2020 was a challenging year for the entire globe. The COVID-19 pandemic brought new and unprecedented challenges to partnerships and alliances, be they military, economic, or political.
In one area, however, major change did not occur. The world kept fighting the terrorist organization Daesh, otherwise known as ISIS. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), along with the United States and other partners in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, continued to wage war against the terror organization. In Syria, the SDF has played the lead role as a reliable and effective partner for the United States in their war against ISIS and Islamic extremism as a whole.
The partnership between the Coalition To Defeat ISIS and the SDF has its origins in October 2014, when the world watched in horror as the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani was besieged by ISIS fighters. On October 20, 2014, the United States began air dropping medical supplies and weapons to the YPG defenders of the town. Simultaneously, the United States also began a large-scale aerial campaign against the terrorist group, striking everything from artillery to command centers.
This partnership was further expanded in November 2015. In October 2015 the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance was established, which included not just Kurdish YPG and YPJ forces, but also Arab-majority groups, such as Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, and Syrian Christian groups such as the Syriac militia MFS, or Syriac Military Council. The United States deployed several dozen special forces personnel to provide more direct aid for the SDF, especially for the upcoming campaigns to liberate large cities such as Manbij, and especially Daesh’s capital Raqqa. During the Raqqa operation in particular, there were hundreds of United States military personnel embedded with SDF forces for the purposes of training and advising.
Since then, the Coalition-SDF partnership has both expanded and faced challenges. The Turkish military invasion into Afrin in 2018 and into the Ras-al-Ayn and Tal Abyad regions in 2019 showed the limits to which the SDF could rely on Coalition support. Against ISIS, airstrikes, artillery, and training were a given, and allowed for a successful and consistent campaign that liberated the last of the physical “caliphate” by March 2019. However, against similar groups — some of which had direct links to Daesh, according to French President Macron, and were supported by Turkey — the Coalition was unwilling to defend their partners on the ground.
Problems between allies are not always going to be avoidable, especially with regards to Syria, where dozens of actors, all with different relationships between one another, have interests which sometimes conflict and sometimes connect. This is true for the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria (AANES) and the United States. What is most important to note is that despite these issues, some of which are grievous, the partnership has stood the test of time and has continued to accomplish its stated goal — the enduring defeat of ISIS.
Since its territorial defeat in March 2019, ISIS has remained a threat in the region, with sleeper cell attacks and radicalization continuing to rear their heads. Nevertheless, November 2020 had the lowest recorded number of ISIS sleeper attacks since the destruction of the caliphate, with only 16 confirmed attacks, an 80 percent decrease from the previous year. That number is twice as low as the previous recorded lowest number. This reduction demonstrates the continued effectiveness of the partnership in countering ISIS terrorism.
Overall, the partnership between the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces has had a tumultuous but productive history. The SDF have proven themselves to be reliable, secular, democratic, and loyal partners, and the Coalition has generously provided extensive military aid in this endeavour over the past six years.
Look at a map of Syria’s battle lines in October 2014, when ISIS controlled nearly one-third of Syrian territory. Then look at a similar map from today, showing the AANES as a bright spot of democracy, humanity, and decency in the Middle East. You’ll see the difference that this partnership has made against the world’s most deadly terror organization.
The success of the partnership, combined with the low financial and casualty burden the campaign has placed on countries such as the United States (especially when compared to the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan), greatly supports the argument that the United States should continue its military partnership with the SDF. Furthermore, the political and diplomatic levels should be raised in order to expand the partnership, build upon its successes, and promote long-term stability as the sun continues to set on ISIS.