AL-DAWUDIYAH, Syria — “There are a lot of bodies and it smells like hell. It’s full of diseases there, what are you doing there?” shouts Zilan, the local female commander of Kurdish troops in this dusty village.
“I am making tea,” a fighter replies in the ruins of a house that was previously used by a local ISIS commander, but destroyed by a coalition airstrike here in Hasakah province in northwest Syria. As he and his comrades finish up their fried chicken and french fries, they seem to hardly notice the skulls and bones of killed ISIS fighters.
Such is life and death on this new front line in the U.S.-backed war against ISIS where a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters recently launched operations with heavy American air support.
In the distance we can see coalition airstrikes hitting ISIS positions. Helicopters from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are also flying in the vicinity, but seem to be observing, and take no action.
The Kurds are from the YPG (People’s Protection Units), which is a Syrian affiliate of the Turkish PKK, but has been exempted from the terrorist label Washington and Europe apply to that group. Their food is delivered in a Humvee, which they say used to belong to the U.S. Army, but was captured by the so-called Islamic State, then captured by the YPG. It’s brought in yoghurt, sugar, batteries, olives, and bread to keep them fit and alert for ISIS counterattacks.
“They are quite close,” says Heval Serxwebun Hasakah, while his fellow fighters hand over the food supplies. “We are in the last point now and they are often attacking us with heavy machine guns and mortars.”
“We have no casualties yet, but the group in the other village from Qamishli has three martyrs. We are moving towards each other to encircle the village between us,” he added.
While the Humvee drove away, a silent mortar hit 10 meters from the vehicle. “If it would have hit you, you would have gone to heaven,” said Heval Mazlum.
At the position of the commander, Zilan, there is often continuous heavy machine gun fire and mortar fire. U.S. airstrikes hit ISIS positions in a village a few kilometers from her position. But Zilan says this is nothing special.
“Today the situation is quiet,” she says. (A bullet from a heavy machine gun flies over our heads.) “We were fighting here since yesterday, but today it’s calm,” she added.
“We captured many villages and farms. After we liberated a village suddenly they fired on us from 500 meters from that house,” she said, pointing at a white house. “After we defeated them and realized they couldn’t resist us, a suicide car arrived here and blew up, supported by heavy machine guns and snipers,” she said.
Still, the battle-hardened YPG fighters control their position supported by U.S. A-10 ground-attack planes, Specter gunships (modified AC-130s) and F-15s. The YPG fighters coordinate quite effectively with the coalition, they say, by scrolling through Google Earth on Samsung tablets and giving positions of ISIS fighters through walkie-talkies.
Zilan and her fighters are part of the newly created Syrian Democratic Coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters that on Oct. 31 launched a U.S.-backed operation to capture the Arab town of al-Hawl in eastern Hasakah. After this they plan to march on the town of Shadaddi.
Although some are worried that the Kurds are only interested in reconquering and protecting Kurdish territories, Commander Zilan says they are welcomed by Arab tribes.
“We are here on the demand of Arab tribes and community to give support to the mainly Arab population living here,” she said.
“They lost hope from the regime and suffered from ISIS rule and they saw no other option than to collaborate with us, and now we will work together to liberate those areas including Raqqah [the ISIS capital] that are mainly Arab,” she boasts.
Capturing the Arab town from the so-called Islamic State would help the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition by blocking Highway 47, the primary route ISIS uses for funneling equipment and fighters between Raqqah and Mosul in Iraq. Furthermore, it would help the Kurds to capture the city of Sinjar on the other side of the Iraqi border.
So far, the new coalition has captured 350 square kilometers of ground from ISIS, says Salah Jamil, a member of the YPG’s military council in one of the YPG bases in Hasakah.
“If we take al-Hawl, we will cut their access to Iraq and weaken ISIS by 40 percent,” he told The Daily Beast.
Although the Pentagon says the U.S. only supports Arab forces in northern Syria, the YPG official said the U.S. is probably being diplomatic. “For political reasons they probably avoid saying that they directly support the YPG,” said Jamal. “But they are going to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the YPG.”
One would not expect Arab villagers to welcome Kurdish fighters as liberators, given what Amnesty International had to say about YPG human-rights violations. But in the village of Serrin, after ISIS was cleared out, locals welcomed the fighters on Nov. 8.
“Victory! Victory!” Arab villagers shouted emotionally while fighters gave them cigarettes and food.
“We lived in darkness,” said Remziye Mohammed Antar, describing his experiences under ISIS. “At the beginning they told us that you [the YPG] were unbelievers. But now we understand that they, ISIS, are unbelievers,” she said.
Another Arab villager, Bashir al-Abbas Tamr, said he could not describe his happiness. “We have been under ISIS control for several months, but now we have been liberated. Hopefully YPG will liberate all places.”
Some Arab villagers started to dance traditional dances and hugged the YPG fighters.
Harun, a Kurdish fighter from the city of Qamishli, said the U.S.-backed local coalition in northern Syria would not stop in al-Hawl, and repeated what we were hearing from the villagers. “We will go to Raqqah with the YPG,” he said. “ISIS told people that the Kurds were unbelievers, but now you can see this woman telling you that we are much better than them,” he said.
If the new coalition manages to take al-Hawl, this would make the military and economic situation for ISIS more difficult in both Syria and Iraq. It’s a local operation that represents a small success for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition and the Obama administration.
The battle for Raqqa is still not imminent. But the Kurds have proved again that they are some of the few allies the U.S. has on the ground to fight ISIS effectively.