “caliphate” will be defeated within a month.

– Kurdish-dominated alliance –

The SDF was formed in October 2015 at the initiative of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and includes Syrian rebel groups who had helped them fight IS.

Some 25,000 of the alliance’s 30,000 fighters are Kurds, the rest being Arab Muslims and Christians as well as Turkmen units.

All Syrians, the SDF’s members come from populations present in the country’s northern regions which have fallen out of the control of the Damascus regime.

– Key US ally –

Even before the SDF’s creation, Kurdish forces had already dealt IS several defeats, driving the jihadists out of the border towns of Kobane and Tal Abyad in 2015.

Such breakthroughs were made possible with the help of the US-led coalition, which launched air strikes against IS in Syria in September 2014.

Washington badly needed a local ally after a programme to build a rebel army to fight the jihadists collapsed.

After the SDF was formed the US decided to provide it with substantial support including weapons and air support.

The White House also announced the first deployment of hundreds of US troops to Syria, including special forces.

– Raqa retaken –

In November 2016, the SDF announced an operation to oust IS from its de facto Syrian capital Raqa and the surrounding province.

The jihadists were driven out of their Syrian stronghold nearly a year later, on October 17, 2017.

On September 10, 2018, the SDF and the coalition launched a fierce assault against a dwindling pocket of territory held by the IS to the east of the Euphrates River in the province of Deir Ezzor.

The jihadists put up a strong resistance, launching deadly counter attacks, with the Kurdish-led fighters finally pushing through in December to take Hajin near the Iraqi border.

On January 23, 2019, the SDF captured the village of Baghouz, leaving just a few hundred diehard IS fighters holed up in two hamlets, the Britain-based Observatory said.

– Call for regime help –

In mid-December, Ankara announced plans for an offensive against the YPG which is sees as a “terrorist” offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkish troops already intervened in Syria in early 2018, driving Syria’s Kurdish forces from Afrin in the northwest.

On December 19, US President Donald Trump claimed IS had been defeated and made the shock announcement that 2,000 American troops would be withdrawn from Syria.

The SDF said the pullout would give jihadists “the momentum to recover and conduct a terrorist campaign in the region.”

On December 28, 2018, faced with the threatened Turkish offensive, the YPG called on Syrian government troops to deploy alongside their own forces in the north, where Kurds have declared autonomy.

The Syrian army is present around Manbij, a key city about 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of the Turkish border.

Last July, the SDF’s political wing held talks with the Syrian regime, two months after President Bashar al-Assad threatened to use force to retake Kurdish territory.

© 2019 AFP