SDF’s war tactics against Syrian National Army

Elements of the Syrian National Army (SNA) conducting a sweep operation (The Hamza Division / Twitter)

Elements of the Syrian National Army (SNA) conducting a sweep operation (The Hamza Division / Twitter)


Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

Guided missiles, infiltration at contact lines, sniping, and bombing military points are all tactics adopted by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the so-called Afrin Liberation Forces, also known as the Hezen Rizgariya Efrine (HRE), to approach conflict lines between the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA)’s areas and SDF-held areas, and launch attacks.

Mohammed, one of the SNA elements, told Enab Baladi after requesting his last name be withheld for security reasons that members of the SNA felt an unusual movement at an opposite SDF military post near the conflict lines between the two sides. However, they could not verify the situation because they had no night or thermal binoculars and remained vigilant in anticipation of a surprise attack.

He added that hours passed quietly till dawn without skirmishes or clashes, which was customary at points of contact between SDF’s and SNA’s controlled areas.

Mohammed said that the night watch is limited to SNA members given the monitoring task, while the rest of the elements at the points remain asleep.

The silence of dawn was broken by sounds of SDF snipers’ shots hitting the SNA’s military emplacement. The snipers’ heavy shooting created a state of great confusion among the SNA members positioned at the emplacement. At that moment, the SNA elements were under the SDF’s snipers’ shooting range. 

The attacked post members demanded support from other SNA points through their wireless devices. Soon, Mohammed and his group arrived at the targeted location, but “with great difficulty.”

Mohammed recalled to Enab Baladi the aftermath of the SDF targeting, saying that he found one of his fellow fighters lying on the ground and bleeding heavily after being shot repeatedly.

“The sounds of the SDF fighters seemed very close,” Mohammed said, adding that “We could not raise our heads to sweep the area on the opposite side because of the intensity of hostile sniper fire.”

That night, additional reinforcements were called for support, and clashes continued until morning came, forcing SDF fighters to withdraw from the area and end the infiltration operation.

“We got used to SDF infiltration tactics carried out in the early evening hours and their secret hiding near our points for long hours. They monitor our movements and seize the opportunity to attack our posts up close, making it hard for our elements to guess the attacking source,” Mohammed said.

The SNA controls Aleppo’s northern countryside and the cities of Ras al-Ain to the northwest of al-Hasakah and Tal Abyad to the north of Raqqa. Meanwhile, the SDF controls the opposite lines in al-Hasakah, Raqqa, and Aleppo governorates.

SDF’s attacks between strategic distraction and pressuring enemies

The SNA spokesman Major Youssef Hamoud told Enab Baladi that through continued infiltration and attacks on SNA posts, SDF aims to achieve several gains or objectives. 

The most prominent of these objectives is to expose SNA military points, the number of military personnel, and the type of armament the SNA has. 

Another reason behind the SDF infiltration is to distract the SNA elements while entering booby-trapped vehicles to SNA-held areas, Hamoud said.

On 2 September, Hawar News Agency, which is close to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), reported that the HRE had announced the killing of 11 SNA elements through targeting contact line military points during day and night operations.  

On 12 September, the HRE released a video recording showing a night attack on an SNA point using night devices and equipment. The attack left injured SNA elements who were shot at close range while the attackers seized light weapons from the point.

Kurdish media outlets close to SDF also reported the targeting of SNA military emplacements and bunkers at contact lines with anti-tank guided missiles.

The HRE is a group of Kurdish fighters who describe their group as a “resistance movement” targeting the Turkish army and the Turkey-backed SNA in Afrin and other conflict regions.

The HRE does not explicitly state that it is affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or the SDF, but it carries out operations from SDF areas.

Video recordings of the HRE reveal that the movement has sophisticated infiltration equipment.

As for the SNA side, the al-Bab Military Council spoke of the targeting of a Turkish army headquarters and observatory points and SNA posts in the al-Yashli village on 7 September. 

The council released a statement saying that the targeting operation started with a “potent bombing,” which “destroyed a large part of the headquarters, armored vehicles, and fortifications. Other high impact strikes affected fortifications, armored machines, and heavy weapons in the headquarters perimeter.”

The statement also added that 12 Turkish soldiers and ten elements of the SNA were killed, while others were wounded by the SDF targeting.

It is worth mentioning that the Turkish side neither commented nor confirmed the information mentioned in the statement. 

The SDF’s targeting was part of its “Deterring Terrorism” operation initiated after a number of SDF fighters and leaders were killed by a Turkish drones attack last August.

In turn, the SNA factions attack SDF points with artillery and rocket launchers in response to infiltration or bombing of their areas.

Sending messages

Some of the SDF military operations against the SNA convey political messages from different parties, mainly the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the United States, the SDF’s biggest supporters, Hamoud said. 

He added, “The lack of experience and weakness at some SNA military points have enabled the SDF to breach several fronts and cause deaths and injuries among the SNA elements.”

The SDF excels at night infiltration due to the military support it receives from the US, which enabled it to acquire state-of-the-art military equipment, especially night and thermal binoculars, a defining winning factor in the war against the SNA.

Russia is also standing behind the SDF, which maintains cooperation with the Syrian regime, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in some military operations, particularly in Azaz city, northern Aleppo, Hamoud said. 

On 12 September, the SNA announced the capture of a member of the regime forces after an infiltration and combat operation with SDF in the Kafr Khasher front, south of Azaz city.

Hamoud said that the capturing incident is indicative of the regime’s and its allies’ support for SDF in military operations and bombings targeting the SNA in its areas of control.

The SNA areas are occasionally hit by explosions that leave civilian deaths. The SNA holds sleeper cells from the regime, the SDF, and the Islamic State (IS) responsible for these explosions.  

Residential neighborhoods in Aleppo countryside are also targeted by shelling from SDF and regime-held areas. The latest of these attacks was on 7 September, on the Sheikh Nasser village in the countryside of al-Bab city, eastern Aleppo. The attack resulted in a civilian injury and the death of a number of livestock in the perimeter of the targeted house, according to the Syria Civil Defence (SCD) team.

On 25 July, eight civilians were injured by an SDF attack with seven Grad rockets on Afrin city center. The attack caused material damage to some of the houses where the rockets landed, the SCD reported. 

Nevertheless, the SDF denies any responsibility for bombing opposition areas in northern and eastern Aleppo countryside and Afrin.

Why the guerrilla warfare style?

Major Youssef Hamoud believes the reason behind the SDF infiltration and targeting operations using the guerrilla warfare style, unlike its traditional battles following the regime’s advancement in its areas, is the SDF’s “limited” military options.

The SDF cannot follow the regime’s open war strategy; therefore, it started investing in guerrilla warfare training for special groups to carry out infiltration operations, night ones in particular, Hamoud said.

The presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters since the first beginnings of the YPG establishment, the backbone of the SDF, and the PKK leaders’ assumption of military positions in the SDF ranks have influenced the SDF fighting method, its development, and increased focus on the guerrilla warfare style that the PKK has mastered since the 1980s.

Hamoud pointed out that the SNA had repelled several infiltration attempts into its military points, killing and wounding SDF fighters and capturing elements of the regime and the Iran-backed Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade.

The SNA fought two military operations against the SDF alongside the Turkish army, namely the Peace Spring Operation, east of Euphrates on 9 October 2019, during which it took control of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, and the Olive Branch Operation in 2018, when it took control of Afrin area in northwestern Aleppo governorate.

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