President Obama has announced that 50 special operations personnel will be deployed to northern Syria, a region the Kurds call Rojava. This of course ignores that fact that small numbers of American, British, French, and perhaps several other countries’ special operations personnel have already been in and out of Syria. Nonetheless, as it appears U.S. Special Forces ODAs, 12-man elements tailor-made for unconventional warfare, are deploying to Syria, it may be worth writing a primary on what they can expect to find when they arrive there.
In my own experience, linking up with the Kurdish militia in Syria very closely mimicked the Robin Sage exercise Special Forces soldiers complete at the end of the Special Forces Qualification Course. The environment that ODAs will find themselves in when they reach Rojava will be challenging, but they have certainly been trained for it.
The two armed forces that have been fighting in Rojava are militia offshoots of the PKK. These groups are called the YPG and YPJ. Unlike Western armies, the Kurds have a unique approach to gender equality that stresses the notion of separate but equal. To that end, women have their own fighting force seperate from the men, one particular to females called the YPJ. The men’s militia is called the YPG. “YPJ and YPG are exactly the same; the only difference is one has all vaginas and one has all penises. They work as a cohesive single unit,” an American who served in the YPG told SOFREP.
Additionally, the United States has cobbled together a new coalition in northern Syria called the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes elements of the Free Syrian Army. That said, the FSA has proven ineffective and unreliable, while the YPG and YPJ have shown themselves to be secular, democratic, and effective on the battlefield.
“Languages are primarily the Kurmancî dialect of Kurdish and some Turkish and Arabic,” the foreign fighter in the YPG told SOFREP. There are some English-speaking Kurds, but many have been killed during the course of the war. Also, many Kurds from the overseas diaspora have returned to help the war effort, so you will also encounter German- and French-speaking Kurds in the YPG and YPJ.
Northern Syria is flat as a pancake, aside from the Kurdish-held canton of Afrin in northeast Syria. Battles are fought from villages to villages, which are called gunes. Urban operations are also a function of man-made terrain, and heavy fighting has taken place in built-up areas like Kobani. Although Rojava is easy to navigate by road, or off-road with appropriate vehicles, the climate during the winter adds serious mobility challenges.
“Terrain varies, however, in winter, the whole fucking country turns into a god-awful mud pit. It is slick and clumps like you wouldn’t believe. It is heavy too, and will stick to your boots like nothing I have ever seen. This mud in the winter will hinder movement of most vehicles. Tracked vehicles will be able to move fine, but I have seen more than one Humvee stuck in the mud,” a SOFREP source commented.
One area in which U.S. Special Forces teams can be of great help to Kurdish forces in Rojava is logistics. The YPG and YPJ were born out of the PKK, with its decades of waging guerrilla warfare in Kurdistan and Turkey. Because of their status as an underground movement, their communications and logistics are clandestine, hidden from the average observer. This makes sense for an underground movement, but is ineffective when applied to an army fighting what is mostly a conventional war in Syria.
When getting smuggled into Syria a year ago, this author traveled across the river dividing Syria and Kurdistan on a small inflatable raft. After the kooky American writer made it across, weapons and fighters were then ferried across the river. From there, they were loaded into pickup trucks and driven away. A logistics process does exist, but it takes so long to function that supplies and support often arrive too late. One of the main reasons for this is the decentralized nature of the YPG/YPJ organization. Again, they evolved out of a guerilla movement. As a result, you have individual tabor (platoon) leaders all attempting to win the war in their own way without much coordination.
When a request for ammunition, fuel, or food needs to be sent up the chain, it is done via courier, often utilizing hidden and coded notes shuttled from unit to unit. This process is painstaking and too slow for the speed at which modern warfare moves, especially if the enemy are simply making calls on their cell phones. The YPG/YPJ method is very secure from intercept, but too much speed is sacrificed during a battle.
Unlike Western militaries, the YPG and YPJ practice the art of infiltration. Infiltration is a tactic used by guerilla groups and is often associated with more Eastern-thinking societies. American troops encountered such tactics when fighting the VC in Vietnam. In the mind of the guerrilla, he or she can defeat a larger and more sophisticated enemy by silently infiltrating within 10 meters of his position. This defeats many of the defenses and stand-off techniques the enemy may employ.
Creeping up to enemy positions in the dead of night and then firing from 10 meters away is distinctly different than the American method of warfare, which stresses fire and maneuver infantry tactics.
Culture and ideology
“There will be many friction points between the two [American and Kurdish], the largest (other than language barrier) is going to be political ideology,” our contact said. The YPG and YPJ follow a political philosophy called democratic confederalism, which places a heavy emphasis on gender equality and grassroots democracy. However, they also reject the notion of capitalism and free enterprise. Economically speaking, the Kurds would like to establish a barter-based economy, which makes little use of a monetary system. The YPG/YPJ political outlook is heavily derived from the writings of the PKK’s leader and figurehead, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been held in a Turkish prison since 1999.
Their political philosophy is well intended, but whether or not their democratic experiment can be effectively implemented remains to be seen. On the positive side, if they are able to pull it off, democratic confederalism could serve as a model for democracy and cooperation in the Middle East. American Special Forces advisors should be prepared to accept the Kurdish notion of gender equality, which differs substantially from what currently exists in the U.S. military. They should also be prepared to discuss politics, as the Kurds are very enthusiastic about having political conversations and teaching outsiders about their beliefs. That said, they do not believe they should force their ideology on anyone, but rather educate people through dialog.
This has been a very brief primer for foreigners to begin to understand the dynamics at play in Rojava, a subject which could easily fill an entire book. Hopefully it forms a basis for further research and cultural study for soldiers who may be deploying to the region. It is my belief that the YPJ/YPG is an acceptable partner for U.S. Special Forces soldiers to work with, however they will have to adapt their methods to fit the unique situation in Rojava, something Green Berets are trained to do in the first place.
The YPJ and YPG have made great gains against ISIS over the last year and have plans to capture their capital city of Raqqa. U.S. Special Forces advisors can be of great assistance in coordinating airstrikes, improving communications between Kurdish units, modernizing their logistical infrastructure, fielding and training the Kurds to use anti-tank and indirect fire weapons systems, teaching them basic medical first-responder techniques, and much more. The challenges presented on the battlefield can be overcome by the Kurds and Special Forces working together, but the larger political issues, the so-called Kurdish question, is something which is likely to persist long after ISIS is defeated.
But that, of course, is another story.