Barcham Zana knows her enemy. It is the Islamic State, which she calls “darkness.”
Islamic State militants killed two cousins, she said. For her, the group is not an abstract threat.
The 20-year-old spoke through a Syrian interpreter at a rudimentary training camp surrounded by golden waves of wheat in northern Syria. Zana and other young fighters had just finished target practice with AK-47s on a firing range encircled by earthen berms. The nearest front line fighting was about 50 miles away.
Zana is a member of the YPJ, a predominantly Kurdish women’s militia. She and her commander, Nujin Dirik, say they are dedicated to the cause. But they also reflect the depth of ethnic and other complexities facing the U.S. military as it seeks to develop a coherent and competent network of local Syria forces to defeat IS.
A small group of American military advisers works here with Zana and other Syrian volunteers — mostly Arab men — who have taken up arms against what they see as a scourge on their country and a threat to their families. One called IS an “illness.” Several said they were fed up with the group and eager to destroy it.
The Americans said the number of Arab volunteers has surged this spring, following a series of battlefield gains against IS, including the retaking of al-Shaddadeh in Hassakeh province. That success triggered a recruiting boom, with more local Arabs seeking to join than could be accommodated, the Americans said.
One U.S. adviser called the recruits “raw … literally civilians coming off the streets.” The adviser could not be quoted by name under ground rules set for reporters who visited the camp Saturday with Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command. The camp’s location also could not be disclosed.
A female YPJ trainee who gave her name as Athima said she feels a moral imperative.
“It’s my duty to stop this fighting,” she said, referring to the Islamic State.
Dirik says she is fighting for something bigger: a Syrian Kurdistan, known locally as Rojava, which already is a semi-autonomous region of northeastern Syria comprised of three self-governing cantons. Judy Ossi, who runs a humanitarian coordination office for her canton, Jazira, said the focus on war is obscuring the suffering of thousands of displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees, whose numbers she said already are overwhelming and are likely to grow.
The women of the YPJ revealed no fear of combat. Zana said she initially was afraid of the Islamic State, knowing of their brutal tactics, including beheadings. But once she joined the YPJ and began training, her fears disappeared, she said.
That strength-in-numbers theme applies as well to the broader U.S. strategy in Syria. The Americans hope they can pull together enough local fighters to capture the main prize in northern Syria: Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital. Raqqa already is largely isolated, with signs that IS fears an imminent offensive.
The U.S. has organized the fighters into an umbrella group it calls the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. It is comprised mostly of Syrian Kurds, numbering at least 25,000 fighters, with a smaller element of Syrian Arabs numbering perhaps 5,000 to 6,000.
One U.S. adviser here estimated the SDF will need perhaps 6,000 to 10,000 fighters for a Raqqa offensive. The U.S. strategy relies on training, organizing and advising local fighters for such combat, rather than committing American forces.
That has proven to be a slow approach, subject to much criticism in Congress. It is based on a belief that the locals are best able to sustain a lasting defeat of the militant group.
Votel, who inherited the strategy when he took over Central Command in April from the plan’s main military architect, Gen. Lloyd Austin, said in an interview that he believes it is working.
The key, he said, is tailoring U.S. support for the local Arab, Kurd and other local fighters so that they can do things their own way, “not trying to replicate how we would do things.”
“It may not be the exact way we would do something in the American army or a Western military force, but the approach they take works for them. That’s what’s important,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Scott Campbell says
People like these deserve all the training, assistance and military gear they need. The Kurds have been instrumental in the defeats isis has received. These people are exactly what are needed to exterminate isis. We need to give them our full support, both humanitarian and military.
It’s sad that our country has turned into a new generation of pusses and cowards. Finding patriots are few and far in between. Here’s a twenty year old female willing to pick up arms and protect beer country, family and loved ones and the men <? In the USA bitch and complain but does nothing. How sad and a few cant do it, it takes everyone to stand up and fight! What makes it harder is we have to fight the main source who started this mess and does something everyday to destroy our country! It's past time we take back our country anyway it takes.
And even if she wants to, all these sticks-in-the-mud are telling her, you’re not strong enough, you’re too fragile, all-male units are more cohesive than mixed gender (if they really wanted to compare genders, they should have had a few all-female units in the study).
I sincerely hope this is not a trick to gather these courageous people together and kill them.
Our government incinerated 3000 people at the twin towers, deliberately killed ambassador Stevens and 3 other blessed Americans. When will the carnage stop? They created whatever is going on in Syria. Watching human beings beheading each other!!!.
Until they kill Assad, just like they murdered Ghadafi in Libya Syria will continue its downward spiral.
But there is a God in heaven who is keeping score. O what a day!!! The curse of The Lord is on the house of the wicked
Isis hates to fight women because they believe if they are killed by a female soldier they will never receive their great reward. God speed to these women, may they be well protected while they unleash hell on these animals.
Stephen Russell says
Send in The Expendables Team for aid & a ton of arms & ammo too.
Kick ISIS rear big time.
Or the duo from Cinemax TV show Strike Back.
Women may not have the physical strength
Of some men but by gosh we have the will.
And where there’s a will there’s a way.