Ras Al-Ain, Asharq Al-Awsat—As the fat winter sun dropped sharply below the horizon, Rossiar pointed to a distant cluster of buildings silhouetted against the sunset. “That’s where they are,” she told us. It didn’t feel much like a front line, just acres of billowing farmland tinted orange in the glow of the fading dusk light.
But the smallholding we were standing on, half an hour’s drive west of Ras Al-Ain along a road that hugs the Turkish border, now lies at the apex of a crucial new stage in Syria’s civil war. The Kurdish militias, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the affiliated Women Protection Units (YPJ), are battling the radical Islamist forces of Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) along a front line that stretches 200 miles (330 kilometers) from here to the Yaaroubiyeh border crossing on Syria’s northeastern frontier with Iraq. The enemy that Rossiar pointed to was positioned just 2 miles (3 kilometers) away, across the rolling north Syrian plains.
The following night, the Islamists attacked. Their fighters came to within a few yards of the YPG’s forward outpost before they were driven back to their starting position. “We shouted at them, ‘Come over and drink tea with us!’” laughed Delil, a YPG fighter with rough-hewn Action Man features, as he recounted the attack over a cigarette the next evening.
“They must feel shame that they can’t take the Girls’ Corner,” a second fighter said.
“They can’t take it because they’re weak,” Delil replied.
It is by chance, not design, that the Kurd’s front line position sits in the village of Kherbet Al-Binaat—the Girls’ Corner. But the name couldn’t be more appropriate—or, one imagines, more irksome for the Islamists. In these Kurdish militias women and men fight alongside each other as equals. “Binaat wa shabab!”—”Young women and young men!”— exclaimed a young male fighter joyfully.
Rojda, a local YPJ leader, explained how the presence of women in the Kurdish militias changes their dynamic on the front line. “In the Middle East, we tend to think of men as leaders,” she said. “But men will always have the tendency to show off a little. Women are more patient and less hot blooded. They don’t tend to act up to the clichés of war.”
She told us that the women receive different training to the men. “Our bodies move differently and men have more muscles, so the women’s training is designed to build on our strengths,” she said. On the front line, it is apparently the women who tend to excel in observation and planning. “Women have greater concentration, and they will never let their guard down,” she explained. “So by working together we have a greater impact.”
Rossiar looked like a time-served veteran as she stood on the ridge overlooking her enemy with her assault rifle slung over her shoulder. But she is one of thousands of young women in Syria’s Kurdish region who have joined the YPG and the YPJ over the past two years to fight back against the Islamists’ creeping advance into Kurdish territory.
“I decided to join in October 2012,” she told us. “I did it because I can see that the Islamists are a threat to my people, and I decided that either I will die or live free.”
But her decision to join the YPG came as a complete surprise to her family. In his hilltop farmhouse, thirty miles away from the base at Kherbet Al-Binaat, her father recounted Rossiar’s transition from fashion student to frontline fighter. “She couldn’t find work here, so she went to Ad-Darbasiyah to work as a Kurdish language teacher at a cultural center,” he said. “From one day to another she decided to join, but she never had a conversation with me about it.”
It is a route that has apparently become commonplace—Rossiar told us that many of the Kurdish-language teachers she worked with had also signed up as fighters.
Her father said that he had come to accept her decision. “At the beginning, I was upset,” he said, “but now it’s been a while and it’s fine. I’m proud of her, and I hope that God protects her. The jihadists came here from outside, and she is defending our land.”
Before we left, he posed for photos for us to take back to the daughter he now rarely sees. The last time Rossiar came to the farmhouse was a month ago. She stayed for a few hours, but refused to sleep there overnight. “She seemed really happy with her life,” he said. “She wanted to go back to stay with her sisters in arms.”
Back at the base, it seemed that assault of the previous night had done little to unnerve Rossiar and her comrades. They ate, they smoked and they laughed as they discussed the position they were in. I found myself comparing the conversations here to those I had had with FSA brigades in Aleppo, Idlib and Deir Ezzor. Here, there was no protest at their situation, no bile towards the West for the support that was never forthcoming. The YPG fighters at Kherbet Al-Binaat were not resigned to their fate—if anything, they appeared to be delighted with it.
