People's Protection Units

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People's Protection Units
Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG)
‏وحدات حماية الشعب‎‎
People's Protection Units Flag.svg
YPG flag
Active 2011–present

Rojava (2012-present)[1]

Democratic Union Party (2004-2012)
Type Light infantry militia
Size 50,000[2]
Part of Syrian Democratic Forces
Motto YPG dimeşe, erd û ezman diheje (YPG is marching, and the earth and sky [or heavens] tremble)

Syrian Civil War

Iraqi Civil War

Website Official website
General Commander Sipan Hemo
Spokesperson Rêdûr Xelîl
Spokesperson Khebat Ibrahim
Giwan Ibrahim, Roshna Akeed
Military situation in the Syrian Civil War as of February 8, 2016
Rojava territory controlled by the YPG in June 2015
YPG members during the 2015 Tell Abyad offensive

The People's Protection Units (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎, pronounced [jɑkinæjen pɑrɑstinɑ gæl]; YPG), also known as People's Defense Units, are the main armed service of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, the government of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava). The YPG is primarily Kurdish, but it also recruits Arabs, Turks, and westerners. There are Assyrian/Syriac Christian units integrated into its command structure (Sutoro and Syriac Military Council). The YPG was originally formed in 2004 by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Southern Kurdistan (i.e. northern Iraq)[3][4] and was transferred to the service of the Kurdish Supreme Committee (which includes the PYD) in 2012. The YPG considers itself a democratic people's army and conducts internal elections as a method of appointing officers.[5]

Women's Protection Units[edit]

The Women's Protection Units (YPJ) is the YPG's female brigade, which was set up in 2012. Kurdish media have said that YPJ troops became vital during the Siege of Kobanî.[6]

Origin and Rise of the YPG[edit]

PKK and Cold War[edit]

The nature of the links between the YPG and the PKK in North Kurdistan is disputed, but they undoubtedly share some common roots. In 1978 the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) was founded in Turkey. As a leftist movement it found a safe harbour in Syria during, and after the Cold War. This changed when in 1998 Turkey threatened to go to war over the PKK presence, a crisis that ended with the expulsion of Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK from Syria.

2003 Foundation of the PYD[edit]

In 2003 the PKK founded the PYD as its political branch in Syria. The PYD distinguished itself as the only Kurdish party that fully supported the Qamishli uprising in 2004. As a result it was brutally respressed in the years leading up to the Syrian Civil War. All of this explains the commonalities in the way that both PKK and YPG struggle for cultural and political rights and self-determination for Kurds, but also the very weak position of the PYD at the start of the Syrian Civil War.

2011: The YPG arrives on the scene[edit]

When the Syrian revolt erupted in 2011, the PYD was one of many Kurdish opposition parties in Syria. Its armed wing the YPG might have been founded in 2004, but is was only in 2011 that the YPG disclosed itself. In these modest beginnings the YPG was probably busy organizing itself. Many PKK fighters that lived in exile in Iraq were of Syrian origin, or had been trained there, and took the opportunity to return to Syria.

July 2012: The YPG takes control of Kurdish areas[edit]

In July 2012, the YPG had a standoff with Syrian government forces in the Kurdish city of Kobanî and the surrounding areas. After negotiations, government forces withdrew and the YPG took possession of Kobanî, Amuda, and Afrin.[7][8] By December 2012, it had expanded to eight brigades, which were formed in Al-Qamishli, Kobanî, and Ras al-Ayn and in the districts of Afrin, Al-Malikiyah, and Al-Bab.[9]

Late 2012: Islamist attacks make YPG dominant[edit]

The YPG initially took a defensive posture in the Syrian Civil War. It avoided engaging forces of the Syrian government, which continued to control several enclaves in Kurdish territory. The YPG changed this policy when Ras al Ayn was taken by the fundamentalist Al-Nusra Front, a part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The YPG quickly attacked and conquered surrounding areas that remained under government control in order to prevent the rival opposition from gaining even more power in the area.

The subsequent Battle of Ras al-Ayn between the YPG and Al-Nusra Front / Ghuraba al-Sham started in November 2012 and ended with a YPG victory in July 2013[10]. What is most relevant of this battle is that the YPG proved to be the only Kurdish militia able to effectively resist the fundamentalists[11]. With that all Kurdish factions were driven into its arms, and the YPG became the de facto army of the Kurds in Syria.

