Taking Back Raqqa Kurds Seek to Expand Reach in Northern Syria
The offensive to take Raqqa back from Islamic State has begun. Kurdish fighters are leading the charge in the hopes of eliminating the Islamist scourge -- but they are also hoping to expand their power in northern Syria.
The chirping of a few birds can be heard, but they are instantly drowned out by the squawking of the radio. "Clara to Guevara, come in please! Guevara! Here, Clara base. Please come in!" If you keep listening, Rosa Luxemburg also reports -- as Clara Zetkin continues waiting for Che Guevara.
It sounds as though the revolutionary idols of a bygone era have arranged for a reunion in the ether -- in the middle of the steppes of northern Syria not even 10 kilometers from Raqqa, which in January 2014 became the first large city conquered by Islamic State (IS). It is also the only city the radical Islamist group still controls -- in contrast to Mosul, Iraq, where IS is now holed up in one last neighborhood of the city center.
It is the end of May and Kurdish fighters are preparing for the assault on Raqqa. It still doesn't sound much like war here, but jihadist radio traffic -- in which they used to regularly announce their intention to slaughter all infidels -- has become more sporadic, says a Kurdish radio operator. "They're too concerned about being geo-located and by the airstrikes by the Americans," he says. He then tries once more to reach Che Guevara. "We love revolutionaries," he says before listing a number of them. He pauses and, without being asked, says: "Stalin isn't among them!"
Men and women in camouflage walk through the courtyard of the farmstead they have seized while pickups disguised with mud take munitions and meals to the front lines and bring exhausted fighters back to camp. Men and women sit smoking in the shade of the terrace, most of them armed with Kalashnikovs.
Just a few days ago, they were still slowly approaching Raqqa, but on Tuesday of last week, the long-planned, large-scale attack on the most important Islamic State bastion in Syria began. Several units conquered areas in the city's eastern outskirts last week, including most recently the al-Mashlab district. It is a motley group that has assembled to drive out IS. Officially, they all belong to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military alliance that was founded in October 2015 with the aim of bringing together Arabs and Kurds.
In addition to SDF insignia, though, one can also see the shoulder patches of other Kurdish militias and, on occasion, the Syrian flag with three stars, the symbol of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), some units of which joined the SDF. Around a tenth of the fighters are Arabs, with the rest comprised of Syrian Kurds. Several of the officers and specialists don't even understand Arabic and, aside from Kurdish, speak only Turkish.
There is only one logo that is missing completely: that of the tightly organized fighting force that looms over everything here in northern Syria, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Founded in 1978 as a Marxist-tinged separatist group in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, it has managed over the decades to create an effective power apparatus that exerts it's influence far beyond Turkey's own borders.
All groups are under the control of the same Kurdish leadership that has holed up in the expansive Qandil Mountains since the 1990s, from where they provide military and, of particular importance, ideological training to volunteers from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. All of them revere PKK founder Abdullah "Apo" Öcalan, who has been locked away on the Turkish prison island of Imrali since 1999 and whose portrait is omnipresent.
Gigantic images of Öcalan hang behind officers' desks at headquarters while many fighters wear tiny portraits as an amulet around their necks. A silhouette of the PKK founder is stuck to the windshield of the military pickup as we bounce along hardly recognizable roads on the way to the front. "We have stay on track no matter what," says our female driver. "There are mines."
IS lays them everywhere: in the sand, hidden in artificial rocks, in wells, door thresholds, generators, toilet doors and even corpses. Sometimes the detonations are triggered by almost invisible filaments, others are set off by pressure or movement sensors. A mine somewhere is almost sure to go off after every heavy shower. "It always happens after rain when mud is splashed onto their sensors," the driver says. "You can't make any false step!"
