Al-Hasakah province, SYRIA – The small village near Tel Hamis, Syria appears desolate – not surprising considering it sits just a few kilometers behind the front lines. The words "The Islamic State" etched on walls in Arabic have been crudely, and hastily, covered up – a reminder that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also called ISIS or ISIL, used to control this area before being pushed out recently by the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG).
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From the town center the unified chanting of men echoes through the deserted locale. A gunshot goes off from the direction of the school – and silence follows; then, “Go! Go! Go!” resonates from behind the school walls. Devoid of children for months, the school has been repurposed. The courtyard has been transformed into a boot camp, and the classrooms are now used for storage of guns and ammunition. It has become the YPG’s latest training base.
Dilshad – who prefers to be identified by just his first name – is the YPG commander who fired off the shot. Standing at the front of the courtyard, his voice gets coarser as he shouts repeatedly at the newest line of men who approach him. Behind them around 150 more men stand in rows, waiting to be called forward.
With ISIS advancing regularly on the YPG-controlled al-Hasakah province – named Rojava by the majority Kurdish population – Dilshad, along with a team of YPG commanders, has been tasked with training volunteers from the civilian population in case of a full-scale attack.
“We are teaching the volunteers how to use a gun, we are getting them physically fit so they can fight,” Dilshad tells Haaretz. “They have seen what is happening here in Syria, how bad the situation is, and have come here to do something. They are all ready to fight if they have to, just as the normal people in Kobane had to fight. The men here can help save this area from ISIS.”
All of the men being trained in the six-month course are volunteers, Dilshad says. They are not being trained to join the YPG, but rather as a civilian defense force, able to fight ISIS at short notice if the Sunni extremists advance on any of the trainees' villages. The idea of the civilian militia, he says, is that ISIS won’t just face YPG units, but also an armed civilian population that can pick up guns and join YPG fighters at the front if needed – or if ISIS should infiltrate population centers, battle them in the streets.
Dilshad fires off his gun again, and the five men in front of him hit the ground. Kalashnikov-in-hand; they crawl along the concrete school playground as fast as they can, keeping low while looking forward. A trainer meanders up and down the line, observing the men and correcting their positions. The rows of volunteers waiting for their turn start applauding the first four men as they cross the finish line quickly, but keep the applause going for another 15 seconds as the last volunteer – a man in his mid-40s – drags himself over the line.
Mahmoud Ahsan, a doctor from the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn, was the first volunteer to finish. Ahsan has a quiet demeanor; the gun he carries seems misplaced as he fiddles with it nervously. Having never picked up a weapon previously this is a completely new experience, Ahsan says – but a necessary step if ISIS are to be beaten in the north-east corner of Syria.
“I heard about this training and I made sure I was one of the first to come and volunteer,” Ahsan tells Haaretz, while taking a break from the gruelling training regime. “If my city is attacked, I need to be ready, the people here need to be ready to fight back. ISIS are attacking us and this area, and we – all of us – need to stop them.”
'Not scared to die'
Al-Hasakah province, a small northeastern enclave, has mostly been under YPG control during the Syrian civil war, however ISIS continues its attempts to push further into the province.
With the kidnapping of a reported 100 to 300 Assyrian Christians from the area by ISIS at the end of February, the ability of the militant Sunni organization to launch quick attacks, and to infiltrate the province’s usually stable border, became palpable. Arming locals and training them – rather than just fighters destined for the front line – is, for Ahsan, the province’s only option.
“I will be ready if they [ISIS] come to fight, ready to protect my family, my city and the people who live here,” Ahsan says in a tone laced with defiance, one that appears out of sync with his mild manner.
“This training has taught us how to use a gun and how to fight, taught all of us who live here – Arab, Kurdish, Christian, Muslim, Assyrian. We are all brothers, and it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you are willing to fight for the rights of everyone who lives here. If we do this, ISIS will be stopped.”
Sitting on the grass that flanks the concrete yard, groups of five to 10 men bunch together, taking Kalashnikovs apart before reassembling them.
Moodie Ashlie – an ethnic Armenian – fumbles with his gun, but steadies himself as he repeats the drill, getting faster and faster each time. The atmosphere is relaxed, despite a looming ISIS presence only a few kilometers away.
From Ashlie’s position it is possible to see the remnants of destruction left by the Sunni militants. To the right, a blown-out mosque sits just outside the school’s courtyard walls – destroyed when ISIS retreated some weeks ago – while explosion marks blacken the walls of the school behind him.
The presence of war is everywhere, Ashlie says, and the presence of ISIS is always a threat – especially for minority groups like his in the region. While some of the men say they are considering joining the YPG after the training – an idea the YPG welcomes – most of the volunteers simply want to take their newfound knowledge and skills back home, fully equipped to protect their communities in the worst-case scenario of an ISIS attack.
“People may not think we, normal people, can protect this area – but we can and we will,” Ashlie says seriously. “And when I see my family and friends, I will tell them to sign up for this training, to get armed, to get ready to fight.”
The militarization of the civilian population by the YPG hints at the longevity of the civil war in Syria, which began nearly four years ago. The new initiative however, appears to have been welcomed by people in al-Hasakah, with the first batch of volunteers signed up within days of the training program being set-up, according to YPG officials at the base.
While Ahsan says he is happy to learn how to use a gun, he says he is only willing to use it as a last option – if ISIS breaches his city. For Ashlie, however, the training has given him an insight into the defense of al-Hasakah and the operations of the YPG. Joining the YPG guerrillas in the trenches and pushing ISIS back is his new goal, rather than waiting at home for any potential ISIS advance.
“We are not scared to die," he says, "because we now want to fight; we can’t be scared anymore. I don’t know whether I will go home now and work, I think I will now be with the YPG fighting. I want to join them and defend this area until we can finally finish this war.”
Additional reporting by Abed al Qaisi.