Updated: Mar 19
Introduction & Overview
The People's Defense Units (YPG - Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) are a Kurdish militia based in Syria and is the main component force which makes up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This armed militia was set up in order to protect and defend Kurdish inhabited areas in northern Syria such as Syrian Kurdistan and the Kurdish majority neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsood in Aleppo. It is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party in Syria which is a Kurdish left-wing political party established in 2003. In mid-2012, the group faced Syrian government forces in a standoff outside of the city of Kobanî and -- after negotiations between the two forces the government -- troops withdrew and the YPG took control of several areas, including Kobanî, Amuda and Afrin (Abdulmajid, 2012).
As a part of the SDF, the YPG has maintained the autonomy of the region in northeastern Syria known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), or Rojava (The New Arab & Agencies, 2016). This autonomous region, although not fully recognised by any state apart from the Catalan parliament (Wilgenburg, 2021), is multiethnic and this is reflected in the membership makeup of the YPG. Although made up of primarily Kurdish members, the YPG has significant numbers of minority groups within its ranks, including Assyrian as well as Armenian Christian members. The group also has a subcomponent unit known as the YPG International, which is made up of foreign fighters who travelled to Syria in order to fight alongside the SDF in an English-speaking unit. It is mostly composed of Western Europeans and Americans.
History & Foundations
The group was set up as a unified force in early 2011, and the self-defence committees (which were the early progenitor organisation of the YPG) were formed and were known as the YXG or the Self Protection Units (Knapp et al. 2016, p51). Formed as a response to the Syrian Civil war which began in 2011, the YPG (or its predecessor) was set up in order to secure and represent a Kurdish desire for autonomy and protection from Islamist extremist groups such as ISIS. In 2015, the group secured a major victory against Islamic State forces during the siege of Kobanî, in which the YPG received support from the US air force and retook the city after a 3 and a half month siege (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 2015) and by mid march (3 months later), the YPG and allied forces had retaken almost all of the villages which had been lost in the Kobanî region (deSyracuse, 2015).
The YPG is regarded as the ‘most effective’ fighting force in Syria (BBC Monitoring, 2015). Since 2015 the group has led multiple successful campaigns against ISIS, including leading the operation within the SDF to liberate the city of Raqqa from IS forces. This campaign was successful and the SDF, including more than 25000 YPG fighters (83% of all fighters in the campaign) (BBC Middle East, 2016), recaptured an area of more than 7,400 square kilometres from ISIL during the overall campaign (Department of Defence, 2017).
Objectives & Ideology
As the official army of the AANES (Rojava), the YPG was set up to protect the values of the people of Rojava and as such it is founded on several ideological principles including ecology, women's liberation, and the protection/development of a democratic society in Rojava (YPG, 2020). Due to its democratic principles and the ideology espoused by the AANES, it is a volunteer army made up of various religions and ethnicities including Arabs, Assyrians, Yazidis, Armenians as well as Turkmen and Kurds (Holmes, 2020). The YPG also had increasing amounts of women joining its ranks due to its feminist liberatory political stance, which is especially unique in the region, and since then it has set up a separate military organisation known as the YPJ (Women's Protection Units) with an estimated membership of 24,000 (Argentieri, 2017) in order to organise the increasing amounts of female recruits (Jan Kalan, 2013).
Military & Political Abilities
The group has been frequently described as being “one of the most effective forces in the fight against ISIS” (BBC Monitoring, 2015) and this is reflected in their military abilities. Due to its origin as a light infantry force, the YPG has limited amounts of military equipment. As a result, it relies heavily upon snipers and infantry armed with soviet era weaponry which is then backed up by mounted HMGs (Heavy Machine Guns). Officers within the YPG are appointed via internal elections and this is reflected in the self-designation as a people's army and the YPGs ideological background (Ahmad, 2012). The YPG has the least amount of armour available to them in comparison to other major factions in the Syrian conflict such as ISIS and the Syrian army (Nasi, 2017). However the lack of armoured vehicles such as tanks has not hindered the YPG and they have produced what are effectively DIY armoured vehicles, often welding the hulls of abandoned APCs such as the BTR-60 (Armoured Personnel Carriers) to the back of trucks to create improvised AFVs (Armoured Fighting Vehicles) (Mitzer and Oliemans, 2021).
