Today I want to introduce my friend Joey L. to SOFREP readers. Joey is an accomplished professional photographer who I traveled to Damascus, Syria with last year. He has also made several trips to Iraq and Kurdish held northern Syria. This report details his last trip to Syria a few months ago and helps set the stage for the eventual capture of the ISIS capital city of Raqqa. -Jack Murphy, editor-in-chief.
Raqqa Province, Syria.
After a ruthless and exhausting 6 years of war in Syria, only the most ideologically strong militias have managed to flourish, absorbing various fragmented rebel factions and uniting them under strict philosophies. On the frontlines of Raqqa, a battle is raging between the American-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Islamic State (ISIS).
The warring creeds could not be any more different. One seeks a decentralized, secular, grassroots version of democracy, while the other seeks a radical interpretation of an Islamic State. Yet, on both sides, soldiers dream of establishing their own version of Utopia, ideologically shaping the world beneath their feet.
Bullets in the air take on a dual meaning- seeking to render useless the physical bodies of enemies, but at the same time those bullets hurl towards the others’ ideals. Each side describes the land as “liberated” when the other side fails.
For over eight months, international journalists and photographers have been blocked from entering the regions of Northern Syria controlled by the SDF due to a strict embargo enforced by all surrounding countries. Despite challenges I am unable to describe here, I was able to gain access and embed with Rojda Felat- the General Commander of the SDF’s “Wrath of the Euphrates” campaign to isolate and surround the city of Raqqa, capital of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate. At the time of writing, the SDF are less than 10 kilometers from the outskirts of the city itself.
My journey began in Kobane- a city of anomalies. To understand the new battle for Raqqa, we must first understand the significance of what happened here.
Nestled along the Turkish – Syrian border, Kobane was a quiet, predominantly Kurdish city before ISIS propaganda filled our news cycle. In July of 2012, the Syrian Arab Army abandoned Kobane and other Kurdish enclaves of Syria to dedicate their dwindling resources to other areas of the country in conflict with both a rebellion and jihadist insurgency. Kurds were now free of the repressive nature of the Assad regime, but at the same time, they were left on their own to defend themselves from the Al Qaeda-linked groups ravaging the country.
Political dissidents in exile returned home to reorganize the fractured society. Weapons were gathered on the black market. Kurdish guerrilla fighters with decades of experience fighting Turkey’s well-equipped military also returned home to Syria from their bases in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. They became the commanders of a ragtag mix of local volunteers, and shaped the movement under their ideological leader, Abdullah Öcalan. These guerrillas had previously fought for autonomy and minority rights in Kurdish regions of Turkey but were unable to succeed. The power vacuum that emerged in Syrian Kurdistan presented a new opportunity to influence the tide of the war. Thus was born the Kurdish defense units known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)- perhaps the world’s first all-female army. Other spectrums of Kurdish political voices either abandoned the region and fled across the border, or were forced out by the domination of the new power structure.
ISIS, with its ego inflated due to sweeping recent victories across both Syria and Iraq, launched a devastating campaign on the city of Kobane in October 2014. ISIS too had absorbed a patchwork of militias and rebel groups under its black flag, as well as thousands of foreign fighters who took advantage of Turkey’s porous border with Syria to join its ranks. Other predominately Arab rebel groups refused to collaborate with the extremists, and joined the Kurds in defending Kobane- the start of what would make up the core of the future Syrian Defense Force (SDF) alliance.
With the Turkish border now at their back, the defenders of Kobane were cornered into just a few neighborhoods as ISIS pounded their positions with advanced weaponry and looted tanks. Rather than intervening, the Turkish military sat and watched from its border. The Turkish government knew that if the YPG/J were to be victorious, their own repressed Kurdish population could be inspired to make similar demands for autonomy, or worse, rekindle the same armed struggle that had wrecked havoc for decades. ISIS had become a convenient proxy force for Turkey, capable of destroying the ambitions of their old Kurdish enemies.
