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Syrian Kurdish fighters pushing back Islamic State on their own

Syrian Kurdish fighters pushing back Islamic State on their own
YPG militia member Zinar Kochar, 21, stands in a destroyed school in Jazaa, Syria. The blackboard still bears a math lesson. (For The Times)

The Kurdish fighter perched on the roof of a schoolhouse pocked with holes from bullets and tank rounds, pointing across a rubble field toward several grain silos blasted open by shell fire.

"They came at us from there with tanks and Hummers, but we held our ground," said the fighter, Zinar Kochar, 21, on guard in this battered village in northeastern Syria, a few miles from the border with Iraq. "After the blow we dealt them here, Daesh won't come back."

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"Daesh" is a colloquial designation for Islamic State, the militant group that has made major inroads in Syria and Iraq. Little noticed by the outside world, a Kurdish-led army known as the Popular Protection Units — YPG, its Kurdish-language initials — has been perhaps the most effective force to date against the militants.

But no one expects President Obama to announce any aid for the YPG when he goes on television Wednesday to outline the ramped-up U.S. strategy against Islamic State. Nor do the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria expect to receive U.S. air cover, or any outside aid.

From a geopolitical perspective, Washington views the Syrian Kurds as unpalatable partners. The YPG is the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party, regarded as a terrorist group by the United States because of its three-decade insurgency against Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally.

The YPG and its Turkish affiliate also adhere to a leftist philosophy that many Western policymakers and other critics see as a throwback to 1960s-era revolutionaries.

Their forces in Syria lack substantial supplies of body armor, heavy artillery and armored vehicles. They rely mostly on AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, pickup trucks and heavy machine guns, along with a formidable sense of mission and effusive esprit de corps among their forces, which they say number 70,000, though there is no independent confirmation.

They wear sneakers and low-cut hiking shoes. A limited number, usually heavily exposed machine gunners, are equipped with helmets. (They recently added to their arsenal a few Humvees captured from Islamic State, which had plundered them from the Iraqi army, the original recipient of the U.S.-donated vehicles.)

"We don't need outside help," proclaimed Khwezya Hesret, 30, a commander barely 5 feet tall, who gathered along with other khaki-clad female soldiers at a command post here in Jazaa. "We find inspiration in the blood of our martyrs."

The other women, rifles in hand, nodded in agreement. Some giggled as they fielded questions from a visiting Western journalist.

The YPG fighters address one another as comrade. They have few ranks, beyond those of unit chiefs and higher commanders. Female combatants are prominent. Although most in its ranks are Muslim, the YPG is assiduously secular.

The fighters were just a few miles from the lines of black-clad Islamic State militants, who hold distinctly different views on the roles of women.

Hesret, who wore a black head scarf, is the grizzled veteran of the YPG's female fighting contingent in Jazaa, where a two-week battle ended this month with Islamic State fighters routed and in retreat. As the Islamic extremists began their offensive Aug. 19, the Kurds say, militant social media channels were rife with boasts that their fighters would sweep across Kurdish-controlled territory, marking swift victories at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"Instead, we sent them all off for dinner with the prophet Muhammad!" joked another petite fighter, who goes by the name of Kurdistan Daowed. She is 20 and, like the others, appeared to be brimming with enthusiasm.

Turkish officials, still trying to craft a peace deal with their own restive Kurdish minority, are extremely wary of the YPG, fearing the rise of an autonomous Kurdish state along their long southern border with Syria. Syrian Kurds have accused Turkish authorities of facilitating the entry of Islamic militants to blunt the YPG's rise, a charge rejected by the Turkish government.

Syrian rebels, meanwhile, have accused the YPG of collusion with President Bashar Assad's government, an allegation dismissed by the Kurds. Still, it was the Syrian government's withdrawal from most Kurdish areas more than two years ago that spurred the YPG's growth into a formidable military organization.

The YPG says it is not a separatist organization and plans to remain part of Syria, albeit with considerable autonomy.

For two years, the tightly disciplined Syrian Kurdish troops have inflicted heavy losses on Islamic extremists across a broad swath of northern Syria. The YPG has in effect blunted the militants' efforts to extend their "caliphate" in Syria and along the Iraqi border.

The YPG is the main fighting force in three mostly Kurdish regions in northern Syria that the Kurds have named Rojava, after the Kurdish word for sunset.

Last month, the YPG was instrumental in creating a humanitarian corridor from Iraq into Syria that allowed tens of thousands of members of the minority, Kurdish-speaking Yazidi sect to escape from Mt. Sinjar, where they had fled in the face of an Islamic State advance. Now, the YPG is training hundreds of displaced Yazidi volunteers so they can return to Iraq and fight the extremists.

Their success in pushing back the militants is in stark contrast to the actions of various key U.S. allies, including the Iraqi military and the Iraqi Kurdish forces known as peshmerga. Both initially retreated in the face of the Islamist onslaught. Both are due to receive additional U.S. military aid.

In Syria, where Islamic State metastasized amid the chaos of war and radicalization, disparate pockets of U.S.-backed "moderate" rebels have steadily lost ground to radical Islamists. Lines have often become blurred between Western-backed insurgents and Al Qaeda-style militants. But the YPG has remained a bulwark against the Islamist tide.

In the afternoon, a commander at the Jazaa command post gathered the fighters together for what appeared to be a pep talk and strategy session. Leaders emphasize that determination and will can help the group overcome superior weaponry.

Here in Syria's remote but oil-rich Hasakah province, where scores of rusty oil derricks dot the sun-scorched landscape and homemade refining sites have despoiled the environment, the battle against Islamic State has taken on an extraordinary fervor. Posters display the images of "martyrs" lost in battle.

Residents see Islamic State as an existential threat.

"They call themselves Muslims, the so-called Islamic State, but these terrorists are worse than dogs," said Fatima Ali, 48, who was visiting a military post in the town of Girke Lege. "Whoever heard of beheading people? Barbaric. Sometimes, we have to place our martyrs' heads back on their bodies so their families can view them properly."

She wore a medal embossed with a photo of her younger sister, Elend, 36, killed in the battle of Jazaa a few weeks earlier.

Here, there is derision for the military tactics of Islamic State fighters, who rely more on terror and intimidation than strategy, Kurdish fighters say.

"Their greatest strength is psychological," said one Kurdish commander, Zana Qamishlo. "They go into a village, cut off a few people's heads, and everyone is terrified."

The Kurdish forces here appear to have transcended the fear that their opponents work so hard to inspire. During the battle for Jazaa, participants described how they held their positions despite being heavily outnumbered and facing tank fire and a constant shower of mortar rounds.

"We lost a lot of our comrades in that battle," explained Derik Sarhad, 19, a YPG soldier. "We couldn't allow their blood to be spilled in vain."

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