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Photographs from Rojava: Syria's Unknown War

On the frontline of the battle between Kurdish fighters and jihadist rebels.

by Henry Langston
Jan 21 2014, 3:00pm

As Syria’s bloody civil war enters its third year, fighting has reached the country’s Kurdish-dominated northeast, a region almost untouched by the conflict until recently. The Kurdish PYD party and its YPG militia, which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in neighboring Turkey, took over control of much of Hassakeh province from the Assad regime in the summer of 2012, and with it, control of Syria’s precious oil fields.

But the PYD’s hopes of staying neutral in the conflict and building an autonomous Kurdish state were dashed when clashes broke out with Syrian rebel forces in the strategic border city of Ras al-Ayn. That encounter quickly escalated into an all-out war between the Kurds and a powerful alliance of jihadist groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliates ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

In September of 2013, VICE crossed the border into Syria’s Kurdish region to document the YPG’s counteroffensive against the jihadists, who ventured deep into rural Hassakeh in an attempt to surround and capture Ras al-Ayn. These photographs document the time the VICE crew spent with the Kurdish and Syrian Christian fighters on the frontlines, where we found ourselves witnessing a bitter and almost unreported conflict within the Syrian war.

Watch Rojava: Syria's Unknown War here

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An Asayis checkpoint outside of Derik

An oil well close to the Iraqi border

A YPG soldier shows off his DIY tank

50.calibre bullets for a "dushka", a mounted heavy infantry machine gun

A local farmer on the outskirts of Serekaniye

A YPG soldier takes cover from a jihadist assault

YPG soldiers at a checkpoint outside of Alouk

A young YPG soldier at a checkpoint near Alouk

A YPG soldier armed with an RPG stands guard at a checkpoint near Alouk

The passports of foreign jihadists killed or captured by the YPG

Mourning family members at a funeral for YPG soldiers in Qamishli

The coffin for a YPG soldier is carried into the cemetery by his former comrades

Mourning relatives kiss the coffin of a dead YPG soldier at a funeral in Qamishli

A YPG soldier keeps guard at a comrade's funeral

An Asayis volunteer in Derik

The Christian church in Derik

A Turkish army border post

A YPG flag on the road to Serekaniye

Another young YPG soldier at base near Serekaniye

YPG soldiers monitor an enemy position at a checkpoint outside of Serekaniye

A "dushka" heavy machine gun mounted on a pick-up truck

A YPG soldier in the trenches at Serekaniye

A machine gun nest facing jihadist positions in Serekaniye

YPG fighters clean their weapons at a forward base in Serekaniye

The deserted Christian quarter of Serekaniye

The frontline in Alouk

YPG soldiers fire towards a jihadist held village in Alouk

YPG soldiers pulling back from their firing position in Alouk

The crowds at a funeral for a YPG soldier in Derik

The coffin of a YPG soldier is lowered into the ground in Derik