The Girls Training To Fight ISIS

The refugee camps in Turkey are prime recruiting grounds for the defenders of Kobani—when Ankara permits.

Peter Maclaine/Newscom

SURUÇ, Turkey — Jalilia Shikho, 50, has been living in a plastic-sheet tent camp next to a warehouse here close to the Syrian border for four months. When she fled a village near the besieged town of Kobani with her family, her 16-year-old daughter stayed behind to fight. The two were briefly reunited in December after her daughter was brought to Turkey to recover in a Kurdish-run municipal hospital after being wounded in the hand and leg. But after the girl’s clandestine treatment and a brief stay with her mother in the camp, Shikho’s daughter decided to return to the front.

“Girls should go to school, but in Kobani they have to take up arms,” says Shikho with a mix of anxiety for her daughter’s safety and pride in her sense of responsibility to her community. Shikho has had no contact with her daughter since she returned to fighting and has no idea if she is even still alive. While the mother is clearly distraught by the threat to her child’s life, she was unwilling to stand in her daughter’s way in such desperate circumstances.

“ISIS is attacking us but no one is helping,” she said.

That's a common sentiment amongst Kurdish refugees. U.S.-led coalition air strikes have been instrumental slowing and stopping the advance of forces from the so-called Islamic State that seemed destined to conquer Kobani once and for all last fall. But the siege and the fighting have continued, now, into a fifth month, and ultimately the battle will be won or lost on the ground. So the critical question is where the defenders of Kobani will get the reinforcements they need not only to hold out, but finally to drive the ISIS fighters away and make sure they will not return.

Kurds throughout the region and in Europe see this as a decisive battle to defeat radical jihadist forces, solidifty more territorial control and once again assert their national identity. A great many are prepared to join the ranks of Kobani fighters.

But the Turkish government, notorious for turning a blind eye to the jihadists transiting it territory to join the ranks of ISIS, has thrown up multiple obstacles to keep Kurds from joining the fight against those same agents of the so-called caliphate who have used medieval terror to instil their version a bloody, totalitarian religious rule.

Instead of easy passage to the front and access to safe havens, most Kurds and their left-wing sympathizers in Turkey run into a wall of intense state surveillance and tight border controls preventing them from joining the defenders of Kobani.

The logic of the Turkish policy, such as it is, lies in Ankara’s concerns that the same people defending Kobani eventually will turn their guns—or at least their political ambitions—against the Turkish government. Turkey's actions show clearly that it considers the Kurdish movement, with which it is now in dialogue, as a greater threat than the brutal "caliphate" of ISIS.

The net result is that Turkish security forces continue to focus on containing the left-wing, secular, nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and in the process weaken resistance to ISIS. Kurds with Turkish citizenship are simply blocked from joining the anti-ISIS struggle, while injured Syrian Kurds who cross the border are unable to get treated in Turkish government hospitals for fear of arrest.

Ankara’s concerns are clear: The Kurds make up 15-25 percent of Turkey’s population and overwhelmingly support the PKK , which has been listed as a terrorist organization in Turkey and most of the West for the tactics it employed in its long armed uprising. From 1984 to 2013, the PKK carried out attacks on the Turkish military and police forces, bombings and assassinations, which killed both security forces and civilians. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has been in a Turkish prison since 1999.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in shaky peace talks with the PKK aimed at ending the 30-year-guerrilla war, but the signs of enduring mistrust are everywhere in Suruç. Turkish military and police are massed between the multiple, ballooning refugee camps that are filled with Kobani’s residents. They run multiple, rigorous, checkpoints. While the local municipality is run by the HDP—Turkey’s recognized Kurdish party—the armored vehicles and military barracks in the center of this working-class town show who's really in charge. The feeling of occupation is omnipresent.

Kobani is just a few miles away and the explosions and gunfire from the raging battles there are regularly seen and heard in the distance. However, it is in these Turkish camps, amid the people living in poorly equipped rows of tents on dirt and gravel lanes that have turned to mud in the winter rains, that the cost of the war is seen.

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Turkey estimates that over 192,000 Kurds from the Kobani area have taken refuge on its side of the Syrian border, many of whom live in the makeshift shelters around Suruç. Some have limited heat and electricity in their tents while others don’t even have candles to light their freezing dwellings at night. It is here that the YPG, a Kurdish fighting force that emerged with Syria’s civil war and is a sister organization to the PKK, has focused its efforts on recruiting fighters to return to Kobani to try and repel ISIS.

Illness is spreading in the camps because of the harsh conditions. Many people are either too old to take up arms, or too young. But there are still potential fighters to be found. Stories of kids as young as 16 volunteering to join the YPG are common.

“People from Kobani can legally go [to Syria], so we are helping organize them,” says Ayşe Efendi, a leading representative of Syrian Kurds in Turkey and the wife of Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim Mohammad—who was one of the first Kurdish leaders to join the anti-Assad camp. She insists that those returning to take up arms are all volunteers.

Conducting the interview at the local HDP offices just before a meeting about recruiting fighters, I realize that Efendi presents herself almost as a mother of her nation. She appears aged far beyond her 55 years, but her personal suffering has helped her to embody and express the determination of the Kurds to keep on fighting. She has lost one son in the civil war, has another who is a guerrilla in Turkey with the PKK, and she hasn’t seen her husband since the attacks on Kobani began. The other delegations arriving for the meeting hang on her every word as she argues the need to return to fight in Syria, to liberate Kurdish territory, and create a democratic region.

Efendi condemns Turkey for blocking Turkish Kurds from joining the battle and arresting injured YPG fighters who seek treatment in Turkish government hospitals. She says that the Kobani fighters rely mostly on machine guns and light arms, and while the coalition bombing may have been helpful, Efendi argues that repelling ISIS would be much easier if the PKK were taken off U.S., European Union and Turkish terror lists. “They don’t send us the heavy weapons,” she said. “It means people don’t recognize us.”

And so, as Kurds in Turkey struggle to find a way to fight ISIS that Ankera doesn't obstruct, the battle for Kobani goes on.