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

Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava (2012-present)[1]

Democratic Union Party (2004-present)
Type Light infantry militia
Size 50,000[2]
Part of Syrian Democratic Forces
Motto(s) 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 Sîpan Hemo
Spokesperson Rêdûr Xelîl
Spokesperson Xebat Îbrahîm
Ciwan Îbrahîm, Roşna Akêd
Military situation in the Syrian Civil War as of 5 September 2016

The People's Protection Units (Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎, یەکینەکانی پاراستنی گەل pronounced [jɑkinæjen pɑrɑstinɑ gæl]; YPG), also known as the People's Defense Units, is the main armed service of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava. The YPG is primarily ethnic Kurdish, but it also recruits Arabs, Turks, and Westerners. The Syriac Military Council are Assyrian/Syriac Christian units integrated into its command structure.

The YPG considers itself a democratic people's army and conducts internal elections as a method of appointing officers.[3]

Military tradition[edit]

As a guerrilla combat force, the YPG relies on speed, stealth, and surprise. It can "deploy quickly to front lines and concentrate its forces before quickly redirecting the axis of its attack to outflank and ambush its enemy. The key to its success is autonomy. YPG brigades are inculcated with a high degree of freedom and can adapt to the changing battlefield."[4]

The YPG relies heavily on snipers and backs them by suppressing enemy fire using mobile heavy machine guns. It also uses roadside bombs to prevent outflanking maneuvers, particularly at night. Its lines have yet to break when attacked by Islamic State (ISIL) forces, who have better equipment including helmets and body armor.[4]

Relying on speed, stealth, and surprise, it is the archetypal guerrilla army, able to deploy quickly to front lines and concentrate its forces before quickly redirecting the axis of its attack to outflank and ambush its enemy. The key to its success is autonomy. Although operating under an overarching tactical rubric, YPG brigades are inculcated with a high degree of freedom and can adapt to the changing battlefield.[5]

The YPG and HPG have also trained and equipped more than 1,000 Yazidis, who operate in the Mount Sinjar area as local defense units under their supervision.[4]

Women's Protection Units[edit]

The Women's Protection Units (YPJ), also known as the Women's Defense Units, 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][7]

History of the YPG[edit]

2003: Foundation of the PYD[edit]

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) was founded in 2003 as one of many Kurdish opposition parties in the Syrian parliament.[8][9] The PYD distinguished itself as the only Kurdish party that fully supported the Qamishli uprising in 2004. As a result, it was brutally repressed in the years leading up to the Syrian Civil War, putting it in weak position at the outset of the conflict.[citation needed] Turkish government officials have maintained that it was the political branch of the blacklisted PKK in Syria.[10]

2011: Syrian Civil War[edit]

It is not known when YPG militias were first founded, but some sources have placed their origin as early as 2004,[11] after the Syrian government quashed a rebellion in its largest Kurdish-majority city, Qamishli, killing 30 Kurds. It did not emerge as a significant force until the Syrian revolt erupted in 2011 but it is possible that militias had been organising clandestinely during the interim.

The YPG is considered the armed wing of the PYD.[12] Other groups taking part in the YPG include the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party in Syria (KDPP).[13]

July 2012: 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.[14][15] By December 2012, it had expanded to eight brigades, which were formed in Qamişlo, Kobanî, and Ras al-Ayn (Serê Kaniyê) and in the districts of Afrin, Al-Malikiyah, and Al-Bab.[16]

Late 2012: Islamist attacks make YPG dominant[edit]

The YPG did not initially take an offensive posture in the Syrian Civil War. Aiming mostly to defend Kurdish-majority areas, it avoided engaging forces of the Syrian government, which still controlled several enclaves in Kurdish territory. The YPG changed this policy when Ras al-Ayn was taken by the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front. At first the YPG conquered the surrounding government-controlled areas Al-Darbasiyah (Kurdish: Dirbêsî), Tel Tamer and of Al-Malikiyah (Kurdish: Dêrika Hemko) in order to prevent the FSA from gaining more power in the area.[citation needed] The subsequent Battle of Ras al-Ayn started in ernest when on 19 November 2012 Al-Nusra Front and a second al-Qaeda affiliate, Ghuraba al-Sham, attacked Kurdish positions in the town. The battle ended with a YPG victory in July 2013.[17]