Not every person seeking to protect Kobane held a weapon. Across the border in Turkey, civilians accused their government of aiding ISIS in the fight, and unleashed unrest in the shape of both protests and violent riots. Volunteers held hands to create a lengthy human-chain to prevent the smuggling of fighters and weapons to the ISIS campaign.
Scenes of the battle filmed by journalists with telephoto lenses from the safety of the Turkish border dominated televisions around the globe and social media. It was an easy media spectacle, presented as a fight between the jihadist force that had recently committed genocide versus an oversimplified version of the YPG and YPJ, with its controversial roots largely ignored.
Much to Turkish President Erdoğan’s dismay, President Obama authorized airstrikes to support this unlikely new ally in Kobane. Anti-interventionists in the West had their beliefs challenged as they watched the brave women of the YPJ suffer heavy losses fighting a brutal enemy that a previous intervention itself had helped manifest. In another paradox, the YPG and YPJ, with its Öcalan-inspired anti-capitalist theory, benefitted significantly from American airpower paid for by the US tax dollar.
Against all odds, the YPG, YPJ and their rebel allies eventually declared victory over the city. They had proved to the world for the first time that ISIS wasn’t the unstoppable boogeyman its propaganda had suggested. However, the achievement came at great cost of human life and infrastructure.
Walking through the streets of Kobane with a camera in hand reveals a city back to life and thriving under the experimental self-administration system, but also a level of destruction that will take years, if not decades to repair. Peering into holes in the sides of eviscerated buildings reveal what used to be Kurdish homes- plastic ceiling fans are melted from the heat and fires of air strikes or rocket propelled grenades. A water truck roams the corridors of abandoned neighborhoods, wetting main roads to keep the concrete dust from spreading through the air. By nightfall, the roads are dry again, and the dust creates a low-lying layer of fog.
The same tanks the world saw ISIS make their advances in are now derelict monuments in a public roundabout. Kids on their way home from school play and dangle upside down from the tank’s gun. With the Syrian regime’s Baathist education programs expelled by the new administration, they are learning their once outlawed Kurdish language in school for the first time.
The television cameras set up from the Turkish side of the border may have stopped broadcasting updates from Kobane, but those same fighters haven’t stopped moving. They have continued onward, growing in both size and sophistication. The SDF is now one of the most diverse and successful coalitions in Syria.
Convoys of both Kurdish and Arab fighters are advancing in Raqqa’s expansive countryside, with other brigades snaking along the winding path of the Euphrates River, using the water as a natural barrier, all the way to the gates of the city.
Despite controversies over its founding members, the SDF has also grown into America’s most trusted friend in Syria. The coalition air support the Obama administration began continues under Trump, as well as the insertion of hundreds of French and American Special Operations Forces (SOF) in advisory positions.
Map provided by @LCarabinier.
My translator Jan Êzîdxelo and I set off from Kobane with our driver in a pickup truck alongside a YPG convoy heading to Ain Issa, a large city north of Raqqa. From there, we navigated south to al Hishah- a village in which ISIS was ousted just days before our arrival.
We drove through many of the dusty small hamlets and villages that make up the frontline, which is constantly shifting and expanding rapidly due to the desolate nature of the landscape. After areas are taken from ISIS, bulldozers move in quickly, making temporary berm walls to consolidate minor defenses, then continue pushing onwards. The campaign may be moving fast now, but will likely see its bloodiest days if the SDF manages to reach the city of Raqqa itself.
We reach a building just outside al Hishah, and I am instructed that Commander Rojda Felat is on the roof. Jan and I slowly walk up an outdoor concrete staircase, and first see Rojda standing with her back to us- a stout figure looking out over the horizon with a tactical radio in hand. She is short in stature, and this is only exaggerated by a long thick braid of dark hair which falls past her lower back. Her voice is strict and authoritative, and several female fighters beside her scribble notes as she dictates. Suddenly, Rojda notices us, smiles and waves, but then returns to her radio. It’s buzzing with reports from the commanders of the various groups in the coalition. As she dials through each radio channel, her eyes are fixed in the distance, as if visualizing the movements being described to her in the open plains ahead.