Maybe that is because in the past month the war’s fickle fortunes have favored the Kurds, following a year in which the Islamists’ advance throughout northern Syria seemed to be unstoppable. In November 2012, the Free Syrian Army, led by the moderate Islamist Al-Tawhid Brigade, entered Ras Al-Ain, a major Kurdish town that straddles the border with Turkey. “At first we were happy that they had come,” said Khaled, a Kurdish resident of Ras Al-Ain. “But then they started showing Islamic behaviors, and not accepting the Kurdish culture. They wanted to force women to wear the hijab, and to close down the alcohol stores.”
Then, ten days after the Tawhid arrived in Ras Al-Ain, the radical Islamist brigade Jabhat Al-Nusra entered the city. At first, Khaled said, the Kurds tried to negotiate with them. But on November 18, 2012, as a Kurdish delegation sat together with members of Jabhat Al-Nusra, one of the Kurdish representatives was shot dead by a sniper. “We knew then that they are uncivilized, that they have a dark side,” Khaled said. “After that, the Kurds started fighting back against them. We knew that they were trying to take control of our region.”
It took almost a year, but on October 28, the YPG and YPJ finally pushed the Islamists out of Ras Al-Ain. Since then, most of the news from northern Syria has been of Kurdish advances into towns held by the Islamist brigades. In this multiphase civil war, it appears that this is the Kurdish moment.
As the Islamists retreated from Ras Al-Ain, they left behind towns and villages full of young Kurdish men and women determined to defend their region against any further attacks.
“They are bad people,” said Nujin, a quiet and wide-eyed 16-year-old. “Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS have no mercy.” She and her four brothers joined the YPG after their cousin was killed by the Islamists in the most brutal of ways. “They cut him into parts, his head and his arms, and they sent the body parts back to us,” she said.
For the women of the YPG and YPJ, the fight against the Islamists in northern Syria has an extra significance and an added sense of urgency. A second female fighter, also called Nujin, explained why she’d left the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla group based northern Iraq and, until the spring of this year, in southeastern Turkey, to fight alongside the YPG in Syria.
“I joined the PKK because at that time they were the only group fighting for Kurdish rights,” she said. “In October 2011, I heard about the YPG, and I knew that as a Kurdish girl it was my duty to defend women’s rights. From an Islamic point of view, women are not allowed to live like men. There is no equality. Of course I don’t agree with that—that is why I joined.”
Berwalat is also a veteran of the PKK, a soft-spoken 29-year-old with white lace plaited through her long dark hair who joined the militia at the age of 12. Three months ago, she crossed over the border into Syria and joined the YPG. “The system of radical Islam is contradictory to the liberty of women,” she said.
She described the differences between fighting with the PKK in the mountains of Turkey and with the YPG in the farmland of northern Syria. “In Turkey we were fighting against the state, and technically they were stronger than the enemy here,” she said. “The difference is that the ideology of the Islamists here is stronger. But ultimately both can be defeated.”
The Kurdish struggle is Berwalat’s life. When I asked her whether she wants to get married and have a family in the future, she threw her head back and laughed. “For us, there is not a beginning or an end to the conflict because it is a conflict for freedom. It is also a question of the freedom of women all over the world. I prefer not to get married because we are not living in a free country, and maybe my children would be persecuted because of our fight.” When the war in Syria finishes, she said, she will rejoin the PKK in Iraq, Turkey or Palestine.
The PKK connection bestows this corner of Syria’s multi-layered civil war with a strange and unlikely complexion. Since the 1990s, the PKK has been classed as a prohibited terrorist organization by the EU, NATO and the United States, and the Turkish military has also described the YPG too as a “separatist terrorist organization”. Meanwhile, Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS are both linked to Al-Qaeda. And so, in the eyes of many, this is a war of terrorists versus terrorists.
But for the majority of the YPG fighters at Kherbet Al-Binaat the issue is far less complex: this is simply a battle to protect their homeland and their way of life. While some, like Berwalat, will continue fighting for the Kurdish cause in other countries, others like Rossiar say that they will return to civilian life once the war against the Islamists is over.
“The past weeks have been a big victory for us, and we will not let the jihadists continue,” she said. “We will fight on as long as they are in our territory.”