I recently had the opportunity of helping Professor Alaric Searle, an expert on the history of armoured warfare, to write a book on the use of mobile forces by the Syrian Democratic Forces – or SDF for short. This is being published by Osprey and is coming out in September 2021.
As several people have asked me to do more articles on the Syrian civil war, this seemed like a logical subject.
The SDF was formed in late 2015 from various groups in northern Syria that had been fighting against ISIS. This group, whose name is still unfortunately synonymous with “terror”, exploded on to the stage in 2014 when they routed security forces in Iraq, seizing multiple cities and a vast territory that spanned both Iraq and Syria.
Using the most brutal methods of murder, ISIS terrified many opponents into out and out submission or else overwhelmed them with military force. Their advance soon bought them up against the Kurdish dominated territories in Northeastern Syria.
This region, known locally as Rojava, had effectively become independent in 2011 at the start of the Syrian Civil War. It was populated by several minorities, principally Kurds and Assyrian, as well as retaining enclaves under Syrian government control.
These groups had fought each other, largely at local levels for control of particular areas or resources but had largely reached an uneasy peace as they had ended up fighting Islamist forces under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
This period of peace was smashed when ISIS hove onto the scene. They launched a huge offensive, seeking to take control of all the northeastern border region with Turkey. Their primary opposition was the Kurdish YPG and their female equivalent, the YPJ.
Ideologically speaking the YPG and ISIS were diametrically opposed.
ISIS were religiously inspired, drawing from a narrow definition of Sunni Islam that, to their mind, justified the most heinous of actions against unbelievers. The YPG are politically motivated, with roots in Cold War communist movements but evolved over time into an anarchistic/libertarian ideology. While freedom of religion was espoused by the YPG, generally its members were atheists.
This made its members heathens or, worse, apostates in the eyes of ISIS, and as such the fighting between the two groups was marked by especially vicious atrocities inflicted by ISIS on captured fighters and civilians.
Things came to a head at the Battle of Kobane fought from September 2014 to March 2015. This critical city, located on the border of Syria and Turkey, saw savage house-to-house fighting as the YPG and ISIS fought for control. But through huge sacrifices and assistance from US and later coalition airpower, the YPG and their allies were able to grind down the ISIS attack and go over onto the offensive.
As this went forward it became apparent that, as more factions joined in the fight against ISIS, a more formal structure was required. Thus, it was that in October 2015 that the SDF was formed. This would be one of the principal agents in the liberation of ISIS-conquered territories in Syria, driving the Islamists back. The SDF would take the ISIS capital of Raqqa in 2017 and finally grind out their last enclave in March 2019.
With that basic history explained, let’s look at the forces the YPG and the SDF used to achieve this.
The anti-ISIS forces were very lightly equipped in comparison to many militaries, hardly surprising considering their informal beginnings. As a result, most of the SDF was composed of light infantry, equipped with rifles, principally Kalashnikovs and M16s, machine guns such as the PKM and RPGs.
But because northern Syria is largely rolling plains dotted with towns and villages, any military requires a good measure of mobility to effectively move across the open areas and enable them to take and hold territory. As a result, mobile forces were essential to the campaigns fought there.
Additionally. because many of the forces involved in the Syrian Civil War were composed largely of light infantry, armoured vehicles could make a disproportional difference in a tactical situation. As a result, a whole range of armoured vehicles were used and reused, as they proved too valuable a resource to squander.
The classic demonstration of this are the Improvised Tanks and Armoured Fighting Vehicles.
These vehicles, known as panzers locally, were a complete hodge podge of designs and variations. They would essentially be based on a large civilian wheeled vehicle or a tracked bulldozer which would then have steel plates wielded to it to form a basic armoured vehicle. Often machine gun mounts and turrets would be added for offensive purposes and the whole thing, perhaps unsurprisingly, would resemble a tank of 1918 rather than 2018.
These vehicles formed the early mainstay of the YPGs and SDFs armour fleet but were very much built because nothing else was really available.
In action the “tank” varieties proved cumbersome and slow, as well as dangerously exposed to light anti-tank weapons such as RPGs. As a result, though they served throughout the war, they were relegated to operational reserve by mid-2016 as better equipment became available through capture and supply.
Longer lived were the lighter armoured cars based on chassis like the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux.
These, fitted with armour and a turret containing either a 12.7mm or 14.5mm machine gun, were easier to maintain, far more mobile and provided comparable firepower to the tracked behemoths. As a result, they served throughout the conflict and were a valuable weapon system.
Additionally, the shortage of armoured vehicles meant that damaged vehicles, such as tanks were often repaired as best as possible or else stripped of useful equipment for addition to improvised vehicles. Great example of this is this T-55 tank that had its turret damaged and received a Kurdish built one fitted with a Chinese heavy machine gun.
The importance of the improvised vehicles fell off rapidly as proper military vehicles became available to the YPG and SDF as the war went on. These items came from two main sources – either captured from ISIS or provided by third party sources. Let’s go through them.
The YPG and SDF only had a very limited number of tanks available to them. The majority of these were T54/55s that had been in service with either the Syrian or Iraqi armies and fell into ISIS hands before being captured in turn.
