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Wars Within Wars

In northern Syria, the Kurds try to carve out a territory and fend off the jihadists

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By JONATHAN SPYER
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 ISIS has emerged as one of the strangest and cruelest of the many political-military movements now active in Syria. I spoke with a young Kurdish man named Perwer who had spent a week in ISIS captivity. He was arrested at the Jarabulus border crossing, while returning to Syria from Istanbul. First detained by members of another Islamist unit, the Tawhid Brigade, he was then handed over to ISIS and kept for five days in one of the movement’s jails in Jarabulus town, just west of the Kobani enclave. 

Perwer related that a Kurdish man who had been caught raising the YPG flag in a village near the border with the Kurdish enclave was tortured to death. He also noted that among his fellow prisoners were Arab residents of Jarabulus held for drinking wine. They too were tortured. The Kurdish prisoners were regularly insulted and called apostates by the ISIS guards, who came from a variety of countries. Copies of the Koran were handed out to the Kurdish detainees, and the days in their crowded cell were broken up by prayer sessions, in which ISIS would seek to instruct their Muslim captives in what they regard as the correct method of Muslim prayer. 

ISIS’s mini-state reaches from the edges of Kobani to deep inside western Iraq. I visited the frontlines on the eastern edge of the Kobani enclave, where the positions of the YPG and ISIS push up against each other. In Tell Abyad, the two sides are camped in abandoned villages, where the ruined landscape has a slightly lunar quality. Eyewitnesses told me that ISIS forced the villagers to leave when the fighting began. Young fighters of the YPG moved carefully around their positions in the abandoned village, ever mindful of the presence of ISIS snipers. In places, the two sides are less than 500 meters apart. ISIS favors mortar fire by night and sniping by day. This has taken a toll on the male and female fighters of the YPG. Around 80 of them have died since the fighting erupted in March. Many more ISIS men, however, have been killed in their wild and uncoordinated attacks. 

In Jarabulus on the western side, the frontline villages are still inhabited. Some of the local Arab clans are backing ISIS. A sort of de facto mini-transfer of populations has taken place in the area, largely, though not solely, along ethnic lines. I met a couple of Sunni Arabs among the ranks of the YPG fighters. There are also Kurdish volunteers among the ISIS men, including some commanders. They hail mainly from the villages of Iraqi Kurdistan, in particular from the Halabja area. Yet these details aside, it is clear the main dynamic of the conflict in this area is ethnic and sectarian, with Kurds faced off against Sunni Arab Islamists. The attitude of the YPG fighters to their ISIS enemies combines a certain contempt for their military prowess, with a sort of fascinated horror at their savage practices. 

“They outnumber us, often. But they lack tactics,” said Surkhwi, a female fighter and the commander of the Kurdish fighters in the village of Abduqli. “We think many of them take drugs before entering combat, and they attack randomly, haphazardly. They desecrate bodies of our fighters, cutting off heads, cutting off hands. They don’t respect the laws of war,” Surkhwi told me. “We also know that ISIS look at us women fighters as something not serious, because of their Islamic ideology. They think that if they are killed by a woman, they won’t go to paradise.” 

The YPG fighters themselves, meanwhile, are clearly experienced and well trained. While interviewing one YPG commander, Nohalat Kobani, I had the chance to witness his troops in action. The position in the village of Haj Ismail where we were conducting the interview came under attack from small arms fire as we were talking. I followed the YPG fighters as they raced to their positions to return fire. The coordination and discipline were impressive. The YPG blasted back at the ISIS position, 500 meters away, with rifles and a medium-caliber machine gun. After a while, the shooting from the other side stopped. Nohalat Kobani, a large, corpulent man and a veteran PYD activist, was amused and unperturbed by the incident. We recommenced our interview as soon as the shooting stopped. 

I met two ISIS fighters in an apartment in Kilis in the south of Turkey, two days after the skirmish at Haj Ismail. It was strange to be sipping tea and smoking with men whose comrades had been shooting at me a short time earlier. It was also fascinating to gain an insight into the appeal that ISIS has managed to exercise over some Syrians, and the way that the movement views the situation in northern Syria. 

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