Amid threats from Ankara, not only Kurdish fighters but also civilians in northern Syria are engaged in weapons training and building defences.
A group of female volunteers from the HPC-Jin organisation (Civilian Defence Forces – Women) are meeting with other women from the community and are giving them basic training, showing them how to mount and dismount an AK-47, as well as how to use the assault rifle safely.
One by one, the women perform the exercise, which is generally followed by field training.
“There are 40 members of the HPC-Jin in this area, and they have already trained around 700 women to defend themselves in case of a Turkish attack,” explains Hediye Ahmed Abdallah, head of the local unit.
Abdallah’s team is part of the many local initiatives that are providing training to civilians in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a self-proclaimed autonomous region also referred to as Rojava.
Threats of invasion by the Turkish army and its proxy fighters from the Syrian opposition have triggered the initiatives.
In December, US President Donald Trump shocked many of his allies when he announced he planned to withdraw about 2,000 US troops from Syria, where they have waged a campaign in support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Northern Federation’s military branch, in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.
Turkey has long touted an operation east of the Euphrates river against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the main components of the SDF, and Trump’s announcement appeared to remove any obstacles to the mission.
Now, not only are Kurdish fighters preparing for battle, but civilians are also determined to fight, engaging in weapons training and building defence lines.
‘Human shield operations’
Turkey says it wants to set up a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria, with logistical support from allies after US troops pull out of Syria. Ankara says the zone should be cleared of the YPG and YPJ.
The Turkish administration accuse the two groups of being an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it views as a terrorist organisation and has vowed to eradicate.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly denounces the groups and on Tuesday blasted NATO allies over their ongoing support for the YPG in Syria.
“What kind of NATO alliance is this?” Erdogan asked, speaking during an election campaign rally in southwestern Turkey.
“You give terrorists around 23,000 truckloads of weapons and tools through Iraq but when we asked, you won’t even sell them to us.”
As Turkish troops started massing at the borders of the different districts of the Federation following Trump’s announcement, the local Syrian population reacted swiftly by organising non-violent protests on the various fronts as a form of defiance.
“These human shield operations are more a form of demonstration where the people express their total support to the institutions and SDF that represent them,” says Mahmoud Kordo, a member of the Future Syrian Party, a local party founded last year.
“The people are highly mobilised and will do anything to defend their land.”
Kordo has organised some of those border protests in Tell Abyad and encouraged the local community to make a show of determination.
Legacy of Kobane and Afrin
In northern Syria, the high level of mobilisation has allowed the local militias to enjoy strong support from the local population, who often fight by their side.
“The battle of Kobane was very important for us,” says Abdallah.
“Initially, Abdullah Ocalan [the jailed leader of the PKK] had criticised us for not being prepared enough for it, which allowed the terrorists to enter the town.
“The war in Afrin has also been a very important experience for us. There, we had self-defence units fighting alongside the YPG-YPJ.
The siege of Kobane, a majority Kurdish city in Syria, was launched by IS in September 2014 and by the following month its fighters had succeeded in capturing 350 Kurdish villages and towns within the vicinity of the city.
In January 2015, the YPG and its allies, helped by continued US-led air strikes, retook the city, in an offensive that was considered a turning point in the war against IS.
Afrin, another majority Kurdish city in Syria, was captured from YPG and YPJ forces by the Turkish army in March 2018.
“Today, we have set up defence lines such as tunnels and trenches. The military training will prevent our women from falling into the hands of Islamists that are allied with Turkey and being sold as slaves,” says Abdallah.
“It’s not just the women from the self-defence unit that should be prepared, but every single woman in the society.”
‘Our weapons are also our pens’
The memory of what happened in Kobane and Afrin seems to be on everyone’s mind.
“In Kobane, there were massacres. About 420 people were slaughtered by Islamic State terrorists because they didn’t know how to defend themselves,” says Mahmoud A, a representative of the students of Kobane University.
“Most of those who learned how to use weapons are still alive today.”
In those institutions also, basic military training has taken place. Students have organised events and demonstrations. On one occasion, they invited members of the local administration to give updates on the situation.
Shaho Hassan (co-head of the PYD), Aldar Khalil (foreign relation officer of the TEV-DEM) and Abdelkarim Omar (co-head of the foreign relations office of the self-administration) all came to answer the students’ questions in the Rojava University (RU), located in Qamishli.
“There are 1,000 students in our university. Among them, 200 are refugees from Afrin, where the local university had to close after Turkey’s invasion last year,” says Massoud Mohammad, a computer engineer, professor and co-chair of the RU.
“Since Erdogan’s threats these last months, there were many fears and confusion among society. Then people got used to it.
“Now, many students are highly mobilised and undertook military training that is provided by the YPG within the university.
“The RU is part of the society and we are all taking part in this revolution.
“Any attack against our region calls for a response from us. We have set up many activities to oppose the Turkish threats,” adds Mohammad.
Mahmoud A says: “The imminent danger of war has been highly disruptive for the students. Some are scared. Some cannot focus on their studies and quit classes.
“Although many engaged in the military training, some want to fight with words. Our weapons are also our pens.”
Another form of non-violent mobilisation is the first aid medical assistance programme that was set-up to train civilians how to treat the wounded.
Among those volunteers, internationalist activists have stepped in and given instructions to the local population in order to save lives during combat.
“Some internationalist volunteers have joined the military units, but I wanted to engage in non-violent activities so I undertook first aid medical assistance training in the hospital of Hassakeh,” says Mateo, an international volunteer from Europe who joined the Northern Federation last year.
“Now I teach civilians how to stop the bleeding of the wounded, how to maintain a fractured limb and how to move a wounded person without causing more damage.
“We train up to ten volunteers a day in each city.”
Local organisations such as the Youth Movement (YM) also play a key role in the preparation to war.
Many members of the YM have taken part in the building of defence systems, such as the digging of trenches and tunnels in several cities.
“The YM is present in every city of Northern Syria. It is mixed, with Arabs alongside Kurds as well as every other minorities of the area. They organise ideological and military training for young women and men,” explains Mateo.
“They have orchestrated several demonstrations alongside civic and political actions in order to mobilise as many people as possible for the upcoming confrontation with the Turkish army and its proxies.”
If the withdrawal of US forces and other members of the coalition against IS eventually occurs, the Kurds in Syria and their allies will be facing the Turkish army and its proxies once again for the first time since Turkey took over Afrin.
Mohammad hopes that regional involvement will help strike a deal to avoid a bloodbath.
“If Erdogan has a chance to attack, he will. But many things can come in the way of this offensive, like Russia or the United States who can draw red lines,” he says.
“Plus, the SDF is not isolated like YPG was in Afrin. It will be a difficult war for Turkey.”
In Northern Syria, the Kurds feel the strong ideology derived from Ocalan’s philosophy has created an almost organic relationship between parts of the community and its institution.
“This ideology allows us to lead a popular struggle in our society,” says Abdallah.
“When fighters are on the front, they need to know that the whole of society is backing them. It’s very important for the morale…
“When the Turkish army will invade, we will go down in the streets with our guns and fight, everyone according to its capabilities will assist the struggle.
“We are prepared for it. We created committees in all sectors of society. The tunnels and bunkers are ready to counter the air strikes. Food and medical supplies have been stacked.
“It will be an existential war… We are not afraid to die. It only happens once and we will not die without honour,” says Abdallah.
“In our culture, we cheer when a martyr falls. We do not mourn him or her. It is an honour to be martyred to defend the community,” says Kordo.
“If Turkey comes, they will face the most fearless fighters there are.”