With the number of Syrian volunteers to fight the Islamic State militant group surging, Americans training them are becoming increasingly optimistic that a Kurdish and Arab army can defeat ISIS simply by outnumbering it.
Following victories against the Islamic State, including the recapture of al-Shaddadah in northeast Syria, the number of Arabs who have volunteered to fight this spring has outpaced American military advisers' capacity to train them. This growth plays into a US strategy that a volunteer army larger than ISIS's can conquer the Islamic State's self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria, further weakening it there and in Iraq.
News of this groundswell of volunteers could foreshadow the decline of ISIS in Syria and Iraq as well, as Kurds and other ethnic groups form militias to rid their homes of the Islamic State, and as the United States becomes further involved in the war. First, though, many of these volunteers must learn how to fight.
One US military adviser training volunteers called the recruits "raw ... literally civilians coming off the streets," as the Associated Press reports. Still, the US has organized them into an army it calls the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Syrian Kurds comprise 25,000 of SDF's fighters, while Syrian Arabs comprise 5,000 to 6,000.
An attack on Raqqa would require at least 6,000 soldiers, one adviser estimated.
The ethnic and even gender makeup of the SDF is as complex as its fighters' training. One faction, the YPJ, is an all-women militia that is mostly Kurdish. Along with other Kurdish militant groups, YPJ are considered "terrorists" by the United States, European Union, and Turkey, as the Monitor has previously reported:
Even though groups like the [Kurdistan Workers' Party] PKK; and its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD); its fighting branch, the YPG; and the all-female YPJ all bear the "terrorist" label, they are major actors in the fight against ISIS. For that reason, the United States has provided some support to the anti-ISIS group, People's Protection Units (YPG) .
How does the United States justify its continued support for the YPG in light of the Syrian group’s close ties to the PKK, which the United States continues to label a terrorist group?
“The United States needs the YPG to fight the Islamic State,” says Henri Barkey, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East program, “The US says, yes, they have close links to the PKK, but the leadership is different, which is the most important thing.”
The increase in Syrian volunteers contrasts with a decline in the number of ISIS fighters there because of battlefield deaths and fewer volunteers. But, that's not all good news, as the Monitor's Howard LaFranchi reported in February:
[ISIS] is taking advantage of Libya’s power vacuum to extend control beyond its stronghold of Sirte on Libya’s Mediterranean coast. Islamic State militants this week seized another city on the main road between Sirte and Misrata, Zimmerman says, and in past weeks have set their sights on oil installations.
These steady gains have led to a rising sense of “here we go again” in capitals from Cairo to Paris and renewed demands for preemptive action before the Islamic State takes deeper root and becomes much more difficult to dislodge.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.