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Anatomy of the Syrian Democratic Forces

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We Embed with the Force That Would Defeat the Islamic State

The monster that became the so-called “Islamic State” came to an end in an obscure Syrian town that might be lucky to show up on a printed map of the region. Baghuz is one of the southernmost towns in Deir ez-Zor province, mere kilometers from the Iraqi border. It’s across the Euphrates River from Abu-Kamal, an Assad Regime-controlled town that formed an anvil the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) smashed against the last bastion of ISIS in Syria, supported by the Inherent Resolve coalition forces. This mixed force of young Kurds and Arabs, Muslims, and Christians paid a deadly toll for their victory in Northeastern Syria. Few could probably have foreseen this battle in 2014 when Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi took to the minbar of the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, proclaiming the “caliphate” to a worldwide audience.

Command Structure

Much more complicated than a unified and structured organization, the SDF is a direct by-product of the Syrian Civil War and the U.S. response to the so-called Islamic State. The core of the SDF was initially the male YPG and female YPJ units that formed the Kurdish defense forces in the area of Rojava (not to be confused with the Peshmerga, which belong to the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq). These units are still very much an active component of the SDF, and many fought in Baghuz alongside Arab and Christian Syriac units as well. These units are composed of “Military Councils” from different regions within Northeastern Syria. They form squad or platoon-sized elements that rotate to different fighting positions or assault formations together, only to be relieved and return home for leave before heading back to the front again. Occasionally, there are mixed groups, such as the odd Humvee crew or fighting position, but for the most part, groups of fighters are ethnically homogeneous.

One of the important points to understand about the SDF is that, overall, the force is more akin to that of an indigenous militia, not a conventional or professional force. A general training structure is run by each military council, and there’s a loose semblance of a chain of command. Fighters sign up for a basic term of service and can return home on leave. But there aren’t any formal specialized schools, there’s no semblance of rank insignia, and there are no standard operating procedures implemented force-wide. I’m in no way discrediting the SDF’s performance or conduct under fire (although like any force, there are both good and bad fighters and units), but simply am illustrating comparisons of the SDF to other foreign forces that readers might be familiar with, such as the Iraqi Army or Afghan National Army.

Small Arms

Similar to many of the indigenous forces in the Middle East, the predominant service rifle is the Kalashnikov-platform in 7.62x39mm — mostly the fixed stock variant. When examining individual rifles, we found that in any given SDF section, you could easily cover the spread of countries that produced the stamped receiver AKM or milled receiver AK47s amongst the weapons carried by different soldiers. Soviet AKMs are present alongside Chinese Type 56s, German MPiKs, Hungarian AMD63s, and more. To many of the fighters, they’re all “Russi” when asked about the origins of their rifles. But when we started to discuss each individual one and where it was from, much of the time they’d become genuinely interested and curious as to the country of origin.

Entry-level SDF fighters conducting unit training at a training academy in Syria. Their Marpat digital woodland uniform is based on the YPG/YPJ pattern that was used previously. Fighters are issued a 4-cell chest harness that has a woodland BDU pattern imprinted on it, thus bringing their combat load to 5 magazines. Although they have sections of Velcro covering their blouses, these rarely have Velcro patches on them apart from perhaps a generic yellow SDF patch or what military council they’re from.

Another one of the most popular questions in this debate is, “Which country makes the best AKs?” Some peculiar tendencies of the SDF fighters are to stick linked 7.62x54mmR rounds on the barrel of the rifles, or to carve “YPG” into the wooden furniture components. Most have serviceable slings, if not improvised ones made from some sort of rope or cloth. Occasionally, one sees a single point arrangement tied around the buttstock of a rifle, but this is rare. Despite the utter lack of weapons safety awareness, SDF fighters tended not to accidentally shoot each other, for the most part.

With respect to personal sidearms, a wide variety of handguns are either issued or purchased on the black markets in Syria. In this regard, we see many classic European handguns such as Hi-Powers, Llamas, Stars, and even modern Glock 19s (mostly of Austrian and not U.S. origin). But also seen are the occasional Chinese Norinco oddities and even some antiquated Iraqi Tariq handguns, either in 9x19mm or 7.65mm. Holster choice would bring a tear to many a U.S. reader’s eyes, as in most cases there are no holsters available, and SDF fighters simply tuck their handguns into their waist or belt line. Some do have cheap leather or even pleather belt holsters or chest harnesses, but even then, the holster might be designed for a different handgun entirely.

Looking out over the town of Baghuz, still occupied by ISIS, is an SDF fighter armed with a Kalashnikov slapped together from as many countries as there are components on the rifle. His handgun is a Browning Hi-Power in a shoulder rig, a holdover from the colonial period.

Although some SDF members have real or knockoff Fobus-patterned holsters, the Kydex revolution really hasn’t reached the Middle East as it has in the United States. One reason is that Kydex holsters simply aren’t very available, but another is that many wouldn’t want one even if presented with a good deal. Prices for handguns are grossly inflated in Iraq and Syria, to the point where the going rate for a used Glock 19 or 17 starts at $2,000. Prices like these deter owners from scratching their prized handguns for fear of reducing their resale value.

