Explainer: Military and self defense forces in North and East Syria

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The military and self-defense forces in North and East Syria are composed of various institutions that act on different levels with different responsibilities. From the Syrian Democratic Forces – the principal military force in North and East Syria -, to the Hêzên Parastina Civakî (HPC) – the neighborhood self-defense units – this article offers a short overview on the characteristics and scope of action of each institution.

Syrian Democratic Forces

The principal, unified military force in North and East Syria is the SDF, which was created to bring together the various forces fighting against ISIS following the battle of Kobane. The People’s Defense Forces (YPG) and Women’s Defense Forces (YPJ) were the largest component of the founding forces, which also included the Syriac Military Council, the Khabur Guards and Arab forces. However, since then the SDF have become an Arab-majority force as many local Arab forces have joined – though the top command remains primarily Kurdish. There are also smaller Armenian, Turkmen and Chechen components. The SDF are explicitly instituted as a force for self defense, and are prohibited from taking part in purely offensive action such as attacking a territory outside of North and East Syria.

Local Military Councils

The SDF also supported the establishment of local military councils in order to decentralize military power and strengthen local accountability. This trend continued throughout 2019, as military councils were created in Kobane, Sere Kaniye (Ras Al-Ayn), Tel Abyad (Gire Spi), Qamishlo and Derik among others. The transfer of power from the SDF to local military councils was also part of the SDF withdrawal from the Syria-Turkey border zone, as negotiated with the USA in August 2019 prior to the Turkish invasion.

Internal Security Forces – Asayish

The Asayish are the internal security forces of North and East Syria. Their most visible role is manning the checkpoints within and between cities, as well as being responsible for general incident-response, including in preventing and answering to ISIS attacks. They also contain an intelligence service, anti-terror units, prison guard and traffic control units. There are also autonomous Syriac-Assyrian internal security forces, such as the Sutoro which operates in Derik, Qamishlo, and Hasakah, and the Nattoreh in the Khabur valley area. “The mission of the Asayish is to protect the people – we don’t want to reproduce the model of the state where the police is primarily used to repress the people. In our academies, we tell them ‘you are staffing this check-point or guarding this building to serve the people – you have no right to oppress the people.’ Of course we encounter some difficulties. Some people, they get a uniform and think ‘Ah, now I am the boss’. But we don’t accept this, we tell them, ‘on the check-point, you have to smile at people, to say ‘welcome.’” – Amin Saleh, deputy-chair of the Internal Security Office of the Autonomous Administration

Civil Defense Forces – Hêzên Parastina Civakî (HPC)

In addition to the professional military and security forces, there are civilian defense forces which are organized on a local level through neighborhoods and cities. These forces, known collectively as HPC, are volunteers who participate in the defense of their neighborhoods as a local force, conducting night and day guard shifts and intervening in violent conflicts. HPC act as security for public events such as protests and holiday celebrations, and guard most public buildings such as hospitals. They are organized at the municipal level.

Duty of Self Defense – Erka Xwe Parastin

The “duty of self defense” is the conscription service in North and East Syria. Each man is required to carry out 12 months of service, although this is waived if a child of the family has been killed or if this would leave nobody else to provide economically for the family. The year of service includes training in general self defense, military and political education, as well as service in general defense capacity. Those who are conscripted are rarely posted to the front line, more often being posted as back-up forces at checkpoints and in support roles, which has been the case in the defense against the Turkish invasion so far. This force has historically been majority-male, though small numbers of women have participated on a voluntary basis. An academy of women has recently been established for women who have insisted that they fulfill their family’s requirement in lieu of their brothers.

Women’s Defense Units – Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ)

The Women’s Defense Units, more commonly known as the YPJ (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin), gained worldwide attention through their leading role in the defense of Kobane from ISIS and the subsequent defeat of the ISIS caliphate. Women in the YPG first established all-women’s units, and then established the YPJ: first in Afrin region in April 2013 and then in Kobane and Jazeera cantons shortly after. Both the YPJ and YPG are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and therefore report to the Syrian Democratic Council. As of 2017, women fighters made up 35-40% of YPJ-YPG as a whole, and YPJ commanders held responsibility for women-only as well as mixed-gender units. The YPJ have played a key role in most battles against ISIS and Turkish forces. There are women in commanding positions in every battle, and many of the fighters who have been killed in action are women. Most of the women in YPJ are young and unmarried, but women who are married or have children can join some of the divisions. Joining the armed forces is also a way for young women to escape forced marriage or oppressive family situations. Although women must be over 18 years old to join YPJ military units, there are regularly younger women who try to join the YPJ in order to escape dangerous domestic situations. As a response to this situation, academies have been set up which accept women aged 16 to 18 years old in which they can live and receive education and support, but do not fulfill any military role.

Syriac-Assyrian women’s units

There are women’s units within the Syriac-Assyrian forces among the SDF. The Bethnahrin Women’s Protection Forces (HSNB) were founded in 2015 and operate in ‘Gozarto,’ the Syriac-Aramaic term for Jazeera region. The Khabur Guards Women’s Unit operate in the Khabur valley area. Both forces organise autonomously as part of the Syriac Military Council and the Khabur Guards. They are members of the SDF and though their numbers are relatively low they took an active part in the protection of the Syriac-Assyrian villages in the Khabur valley during the latest Turkish offensive.

Women’s Internal Security Forces – Asayisha Jin

The internal security forces of North and East Syria are organized into several branches, the most visible of which is the Asayish. ‘Asayisha Jin’ is the women’s division of the general Asayish Internal Security Forces, who are responsible for checkpoints between and within cities, search and arrest operations, and joining in military operations, particularly within cities. Women can approach the Asayisha Jin directly in cases such as domestic violence, which is particularly important because within the local culture, it is virtually inconceivable for women to report more intimate forms of violence and abuse to male security personnel. Syriac-Assyrian women also organize inside the Sutoro and Nattoreh internal security forces.

Women’s Civil Defense Forces – HPC Jin

HPC Jin, the women’s division of HPC, is mostly made up of older mothers and grandmothers, but also some young women. They participate in all of the general HPC duties, and an effort is made that HPC Jin guard the buildings and meetings of women’s councils and institutions. HPC Jin are considered to be better suited for intervention in domestic disputes in which a woman might be in a sensitive or vulnerable position. HPC Jin have also voluntarily participated in military operations alongside YPJ – YPG, including against ISIS and in the defense of Afrin.

Reference documents: Women’s Law, 22 October 2014 This article is an excerpt from our report “Beyond the Frontlines – The building of the democratic system of North and East Syria.

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