SINJAR MOUNTAIN, Iraq—Nine years ago, Zind Ruken packed a bag and left her majority-ethnic-Kurdish city in Iran, escaping a brutal police crackdown and pressure to marry a man she’d never met.
“America’s association with a terror-listed Maoist-inspired militia, even if indirect, shows how dramatically Syria’s conflict has reconfigured regional alliances and eroded once-rigid borders.”
Now the 24-year-old is a battle-hardened guerrilla, using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to fight Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq.
She has deployed to reverse their advances on self-governing Kurdish communities. Last summer, she says, she helped rescue Kurdish-speaking Yazidis besieged on Sinjar Mountain. Her unit has fought Islamist insurgents and conventional armies in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq—countries where an estimated 30 million Kurds live.
“Constantly shifting alliances in the region mean the PKK’s rise isn’t certain to continue. But the guerrilla group’s growing stature has alarmed Turkey, a crucial North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally of the U.S., with whom the PKK has fought a three-decade war costing some 40,000 lives.”
Ms. Ruken’s journey provides a glimpse behind the remarkable rise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the cultlike Marxist-inspired group she fights for and whose triumphs against Islamic State have helped it evolve from ragtag militia to regional power player.
The PKK and its Syrian affiliate have emerged as Washington’s most effective battlefield partners against Islamic State, also known as ISIS, even though the U.S. and its allies have for decades listed the PKK as a terrorist group. The movement in the past has been accused of kidnappings, murder and narcotics trafficking, but fighters like Ms. Ruken have presented the world an appealing face of the guerrillas—an image of women battling as equals with male comrades against an appallingly misogynist enemy.
“Obama administration officials acknowledged the PKK and YPG have links and coordinate with each other in the fight against Islamic State, but they said the U.S. continues to formally shun the PKK while dealing directly with YPG.”
U.S. war planners have been coordinating with the Syrian affiliate—the People’s Defense Units, or YPG—on air and ground operations through a joint command center in northern Iraq. And in two new centers in Syria’s Kobani and Jazeera regions, YPG commanders are in direct contact with U.S. commanders, senior Syrian Kurdish officials said.
“There’s no reason to pretend anymore,” said a senior Kurdish official from Kobani. “We’re working together, and it’s working.”
By contrast, Ankara agreed only on Thursday to allow coalition airstrikes from an eastern-Turkey air base, after months of negotiations in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ’s government resisted international calls to enter the war with Islamic State. U.S. officials said the base deal shouldn’t affect U.S. air support to Kurdish fighters in Syria and may help increase collaboration with the YPG because jets and drones will be closer to the battlefield. Read the rest of this entry »
When 19-year-old Dilar and her girlfriends learned last spring that a woman who taught at a local school had died fighting Islamic State, they made a pact: They would join an all-female Syrian Kurdish brigade named in the teacher’s honor.
“When I walk with my gun, the men who haven’t volunteered keep their eyes down around me. My bravery shames them.”
Her unit, the Martyr Warsin Brigade, saw action this summer in a tough battle against the extremist fighters for Ras al-Ayn, a town along the Turkish border. Dilar came away without injury and returned home to a hero’s welcome.
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Now, during her downtime, she and her female comrades stride with a swagger through their villages east of the embattled city of Kobani.
“When I walk with my gun, the men who haven’t volunteered keep their eyes down around me,” said Dilar, who didn’t want to give her family name. “My bravery shames them.”
“Really we have no differences. We do what the men do.”
As debate flares in Washington and other capitals about whether the battle against Islamic State can succeed without more boots—even U.S. ones—on the ground, Kurdish women have stepped up to defend their lands in Syria and Iraq. An estimated one-third of the Syrian Kurdish fighters in Kobani are women, fighters and residents say, a figure that mirrors their role in other significant battles across Kurdish territories this year.
The monthlong battle over the city on the Turkish border is straining Islamic State, Kurdish politicians and U.S. officials say, and hampering its overall expansion strategy.
The overriding motivation that Kurds give for fighting the insurgents is to save their ancestral homeland from destruction. Yet many women combatants also cite a more personal crusade. Across the territory in Syria and Iraq that it now controls, Islamic State has reinstituted slavery, prohibited women from working and threatened to kill those Muslims, including Kurds, who don’t adhere to their ideology.
“Sometimes we are so close to them without knowing it, because they hide in empty buildings.”
“Islamic State are terrorists, inhuman,” said a 28-year-old female commander of both men and women in Kobani who uses the nom-de-guerre Afsin Kobane.
Ms. Kobane was a kindergarten teacher when she decided last year to join the female unit of the Syrian Kurdish resistance force, known as YPJ. Speaking by telephone from her post in the besieged city on the Turkish border, she said her mixed-gender unit had been fighting for more than a month and was holding a position only a half-mile from Islamic State fighters. Read the rest of this entry »