Survivors of the Syrian Wars

Patrick Cockburn

When I first visited Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria, early in 2015, it was rapidly expanding. With the help of massive US air-power, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had just retaken the city of Kobani from Islamic State. YPG fighters were linking together the Kurdish population centres south of the Syrian-Turkish frontier to create a de facto Kurdish state – they called it Rojava. I met a squad of YPG fighters mopping up after a battle with IS for control of a range of forested hills called Mount Abdulaziz, west of the Kurdish-Arab city of Hasaka. Signs of the recent IS presence included the burned-out remains of cars that had been used as bombs and some fresh pro-IS graffiti on the walls of a captured building. Lying in the debris inside were neatly printed IS ration cards with the names, ID numbers and personal details of recipients: evidence that IS, monstrous militarised cult though it was, was also a well-organised administrative machine. Foreign IS fighters had evidently been stationed in the building: in a discarded notebook were Arabic words translated into various languages as well as drawings of household items – a desk, a chair – along with their names in Arabic. The YPG soldiers, who all looked very young, were cheerful after their success. Botan Damhat, the squad leader, who was only 18, said the swift victory had come about through the combination of YPG ground troops and US airstrikes. ‘Without the American planes it would have been much harder to take the mountain,’ he said. ‘We would have won in the end, but we would have lost a lot more men.’

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