“Where is Trump?” cries YPG fighter Tolhildan with a slightly manic laugh, pointing up at an empty dust-grey sky. Bullets whine past us, striking the listing tin shack behind which we have taken shelter.
ISIS have launched a surprise attack on the arterial road which is the scene of their final, bloody struggle, making use of their vast network of tunnels to cut off the Syrian Democratic Forces on the frontline and surround us from the south, east and west.
As Tolhidan knows, the ISIS militants are far too close for American air strikes to be of any use, and it is ISIS drones that whine overhead. At under 50 metres they come too close even for the YPG’s heavy machine guns to effectively hold them back. If the Kurdish forces are going to fight their way out, they must do it alone.
“The Americans say they have defeated Daesh,” Tolhildan will tell me in a calmer moment, using the derogatory local term for the Islamic State. “Without us, without the Kurds, they could never defeat Daesh. You saw today how we fight. [The world] needs our heroes, our martyrs.”
According Donald Trump, the official war against ISIS is coming to an end, with the US President repeatedly claiming credit on Twitter and in speeches for the reduction of the physical caliphate to under 1% of its original size. Its last militants are entrenched in a couple of villages south of the Syrian city Deir-Ez-Zor, where Kurdish and Arab forces united under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are engaged in a grinding, months-long, house-to-house struggle to wipe the diminished caliphate from their land.
On the front lines I saw how bitterly this fight continues. On the day of the ambush alone the SDF lost ten fighters, one falling five paces from me, a bullet shattering his chest. The mood among the fighters was generally triumphant, but turned sombre as the names of fallen combatants were relayed between their comrades and their bodies brought back from the front wrapped in bloodied sheets.
The local and foreign fighters and commanders I speak with make clear that the coming ground victory against ISIS will be hollow if Turkey carries out its threats against the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria – what is still commonly known as Rojava.
Whether Turkey launches total war backed by jihadist ground forces as it did in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, or is simply handed a 20-mile “security zone” encompassing all of Rojava’s major settlements, the result will be chaos – the conditions in which ISIS and similar groups thrive.
“Honestly, I don’t feel scared for my life when I go to the front,” says YPG commander Wilat in his base behind the frontlines. “But when I go to Raqqa, Manbij… then I am scared. The most martyrs who fall now aren’t here, they’re in these cities, places liberated a year or two before.”
While we are on the front, news breaks of an ISIS-claimed bombing in the flashpoint city of Manbij, claiming the lives of 4 Americans and 15 locals. Thanks to the loss of American life, this attack makes international headlines – but Wilat estimates that “one or two car bombs and four to five motorbike bombs” are seized every day by SDF security forces in Manbij alone.
“All the foreign journalists suddenly came here in the last two or three days,” he says. “They want to write about the end of ISIS. But in [Raqqa and Manbij], ISIS are not ended. They are organised.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by YPG fighter Firat as we roll toward the front in an armoured hummer. He and his friends are horsing around but as we pass through a village his mood darkens. “My cousin was killed here,” he says. “The people here still support ISIS, they make all kinds of attacks every day, mines, rockets, suicide bombings…”
Leaving the mine-strewn road, we navigate oilfields using an American-provided tablet linked to a GPS system showing the safe paths to take: Firat jokes about refusing to hand it back when the Americans withdraw, as Trump has promised they will within the coming months.
In a base just behind the frontline, I speak with German YPJ volunteer Amara, warming our hands against a smoky brazier. “ISIS’ crimes against women are unbelievable,” she says. “Enslaving them, butchering them… but I always remember what one of my comrades told me about being under Turkish bombs in Afrin, collecting the parts of her comrades’ bodies because she wouldn’t leave them on the battlefield.”
ISIS’ crimes are well-documented. But the jihadist militias Turkey has united under the name of the “National Army” have been accused of war crimes by the UN and Amnesty International, raping women, carrying out mass killings against Kurdish civilians, torturing, electrocuting, executing and even parading caged civilians in the streets as a human shield.
To understand what will come to Rojava, we need only look at Afrin. In 2018, Turkey invaded the Canton of Afrin, a religiously diverse region home to over 200,000 ethnic Kurds and around 300,000 internally displaced people from elsewhere in Syria. Prior to the invasion it had been one of the most peaceful and secure parts of Syria, virtually never seeing combat during the civil war.
As a result of the war 400-500 civilians were killed, and 300,000 civilians internally displaced. Those who survived have faced summary rule by Turkish-backed militias imposing sharia law, kidnapping, torturing and executing civilians, and commit human rights violations possibly amounting to war crimes, according to Amnesty International.
