Syrian Kurds have ISIL ‘capital’ in their sights

Thousands of fighters in northern Syria preparing for assault on Raqqa.

YPG fighters behind the berm that shields them from enemy fire. Florian Neuhof for The National
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Ain Issa, Syria // Peering through the sight of his sniper rifle, the Kurdish commander observes the farmland that stretches out from his sandbagged position towards ISIL-controlled territory.

The lush fields, which stand in stark contrast to the arid desert in much of this part of northern Syria, are hotly contested by the Kurdish troops who have dug in here at the village of Skero and their mortal enemy, ISIL.

Like a green corridor, this fertile land extends south from the town of Ain Issa and envelops the city of Raqqa – the de facto capital of ISIL about 50 kilometres away.

The commander, who goes by the nom de guerre Rubar – the Kurdish word for river – understands the dangers of this land.

“Have you seen the village?” he asks wryly, referring to a devastated hamlet of Skero that lies along the road towards Raqqa, its buildings collapsed or riddled with bullet holes.

Four of his soldiers have died and six have been wounded in the fighting to take Skero, now one of the Kurds’ most forward positions. It is not the only heavy combat his fighters have seen in recent months.

Commander Rubar’s unit was at the tip of an offensive that expelled ISIL from the border town of Tel Abyad in June, cutting a vital supply line from Turkey to Raqqa.

With the help of US air strikes, the Kurds then swiftly advanced towards Raqqa, and established a new battle front at Ain Issa.

The Kurds have pledged to continue pushing back ISIL and capture Raqqa with the help of US air strikes and a collection of disparate Arab rebel units, some of which fall under the auspices of the Free Syrian Army, while others are tribal fighters.

Liberating Raqqa

“We are preparing to liberate Raqqa and Jarabulus, thousands of fighters are being readied for the offensive. Right now, we are discussing the coordination between us and the Free Syrian army and tribal fighters,” says Idriss Nassan, deputy minister of foreign affairs of Kobani canton, one of the three administrative districts that make up the predominantly Kurdish self-declared autonomous region of Rojava in northern Syria.

Speaking to The National from the town of Kobani, on the Turkish border north-west of Ain Issa, Mr Nassan says the Kurds can muster about 20,000 fighters, while their Arab allies will contribute between 3,000 and 5,000 men.

Jarabulus, a town to the west of Kobani, is the first major obstacle to connecting Afrin, the third canton of Rojava, to the cantons of Kobani and Jazira. Should the corridor fall to the Kurds, they would control almost the entire border to Turkey, and cut off the flow of foreign recruits and supplies to ISIL.

The Kurds claim that there are no territorial ambitions behind their intention to take Raqqa, whose inhabitants are largely Arab.

But after ISIL launched an assault on Kobani in September left the town largely destroyed, they feel that the autonomous region will not be safe until the extremist group has been driven out of their nearby lair.

“If you want to make Rojava safe from ISIL, you have to take Raqqa,” says Serfiraz, a fighter resting from frontline duty at a cement factory used as a military base a few kilometres north of Ain Issa.

Weapons needed

Apart from continuing its air strikes against ISIL, the United States has airdropped 50 tonnes of weapons and ammunitions to supply the Arab militias in Rojava, at least some of which have found their way to the Kurdish forces.

Providing the Kurds with weapons and ammunition is politically sensitive: Rojava is governed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) considered a terrorist organisation by the US.

In spite of Russia’s recent entry into the Syrian civil war, Russian military assistance will not be welcome unless Moscow and Washington agree to cooperate in helping the Kurds, says Mr Nassan.

Commander Rubar does not think his unit will receive US arms, but he is not overly concerned. Brimming with confidence after a string of victories against ISIL, he is convinced of the fighting abilities of his troops, from the men and women’s military wings of the PYD.

“We can take Raqqa, it’s easy. In Syria, we are the only force that can beat Daesh,” he says.

Despite his optimism, the commander does not think ISIL will collapse once its de facto capital is taken.

“The bigger problem is Iraq, they have a lot of forces there. They have brought units from Iraq. The fighters we encounter are mostly foreigners,” he says.

As the Kurds prepare their offensive, ISIL is engaging them in small-scale attacks all along the Ain Issa front.

The enemy frequently sends in suicide bombers to try to inflict casualties among the defenders of Skero, the fighters say. The extremists tend to attack at night, but have yet to breach the perimeter.

Kurdish nationalism

Commander Rubar believes that ISIL is too weak to launch a concerted attack to drive back the Kurds.

But while dismissive of his foes, he acknowledges that more firepower would help drive ISIL out of Raqqa.

Syrian Kurds, who unlike their Iraqi counterparts have not received significant amounts of weapons from the US and other western powers, are easily outgunned by ISIL, who captured vast amounts of heavy weapons and armoured vehicles after defeating four Iraqi army divisions last year.

At Skero and along the Ain Issa front line, the Kurds are fighting with little more than assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG) launchers. Even the heavy machine guns strapped on to the back of pickup trucks – which have become the defining image of conflicts in the Middle East – are rarely seen here.

The Kurdish fighters make up for their lack of weapons with ideological fervour. They are firm believers in the teachings of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader now languishing in a Turkish jail. Fusing Kurdish nationalism with socialism, and setting the PKK up as a tightly knit, clandestine organisation, Ocalan inspires fierce loyalty and commitment to the cause among his followers.

But beyond the trenches and the green fields lie vast swathes of enemy territory, which will stretch the Kurdish forces ever more thinly. And stung by their recent defeats by the Kurds in Syria, ISIL is likely to put up a tenacious resistance.

Having fought their way up the road to Raqqa, these Kurdish fighters know what to expect.