The offensive to take Raqqa back from Islamic State has begun. Kurdish fighters are leading the charge in the hopes of eliminating the Islamist scourge — but they are also hoping to expand their power in northern Syria.
The chirping of a few birds can be heard, but they are instantly drowned out by the squawking of the radio. “Clara to Guevara, come in please! Guevara! Here, Clara base. Please come in!” If you keep listening, Rosa Luxemburg also reports — as Clara Zetkin continues waiting for Che Guevara.
It sounds as though the revolutionary idols of a bygone era have arranged for a reunion in the ether — in the middle of the steppes of northern Syria not even 10 kilometers from Raqqa, which in January 2014 became the first large city conquered by Islamic State (IS). It is also the only city the radical Islamist group still controls — in contrast to Mosul, Iraq,where IS is now holed up in one last neighborhood of the city center.
It is the end of May and Kurdish fighters are preparing for the assault on Raqqa. It still doesn’t sound much like war here, but jihadist radio traffic — in which they used to regularly announce their intention to slaughter all infidels — has become more sporadic, says a Kurdish radio operator. “They’re too concerned about being geo-located and by the airstrikes by the Americans,” he says. He then tries once more to reach Che Guevara. “We love revolutionaries,” he says before listing a number of them. He pauses and, without being asked, says: “Stalin isn’t among them!”
Men and women in camouflage walk through the courtyard of the farmstead they have seized while pickups disguised with mud take munitions and meals to the front lines and bring exhausted fighters back to camp. Men and women sit smoking in the shade of the terrace, most of them armed with Kalashnikovs.
Just a few days ago, they were still slowly approaching Raqqa, but on Tuesday of last week, the long-planned, large-scale attack on the most important Islamic State bastion in Syria began. Several units conquered areas in the city’s eastern outskirts last week, including most recently the al-Mashlab district. It is a motley group that has assembled to drive out IS. Officially, they all belong to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military alliance that was founded in October 2015 with the aim of bringing together Arabs and Kurds.
In addition to SDF insignia, though, one can also see the shoulder patches of other Kurdish militias and, on occasion, the Syrian flag with three stars, the symbol of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), some units of which joined the SDF. Around a tenth of the fighters are Arabs, with the rest comprised of Syrian Kurds. Several of the officers and specialists don’t even understand Arabic and, aside from Kurdish, speak only Turkish.
There is only one logo that is missing completely: that of the tightly organized fighting force that looms over everything here in northern Syria, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Founded in 1978 as a Marxist-tinged separatist group in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, it has managed over the decades to create an effective power apparatus that exerts it’s influence far beyond Turkey’s own borders.
All groups are under the control of the same Kurdish leadership that has holed up in the expansive Qandil Mountains since the 1990s, from where they provide military and, of particular importance, ideological training to volunteers from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. All of them revere PKK founder Abdullah “Apo” Öcalan, who has been locked away on the Turkish prison island of Imrali since 1999 and whose portrait is omnipresent.
Gigantic images of Öcalan hang behind officers’ desks at headquarters while many fighters wear tiny portraits as an amulet around their necks. A silhouette of the PKK founder is stuck to the windshield of the military pickup as we bounce along hardly recognizable roads on the way to the front. “We have stay on track no matter what,” says our female driver. “There are mines.”
IS lays them everywhere: in the sand, hidden in artificial rocks, in wells, door thresholds, generators, toilet doors and even corpses. Sometimes the detonations are triggered by almost invisible filaments, others are set off by pressure or movement sensors. A mine somewhere is almost sure to go off after every heavy shower. “It always happens after rain when mud is splashed onto their sensors,” the driver says. “You can’t make any false step!”