The group has also received a large amount of equipment from the United States, including mine-resistant vehicles as well as Humvees and a number of M2 Bradley IFVs. These vehicles were given to the YPG by the US in order to increase their effectiveness in the fight against ISIS. However, due to the latter's diminishing as a battlefield-capable threat, these vehicles will most likely be used to fight against Turkish incursions in northern Syria (Reuters, 2022).
Approach to Resistance
Although the group is violent, this violence is expressed in a different context when compared to other regional insurgencies such as ISIS or Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). For instance, YPG forces are more defensive of territory which they claim to be theirs and are largely egalitarian. However, accusations of ethnic displacement and cleansing have been reported against the group due to the bulldozing and forced displacement of villages. They have denied these allegations on the grounds that they were demolishing building used by ISIS (Amnesty International, 2015).
Due to their democratic socialist ideals, the group's actions are in stark contrast with other groups in the region. This has led to them detaining and imprisoning opposing fighters instead of executing them, and this has since led to the mass-overfilling of their prison systems as they have to decide between protecting these prisons or fending off Turkish incursions and attacks (Berger, 2019). In combat, the group has utilised US-led coalition airstrikes to great effect and this enabled them to take back land which was once controlled by ISIS and other Syria-based opponents such as the SNA (Syrian National Army) (Rosenblatt and Kilcullen,2020). Nevertheless, due to their largest opponents now being the Turkish army, the US and its coalition partners are unable to target Turkish military installations and the Turkish Air Force; the YPG has hence struggled in their fight against Turkey (Al-Jazeera, 2018).
International Relations & Potential Alliances
The YPG has extensive international links which range from material and combat support provided by the US-led Coalition forces to potential links and cooperation with the Russian Air force (Faulconbridge, 2016). The US has supported the YPG with both equipment and air support, which helped to lead to the deterioration of ISIS control over territories that they had earlier captured (Weaver and Borger, 2015). YPG special forces have also benefited from US support and they have been seen being equipped with US weaponry and equipment in the form of American night vision goggles, American combat helmets and M4 carbines amongst other items. However, the Pentagon has denied officially supplying the YPG with this equipment (Snow, 2017).
Allegations of cooperation between the YPG and the Russian Armed forces have been widespread and claims for this have stated that there is “very disturbing evidence of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian air force” (Faulconbridge, 2016). This has led to ambiguity regarding the Kurdish role in the overall peace process in Syria, as there is speculation that they may seek to collaborate more closely with the Syrian government and the Russian Federation in order to secure their existence (Ayton, 2020).
The withdrawal of American forces from North Eastern Syria in October of 2019 due to a redeployment order by then US President Trump has caused the YPG to reconsider their relationship with America due to further conflicts with Turkey (Tastekin, 2020). This has opened up further negotiations for further collaboration between the YPG and Russia and potentially the Syrian government.
Works Cited (MLA-style)
Abdulmajid, Adib. “More Kurdish Cities in Syrian Kurdistan Liberated as Assad’s Army Withdraws from Area.” Www.ekurd.net, 21 July 2012, www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2012/7/syriakurd540.htm.
Ahmad, Rozh. “A Rare Glimpse into Kurdish Armed Forces in Syrian Kurdistan.” Www.ekurd.net, 6 Aug. 2012, www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2012/8/syriakurd578.htm.
Al-Jazeera. “Turkey Launches Ground and Air Push on Kurd-Held Afrin.” Www.aljazeera.com, 21 Jan. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/1/21/erdogan-operation-in-syrias-afrin-has-begun.
Amnesty International. “Amnesty International.” Amnesty.org, 13 Oct. 2015, www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/10/syria-us-allys-razing-of-villages-amounts-to-war-crimes/.
Argentieri, Benedetta. “Meet the Female Soldiers in Syria and Iraq Fighting for Gender Equality as Much as Freedom.” The Telegraph, 18 Aug. 2017, www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/meet-female-soldiers-syria-iraq-fighting-gender-equality-much/.
Ayton, Matthew. “Amid US Uncertainty in Syria, Kurdish YPG Eyes Bolstering Ties with Russia.” Atlantic Council, 23 Mar. 2020, www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/amid-us-uncertainty-in-syria-kurdish-ypg-eyes-bolstering-ties-with-russia/.
BBC Middle East. “Syria Conflict: Rebel Force Targets IS ‘Capital’ Raqqa.” BBC News, 6 Nov. 2016, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-37889133.
