WASHINGTON — In the acronym soup of militant groups waging war across Syria, understanding the various sub components and allegiances of various militia groups is important to wading through Syrian conflict politics.
The U.S.-backed partner force in the fight against ISIS are a multiethnic mixed bag of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Turkmen and other ethnic groups. These groups are composed of a multitude of political backgrounds and histories including former anti-Assad rebels and Kurdish militants with a soured history with U.S. NATO ally Turkey.
As the battle lines draw tighter in Syria with the pending liberation of Raqqa, the political landscape in Syria is changing at light speed, posing new challenges to the U.S. coalition as it continues to purge ISIS from the war-torn country.
In early August, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, uploaded a video of an alleged anti-tank guided missile shot at a vehicle operated by a Turkish ally in northern Syria called the Free Syrian Army. The video was posted to the Kurdish militant group’s official press page.
The YPG group firing the ATGM system is from Kurdish controlled Efrin district in northern Syria. The YPG is a part of the vetted groups receiving aid from the coalition as part of the wider anti-ISIS partner force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
However, according to Col. Joseph Scrocca, a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, this particular YPG faction from Efrin is not supported by the coalition.
Then again on August 16, Jaish al Thuwar, a group allied to the U.S. backed anti-ISIS fighters uploaded a video to Facebook of the group firing what appears to be a U.S. BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missile system.
Military Times cannot confirm if the system was a U.S. TOW or whether it was an Iranian Toophan as the systems are almost identical in appearance, and both systems are known to be in Syria.
The video was originally uploaded to the Facebook page of Jabhat al-Akrad. The Kurdish dominated faction is a subcomponent of Jaish al Thuwar, according to Kyle Orton, a senior fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. The video is also available on the YPG’s official press page highlighting the complicated alliances and connections between the factions.
The alleged attack targeted a tractor belonging to Turkish allies in the Shahba region, according to the heading written in Arabic. Shahba is a nickname for the city of Aleppo and the region refers to the general Aleppo Governorate of Syria.
This region has been a hotbed of cross-border skirmishes between factions associated with the U.S.-backed SDF and Turkey and its Syrian proxy forces. Shelling and cross border skirmishes have been an almost daily occurrence, according to daily reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — a human rights watchdog group reporting on the conflict.
According to Scrocca, Jaish al Thuwar “is associated with other groups within the SDF and has fought ISIS in Syria. However, they are not a group vetted, equipped or supported by the Coalition.”
Officials at Operation Inherent Resolve have distanced themselves from two groups with deep connections to SDF forces battling to liberate Raqqa from ISIS.
But according to Orton, Jabhat al-Akrad — the sub component of Jaish al Thuwar and the group that uploaded the TOW shot is supported by coalition.
Military Times has reached out to Operation Inherent Resolve on the nature of coalition support to Jabhat al-Akrad and have yet to receive a response.
The associations and histories of the organizations within the SDF and its peripheral allies are important as the battlefields in Syria begin to shrink, and a new political landscape begins to unfold in northern Syria.
U.S. support of the YPG and the Kurdish dominated SDF have caused tensions with Turkey, as America’s NATO ally views the militant group as an armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK — a group that is internationally designated as a terrorist group and an organization that has brought decades of violence to Turkey.
Turkey is adamantly opposed to what it sees as U.S. and Russian efforts to propping up of a de-facto Kurdish state in northern Syrian. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hinted at a potential imminent Turkish operation against the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in early August when he addressed crowds of supporters.
“We are determined to push deeper the dagger we drove into the heart of the terrorist formation’s project in Syria with new advances,” Erdogan told the crowd, according to a report from Al Monitor.
The alleged TOW shot by Jaish al Thuwar is potentially another headache for the U.S. coalition in Syria and its program to arm vetted groups in its fight against ISIS.
“I suspect they pilfered it from a FSA faction, so this is another case of inadvertent proliferation of US kit causing headaches,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council about the origin of the TOW system.
The SDF are not receiving missile systems as part of coalition support to the militant group, according to Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve.
“The U.S. needs to take a very hard look at the lessons learned from this arming campaign, and think through the consequences of becoming a party to a civil conflict before understanding the dynamics of the conflict,” Stein added.