Twenty minutes later, there is a pause in the radio chatter, and things seem to calm. Rojda walks over to me, and through Jan’s translation, she apologizes for making me wait. I explain that no apology is necessary- (uhh, I know you are busy fighting ISIS.)
As I explain that I wish to embed with her and take photographs, Rojda’s large round eyes study me closely, as if trying to read my intentions. The authoritative tone heard over the radio is gone, and she is warm and friendly, often with a big toothy smile spreading across her face. When speaking, she barely breaks eye contact, and uses a calming hypnotic voice I have found to be common among former guerrillas who spent time training in the Qandil Mountains. It is uncertain if she has, but her new role is clear- she is a key lynchpin in the SDF.
Rojda agrees to let me tag along and photograph her, but explains that she is very busy now, and will pick me up the following morning. Together, we will travel to each new position, and observe the ongoing battle. It’s getting late, so she suggests my driver take me to a YPG position so I can bunk with a nearby male unit.
As we drive back through the empty streets of al-Hishah, we suddenly meet its missing population. A long line of motorcycles and cars wait on the main road heading into town. It’s the local Arab villagers, and they seem eager to return to their homes. Personal belongings are piled high on top of their vehicles, as if unsure how long they were going to be displaced from the fighting. They had to wait several days for the battle to be over, and until the SDF troops allowed the civilians to enter.
With their engines idling, I approached a group of men on motorcycles to photograph and ask some questions. I mentioned that the spokesperson and main commanders for the offensive are both female.
Knowing how male-dominated and traditional the society is in this region of Syria, especially after having been so recently under the control ISIS, I was curious on how they felt about the prominent role played by the women. “We don’t care if it’s a man or woman who is liberating us, we just want to go home,” exclaimed the man, wagging his finger in the air as he spoke.
It was an easy answer when your fate of returning home depends on an armed group. There was a lot more to ask but suddenly our conversation was interrupted by a huge explosion coming from the direction of the village. People waiting in the queue climbed a wall of dirt beside the road to get a better look. A huge plume of smoke rose in the air above the village.
We would learn later that it was a last unused ISIS suicide car equipped with explosives, sitting booby-trapped inside a civilian garage. The SDF team had de-mined it, blowing it up in place to render it harmless. Suddenly, the road was opened and the civilians were allowed to move. They honked their horns, waved to my camera, and smiled broadly as they returned to their homes.
It seemed so perfect that it could almost be a planned propaganda exercise-“Look, the predominantly Kurdish force is helping the Arabs! Send us more weapons, America!” Except, there were no foreign journalists expected to be there, and an orchestration of this size seems nearly impossible.
Camp on the frontline
Just a short drive away from the newly liberated village, we reached the YPG base Rojda had given us permission to sleep at. About 20 fighters in mismatched camouflage fatigues shared an abandoned farm equipment storage facility made out of grey cinder blocks. A vast empty horizon loomed in the distance- there were no main roads, just sand, but counter attacks could come from anywhere.
Upon climbing out of our truck, we are greeted by a wave of handshakes from charismatic young men led by Murat Amed- the commander of the camp. They are surprised to see me, but happy to let me stay and photograph anything now that I have Rojda’s blessing.
As dusk descended, our driver decided to return to Kobane, admitting that he didn’t trust the nearby Arab population who had just been under the authority of ISIS, fearing sleeper cells. “I’ve got kids,” he murmured dryly, staring at the ground, and eventually drove off.
Jan and I sat with the SDF fighters on plastic chairs surrounding a small campfire. Murat was now cooking hamburgers in an iron griddle. After tea was poured, we dove into talks about politics. I ask them what they think of Donald Trump’s recent win as President of the United States.
“The American people can decide for their own country, it’s not for us to say,” carefully explained the first fighter to answer.
“Come on, be honest,” I say. “That’s the same excuse politicians use to dodge the question.”
Another chimes in, “It would have been nice for a woman to win, but Clinton is the one who let all the jihadists in here. She is a puppet of Erdogan and the Gulf.”
Another disagrees, “It doesn’t really matter. The outcome will always be the same no matter who is President. It is a system.”