A Romanian GP-75 rifle in the hands of an SDF fighter taking a break. The belt he’s wearing was said to have been captured from ISIS and is of ISIS design. It’s designed to hold several 7.62x39mm Kalashnikov magazines in its integral webbing.

Crew Served

Belt or magazine-fed light machine guns haven’t found favor among the factions currently fighting in Syria, despite being readily available in the region. Instead, the most common support weapons in the country are derivatives of the Soviet-designed 7.62x54R PKM general-purpose machine gun, otherwise called a “BKC” by Arabs and Kurds alike. Similar to Kalashnikovs, we see all manner of PKMs in service with the SDF, from original Soviet PKMs, modern Chinese export-only M80s, Bulgarian MG-M1s, and Serbian Zastava M84s. Along with RPG recoilless rifles, these machine guns form the bulk of the organic infantry support on the frontline.

Personal sidearms are usually found with SDF leaders and NCO-equivalent fighters, but many SDF fighters have them if they can afford a handgun or picked them off a dead ISIS fighter. This example is a fake Glock, most likely originating from one of the many knockoff makers in Turkey.

Usually, the SDF have a PKM and maybe an RPG or two among a single fighting position, consisting of a circular berm enclosure, a tent, and one or two-dozen fighters. Although the RPGs usually have an ammunition backpack preloaded with PG7A rounds, the PKMs are frequently equipped with an ammunition can that fed into the machine gun once emplaced.

A Bulgarian MG-M1 resting on the embankment of an SDF fighting position. The occupants are sitting outside on the ground.

Crew-served weapon systems in use with the SDF are generally limited to mobile platforms, often called “technicals” among English speakers familiar with the region. Technicals feature prominently in the conflict, used by almost every side against each other. In the SDF, this is no different. Many of these technicals are equipped with heavy machine guns, such as the .50 BMG M2 “Ma-Deuce” provided through coalition support or the Soviet 12.7x108mm DShK. Less seen but much more effective is the 14.5x114mm ZPU system, often pulled from an original anti-aircraft system and mounted as a single gun platform on a truck. All of these systems are either mounted on their appropriate mounts with traversing and elevation adjustments or on improvised mounts fabricated by metalworkers in Syria or Iraq. Often these technicals have armored shields to protect the gunner and loader from incoming enemy fire. On at least one occasion, we saw this armor save some of the crew when it took a direct hit from an ISIS launcher.

An SDF technical with two 14.5mm Soviet-era ZPU anti-aircraft machine guns mounted behind a revolving gunner’s shield. The lockboxes in the bed of the pickup truck are used to store ammunition or cleaning supplies.

When in position, some of these technicals can be quite accurate if their system is set up correctly and the crews know how to employ them effectively. But many crews seem to have neither a steady traverse and elevation setup nor the understanding of consistent marksmanship. Technicals are often used in a hardened position where the truck drives to and engages ISIS targets in the distance. In the assault, they have the ability to advance with dismounted fighters as the attack progresses. Otherwise, they’re sometimes kept in a fighting position behind or on the frontlines.

An ISIS up-armored vehicle, now captured and put to use by SDF forces, in the Manbij Military Council section outside of the last stronghold of ISIS in Baghuz, Syria.

Indirect Fire

Beyond technicals, the SDF has very limited indirect fire assets apart from the occasional mortar, numerous kinds of anti-tank launchers, and even the odd tank or two that can be put into working condition by local mechanics. Much of the fight against ISIS is heavily supplemented by Inherent Resolve air and artillery assets that allow SDF fighters to close with and destroy ISIS.

YPJ women fighters search ISIS civilians walking out of Baghuz. This fighter’s U.S. surplus M16A4 is covered in a protective fabric sewn together from old uniforms by local tailors when fighters are off-duty. Unfortunately, although the fabric protects the finish of the rifle, it greatly hinders any successful operation of its controls. Photo courtesy of ZS.

Continuing the Fight

Many young Syrian (and some international) men and women have fallen in service to the YPG, YPJ, and their respective militias in the SDF. Although essentially a heavily armed and organized militia, the SDF has made tremendous gains in the face of a sinister evil. Supported by the broad coalition that has formed Operation Inherent Resolve, these forces continue to fight and maintain a Syria free of a tyrannical dictator called Bashar Asad, an extremist ISIS, and more recently, an unrelenting Erdogan. We still don’t know how the course of the Syrian Civil War will wind its way in history, but we can be certain the Syrian Democratic Forces are dedicated to an outcome that favors freedom.

An SDF fighter sits on sandbags built into his fighting position, overlooking the town of Baghuz while fleeing ISIS families walk across the field behind him as black dots. These positions are made with bulldozers that create circular or square-shaped embankments where a squad-sized SDF element will hold the position. Usually, they have an RPG and PKM as support weapons, depending on the severity of the fighting.

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