Meet the Kurdish Female Freedom Fighters of Syria

By Glen Johnson

Three young Kurdish women pose with their weapons at a road checkpoint in the city of Al-Malikiyah, in the far northeast of Syria near the Iraqi border. All photos by Benjamin Hiller

Avesta, a female sniper, sits smoking a cigarette in Ras al-Ayn, Syria. A cross hangs from black string around her neck. Other women, clutching Kalashnikov assault rifles, smoke Gauloises cigarettes and sip coffee, sitting beside a car camouflaged by a thick layer of dried mud. “If I see a commander, I will shoot him,” says the 27-year-old sniper, Avesta, her long brown hair coming down to her shoulders. “Otherwise, I pick whoever is closest to me.”

Avesta and her companions are fighters with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia defending Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province.

For much of the past year, the YPG’s fighters have battled al-Qaeda-linked militants—notably the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN)—and Free Syrian Army militants for control of the oil-producing province.

“Destruction is very easy for al-Qaeda,” Avesta says. “But [they don’t] know how to rebuild.”  

The active participation of a large number of female fighters speaks to a broader push in Syria’s Kurdish regions, which are presently experiencing a resurgence of their culture after decades under the heel of the Syrian regime.

Schools are teaching the Kurdish language, unthinkable just a few short years ago, while Kurdish language newspapers are printed on-the-cheap and distributed to all corners of Kurdish territory.

Women in traditional dress march along streets, breaking into dance and cheering, behind trucks blasting out music and adorned with Kurdish flags. Women are additionally integrated into a community-driven police force, the Asayish, and participate in politics.

A female Kurdish commander directs an attack on a military base where Syrian Army soldiers have barricaded themselves, July 2012.

For Avesta and her comrades, the al-Qaeda-linked fighters at the edge of the city of Ras al-Ayn present an acute challenge to both Kurdish dreams of autonomy and to their hopes of establishing a more equitable society.

“Before the revolution, most Kurdish women were staying in their homes,” says 32-year-old Aryan, another female fighter, dressed in fatigues and cracking open pine nuts. “Since I began fighting for my country [Kurdistan], these attitudes have been changing.”

Fighting between the YPG and ISIS-JN continues throughout the region, and more broadly throughout Syria. (Kurds call the northern, Kurdish parts of Syria “Rojava,” which they hope to make an autonomous homeland.) The conflict has also spilled across borders: On September 29, ISIS suicide bombers launched an attack in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, as a warning to Kurdish factions there, killing six and wounding 40.

Rojava is of strategic value because of its shared border with Turkey and Iraq:  whoever controls the region has the potential to profit from smuggling and trafficking operations, as well as from oil production.

If ISIS-JN succeeds in establishing control there, they will have carved a contiguous corridor linking fighters in western Syria deep into Sunni areas of Iraq, the homebase of ISIS’s 10,000 fighters.

Scores of people have been displaced by the violence in Kurdish parts of Syria, with an estimated 50,000 Kurds fleeing to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan in August alone, after heavy fighting wracked the region.

Three women of the so called "YPJ" (Womens Protection Union, the all female Kurdish militia in Syria), south of the Acity of l-Ma'bada, where they have been fighting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

“Most of us are Muslims, but ISIS’ ideas are not compatible with how we live in our town,” says Ibrahim Nasr, a displaced person from Yusufiye, a frontier town where Kurds and ISIS-JN have been fighting in recent months. Ibrahim’s son was shot and killed by a sniper here in September.

Meanwhile, late last week, the YPG—allegedly backed up by Syrian fighter planes, and Iraqi regular forces, according to reports—drove ISIS from Yarubiya at the border crossing with Iraq.

ISIS-JN, for its part, remains poised on the fringes of Ras al-Ayn, just a few miles from where Avesta sits as I interview her.

Buildings around us carry the scars of shelling; bullet holes run up walls. Windows are blasted out, razor wire and debris scattered about. A market on the city’s edge has been scorched and sits in ruin.

“The worst thing would be getting captured by ISIS,” says Avesta. “I can’t imagine what they would do to me.”

Syria’s Kurds, who tentatively backed the calls for democratic reform earlier in the insurgency, have largely avoided being drawn into the country’s civil war, now approaching a third brutal year.

“Our people at first supported the revolution, but then we saw what was going on [as the opposition became increasingly Islamic in outlook],” says Avesta.

Instead, Kurdish factions opted for a “third way”, which has seen the PYD—the leftist Kurdish party who oversees the women's militias—consolidate control over swathes of northeastern Syria, as the regime expended resources fighting insurgents elsewhere in the country.

The Free Syrian Army as well as the Turkish government, which has battled the PKK for decades and is fearful of a reinvigorated Kurdish movement on its southern flank, allege that the PYD cooperates with the Assad regime, which they deny. The PYD in turn claims that the Turkish government has allowed—by removing landmines and razor wire—ISIS and JN fighters to enter Ras al-Ayn from the Turkish territory to assault YPG positions.

Despite the complexity, Avesta describes “Rojava’s revolution” as a “ray of light.”

Then she tells me she has to end the interview. She apologizes, saying she has “to go and do my work”.

The unit piles into vehicles. More fighting will break out in a few short hours.

Glen Johnson's twitter: @GlenAJohnson

See more of Hiller's photographers here.

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