Cracks of sniper fire and the thud of artillery echo around the deserted neighborhood. Dressed in a bright purple top, tight jeans, and a bohemian headband, Delar, a young Kurdish Syrian woman, brandishes her AK-47 like a seasoned soldier, clipping in the magazine and taking aim.
At the heart of the embattled Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood in Aleppo in northern Syria, Delar, 22, is an unusual sight on the front lines—a woman fighting alongside the men against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“There is no difference between women and the guys here. I learn to fight, and they learn to cook,” says Delar, who fights with the female branch of the Kurdish YPG army. Unusual for this part of Syria, neither Delar nor her female commanders wear hijabs on the front lines.
The YPG, or the People's Protection Units, is the militant arm of the Kurdish Supreme Committee. During the ongoing Syrian civil war, it has fought regime forces in the northeastern corner of Syria and in pockets of Kurdish control in Aleppo and the surrounding areas.
Despite 20 percent of the Kurdish militant group being female, it is still unusual for women to pick up arms in Syria, Delar says: “There's a huge difference between women's rights in FSA territory and Kurdish territory. When fighting with Kurds, they respect me first as a human, then as a woman, then as a fighter.”
The YPG has a long history of recruiting female fighters and training both men and women in rigorous military schools like the one in Afrin, near Turkey, where Delar learned to fight.
Patriotism drives to the heart of the YPG’s objectives: the headquarters in Sheikh Maqsoud is covered in YPG posters and flags, pictures of martyrs line the walls, and the martyrs are talked about with reverence. Everyone is disarmingly friendly. When a woman arrives asking to see her husband, whom she has not seen for three months, he is summoned from fighting on the front lines immediately.
Delar has now been in combat for a year and a half. For her, the decision to join the YPG was a matter of family pride, as is often the case in Kurdish communities: “I had a good example from when my sisters joined the YPG and started the revolution, so I decided to become a fighter.”
Sheikh Maqsoud, like most rebel-held areas of Aleppo, has no power, and most residents have fled. The women navigate a sniper alley and highlight the damage to neighboring streets and houses. The façade of the entire block has been blown off, with shutters and balconies hanging at precarious angles; the minaret on the mosque across the road has been damaged by artillery.
Since 2011 over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria and more than 1.6 million have fled to neighboring countries as refugees, with many more displaced within the country. Aleppo, one of Syria's largest cities, has been locked in a war of attrition since last summer, with neither side making significant gains or loses.
By contrast, the northern part of Syria has been largely under Kurdish control since July 2012, when the opposition party the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish National Council (KNC) signed an agreement, creating the Kurdish Supreme Committee.
As a result of their strong leadership and the retreat of regime forces from many towns, Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria have been comparatively calm. In July the YPG tried to push an Islamist group out of the village of Ras al-Ain, near the Syrian border, and since then the YPG has come under threat from al Qaeda–linked groups, who have been growing in influence across northern Syria.
Kurdish towns and cities have been attacked by the Islamic State of Iraq, al-Sham, ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nursra. The ongoing fighting has seen thousands of Syrian Kurds flee into neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, especially after the border was opened to them last month. As they descend on Erbil in huge numbers, refugee agencies and international NGOs are struggling to cope with the influx.
The clashes between the Kurds and other groups have spread across the north into Afrin, north of Aleppo, and the outskirts of the city, where tens of Kurdish civilians have been attacked and held hostage. Kurdish fighters and civilians have begun to be attacked on grounds of their ethnicity alone.
Engizek, 28, the defiant commander for the area, is vocal in her criticism of the Islamist fighters, calling them “terrorists.” They have no place in the fight against Assad's regime, she says: “They are here in Syria just to destroy Syrians and the revolution, not because they care."
The Kurds, she says, are fighting for a united Syria without Assad. The Kurdish vision for a united and democratic, as she sees it, is one where Kurdish heritage and language are fostered—a case of united but different.
Despite her small stature, with her quiet strength, Engizek commands respect from the male fighters who tower over her.
Both women have put the revolution ahead of their personal lives. In Syria, where most women marry at a young age and stay in the home raising children, neither is married, nor will they consider the idea. Delar says marriage and a family are not on her mind: “I'm not thinking about anything personal. I have forgotten myself completely.”
“Everyone wants to live in a normal society, but there is a lot of destruction. We should double our efforts to build Syria again,” says Engizek. She is both pragmatic and optimistic about the future for Syria: “I have a lot of concerns, but I'm still happy and hopeful for the future.”