Havel Hassan (havel means comrade in Kurdish), an ethnic Turk and member of the Turkish Communist Party, rested his mangled leg on the F350 Ford pickup truck and asked as calmly as I had ever seen him if the hospital in Qamishli— the regional Kurdish capital city—had morphine. Havel Canan said, “No morphine, but they do have baby powder.” I’ll never forget how Hassan began unhesitatingly giggling like a girl with his hand over his mouth as he bled out because there wasn’t even a tourniquet available.
This example demonstrates how pathetic the resources often were. This also somewhat translates to why the Syrian Kurdish Army was such a diverse organization and thus may be complicated to understand.
Overall, the army exists under the titles YPG (made up of men) and YPJ (women) who are under the de jure control of the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish government, but under effective military control of the PKK—the Kurdish Worker’s Party. However, these are just titles. In reality, the army is a vast melting pot of political parties, ethnicities, cultures, and peoples. They consist of ethnic Kurds from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, Arabs, Sunni and Shia tribesmen, Turks, Assyrians, Orthodox Catholics, westerners from far-flung France, England, Romania, Germany, and beyond, with political affiliations stretching across the divide—often to the bewilderment of even the most experienced fighters.
A friend of mine told me of how he once pulled together an impromptu group of three fighters comprised of him—a Turk—an Arab, and a Kurd. The Kurd couldn’t speak Arabic or Turkish, the Arab couldn’t speak Kurdish or Turkish, and the Turk couldn’t speak Kurdish or Arabic. Together, though, they stopped repeated ISIS attacks that stupidly approached through a YPG minefield that night.
From my observations and from the commanders who gave me their estimates, the YPG and YPJ are comprised of approximately 10 percent local cadre (YPG and YPJ), 40 percent local fighters (YPG and YPJ) recruited from within Syrian Kurdistan, 10 percent non-Kurdish cadre such as Turkish communists or Arab fighters who had joined because their tribe had sided with the Kurds, 10 percent PKK cadre who were either commanders or in special units, 10 percent PKK fighters, and 20 percent HPG (men only)—Kurds from Turkey who came to join the fight in Syria, but were not necessarily full-fledged members of the PKK or full practitioners of their ideology.
Now, to organize such heterogeneity into a large, effective fighting force, they are then organized into four different tabor (Kurdish for group) types. This is the basic fighting unit. They are:
1) The mixed tabor of cadre and non-cadre were attached to areas such as Telkoucher/Rabia, an important Iraq/Syria border crossing. They would fight there unless they were called away in an emergency. Their mix was usually 40 percent YPK—both local and cadre—20 percent HPG, and the rest being either non-Kurdish or PKK fighters and cadre. The PKK fighters were pretty easy to pick out, as they would handle most of the special weapons in the mixed tabor equipped with an average of two RPGs, three PKM machine guns, and one sniper rifle per group.
Also, the mixed tabor, because it could be called away, always had three cars attached to it. It was therefore considered motorized, and several of its personnel were trained as drivers and mechanics. In addition, they usually received at least one technical—a truck equipped with a mounted heavy weapon. Additionally, technicians such as bomb experts or snipers could be attached to the unit to add to its capabilities.
The mixed tabor is also the only unit type with both female and male fighters. The percentage is usually either 50-50 or 60-40 in favor of the men. Commanders can therefore be either men or women. There have even been instances of women leading exceptionally mixed tabors comprised of a 70-30 ratio of men to women.
2) Local fighters, recruited from Syrian Kurdistan, fight in the local tabors. Their only PKK cadre is the commander. They’re lucky to receive a PKM or Duskha to augment their typical loadout of one AK-47 and a single grenade per man. Technically, their battle space is behind the lines protecting logistical areas. However, in an emergency, the mixed tabors will grab personnel from them to add to their manpower on the front lines if most of the mixed tabor is called away in an emergency.
I’ve seen a mixed tabor front line battle space with only one member from the original mixed tabor left, leading 16 local tabor fighters because he was unlucky enough to be left behind when everyone else was called away. He went from lowly fighter to the temporary commander of 16 dudes in just an hour.
3) PKK-only tabors are the fire brigade and shock troops for the Syrian Kurdish Army. Whenever and wherever fighting erupts, and not necessarily in an emergency, they’ll be the first there.
They are all considered to be “from the mountains,” i.e. trained in Turkish Kurdistan, and travel via Iraqi Kurdistan bringing all of their equipment with them. They are technically light infantry, but depending on the fighting conditions, they’ll be the first priority to receive any kind of equipment. For example, during the fighting on September 11th, one PKK tabor received four RPG launchers after their commander requested them. Of course, the equipment handed to them doesn’t come from some large reserve, as it’s simply taken from the other tabors under the impression that the PKK fighters know how to utilize it more effectively. Their PKK cadre include the commander, his XO, and perhaps his radio operator.
4) The special tabors include armored units, such as the crews for captured Syrian Army tanks or ones built in a special factory, bomb squads, snipers, Duskha-only units with technicals, mortars, intelligence, and civil affairs. Being members of one of these tabors, spoken from personal experience, is a huge badge of respect in the army, as members are looked up to. Their unique weapons, equipment, and uniforms are key differentiators from the other units.
Respect is also due to the fact that all members of the special tabors must be strictly PKK cadre with a few exceptions (me, for example, or sprinklings of Turkish communists), and training times are long. For example, the PKK’s bomb school is six months long, sniper school is eight months long, etc. Those members of the special tabors are typically older, and are recruited exclusively from those PKK cadre who choose not to go the commander route or, after fighting for a while, choose to become instructors back “in the mountains.” (If they survive, of course. Fatality rates are quite high.)
Organization changed very little even after the Syrian Kurdish Army was first reorganized and retrained by the PKK to fight ISIS after their advance into Iraq in June. The new army went on to take cities like Telkoucher/Rabia on the Syrian/Iraq border, and capture and occupy other major Kurdish cities and oil fields in the area.
Moreover, the army is controlled quite differently from a Western military. It has a committee, like a board of trustees, which appoints generals and approves of his strategies and operational plans. Below that are the Canton/department commanders of the western, central, and eastern parts of Syrian Kurdistan. Below them are sub-Cantons or district commanders. When battle commences, commanders are appointed over over two or three tabors while they remain in charge of their tabor. Then, there is the tabor commander, and within the tabor, the troop leader of 10 soldiers, team leaders leading three or four soldiers, and finally, the lowly fighter.
All appointments of tabor commander are made by a committee of other tabor commanders, their peers. New tabor commanders are usually newly minted PKK cadre from the commanders academy in “the mountains” who distinguished themselves as fighters during their earlier years. Below this rank, all of them are appointed by the tabor commander.
The next article in this series will explore how the Syrian Kurdish Army is ideologically organized in the areas it controls, and why, for example, “every fighter [of ours] is a politician,” as my friend Haval Azad describes it.