The roles of underground operations, guerrilla, sabotage and classic special operations units are groups who act in frustration to opposing forces. In this case the bullet meets the bone in Syria as Kurdish Forces are successfully deploying unconventional warfare tactics against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Kurdish forces have developed and deployed covert guerrilla warfighters against ISIS. Such as the recently reported 45 ISIS fighters ‘die after eating poisoned Ramadan meal in Iraq’.

Through the employment of members from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, (Male Guerrilla Wing) or YPG and the Women’s Protection Units, (Female Guerrilla Wing) the YPJ; structurally known as the armed wings of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish National Council (KNC). The PYD is also affiliated with the Kurdistan’s Workers Party or PKK, a group classified as terrorists by the US, the EU and Turkey, among others.

These Kurdish forces have homegrown operational intelligence capacities and internal organization to align with the fast and loose mountain warfare stylings of the YPG/YPJ’s predecessors and primary trainers, the PKK. Using the PKK’s methodologies as a foundation along with some difficult lessons learned in the field, the YPG/YPJ has met with many unique mission challenges and have since adapted an asymmetrical warfare construct which is agreeable to their organizational model. Leading to the creation of the Secret Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedanê Yên Veşartî) or better known to Kurdish Forces as Tabor (pronounced, Ta-boor).

Tabor was developed after the Kurds cut their teeth in battle while taking portions of the region known as Rojava in Northern Syria and Iraq. There, Kurdish forces seized the ISIS-controlled town Tell Hamis in 2014; only to lose it a few weeks later. Kurdish forces at the time of the attack were using one and two man, lightly trained scout patrols for the bulk of their intelligence gathering needs. Yet, that all swiftly changed when Kurdish forces discovered that reliance on simple observations of the enemy positions was not enough.

A two man YPG team in Rojava. Image courtesy of YPG Rojava.

A Regional Commander for the YPJ later explained that the villagers turned on them once they had deployed their rear-guard after the main element advanced. It was then that the Kurds discovered too late that the town was occupied by ISIS supporters and that ISIS fighters had embedded themselves and taken up positions from within the village. This incident caused a full rout of the YPG/YPJ advance and inflicted heavy Kurdish casualties. This loss enacted the need for the development of Tabor.

An Arab YPG Combat Outpost Commander was a scout in the days of this mistake and was one of the first Tabors.  He also provided an early example for a Tabor success; a sabotage party of two Tabor deployed from Kurdish controlled Rojava, and crossed over to the ISIS held Syria. They were provided with ISIS uniforms and forged documents and were able to infiltrate an ISIS stronghold. Once inside they spent several days undercover; playing along and collecting intelligence. When they had gathered what was needed, the pair poisoned the food and water supplies, leaving for dead anyone who could identify them or commit anymore acts of evil.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Throughout the following month espionage and sabotage continued, now in conjunction with strikes. These strikes were executed by follow on Kurdish forces after a Tabor had passed along key strategic findings or rendered the camp neutralized. Currently these guerrilla methods work well-enough for their on-going evolution allowing the YPG/YPJ to expand and multiply the Tabor, effectivity estimating the long term fight that they face against a deceptive and relentless enemy.

Tabor is one of many units operating in the political sphere and growing military infrastructure of the YPG/YPJ which is all originally linked to the PYD, the most powerful Kurdish political party in Syria. Developments and task organization has allowed the YPG/YPJ to now be seen as the armed force of all of Syrian Kurdistan. The YPG/YPJ was initially developed by the PYD and the KNC. The merger of these organizations created what is known as the Kurdish Supreme Committee (DBK); and the YPG and subsequent YPJ as its armed wing.

This 2012 formation came from the precursor Syrian Kurdish campaign, starting in-effect of the aftermath of the al-Qamishli clashes of 2004, an insurrection by Syrian Kurds in the city of al-Qamishli in northeast Syria. A riot instigated when a visiting Arab team raised pictures of Saddam Hussein and the home team (Kurd) waved Kurdish flag. This passive flag waving soon deteriorated into stone-throwing and full-scale city riots. This violent event paved the way for the DBK and subsequent creation of the YPG/YPJ, which was not officially active until the Syrian Civil War.

The 2004 al-Qamshli riots. Image courtesy of Ekurd Daily.

The YPG/YPJ describes itself as “a national legitimate, multi-ethnic and multi-nationality military institution of sons and daughters of the components of the region, the Kurds, Arabs, Syrians, Assyrians, Turkoman and Armenians, who adopt the right of legitimate self-defense in accordance with international laws.” An effective mission statement that incorporated active early planning propaganda and a call-to-action that attracted many to the fight in the Kurdish region. Many who were subsequently proven as increasingly successful against ISIS on the battlefield by late 2013. Taking action with only the militia force composition available at that time, they were effective in a direct fight using World War I style tactics, but at a complete loss on how to conduct modern warfare let alone successful covert unconventional guerilla warfare against ISIS.

