War with Isis: Wounded Kurdish forces count the cost of battling militants in Syria

Fighters speak about life on a frontline where they have been left isolated

Patrick Cockburn
Saturday 23 May 2015 22:19 BST
Kurdish YPG fighters said they have taken control of Abdulaziz mountain in Hasaka
Kurdish YPG fighters said they have taken control of Abdulaziz mountain in Hasaka (Reuters)

A squad of Syrian Kurdish fighters was ambushed as it advanced through a grove on the outskirts of a village held by Islamic State (IS) fighters near al-Hasakah in the Kurdish enclave in north-east Syria. Azad Judy, an 18-year-old Kurd, recalls: “We had divided into three groups that were trying to attack the village when we were hit by intense fire from behind and from the trees on each side of us.”

Azad, who comes from Nusaybin just across the border in Turkey, was hit by a single bullet in the spine. He says: “After being wounded, I tried to crawl away and then another fighter came and gave me first aid and an injection.” Azad is now lying in bed in the Shahid Khavat military hospital in the Syrian Kurdish city of al-Qamishli with a despairing look on his face because he may suspect that his legs are paralysed for ever and he will never walk again.

In a week during which the Syrian and Iraqi regular armies were defeated by IS at Palmyra and Ramadi, the lightly armed Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, won an important victory. It captured a strategically placed mountain known as Abdulaziz in Arabic and Kazwan in Kurdish, which had been a heavily defended IS stronghold. Supported by US air strikes, 1,000 YPG fighters surrounded the mountain whose lower slopes are covered by pine woods. The battle started on 6 May and ended last Wednesday when the remaining IS forces withdrew after suffering heavy losses. The Kurds say they buried 300 bodies of IS fighters and believe more were carried away.

Female Kurdish YPG fighters in the Assyrian village of Tel Nasri after the YPG said it retook control of the area
Female Kurdish YPG fighters in the Assyrian village of Tel Nasri after the YPG said it retook control of the area (Reuters)

A military hospital is a good place to hear eyewitness accounts of the warfare that laps around this isolated area of Syria where it borders Turkey and Iraq. It is part of Rojava, the de facto independent Kurdish state-let where several million Kurds live in three separate cantons on the Turkish border. Though 10 per cent of the Syrian population of 22 million, the Kurds were a persecuted minority up to the moment that the Syrian army withdrew in 2012. Discrimination was so intense that everything from babies to mountains had to be referred to by an Arabic rather than a Kurdish name.

Ignored by the outside world, the Syrian Kurds unexpectedly achieved international notoriety when they successfully defended their city of Kobani against IS assault in a 134-day-long siege that ended earlier this year. This is the most serious defeat that IS has suffered since the fall of Mosul and creation of Islamic State in June 2014.

Among the wounded fighters in the military hospital is a man who says he would like to be referred to only by his Kurdish name of Shiyar, but turns out to be from West Yorkshire. I have always had something of a prejudice against volunteer soldiers in war in the Middle East, suspecting them of indulging in martial fantasies and bigger on bravado than military effectiveness. But Shiyar, 33, turns out to be modest and self-deprecating, giving a compelling account of recent fighting and saying that his wound from shrapnel that had hit him in the back of the head was not as serious as he had feared.

Shiyar says he was born in Halifax and joined the British Army when he was 18, but otherwise he had worked as a roofer and a driver and had lived for five years in Portugal. He had come to this part of Syria to fight IS because “nobody else seemed to be doing anything”. Smuggled across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, he was part of a rapid reaction force to retrieve wounded and make counterattacks. He speaks highly of his Kurdish commander, Hebal Saram, and says other members of his unit were foreigners who had been members of regular armies, or Kurds.

He himself had been wounded in confused fighting when attacking some IS fighters who exploded an IED behind him. He looks gaunt and unsteady on his feet, but he says that his worst long-term injury is deafness in one ear because another fighter was firing his machine gun a few inches from him as he lay on the ground.

Of the Syrian Kurds as fighters, he had nothing but praise saying: “I have never met a braver bunch of soldiers in my life.” He added that they were armed only with old Kalashnikovs and some Russian light machine guns, while IS had the latest Humvees and machine guns captured from the Iraqi army. He said he seldom saw enemy fighters though they had launched a vehicle packed with 5,000lb of explosives at them, which they fired at until it blew up. He was intending to return to the front when the doctors let him out of hospital.

The Syrian Kurdish fighters may be brave, but they are also isolated by IS whom they are fighting on one side, a hostile Turkey to the north and Iraqi Kurdistan (known as the Kurdistan Regional Government) which sees the PYD, the ruling party of Rojava, as a possible rival. The PYD is effectively the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK of Turkey, which has periodically tense relations with the KRG.

These complex Kurdish rivalries can have unfortunate consequences for Kurds living on the front line. One of the beds in the military hospital is occupied by Jinda, a 20-year-old woman who had been shot through the right side of the chest, but this had happened in Shingal, a Kurdish-controlled area in Iraq. Jinda says proudly that she was one of the first women to join protection units of Shingal and had been wounded during a sudden IS attack She believes she might be arrested if she went to a KRG hospital, though she had been allowed across the border from KRG to hospital in al-Qamishli. She speaks scathingly of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga failure to defend Shingal last August, “when they withdrew and left our women to be taken as captives and our men massacred”.

Hundreds of Shia fighters, pictured, moved into Khalidiya on Saturday
Hundreds of Shia fighters, pictured, moved into Khalidiya on Saturday (AFP/Getty)

The Syrian Kurdish experience is that IS can be defeated when an effective light infantry on the ground is matched with US air power overhead. In the case of the YPG, they simply send co-ordinates of IS positions back to the US-Kurdish operations room in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, which directs air strikes. But a notable feature of the past week in Syria is that the US air force did not bomb IS forces when they were advancing on Palmyra. The Americans avoided doing this because they did not want to be accused of doing anything that might lead them to be accused of helping the Syrian army or President Bashar al-Assad. Likewise in Iraq, they did not want the Shia militias deployed to defend Ramadi and refused to supply air cover and intelligence if this did happen.

But the IS victories of the past week mean that the US may now have no alternative but to give air support to all enemies of IS regardless of their identity.

Fighting back

Shia militia and Iraqi army forces launched a counter-offensive against Islamic State (IS) insurgents near Ramadi, it has been claimed, after the city fell to IS last week.

Anbar provincial council member Azzal Obaid said hundreds of Shia fighters, who had assembled last week at the Habbaniya air base, moved into Khalidiya yesterday and were nearing Siddiqiya and Madiq, towns in contested territory a few miles from Ramadi.

Two police officers later told Reuters the pro-government forces, which they said included locally allied Sunni tribesmen, had advanced past those towns to within 1km of Husaiba al-Sharqiya, an IS-run town a few miles east of Ramadi’s city limits.

Jaffar Husseini, spokesman for a Shia paramilitary group, claimed that more than 2,000 reinforcements had joined the advance and they had managed to secure Khalidiya and the road linking it to Habbaniya. The US and its allies staged 22 air strikes on IS targets in Iraq on Friday and into yesterday, including four near Ramadi. The other US-led attacks in Iraq were near the cities of Al Asad, Bayji, Fallujah, Haditha, Kirkuk, Makhmur, Mosul, Sinjar and Tal Afar.

Coalition forces also attacked five IS sites in Syria between Friday and yesterday, a statement from the Combined Joint Task Force said.

The UN has said that more than 55,000 people have fled Ramadi since it was stormed by IS, with most taking refuge in other parts of Anbar province.


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