BBC Monitoring. “Turkey v Syria’s Kurds v Islamic State.” BBC News, 28 July 2015, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-33690060.
Berger, Miriam. “Here’s What We Know about the ISIS Prisons Controlled by the Syrian Kurds.” Washington Post, 14 Oct. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/10/12/inside-isis-prisons-controlled-by-syrian-kurds/.
Department of Defence. “Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Dorrian via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq.” U.S. Department of Defense, 15 Mar. 2017, www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/1119873/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-col-dorrian-via-teleconference-from-bag/
deSyracuse. “@DeSyracuse Syria Civil War (21 April 2015) - UMap.” Umap.openstreetmap.fr, 21 Apr. 2015, umap.openstreetmap.fr/fr/map/desyracuse-syria-civil-war-21-april-2015_37133#10/36.7064/38.3862.
Faulconbridge, Guy. “Britain Says Uneasy after Evidence of Kurdish Coordination with Syria and Russia.” Reuters, 23 Feb. 2016, www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-kurds-idUSKCN0VW165.
Holmes, Amy Austin. “Arabs across Syria Join the Kurdish-Led Syrian Democratic Forces.” MERIP, 28 July 2020, merip.org/2020/07/arabs-across-syria-join-the-kurdish-led-syrian-democratic-forces/
Jan Kalan. “Formation the First Battalion of Women’s Protection Units in Western Kurdistan.” JAN KALAN, 3 Mar. 2013, jankalan.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/formation-the-first-battalion-of-womens-protection-units-in-western-kurdistan/.
Knapp, Michael, et al. “Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan.” JSTOR, Pluto Press, 2016, p. 51, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1gk07zg.
Mitzer, Stijn, and Joost Oliemans. “Kurdish Armour: Inventorising YPG Equipment in Northern Syria.” Oryx, 29 Oct. 2021, www.oryxspioenkop.com/2021/10/kurdish-armour-inventorising-ypg.html.
Nasi, Selin. “Turkey’s High Stakes in Post-ISIL Syria.” Hürriyet Daily News, 5 July 2017, www.hurriyetdailynews.com/opinion/selin-nasi/turkeys-high-stakes-in-post-isil-syria-115164.
Reuters. “Factbox: What Is the Syrian Kurdish YPG?” Reuters, 14 Nov. 2022, www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/what-is-syrian-kurdish-ypg-2022-11-14/.
Rosenblatt, Nate, and David Kilcullen. “The Tweet of Damocles.” New America, 6 Apr. 2020, www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/tweet-damocles/.
Snow, Shawn. “Syrian Kurds Are Now Armed with Sensitive US Weaponry, and the Pentagon Denies Supplying It.” Military Times, 8 Aug. 2017, www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2017/05/07/syrian-kurds-are-now-armed-with-sensitive-us-weaponry-and-the-pentagon-denies-supplying-it/.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “YPG Retakes the Entire City of Ayn Al- Arab ‘Kobani’ after 112 Days of Clashes with IS Militants • the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 26 Jan. 2015, www.syriahr.com/en/2015/01/ypg-retakes-the-entire-city-of-ayn-al-arab-kobani-after-112-days-of-clashes-with-is-militants-2/.
Tastekin, Fehim. “How Idlib Escalation Could Affect Syrian Kurds - Al-Monitor: Independent, Trusted Coverage of the Middle East.” Www.al-Monitor.com, 10 Feb. 2020, www.al-monitor.com/originals/2020/02/turkey-syria-idlib-how-could-escalation-bear-on-syrian-kurds.html.
The New Arab & Agencies. “Syria Kurds Adopt Constitution for Autonomous Federal Region.” Https://Www.newarab.com/, 31 Dec. 2016, www.newarab.com/news/syria-kurds-adopt-constitution-autonomous-federal-region.
Weaver, Matthew, and Julian Borger. “Syria Airstrikes: Everything You Need to Know.” The Guardian, 1 Dec. 2015, www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/01/syria-airstrikes-everything-you-need-to-know.
Wilgenburg, Wladimir Wan. “Catalan Parliament Recognizes Administration in Northeast Syria.” Kurdistan24, 21 Oct. 2021, www.kurdistan24.net/en/story/25991-Catalan-parliament-recognizes-administration-in-northeast-Syria.