SDF, National Army resort to guerilla war tactics at contact lines

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in military practices with the US-led International Coalition - March 25, 2022 (AFP)

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in military practices with the US-led International Coalition - March 25, 2022 (AFP)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) carried out on August 9 an operation it described as “retaliation” against the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in response to the bombing of its strongholds in northern Syria over the past ten days.

At the time, media outlets close to the SDF released a video recording of the operation, which showed its members infiltrating a military point of the National Army (SNA) and killing those inside, in an operation considered the second of its kind.

The Ministry of Defense of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), the SNA’s political umbrella, published on the X (formerly Twitter) platform a statement attached to it with a video recording that it said it obtained from a camera carried by one of the elements who attacked the same military post.

The statement stated that the attack, which took place in the Tal Tamr area, north of al-Hasakah, near the Turkish border, was thwarted, and at least two members of the attacking group that fled the scene were killed.

Researchers and analysts interviewed by Enab Baladi believe that the SDF fighters cross the lines of contact, carrying political messages in their rifles, before having targets of a military nature.

Military responses have changed

Last June, Turkish media reported that a missile attack launched by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria targeted the vicinity of Kilis province in southern Turkey, referring to the SDF.

According to what was published by the Son Dakika website, five missiles coming from northern Syria landed on the Turkish side of the Bab al-Salama border crossing, leaving injuries.

This bombardment towards Turkish territory was followed by a bombardment that targeted the Syrian opposition-held areas north of Aleppo, which did not result in any losses.

Since July, the mechanism of how the SDF has dealt with the military escalation against it in Syria has changed. On July 10, it carried out a lightning operation on a point where fighters from the Sham Legion, a key SNA unit, north of Aleppo, are stationed.

According to opposition news accounts, a group affiliated with the SDF succeeded in infiltrating and reaching one of the military points in which members of the Sham Legion are stationed in the Basoufan area in the countryside of Afrin, leaving five dead without any losses among the attacking group.

“Guerrilla war”

Mahmoud Horani, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Enab Baladi that these operations fall within the scope of “guerrilla war,” which includes raids, ambushes, and snipers.

Many local parties in Syria resort to these operations against each other for several reasons, including political ones represented in the understandings between the regional and international intervening forces, which are responsible for stabilizing the fighting fronts throughout the Syrian geography, and the local forces supported by the former forces.

Horani added that the understandings of the regional powers aim to establish areas of control and influence for the local forces, and therefore the operations carried out by the SDF in the region or carried out by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in western Syria, “do not deviate from being attempts to influence the opponent or a form of attrition.”

This type of lightning operation is represented by several goals for the attacking party, the first of which is the absence of the desire of the party responsible for the attack to control new areas and to incur the trouble of defending them, as it intends to carry out a sudden operation that incurs losses to the opponent.

It can also be considered that the absence of the desire of the party itself to acquire a new area and prepare it as a starting point for new operations is the reason for adopting this type of military tactic, as it will not cost it large human and military losses.

For the aforementioned reasons, the researcher said that the local military authorities in Syria depend on the principle of “hit and run.”

These operations target the morale of the fighters on the side being attacked, given the fear and anticipation they sow in the hearts of the fighters, because the possibility of attacking them is possible at any moment through (raid, infiltration, or ambush), according to Horani.

Changing the rules of engagement

Despite the small impact achieved by these operations, compared to the military operations that the Syrian geography has witnessed over the past years, the fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Osama Sheikh Ali, believes that this type of movement has messages that go beyond the military situation.

Analyst Horani of Jusoor Studies Center told Enab Baladi that the SDF is trying, through this type of movement, to bring about a change in the rules of engagement on the battle fronts as it has always responded to the escalation against it by artillery targeting the SNA points or Turkish military bases in northern Syria.

The continuous Turkish escalation in the SDF-held areas east of the Euphrates is pushing more of these operations to the fore, as the latter is trying to secure more effective responses to the Turkish bombing of its areas.

The SDF-held areas have witnessed an escalation in bombing by Turkey and the SNA since the beginning of August, as the SNA artillery and Turkish warplanes continuously bombed separate locations in the countryside of Aleppo and al-Hasakah in northern Syria.

The Turkish drones targeted separate locations in the vicinity of the city of Tal Tamr, north of al-Hasakah, coinciding with artillery shelling of the same area on August 8.

The shelling continues on an almost daily basis in the same areas and has extended to the eastern countryside of Aleppo and parts of the northern and western countryside, where the SDF is stationed.

Escape from a new US project

In light of the continuous talk since last July about American preparations to launch military action in Deir Ezzor governorate against Iranian groups, attention is drawn to the role of the SDF, America’s local ally in the region.

While the SDF does not show direct public hostility to the Iranian militias, expert Osama Sheikh Ali believes that the Kurdish military faction is trying to show focused efforts on its number one enemy in the region, which is Turkey.

Through the operations on the contact lines, the SDF forces aim to clearly show their preoccupation with Turkey on the battlefronts in order to evade their involvement in any military action against the Iranians in Syria, according to Sheikh Ali.

He added that “If we want to measure the operations in this way, we must point out that part of the PKK that controls the joints of decision-making in the SDF includes a faction close to the Iranians and may play an effective role in these operations.”

The PKK is trying to restore the SDF’s military path towards its open front with Turkey in order to avoid entering into a military alliance with America against Iran, said Sheikh Ali.

The SDF announced for the second time, in December 2022, the suspension of its joint operations with the International Coalition led by the United States, with the intensification of Turkish threats of an expected military operation against it.

SDF spokesman Aram Henna told Reuters that “all coordination and joint counter-terrorism operations” with the US-led coalition battling remnants of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria as well as “all the joint special operations we were carrying out regularly,” had been halted.

Hanna justified this step by the Turkish bombardment of an area under the SDF control. This step was confirmed by the US military, which said that the US forces in the region “temporarily stopped all joint operations” against IS in Syria.



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