As self-trained and independent these fighters have been over the years, they know the next American President’s decisions will ultimately be a powerful voice in the international proxy war the Syrian conflict has evolved into. With hostile actors as neighbors, leading the operation for Raqqa itself is a future political bargaining chip for the SDF.
“Like all politicians, we will judge by their actions,” Murat explained, taking on a serious tone. The rest nod in agreement, suddenly careful with their words.
There are sleeping mats set up on the roof of the building where a group of fighters are rotating every few hours keeping watch, but they insist I sleep inside where it’s warmer. In a room filled with weapons and ammunition, Murat arranges some blankets for me while holding his flashlight in his mouth, and politely refuses to let me help. He may be the commander, but these kinds of duties are shared by all. It seems the hospitality Kurds are well known for can even be found on the front line.
Before falling asleep, I show Murat some of the photos I took of them on the screen of my camera. “You send my sister,” he says in broken English. Murat pulls out a number scribbled in his journal and repeats “whatsapp, whatsapp, whatsapp.” No translation is needed.
I am awoken by Murat tapping on my shoulder at 5am. The fighters are still gathered around the fire, as if the scene from the previous night never ended. While I slept, they had been taking turns watching the camp. An hour later, a pickup truck pulls up. It’s Rojda and two of her rooftop partners from yesterday.
She joins us and we all have breakfast together as the sun rises. The YPG seem happy to see the General Commander make an appearance at their base, and their morale appears to be immediately uplifted.
Jan and I pile into Rojda’s pickup truck with the two other YPJ fighters, and together we take off down a dirt road towards the town of al Twelaa. But first, the pickup truck makes a quick pit stop at a lonely building on the town’s outskirts.
“There are American Special Forces here,” Rojda explains. “It’s okay for you to see each other, but we please ask that you don’t take any photos of them.”
On the building’s rooftop was what could only be described as the classic Hollywood stereotype of Special Forces: six men with grizzly beards, sunglasses, muscular tattooed arms bulging out of tan t-shirts and bags full of military equipment.
For a moment, I felt confused at the protocol and don’t want to ruin the trust Rojda has put in me, so I decide to hang back and not interrupt their work. However, by nature I am a nosy person, and this idea quickly dissolves. It was fascinating to watch them engage with Rojda via their interpreter. Despite how sophisticated or trained the Americans are, they seemed to rely on Rojda’s forces to coordinate their entry to the frontline, where they plan to contribute to the next phase of the offensive.
This small group of Special Forces have something in common with SDF units: all are decentralized by doctrine, and are able to make swift decisions in combat. The SOF primarily aid the SDF by calling in airstrikes and using heavy weapons, such as the javelin- an advanced rocket system useful for taking out approaching suicide cars. The US coalition is hesitant to provide the SDF directly with these kinds of heavy weapons due to pressure from Turkey, who fears them falling into the hands of the same Kurdish guerrillas they are at war with.
The short-term goal is to take Tal Saman- a nearby city surrounded by more expansive countryside, and the last obstacle to connect the frontline to the other separate group working their way down the Euphrates River.
The Americans head off the rooftop towards their vehicle, nod at me with a simple “Hey dude,” and say no more, driving off on their separate way. I suppose that we are both not supposed to see each other. We follow Rojda into Al-Twelaa alongside some other SDF fighters from the base.
As we travel through the newly captured village walking in a single file to avoid buried mines, curiosities of the war begin to reveal themselves. Hidden inside a barn, there is a 1 meter by 1 meter dirt tunnel ISIS used to pop up from a neighboring village. Outside the barn, there are the remains of a large piece of artillery destroyed by a coalition airstrike.
Rojda leads us along a path to a position where an SDF unit is monitoring the flanks on the sidelines of Tal Saman while the main operation goes on. A small group of 15 fighters are gathered, gazing through binoculars and sniper rifle scopes. Their role is to report and strike any enemy movement or suicide cars that ISIS may send from this side against the larger operation currently unfolding. The small village in front of us is quiet, but the thuds of mortars, machine guns and the occasional coalition airstrike can be heard in booming in the distance.