2013: Kurdish control of Til Koçer[edit]

In October 2013, YPG fighters took control of Til Koçer in Syria following intense clashes with ISIL. The clashes lasted about three days, with the Til Koçer border gate to Iraq being taken in a major offensive launched on the night of 24 October.[12] PYD leader Saleh Muslim told Stêrk TV that the developments in Til Koçer would lead to changes in the political and economic situation in the Kurdish-controlled portion of Syria, and that this success created an alternative against efforts to hold the territory under embargo.[12]

2014: Struggle against ISIL[edit]

The Inter-rebel conflict during the Syrian Civil War led to open war between the Free Syrian Army and ISIL in January 2014. The YPG collaborated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight ISIL in Ar-Raqqah province.[13]. The group also formed an operations room with multiple FSA factions, called Euphrates Volcano.[14] However, the general outcome of this fight were huge advances by ISIL that separated the eastern part of Rojava from the main FSA rebels. ISIL followed up on its success by attacking the Kurds in Kobanî canton in March, and fighting its way to the gates of Kobanî in September 2014.

The actual Siege of Kobanî then kind of coincided with the American-led intervention in Syria getting serious by starting bombardments on Syrian territory. With the world fearing another massacre in Kobanî, the Americans started to give close air support to the YPG and started to coordinate it with them. While most observers expected ISIL to quickly crush the Kurds, the YPG put up a surprising and determined resistance. For months the western media covered a long and fanatical battle between an organization that had just committed genocide (ISIL), and an officialy democratic organization (YPG) that employed female fighters and was isolated by Turkey. It was a fight that seemed epic and symbolic of a struggle between good and evil. While it lasted, the YPG was immune to criticism, and when it was over in March 2015 the USA and YPG had fought on the same side for half a year.

Meanwhile the situation had been stable in Afrin and Aleppo. The fight between the FSA and ISIL had led to a normalization in the relations between FSA and YPG since ultimo 2013. In February 2015, the YPG signed a judicial agreement with the Levant Front in Aleppo.[15]

Spring 2015: Offensive with American support[edit]

Under any other circumstances Turkish pressure might have stopped the cooperation between YPG and USA after the Siege of Kobanî. However, in spring 2015 ISIL was about to capture Ramadi. The YPG was the only group that was able and willing to offensively engage and put pressure on ISIL, and had built up a track record as a reliable military partner. With American close air support offensives near Hasakah and from Hasakah westward culminated in the conquest of Tell Abyad, linking up Kobanî with Hasakah in July 2015.

With these offensives, the YPG had begun to make advances into areas that did not always have a Kurdish majority. When it entered the border town of Tell Abyad in June 2015 parts of the population fled the intense fighting [16]. One can assume that these refugees included a significant number of ISIL collaborators, but that would not address the problem. It was obvious that if the YPG wanted to act outside of Rojava proper, it could only do this as part of a broader force that included Arab factions.

Fall 2015: Foundation of the SDF[edit]

The establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces was announced at a press conference in Hasakah on 11 October 2015.

Foreign volunteers[edit]

Ex–U.S. Army soldier Jordan Matson was among the first foreign volunteers of the YPG. Injured by an ISIL suicide bomb, he developed the "Lions of Rojava" recruitment campaign for foreign volunteers[17] that was launched on 21 October 2014 as a Facebook page.[18][19] Subsequently, as of 11 June 2015, more than 400 volunteers from North America, Australia, Europe and South America joined the YPG,[20] including at least ten U.S. volunteers, three of which were U.S. Army veterans.[21][22][23][24] Unusually, Han Chinese from the United Kingdom and China have also joined.[25]

One known Canadian was killed on November 4, 2015, who previously served with the Canadian Forces.[26][27]

Dozens of non-Kurdish Turks (from both Turkey and the European diaspora) have also joined.[21] The Turkish Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) has also sent their members to fight against ISIL. They have been sending volunteers to fight in the YPG since 2012, at least four of whom have been killed in battle as of February 2015—one during the Battle of Ras al-Ayn and three during the Siege of Kobanî. The party released a video in late January 2015 showing several Spanish- and German-speaking volunteers from Europe among its ranks in Jazira Canton; they were reorganized into the International Freedom Battalion on 10 June 2015.[28]

Several Australians, including former trade unionist and politician Matthew Gardiner,[29] have been involved with the YPG despite threats by Australia to prosecute any citizens involved in the Syrian Civil War.[30] Under Australian law it is a criminal offence to fight with any side in a foreign conflict.[31] On 26 February 2015, the death of the first foreign volunteer to be killed in action with the YPG was announced.[32] Ashley Johnston, 28, of Canberra, had travelled to Syrian Kurdistan in October 2014, volunteered as a humanitarian aid worker, and later decided to serve as a front-line fighter with the YPG.[30][33][34]