The United Nations found that, despite nominal local representation, “oversight of governance structures [in Afrin] was maintained… by Turkey”. A Turkish-trained police force has been installed in the region, though they have failed to prevent infighting between Turkish-backed jihadist militias which has left scores dead. Streets and squares have been given Turkish names or renamed after Erdogan, Turkish post offices and infrastructures have been erected, and the Turkish language has been imposed in schools.
“If you don’t have the people with you, you cannot do anything,” says YPG fighter Maslum, his voice hoarse after spending three months on the front. “ISIS were here for years, but were the people with them? No. Now hundreds of civilians are leaving their territory every day. You see how happy they are to come to us – because we ask what they need, and we give it to them.”
He draws a simple comparison between the way he and his comrades operate, and the actions of ISIS and Turkish-backed militias. “Why would I loot? I don’t have a wife, a family, a house… I don’t even need the money YPG pays me. I fight for the women of Kurdistan.”
Rojava has gained supporters the world over for its establishment of “democratic-confederalist” political system based on neighbourhood councils called “communes” and the principles of gender liberation, grassroots democracy and ecology.
But such ideas still seem distant here in Deir-Ez-Zor, far from the heart of the revolution in cities like Kobane and Qamislo.
Moving behind mine-clearing teams, YPG and YPJ fighters set up positions in houses that were in ISIS hands 24 hours previously. Those buildings left standing are surprisingly spacious and luxurious, even for this oil-rich region, previously held by ISIS commanders. Almost all have bars on the lower windows, intended not so much for security as to keep women prisoners inside.
In one house, we uncover a bloodied hunting knife, while 19-year-old YPJ fighter Nujin recalls finding freshly-shaved ISIS beards in their all-woman post. ISIS fighters are certainly secreting themselves amongst the hundreds of civilians leaving the so-called Hajin pocket through humanitarian corridors.
As far as possible, the autonomous administration is trying to devolve power to recently-liberated regions, and introduce egalitarian democratic principles. But mistrust between Kurds and Arabs –Kurds fearing continued loyalty to ISIS in the Arab population, Arabs fearing they will be junior partners under Kurdish rule – remains rampant.
The fighters on the frontline are primarily local Arabs, but Kurdish fighters express misgivings about their commitment to the fight to end Jihadi brutality in the region.
As the ambush is sprung on the frontline and I race down the road with a Kurdish heavy-weapons unit, these tensions appear before my eyes. We pass Arab fighters abandoning their posts in droves, stumbling through the dust clutching bloody bandages to their heads. Kurdish fighters scream their heads off trying to halt the shambolic retreat, but with little success.
For an hour we are pinned down below ISIS fire, Arabs and Kurds fighting shoulder-by-shoulder, constantly scrambling for shelter and at one point forced to retreat as ISIS shade closer and closer on all sides.
In one chaotic moment an SDF machine gunner mistakenly opens fire on the SDF forces cut off behind the ISIS advance, the commander screaming, “Friends or jihadis? Friends or jihadis?” into his walkie-talkie.
In the end, the SDF’s numbers, heavy weapons and stoicism under fire prove too much for ISIS, and there is a headlong dash up the souk as the jihadists fall back and the SDF seizes back the ground it has lost. For today, the battle here is won, and nightfall will bring a fresh round of pounding airstrikes from the still-present US forces.
But it will take years to clear out the ISIS sleeper cells and improvised explosive devices which seed the region, and longer still to find a meeting point between the democratic-feminist project and the needs and wishes of the local population in nominally liberated regions like Manbij or Raqqa.
If Turkey is allowed to replicate its catastrophic occupation of Afrin across North-Eastern Syria, the fragile peace being bought here at such tremendous cost will crumble in days.
“ISIS are nearly defeated in this area,” says Amara, the international volunteer, looking out over the desolate last scraps of the Islamic State from the roof of her base. “We can give the people here a chance to build their own life – but [ISIS] aren’t really finished, of course. If America really want to fight terror, they should fight the Turkish regime, which comes with jets and bombs civilians.”
As Amara knows, there is little chance of that happening. She and the other fighters in Deir-ez-Zor are risking their lives in the knowledge that the Western states which depend on them to defeat ISIS are turning their backs, potentially abandoning them to the type of chaos in which ISIS will thrive – and rise again.
Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist reporting from Rojava. He has written for the New Statesman, Independent and Vice.