“Nothing is happening here, sorry it’s a bit boring,” laughs Rojda.
Before calling it a day, I photograph Rojda inside a half-destroyed shed. The walls are ash gray from a fire, and rubble is spread across the ground. It is unclear if the room is booby-trapped, but the light is perfect for a portrait. Jan turns to me, “I hope we all don’t get blown up over a photo.”
The Battle of Tal al Saman
The next day, we would go to the heart of the fighting, in Tal al Saman. Rojda admitted she had other duties to attend to, but instead sent me with the SDF’s upstart media department. They happen to be a team of four fighters no different from the others, except for holding a camera in the hand their rifle is not in.
They have handy-cams and a GoPro with no extra battery.
“If we manage to enter today, if we are lucky, we can see them pull the big ISIS flag down in the city center,” the media team explained, “maybe that would be a good shot?”
Together, we travelled to a large power station on the outskirts of Tal al Saman. A small dam contains an artificial reservoir of water, and a network of smaller concrete water channels nearby provided a safe staging area. From here, only about 1 kilometer of open land separates us from the nearest ISIS-firing position, and a little further onwards lays the city of Tal al Saman itself. We are told a small group of SDF fighters are at the edge of the city, and currently under fierce resistance from ISIS.
We cross the dam’s bridge on foot toward three fighters manning a heavy machine gun mounted in the back of a pickup truck nestled in between a wall of dirt and a concrete reservoir. Suddenly, their radio crackles with calls from the fighters up at the frontline and they fire several large rounds in succession at the ISIS position described over the airwaves.
Tommy, Danish YPG volunteer.
One of the men standing beside the truck, watching through binoculars, turns to me and to my surprise, asks in perfect English, “Do you want some ear muffs? It’s kind of loud.” It turns out not to be an American SOF member, but a Danish guy named Tommy- an adventurous foreign volunteer in the YPG.
Just minutes after shooting, a blood-curling whistle from above is heard, and a split second later, the loud boom of a mortar striking no more than 20 meters away from us. Jan and I dive on the ground, anticipating shrapnel, and my camera gets full of sand. We crawl underneath the concrete barrier beside the truck.
“Shit me, that was a close one!” exclaimed Tommy, still standing stoically in place. He raises his binoculars to scan the city ahead.
Suddenly, another ISIS mortar lands 50 meters behind us, closer to the power plant. A minute later, another strikes the road we used to reach the power plant.
An instinct of fear compels me to want to get up and run away, but I am assured by Jan’s calm and experienced voice, “It’s better to stay here for now.”
The afternoon light is terrible for photos. I am lying down in the dirt like a dunce wondering if I would be able to summon more courage if it were sunrise or sunset. I doubt it.
Eventually, we gain the nerve to peek up from the concrete barrier and check what’s going on. The Kurdish man firing the weapon on the top of the truck yells to Jan in Kuridsh, “Comrade! If you hear another go chuuuuuu, lie down. Okay?”
A new mortar lands near their truck. “I think they are aiming for the truck,” I say.
“No. They are aiming for… all of us.” Jan says with a smile- a sick sense of humor I have grown to appreciate.
Jan continues, “Mister, you said you wanted to see action! So, I brought you to the action. This is the reeeeeeaal action! What’s wrong with you?” We laugh together nervously. I can tell he’s trying to make me feel better. It works.
The mortar strikes eventually slow to a stop and we decide to make an exit, running back closer to the relative cover of the nearby water plant. There’s a group of Arab men calmly sitting in a circle in the open, totally unbothered by the shelling, and discussing their next steps. One man has the jacket of a Syrian regime soldier, but its original badges have been torn off. He introduces himself as Abu Sayaf, a commander of Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group Raqqa Martyrs Brigade. His fighters are about to enter the city in a small group carrying AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades, running across the open field and entering the few cleared buildings at the city’s edge.
Like many Arabs in the SDF coalition, Sayaf’s fighters are all locals from Raqqa. During a pause in the operation, he shared a few stories about the early days of the war, before ISIS took over. It is not the simple tale presented in Western media of revolutionaries fighting to kick out a brutal regime as a unified force, but rather one of various armed groups with sometimes radically different visions for Syria, only linked together by their will to fight the Assad regime.
