Skip to main content

1.2. Syrian Democratic Forces and Asayish

Common analysis
Last updated: September 2020

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a Kurdish-led multi-ethnic force comprising of Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic groups. It was created in 2015 to support the US-led coalition in the war against ISIL. It is considered being a ‘broad spectrum security apparatus that conducts counterinsurgency operations, (local) patrols, checkpoint operations, detention operations and clearance patrols’. The Kurdish forces have been US’s main ‘ground force partner’ in the fight against ISIL and were supplied by them with training and military equipment. As of November 2019, the SDF continue to retain significant security roles in northeast Syria, but the situation is subject to rapid changes. [Actors, 3.1.2, Security 2020, 1.4.3]

SDF was neither in alliance with the Syrian opposition nor with the government, but it was nevertheless largely dependent on the GoS, which funded certain State institutions in the area and paid salaries to State employees [Targeting, 3].

The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG), who helped to establish the SDF in October 2015 and who provide its core fighting forces and largely ensure its leadership [Actors, 3.2.1]. The YPG were established in 2012 as the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) - a Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There are two groups: the YPG and the Women’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Jinê, YPJ) [Actors, 3.2.1].

YPG and YPJ are reportedly ‘responsible for defence and security, including protecting the ‘external borders’ with Iraq, Turkey and the rest of Syria’. Various sources estimate SDF's strength to be around 40 000 to 60 000 fighters, of which estimated 20 000 to 30 000 fighters are from YPG [Actors, 3.1.2, 3.2.1].

As of February 2020, in north-east Syria, SDF controlled most of Raqqa and Hasaka governorates, part of Deir Ez-Zor governorate north-east of the Euphrates, and parts of Aleppo governorate around Manbij and Kobane, and the area around Tal Rifaat [Security 2020, 1.5.3].

The Asayish are the Kurdish internal security forces and fulfil various security roles that range from police to counterterrorism. The Asayish is comprised of six branches: traffic police, counter-terror forces, women’s Asayish, checkpoint security, general security and anti-organised crime. The counter-terrorism forces deal with security situation that involve kidnappings, terrorism, suicide attacks, capturing fugitives and intelligence. They also provide support to SDF/YPG operations. Asayish reportedly has command centres in each canton of the Kurdish-controlled region, some of which operate independently from each other. Mid‑2017, Asayish estimates put their strength between 10 000 and 12 000 members. There are also 30 000 police officers operating in Kurdish-controlled areas in northeast Syria [Actors, 3.2.2, Security 2020, 1.4.3].

There is information on corruption, extortion and abuses of power at the hands of SDF personnel. Several sources noted that the PYD and the affiliated Asayish engaged in arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and torture of political opponents such as the Kurdish National Council (KNC), arrests of journalists, members of human rights organisations, and individuals who refused to cooperate with Kurdish groups. [Actors, 3.2.3, 3.3]

Local sources noted that SDF/YPG has arbitrarily detained and indiscriminately killed civilians during anti-ISIL raids. Arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances of persons perceived to be affiliated with ISIL or armed opposition groups have also been reported. Moreover, it was reported that thousands of women, men and children continued to be unlawfully interned or detained, some of them held in deplorable conditions in makeshift camps unfit to meet their basic needs. [Actors, 3.3]

There have also been accounts of marginalisation of Arabs in governance matters and temporary closures of schools that refused to adopt the Kurdish curriculum [Actors, 3.3]. In Deir Ez-Zor governorate, Arab residents complained about the lack of services, discrimination, forcible conscription and a failure to release prisoners [Actors, 3.2.3].

The recruitment and use of 313 children by YPG/YPJ in the period from January to December 2018 has also been verified [Actors, 3.3].

  For further information on human rights violations committed by the SDF and the Asayish and their relevance as potential exclusion grounds, see Exclusion.