The YPG is the least well equipped of all the factions in the Syrian Civil war. It did not receive much help in the form of equipment from outside of Syria. It was furthermore founded relatively late in the war, and in the periphery of Syria. Circumstances that led to the YPG capturing far less equipment from the Syrian Army than other opposition groups did. The below are some highlights and estimates only based on the balance sheet that the YPG regularly publishes of its activities [35]

Small arms[edit]

Name Country of origin Type Number Caliber Notes
AK-47  Soviet Union Assault rifle Thousands 7.62×39mm
PK  Soviet Union General-purpose machine gun Hundreds 7.62×54mmR
DShK  Soviet Union Heavy machine gun Dozens 12.7×108mm
KPV heavy machine gun  Soviet Union Heavy machine gun A few dozen 14.5×114mm

Anti-tank weaponry[edit]

Name Country of origin Type Number Caliber Notes
RPG-7  Soviet Union Rocket-propelled grenade Hundreds 40mm YPG's RPG are supposed to be of this type


Name Country of origin Type Number Caliber Notes
Vasilek  Soviet Union Mobile Mortar Dozens 82mm
M1938 mortar  Soviet Union Mortar A dozen 120mm

Foreign aid[edit]

The YPG is in a landlocked territory. For a time Turkey, rival opposition groups and the Syrian government could physicaly prevent effective foreign aid from coming in. The YPG's seizure of Til Koçer in October 2013 (cf. above) created an over land connection to more or less friendly groups in Iraq, but could not change the even more fundamental problem that the YPG had no allies willing to provide equipment. The USA provided the YPG with very effective close air support during the Siege of Kobane and later on. The YPG also received 27 bundles totaling 24 tons of small arms and ammunition and 10 tons of medical supplies from the United States and Iraqi Kurdistan during the Siege.[36]

Even though the USA continued with providing effective close air support to the YPG, it also strictly adhered to a policy that sought to prevent the YPG from acquiring more independent military capabilities that could one day become dangerous to the USA alley Turkey. The USA started to deviate from this policy towards the YPG at about the same time as the dramatic elimination of its proxy the New Syrian Forces in September 2015. This coincided with the start of the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, leading to Russian bombardments on the Syrian Opposition that same month.

On October 11, 2015, the US began an operation to airdrop 120 tons of military supplies to the YPG and its local Arab and Turkmen allies to fight ISIL north of Raqqa. The first airdrop consisted of 112 pallets of ammunition and 'other items like hand grenades' totaling 50 tons.[37] Details about the other 70 tons are not yet known. However, statements that the aid does not contain TOW's or Anti-Aircraft weapons make it clear that the USA continues to have serious regard for the interests of Turkey.

USA involvement got more serious in other respects when on October 30, 2015 it announced the deployment of up to 50 special operations troops to Syria to 'assist' the Kurds and allied tribal militias in the fight against Isis in Syria. [38] [39] The USA also took control of, and extended the Rumaylan [40] airstrip in eastern Rojava.

War crimes allegations[edit]

In June 2015 the UN said it had verified that 24 children under age eighteen had been recruited by YPG, as compared to 288 by the Free Syrian Army and 25 by Nusra Front.[41] The same month, Kurdish security forces (YPG and Asayish) began getting human-rights training from Geneva Call and other international organizations.[42] In October 2015 the YPG demobilized 21 children under the age of 18 from the military service in its ranks.[43]

Mutual suspicions between Arabs and Kurds persist into the Syrian civil war.[citation needed] The YPG has less desire to capture Al-Raqqah than some of its Arab allies in the Euphrates Volcano operations room.[44] In June 2015 the Turkish government alleged that the YPG was carrying out an ethnic cleansing as part of a plan to join the Jazira and Kobanî cantons into a single territory.[45]

In October 2015, Amnesty International said YPG had driven thousands of civilians from northern Syria and destroyed their homes in retaliation for perceived links to ISIL. According to Amnesty, YPG fighters had threatened some civilians by telling them that if they failed to leave, YPG would have the U.S. coalition bomb their homes.[46][47] YPG denied accusations of forced displacements,[47][48] saying most civilians had left to escape fighting and were welcome to return.[49] The U.S. State Department has begun an inquiry into the veracity of Amnesty's allegations.[50]