“Those groups all gave bay’ah [pledging allegiance] to Daesh [ISIS],” Sayaf told me, explaining that once the regime was removed, factions from both FSA and Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, joined ISIS in Raqqa city, provoking confusion and infighting.
Sayaf’s rebel group eventually rejected the extremists, and found themselves forced out, and thrown into a loose alliance with the Kurds of the YPG and YPJ. The coalition hasn’t always been smooth sailing, as political views differ. For now, however, they share a common desire to rid the area of the extremists. If the battle were to eventually move into Raqqa city, Sayaf explained to me he expects to find some of the former FSA members who fought the Syrian regime alongside him in the early days of the war, but now opposing him on the side of ISIS.
As the light of day grew longer, it became apparent the SDF were not able to push further into the city center that day.
Days after leaving the region, I stumbled upon a shot of an ISIS flag coming down on Twitter, shared by the SDF’s official handle. Shouts in both Kurdish and Arabic rung out as the flag was thrown to the ground. It seemed the media team had gotten the shot after all, it had just taken a little more time than anticipated.
Last night in Raqqa
Back at Murat’s camp on my last night in Raqqa, we sat once again around the fire, talking about the latest developments in the region. This time, the feeling was much different. News had come that Turkish airplanes had begun a new phase of both shelling and airstrikes on SDF positions outside Manbij– a large city the SDF had cleared of ISIS previously with coalition air support. Turkey’s military and allied Islamist rebel groups now occupied the countryside to the west of the city, and minor hostilities had previously broken out. Now a new level of escalation was underway.
The SDF fighters seemed betrayed. From their perspective, America was tolerating their forces beingW attacked by Turkey simultaneously while the Raqqa offensive was underway. The radio crackled late into the night with updates, as commanders were unsure of the extent of the bombing, and unsure how far the Turkish backed forces would try to press into Manbij itself.
“Turkey is acting as the air force of ISIS,” one said. “They want to slow down the Raqqa operation,” another theorized.
Just a week later, an American SDF volunteer – Michael Israel- would die alongside 11 others in another round of airstrikes on a base in Arima, a base outside Manbij.
A strike on a passionate foreign volunteer among locals at a base is one thing, but targeting the American SOF is an escalation Turkey will likely never attempt. Other than a shared objective of getting rid of ISIS, it’s easy to imagine that the SDF kept the American SOF members with them in Raqqa as their own shield against Turkish air strikes.
It’s impossible to define the conflict in Syria as a ‘civil war.’ Rather, it is a struggle that has been prolonged and escalated due to the puppeteering of superpowers. The proxy war is waged remotely, at the expense of Syrian blood.
Both ISIS and the SDF are organizations which sprung from the torrents of this ever-evolving brutal showdown. Protestors that took to the streets in 2011, demanding democratic reforms from the Syrian regime could not have anticipated either of these rising to such a position of influential power.
The flames of ISIS which Erdoğan once helped spread have come back to burn his hand. Its military and allied FSA proxy forces are now directly involved in Syria and struggled for months to make progress against ISIS in Al Bab, a much smaller city than Raqqa. The quick offensive on Raqqa the Trump administration craves may prompt a larger investment into the SDF rather than its NATO ally. The Turkish government finds itself in a difficult position, unable to unwind itself from such a political conundrum. It is still unclear what the next steps will be.
The outcome of battle for Raqqa will be a defining moment and a crossroads in the war. It may be the point in which the superpowers let go, or abandon their key partners after short-term goals are realized.
However, Syria’s long-term future will not only be decided by far away politicians, analysts, journalists, or photographers. Her future will also be decided by those who still have the will to fight.
A personal note to the SOFREP community: If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. I am currently putting the final tweaks on my new film shot in Iraq and Syria, and coming up with a creative way to share it online. If you’d like to be the first to hear about it, please subscribe using the button at the top right of my personal site. You can also follow my ongoing projects on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.