While many rebel groups clashed with the PYD, Jihadi and Salafi groups did so most consistently.[18] The YPG proved to be the only Kurdish militia able to effectively resist the fundamentalists.[19] While the YPG protected the Kurdish communities it was able to extract a price: it prevented the emergence of new, rival militias and forced existing ones to cooperate with or join the PYD forces on its terms.[20] This was how the Islamist attacks enabled the YPG to unite the Kurds under its banner[21] and caused[22] it to become the de facto army of the Kurds in Syria.[23][24][25][26][27]

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.[28] PYD leader Saleh Muslim told Stêrk TV that this success created an alternative against efforts to hold the territory under embargo.[28]

2014: Fight 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 FSA to fight ISIL in Ar-Raqqah province;[29] the group also formed an operations room with multiple FSA factions, called Euphrates Volcano.[30] 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.

YPJ fighter 4 November 2014

The actual Siege of Kobanî approximately 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. 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 organisation that had just committed genocide (ISIL) and an officially democratic organisation (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 U.S. and YPG had fought on the same side for half a year.

YPJ fighters embrace after battle, 4 August 2015

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.[31]

Spring 2015: Offensive with American and Russian support[edit]

Under other circumstances Turkish pressure might have stopped the cooperation between YPG and the U.S. 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.[32] 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.

Autumn 2015: Foundation of the SDF[edit]

The Syrian Democratic Forces was established in Hasakah on 11 October 2015. It has its origins in the YPG-FSA collaboration against ISIL, that led to the establishment of the Euphrates Volcano joint operations room in 2014. Many of the partners are the same, and even the logo / flag with the Blue Euphrates has common traits. The difference is that Euphrates Volcano was about coordinating between Kurds and Arabs, while the SDF is an organisation of Kurds and Arabs.

The first success of the SDF was the liberation of the strategic ethnically Arab town of Al-Hawl from ISIS during the al-Hawl offensive in November 2015. This was followed in December by the Tishrin Dam offensive. The dam was captured on 26 December. Participating forces included the YPG, Jaysh al-Thuwwar (Army of Rebels), the tribal group Jaysh al-Sanadeed and an Assyrian Christian group. The coalition had heavy armor and was supported by intensive U.S.-led airstrikes.[33] It seems the capture of this hydroelectric dam will have positive effects on the economy of Rojava.[citation needed][relevant? ]

2016: Turkish shelling[edit]

After the early 2016 successes of the Syrian Army in north Aleppo, YPG elements of the SDF moved into some FSA-held territories in the area. Turkish artillery then shelled the YPG and its allies near Menagh air base[34] and at other positions.[35] In a Turkish offensive against ISIL and Kurdish militants, large numbers of Kurdish civilians and YPG were killed as the USA and Turkey both urged the YPG to withdraw from their positions.

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[36] that was launched on 21 October 2014 as a Facebook page.[37][38] Subsequently, as of 11 June 2015, more than 400 volunteers from North America, Australia, Europe and South America joined the YPG,[39] including at least ten U.S. volunteers, three of which were U.S. Army veterans.[40][41][42][43] Han Chinese from the United Kingdom and China have also joined.[44]

One known Canadian was killed on November 4, 2015, who previously served with the Canadian Forces.[45][46] Six Western volunteers were killed in the battle for the town of Manbij from June to August 2016. A Portuguese fighter, Mario Nunes, was killed in June, Levi Jonathan "Jack" Shirley, from Colorado, US, was killed on July 14, Dean Carl Evans, born in Reading, UK, was killed on July 21, Martin Gruden, born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, was killed on July 27, Jordan MacTaggart, from Colorado, US, was killed on 3 August and William Savage, from Maryland, US, was killed on 10 August.[47][48][49][50]

Dozens of non-Kurdish Turks (from both Turkey and the European diaspora) have also joined.[40] The Turkish Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) has been sending volunteers to fight in the YPG since 2012. At least four 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 reorganised into the International Freedom Battalion on 10 June 2015.[51]

Several Australians, including former trade unionist and politician Matthew Gardiner,[52] have been involved with the YPG despite threats by Australia to prosecute any citizens involved in the Syrian Civil War.[53] Under Australian law it is a criminal offence to fight with any side in a foreign conflict.[54] On 26 February 2015, the death of the first foreign volunteer to be killed in action with the YPG was announced.[55] Ashley Johnston, 28, of Canberra, with Kurdish nom-de-guerre Heval Bagok, 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.[53][56][57] The official command of YPG paid tribute after his death in action against ISIL.[58]

American Twitter user @pisspiggranddad confirmed [59][60] he joined the YPG in September and October of 2016.