Qasim al-Khatib, a Syrian National Council (SNC) member who headed a delegation from the SNC to investigate allegations about the displacement of Arab civilians, said there was no evidence of Arabs or Turkmen having been displaced.[51]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "PYD announces surprise interim government in Syria's Kurdish regions". Rudaw. 13 November 2013. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  2. ^ Perry, Tom (15 August 2015). "Syrian Kurds now say they now control territory the size of Qatar and Kuwait combined". Business Insider. 
  3. ^ Gold, Danny (31 October 2012). "Meet the YPG, the Kurdish militia that doesn't want help from anyone". VICE. Retrieved 9 October 2014. A member of YPG’s central command … said that the YPG formed in 2004 shortly after the Qamishlo riots, when a number of Kurdish youth realized that they needed to be able to defend themselves more efficiently. They did not officially declare themselves until the revolution started in 2011. 
  4. ^ van Wilgenburg, Wladimir (5 April 2013). "Conflict intensifies in Kurdish area of Syria". Al-Monitor. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  5. ^ Ahmad, Rozh (6 August 2012). "A rare glimpse into Kurdish armed forces in Syrian Kurdistan". Rudaw (Erbil, Iraq). 
  6. ^ "Kurdish women turning Kobani into a living 'hell' for Islamic State". teleSUR. 14 October 2014. Retrieved 2 December 2014. 
  7. ^ Ahmed, Hevidar (25 July 2012). "Liberated Kurdish cities in Syrian Kurdistan move into next phase". Rudaw (Erbil, Iraq). Retrieved 28 July 2012. 
  8. ^ "Kurds Give Ultimatum to Syrian Security Forces". Rudaw. 21 July 2012. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  9. ^ "The Kurdish Protection Units have formed a new brigade in the Al–Bab region". Scientia Humana. 4 December 2012. Retrieved 18 December 2013. Kurdish Information Center 
  10. ^ "Kurds expel jihadists from flashpoint Syrian town: NGO". AFP. 17 July 2013. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  11. ^ "YPG Commander: Kurds Are Bulwark Against Islamic Extremism in Syria". Rudaw. 22 July 2013. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  12. ^ a b "YPG takes control of Til Koçer". Firat News Agency. 27 October 2013. 
  13. ^ "FSA and YPG cooperate against ISIL militants in Syria's Tel Abyad". ARA News. 12 May 2014. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  14. ^ "YPG and FSA form a joint military chamber to combat ISIS in Syria". ARA News. 12 September 2014. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 
  16. ^ Pitarakis, Lefteris; Mroue, Bassem (14 June 2015). "Thousands of Syrians flee into Turkey amid intense fighting". AP. Thousands of Syrians cut through a border fence and crossed over into Turkey … fleeing intense fighting … between Kurdish fighters and jihadis. 
  17. ^ Jennifer Percy (30 September 2015). "Meet the American Vigilantes Who Are Fighting ISIS". Retrieved 15 December 2015. 
  18. ^ "The Lions of Rojava". Facebook. Retrieved 15 November 2014. 
  19. ^ "Kobani Kurds Use Facebook To Recruit Foreign Fighters In Struggle Against IS". Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. 13 November 2014. Retrieved 15 November 2014. 
  20. ^ "SOHR". 11 June 2015. Retrieved 15 November 2015. 
  21. ^ a b "Western "comrades" join Kurds, Arabs, secularists, Yezidis, and Syriac Christians against Islamic State". Your Middle East. 29 October 2014. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  22. ^ "Exclusive: American explains why he's fighting ISIL". USA Today. 7 October 2014. Retrieved 23 October 2014. 
  23. ^ "The US volunteers who fight with Syria's Kurds". BBC. 23 October 2014. Retrieved 23 October 2014. 
  24. ^ "A Divorced Father-of-Two from Ohio Is Fighting the Islamic State in Syria". Vice News. 23 October 2014. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  25. ^ "The Chinese man fighting Islamic State with the YPG". BBC News. 
  26. ^ Stewart Bell (23 February 2015). "Second Canadian vet battling ISIS: Brandon Glossop felt need to go after Ottawa, Quebec attacks". National Post. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  27. ^ "Unique repatriation route planned for Canadian killed fighting ISIS". CityNews. Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  28. ^ "Enternasyonal devrimciler: Her dilden devrimi savunuyoruz" (in Turkish). Etkin Haber Ajansı. 28 January 2015. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  29. ^ "Matthew Gardiner confirmed to be fighting Islamic State with Kurds". NTNews. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  30. ^ a b "Australian man defends his actions fighting against Islamic State". Xinhua (Beijing). 11 June 2015. Former international junior bench press champion Ashley Dyball … wrote on Facebook, ‘The s--- you see here is nothing like you see on the bias news reports, the Islamic state must be stopped and if it means I can’t come home f--- it.’ … Dyball faces prosecution if he returns. 