Some specialized YPG training. Image courtesy of YPG Rojava.

From the turmoil of the early days, Tabor operations are now being effectively conducted under the YPG flag, but not by its ethnic Kurdish members. It is also important to note that despite some of the more fantastic tales being spun by Westerns who have spent some time with the YPG, they most certainly are not involved in any asymmetrical reconnaissance and sabotage operations. In fact the operational norm for Tabor to be effective in its mission is for it to be comprised entirely of Arab nationals. That’s right, despite many preconceived notions, there are many brave and committed Arabs fighting against ISIS with the YPG and other Kurdish movements.

Arab members are able to conduct these operations as they are conducted behind ISIS lines. These men and women are able to operate within the native socio-cultural norms, speak native dialects and maintain the appearance and dialogue needed to successfully accomplish their mission in a grotesquely violent and hostile area of operations. Using this common-sense approach the YPG/YPJ has developed symptomatic steps based on a discernable response model, using the social and political discontents within its ranks.


Secret Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedanê Yên Veşartî)

  1. The Resistance Units arise from the Provincial and Regional Command (Ayalat). Fully alert about the situation, each cadre creates one or two unit(s) along with him/herself in order to stand against the enemy attacks.
  2. Members of the Resistance Units are carefully chosen, they are the most trusted Combatants.
  3. Each cadre passes its unit(s) through special training courses.
  4. These units are to be secret and unknown, even the members do not know about each other.
  5. Members of these units are highly disciplined and active.
  6. Under any circumstances they protect their ability to fight.


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The active members of Tabor are those whom presumably are locally connected against ISIS and feel a deep sense of frustration; which is at the root of the movement. Tabor members use their cultural know how in conjunction with a disenfranchised local population who are often not involved in the guerrilla and sabotage activities. Then by leveraging the underground widespread popular sympathy for the Kurds, dissent against ISIS, and their own Arab backgrounds the Tabor units are able to conduct the movements which are necessary for sustained operations. All the while ISIS is in a sense is conducting its own secret policing measures that appear to be further motivating dissent within ISIS occupied regions and is an important factor which is contributing in the drive of individuals to participate actively and discreetly, as they aspire for security or revenge against ISIS.

Kurdish forces understand this and have been able to adapt to the segmentation variables of an extremely diverse cultural and geographical region to limit and influence these factors as concepts core to Kurdish methods of operation. By mixing the political and military background of their forces to influence the ideal choice of organizational and operational alternatives the YPG/YPJ has employed a planned and capable guerrilla force. Thus the deployment of Arabs sympathetic to Kurdish the Kurdish cause who become specialists in unconventional warfighter roles behind ISIS lines.

As the fight against ISIS drags on and groups like the YPG/YPJ expand and develops their internal units such as Tabor it becomes fallible to the organizational concerns and internal politics such as funding issues, target selection, matching political goals, assessing and overseeing the operational planning, logistics, reconnaissance and post operational assessment. There is also a sharp line at every action tempering the leadership to adhere to Party aligned group decision making dynamics, and every action potentially vulnerable to opposing force intelligence. The YPG/YPJ hard left leaning political-sphere often countermands most large-scale success. It is only through ISIS’s alarming gains in Iraq, especially the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which has had a unifying effect on the YPG/YPJ thus strengthening Kurdish cross-border and cross-cultural ties [the enemy of my enemy, is my friend].

A distinction between the politics and campaign actions of Tabor can also be made as to their method used to commit espionage and sabotage against ISIS. Tabor employs any and all of the two basic types of weapons: conventional, and biological. Asides from a standard small arms package, Tabor employs conventional munitions which include but are not limited to incendiary methods, contaminating fuel supplies, poisoning ISIS food and water supplies, targeting monetary infrastructure and the deployment of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and landmines.

Tabor using these methods actively while passively collecting intelligence as a clandestine activity with the capability to destroy or render inoperative ISIS combat equipment, logistics, facilities, utilities and resources, used to support the ISIS regime. Activities which align with intent of Tabor to conceal their methods while rendering ISIS capabilities and personnel inoperable; and avoiding detection by the ISIS forces and sympathizers. Tabor has always supported the main effort by conducting overt advanced ambushes, coordinating attacking units and using ordnance to destroy bridges and other infrastructure.

Some on the regional infrastructure in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan. Image courtesy of the author.

Regardless, the application of Tabor unconventional warfare must be morally rationalized; control must be balanced against long-term security. Kurdish, YPG/YPJ and Tabor plans and operations staff must make considerations on the weapons deployed and the judgement of tactics to formulate viable strategies which are not going to cultivate more bad blood in a region already overflowing with it. Tabor must plan for mission success, meaning this fight carries with it not only the winds of change but a change not in need of further destabilization and violence.  The development and deployment of Tabor as a specialized fighting force of Arabs with the Kurds is a demonstrative action and unlikely key to success in the pursuit or combating ISIS and long-term, cross-cultural regional cooperation.