The old tanks had been a mainstay of both countries armoured forces for decades and as a result continued to play major parts in the fighting that beset both.
The SDF probably only ever had a dozen T-55s. For this reason, these tanks were carefully marshalled and used sparingly to protect them from the dangers of ISIS anti-tank missiles. As a result, SDF tanks would NOT be used to advance onto a target – they were too few and precious for that.
Instead, they would act as an assault gun, more akin to direct fire artillery. A tank allocated to support an assault would pull up, generally quite a distance from the target and engage it, often with both their 100mm main gun and machine guns.
Indeed, most tanks were also fitted with an armoured cupola fitted with a heavy machine gun so as to act as protected duşkas – more on them later.
It would then withdraw before any enemy response could be organized.
In addition to the T-55s, the SDF also reportedly captured two to four T-62s from ISIS.
However, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of them being used extensively in combat.
As an aside, and outside of the scope of this video, the YPG also used three former Syrian Army T-72 tanks in their enclave in Afrin, further west.
These were modified to use a form of cage armour to protect against missile attack. But these were not used against ISIS, and I believe were all lost fighting other Islamist groups or in the Turkish invasion of Afrin in 2018.
Armoured Personnel Carriers
The SDF employed multiple types of both tracked and wheeled APC in the war against ISIS. During the initial conflicts before the emergence of ISIS, the YPG managed to salvage and repair a few BTR-60s that were sitting in junk yards.
These had been retired from service with the Syrian Army several years before, but in the period when anything of possible use was used in action, these were got running by any means possible, including reengining. As a result, they tended to be a diverse collection, with many receiving additional armour and weapon fits.
But as former junkers they were not exactly reliable, and most seem to have been lost in the early fighting with ISIS.
Far more successful were a handful of MTLB armoured personnel carriers and armoured HUMVEE vehicles that were captured from ISIS. Original taken from the Iraqi army, small numbers of these fell into the hands of the YPG after the reversal at Kobane and formed key elements in the early Kurdish armour corp.
The MTLBs were popular with the SDF due to their cross-country performance and good troop-carrying ability.
The HUMVEEs were initially concentrated into specialist assault units who would act as both assault carriers for infantry, raiders for hit-and-run attacks and as frontline medical evacuation vehicles. In 2015 the number of these vehicles available could literally be counted on two hands.
Later, other vehicles would fall into SDF hands through capture from ISIS stocks, including BMP-1s and various wheeled personnel carriers of both American and Russian origin.
As American support grew after the foundation of the SDF, they began to supply increasing numbers of new armoured vehicles. Principle amongst these were more protected HUMVEEs, which went from a literal handful of broken-down wrecks to being the primary armoured vehicle of the SDF. Numbers are uncertain but it is likely that several hundred were supplied.
The SDF also received small numbers of newly built wheeled APCs, principally the IAG Guardian and some Lenco BearCat mine resistant carriers. These all provided great service in the drive against Raqqa and the final campaigns.
And with this I should explain the tactical employment of APCs in the SDF.
An actual assault would be undertaken normally in a set piece small scale fashion. The location for the attack would be observed and a suitable target would be identified. This would normally be a house or building that could be approached quickly by an APC and then provide cover for it while troops were disembarked.
An armoured vehicle would be allocated from the operations reserve and infantry platoons assigned to the attack. Ideally this would be a tracked vehicle such as an MTLB or a BMP-1, but any armoured vehicle could be used if necessary.
There were no niceties on loading up troops for such an operation; literally as many fighters as possible were crammed into the vehicle. The tactic used was to rush the drop point, debus the troops as fast as possible who would then assault the targeted buildings immediately to clear them of resistance and form a bridgehead in the assault area.
The APC would generally then leave the area at speed and return to the jumping off location to collect more infantry to reinforce the spearhead. The original troops would have been pushing out as far and as fast as possible to protect the reinforcement point and the APC which would be making shuttle runs as quickly as possible bringing up additional forces.
Otherwise known as “technical’s” the duşka’s provided the SDF with their principal form of fire support. In essence a crew-served weapon mounted on a civilian vehicle chassis, these were built at YPG/SDF facilities throughout Rojava and northern Syria, with production taking place at most major towns with appropriate facilities.
Where possible duşkas would be constructed from captured or salvaged anti-aircraft guns that would be mounted straight onto the loading bed of a vehicle.
However, the YPG/SDF would also prove able to build breeches for single shot weapons that they would marry up with captured stocks of spare barrels, producing in effect light truck mounted cannon.
Generally, the favoured calibres were 14.5mm KPV origin weapons, favoured for their greater accuracy, or 23mm cannon of the ZU-series, which enjoyed a high explosive punch.
The method for their use of duşkas was also rather particular. Automatic fire was frowned on throughout the organisation, with tactical doctrine in the SDF calling for the use of accurate long-range single shots to fulfil the role of suppression rather than drenching a target in automatic fire. SDF crews would therefore carefully aim each shot, adjusting their fire until they were hitting the target they were aiming at as accurately as possible.
With artillery and mortars being in short supply, duşkas provided the SDF with its principal form of fire support throughout the conflict.
If you’d like to know greater detail, check out Professor Searle’s and I’s book at Osprey and my personal memoir of the conflict.