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For Kurds on the Syrian side of the border, the brother of the imprisoned PKK leader founded a Kurdish party and military arm in 2004, the People's Protection Units, or YPG. Since 2011, the party and its militia have demonstrated significant flexibility as they seek to negotiate the convoluted Syrian civil war. First, the YPG entered into a tacit agreement with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad according to which the Kurdish force would refrain from participating in the rebellion. In return, they were allowed to take control of all Kurdish regions of Syria in 2012 without a fight. Then, when IS besieged the Kurdish enclave of Kobani in 2014 -- only failing to conquer the city due to help from the U.S. Air Force -- YPG became a perfect partner for U.S. President Barack Obama's Syrian strategy. Obama wanted to fight IS, but not Assad, something that Syrian rebels refused to agree to. YPG, though, proved a willing partner.
Tenacious Ignorance of Reality
Since then, the Kurds have joined forces with both the U.S. and Russia. Among those forces assembled under the SDF umbrella, they are the only American ally worth mentioning. They receive air support, weapons and ammunition deliveries and battlefield assistance from U.S. Special Forces, which have several bases in Kurdish-controlled areas. In tenacious ignorance of reality, U.S. generals praise the Syrian YPG as their most reliable ally -- while in the same breath pledging Turkey their support in the fight against the terrorists of the Turkish PKK.
Turkey, meanwhile, has sidelined itself since 2012 with its focus on fighting the Kurds. For years, Ankara allowed IS supporters to cross the Turkish border to Syria unhindered because Islamic State targeted the Kurds. But IS ultimately became the world's Enemy No. 1 and the U.S. lost trust in its NATO ally.
Öcalan's pliable military, meanwhile, soon had the strongest military in the world on its side -- a ludicrous ascendency, and one which, if the party leadership has anything to say about it, isn't over yet. The Raqqa offensive, though, is an advance into foreign territory for the Kurds. That's why their use of revolutionary names from the past to refer to battlefield positions also has a practical reason: "We aren't familiar with the villages here at all," says the officer next to the radio operator prior to the launch of the offensive. "Few of us have ever been in this area."
The SDF front line to the west, north and east of Raqqa stretches kilometer-for-kilometer through the gently undulating steppe-land in an endless chain of modestly sized outposts. Hardly any of them are larger than a dozen fighters, sometimes nestled in an apricot orchard, other times on the roof of a farm building, protected by a sniper surveying the surrounding area while lying on a foam mattress -- armed with a self-made, 1.5-meter-long weapon called a Zagros, which can fire large-caliber, 12.7 mm ammunition at a distance of up to 2 kilometers.
Every outpost commander has a tablet with a constantly updated map of skirmishes. Mines are cleared from every new position. Reconnaissance teams or those who recently fled provide a rough description of the situation at each site: How many IS troops are there and where can they be found? Which paths are mined? Are there tunnels?
One Step in a Larger Conflict
U.S. Special Forces, which operate just behind the front, occasionally fly camera drones to keep an eye on the IS side of the front. Several units then advance in a pincer movement and, once they have conquered an IS position, they set up camp, defuse mines and blow up tunnel entrances. It has been the same procedure for almost an entire year.
The conquest of Raqqa is just one step in the larger conflict, says a commander who has named herself after Clara Zetkin, the German women's rights activist and communist who died in Moscow in 1933. "We aren't just seeking to liberate the country, we also want to change the mentality of the men here. We don't just want to be a Kurdish women's organization, but a power for all women in the world! There have been so many revolutions, but nothing has changed." The diminutive woman in her late 30s speaks of the difficulties of growing up as a woman in an arch-conservative society under Arab and Kurdish influence and says that she is also fighting for their freedom.
The Kurdish project of expansion, though, is not without its shortcomings. It does, in fact, aim to liberate women from the brutal patriarchy of IS. But those liberated go from an oppressive system to an air-tight and cleverly disguised regime of party dominance. And the more powerful the Kurdish fighters become, the more rigorously they pursue this goal. Even as Washington, in early May, officially announced its intention to provide significant military support to democratic forces in Syria, YPG secret service units stormed the last remaining offices belonging to Kurdish opposition parties in Qamishli, the largest city in northeastern Syria, and arrested 11 people.
- Part 1: Kurds Seek to Expand Reach in Northern Syria
- Part 2: A Steadily Expanding PKK