Compared to other factions engaged in the Syrian Civil war, the YPG has not received significant foreign assistance in the form of weapons and military equipment. According to the YPG, circumstances led to their capture of less equipment from the Syrian Army than other opposition groups did. The below are estimates only based on the balance sheet that the YPG regularly publishes of its activities.[61]

Small arms[edit]

Name Country of origin Type Number Caliber Notes
Makarov pistol  Soviet Union Pistol Thousands 9×18mm
Browning Hi-Power  Belgium Pistol Thousands 9×19mm
Beretta M12  Italy Submachine Gun Thousands 9×19mm
M4 carbine  United States Assault rifle Thousands 5.56×45mm
M16 rifle  United States Assault rifle Thousands 5.56×45mm
Zagros Rifle[62] Rojava Anti-materiel rifle Hundreds 12.7×108mm self made anti-materiel rifle
AK-47  Soviet Union Assault rifle Tens of Thousands 7.62×39mm
AKM  Soviet Union Assault rifle Tens of Thousands 7.62×39mm
Type 56  China Assault rifle Tens of Thousands 7.62×39mm
PM md. 63/65 Romania Socialist Republic of Romania Assault rifle Tens of Thousands 7.62×39mm
MPi-KM  East Germany Assault rifle Tens of Thousands 7.62×39mm
AK-63  Hungary Assault rifle Tens of Thousands 7.62×39mm
Dragunov sniper rifle  Soviet Union Sniper rifle Unknown 7.62×54mmR
PSL (rifle) Romania Socialist Republic of Romania Sniper rifle Unknown 7.62×54mmR
Rheinmetall MG 3  Germany General-purpose machine gun Few 7.62×51mm
PK machine gun  Soviet Union General-purpose machine gun Hundreds 7.62×54mmR
Zastava M84  Yugoslavia 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 Thousands 40mm YPG's RPG are supposed to be of this type
Type 69 RPG  China Rocket-propelled grenade Thousands 40mm
M79 Osa  Yugoslavia Anti-tank weapon Few 90mm
FGM-148 Javelin  United States Anti-tank missile  ? missile First spotted in YPG hands in February 2016
Mk 19  United States grenade launcher  ? 40×53mm
IED Rojava Improvised explosive device Thousands N/a


Name Country of origin Type Number Caliber Notes
82-BM-37  Soviet Union Mobile Mortar A dozen 82mm captured, SAA had 200
M1938 mortar  Soviet Union Mortar A dozen 120mm captured, SAA had 300
120-PM-43_mortar  Soviet Union Mortar A dozen 120mm captured, SAA had 400
Improvised mortars Syria Syria Improvised mortars Several Various Captured from Syrian Opposition
Jahannam (Hell) Cannon Syria Syria Improvised mortars Several Various Captured from Free Syrian Army

Unarmored vehicles[edit]

Name Country of origin Type Number Notes
Toyota Hilux  Japan Improvised fighting vehicle Thousands
Nissan Navara  Japan Improvised fighting vehicle Thousands
Volkswagen Amarok  Germany Improvised fighting vehicle Thousands

Armored vehicles[edit]

A YPG T-55 in Tell Tamer
Name Country of origin Type # in Afrin # in East Rojava Notes
Humvee  United States Armoured fighting vehicle 0 Dozens Captured from ISIS
T-55 with 2*14.5MG[63]  Soviet Union Main battle tank 0 1 Well designed local variant with twin 14.5MG, used in eastern Syria
T-55  Soviet Union Main battle tank 1[64] 6? Captured from the Menagh Military Airbase.
T-72[65]  Soviet Union Main battle tank 2[64] 0 At least 1 used in the Northern Aleppo offensive (2016), 1 destroyed by the Falcons of Mount Zawiya Brigade[66]

Foreign aid[edit]

Because the YPG operates in a landlocked territory, rival opposition groups as well as the Turkish and Syrian government were able to physically prevent foreign aid from reaching it. The YPG's seizure of Til Koçer in October 2013 (cf. above) created an overland 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.