  31. ^ Lauren Williams. "Awkward contradictions in Australian foreign-fighter laws". Retrieved 29 November 2015. 
  32. ^ Michael Safi, " Kurdish militia pays tribute to Ashley Johnston, killed fighting with its forces", The Guardian, 2 March 2015.
  33. ^ "British Chinese volunteer fighting alongside Kurds against ISIS in Syria becomes a weibo hero". South China Morning Post. 28 May 2015. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  34. ^ Volunteers from China, US and UK join Kurdish forces to fight ISIS (photos)
  35. ^ "‘Balance of the War Against Hostile Groups in Rojava, Northern Syria: Year 2015’". January 1, 2016. Retrieved 31 January 2016. 
  36. ^ "PUKmedia یەکێتیی نیشتمانیی کوردستان". 
  37. ^ "‘U.S. delivers 50 tons of ammunition to Syria rebel groups’". October 12, 2015. Retrieved 1 February 2016. 
  38. ^ Steele, Jonathan (3 December 2015). "The Syrian Kurds are winning!". New York Review of Books. Turkey had told ... the US that YPG forces would not be permitted to proceed beyond the Euphrates. In an apparent rebuke ... Kerry [said]: “We’re … enhancing our air campaign in order to help drive Da’esh, which once dominated the Syria–Turkey border, out of the last seventy-mile stretch...”  Review of Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War, by Michael M. Gunter.
  39. ^ "‘Obama orders US special forces to 'assist' fight against Isis in Syria ’". October 30, 2015. Retrieved 1 February 2016. 
  40. ^ "‘Kurdish forces expand airstrip in northeast Syria’". January 27, 2016. Retrieved 31 January 2016. 
  41. ^ U.N. Security Council (5 June 2015). Report of the Secretary-General: Children and armed conflict (Report). para. 191. Actual numbers are expected to be higher.... A number of pro-Government groups, including Hizbullah, also reportedly recruited children in small numbers. 
  42. ^ Perry, Tom; Malla, Naline (10 September 2015). "Western states train Kurdish force in Syria, force's leader says". Reuters. Amnesty International this month faulted the Kurdish administration for arbitrary detentions and unfair trials.... [Ciwan] Ibrahim said ... efforts were underway to improve its human rights record.... The Geneva Call ... promotes good treatment of civilians in war zones... 
  43. ^ YPG demobilizes 21 children under the age of 18 from the military service in its ranks (Report). Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 28 October 2015. Archived from the original on 2015-11-21. 
  44. ^ "Plans by U.S. to capture Islamic State’s capital already go awry". Washington Post. 22 Oct 2015. 
  45. ^ "Turkey accuses Kurdish forces of 'ethnic cleansing' in Syria". Agence France-Presse. 16 Jun 2015. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said he was troubled by the advance of Kurdish forces, saying they could in the future create a structure to threaten Turkey. 
  46. ^ "Syria: US ally’s razing of villages amounts to war crimes". Amnesty International. 13 October 2015. Retrieved 17 October 2015. 
  47. ^ a b "Syria Kurds 'razing villages seized from IS' - Amnesty". BBC News. 13 October 2015. Of 225 buildings visible [in Husseiniya] in June 2014, only 14 were still standing by June 2015. 
  48. ^ "Arab tribes in Syrian Kurdistan say Amnesty Int'l distorts the truth". Ekurd Daily News. 
  49. ^ Coskun, Orhan (13 October 2015). "Turkey warns U.S., Russia against backing Kurdish militia in Syria". Reuters. Turkey has accused the Kurdish militia of pursuing 'demographic change'.... Ankara fears ultimately the creation of an independent Kurdish state.... Amnesty International ... accused the YPG ... of ... driving out thousands of non-Kurdish civilians and destroying their homes. 
  50. ^ Saeed, Yerevan (14 October 2015). "US voices concern over allegations of rights violations by YPG". Rudaw. Retrieved 20 October 2015. 
  51. ^ "‘Kurds liberated Tel Abyad, no displacement against Arabs’: Syrian opposition figure". ARANEWS. June 26, 2015. Retrieved 27 November 2015. 

External links[edit]