United States[edit]

The United States provided the YPG with air support during the Siege of Kobanî[67] and during later campaigns, helping the YPG defend territory against attacks by the Islamic State.[68] Turkey has criticised US support.[69]

The YPG also received 27 bundles totalling 24 tons of small arms and ammunition and 10 tons of medical supplies from the United States and Iraqi Kurdistan during the Siege.[70]

Despite the U.S. continuing to provide close air support to the YPG, it strictly adhered to a policy that sought to prevent the YPG from acquiring more independent military capabilities, that could one day become dangerous to Turkey.[citation needed]

On October 11, 2015, the U.S. 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.[71] However, statements that the aid does not contain TOW's or Anti-Aircraft weapons make it clear that the U.S. continues to have serious regard for the interests of Turkey, who has warned against continued U.S. support for the YPG.

U.S. aid to the YPG continued in late October with a call for the deployment of up to 50 U.S. special forces and an enhanced air campaign to support the YPG and local militia groups in their fight against ISIS.[72][73] Some of these special forces participated in the al-Shaddadi offensive (2016) and coordinated airstrikes against ISIL.[74]


With Russia's entrance into the war in late 2015 backing the Syrian government, some reports have alleged that the YPG coordinated with or received weapons from Russia, with rival opposition groups claiming that the timing and targeting of Russian airstrikes were suspiciously advantageous to the Kurdish militias.[75]

Despite this, the YPG officials denied any coordination with Russia.[76]

Diplomatic relations[edit]

Russia's position towards the YPG is not clear, and the USA actively supports it, but their diplomatic relations with the PYD are the opposite. In January 2016 Russia pushed for the inclusion of the PYD in the Geneva talks.[77] In February 2016 the PYD opened a branch representative office in Moscow.[78] In contrast to this the YPG denied any coordination with officials from the U.S. State Department. The YPG would like to open a representative branch in the USA, but in March 2016 interview its leader implied that it was not allowed to do so.[79]

Turkey see the YPG as an offshoot of the PKK and thus it has designated it as a terrorist organisation..[80]

War crimes allegations[edit]

Child soldiers[edit]

In June 2015, a report by the United Nations Secretary General found that 24 minors under age of 18 had been recruited to fight with YPG.[81]

In response, Kurdish security forces (YPG and Asayish) began receiving human rights training from Geneva Call and other international organisations.[82] In October 2015 the YPG demobilized 21 minors under the age of 18 from the military service in its ranks.[83]

Ethnic cleansing[edit]

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.[84] 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.[85]

Forced displacement[edit]

In October 2015, Amnesty International published a report[86] with claims that the YPG had driven at least 100 families from northern Syria and that in the villages of Asaylem and Husseiniya it had demolished resident homes. The report was made by Amnesty visiting the area contained in the report. It made local observations of destruction, and collected testimonies from former and actual residents of al-Hasakeh and ar-Raqqa governorates. It found cases of YPG fighters forcibly displacing residents and using fire and bulldozers to raze homes and other structures.[87][88]

Forced displacement of civilians and destruction of civilian property is not a war crime per se. These acts only becomes a war crime when there is no "imperative military necessity" for them. Amnesty International claims the report documents cases in which there was no such justification.[89] It furthermore claims that the circumstances of some of these displacements suggested that they were carried out: in retaliation for people's perceived sympathies with, or family ties to, suspected members of ISIL or other armed groups,[90] constituting "collective punishment, which is a violation of international humanitarian law" .

In interviews YPG spokespersons acknowledged that a number of families were in fact displaced. However, they placed the number at no more than 25,[91] and claim military necessity. They stated that the family of the terrorists communicates with them and therefore had to be removed from dangerous areas,[92] and that ISIL often uses civilians to plant car bombs or carry out other attacks on the YPG.[93] By describing the events in Hammam al-Turkman before the village got evacuated the report itself inadvertently supports these claims of military necessity.[94]

The U.S. State Department reacted by starting an inquiry into the allegations[95] Its initial reaction to the report was quite sceptical, claiming it had to determine any veracity to the claims, but showed concern by calling for any administrator in the area to rule with respect for all groups regardless of ethnicity. The fact that the report does not make any claim of the YPG targeting people based on ethnicity was probably one of the reasons why they did not take it seriously, especially when there was dozens of similar reports, where the Syrian government, Al-Nusra Front and Free Syrian Army were accused of much worse war crimes.

See also[edit]


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