What does a 16-year-old Kurdish girl do when she lives in one of the Kurdish districts of Syria? Usually what any girl her age does. She goes to school, posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and helps her mother around the house. But there are also girls who find themselves, willingly or forcibly, on a national mission. They are drafted or voluntarily enlist in the women’s People’s Defense Forces (YPG).
The women’s unit (YPJ), which numbers about 7,000 women fighters between the ages of 16 and 40, was founded in 2012 as part of the Kurdish war effort against the Islamic State. It was a key component in the ideology formulated by the Kurdish leader (serving a life sentence in Turkey) Abdullah Ocalan, which grants equal rights to women, including combat duty.
The involvement of the Kurdish women in the war in Syria has produced hundreds of media reports worldwide, presenting these women as a symbol of equality and unity, of ground-breaking feminism alongside remarkable descriptions of the heroism of Kurdish women. Kurdish women have indeed shown heroism and many have sacrificed their lives in the war that has been underway for nine years now. But over the past two years, harsh reports have also come out that have damaged the romantic image of the fighting women.
Girls as young as 15 or 16 have said they were abducted from their homes by members of the Kurdish units, forcibly pressed into military service, given weapons training and ideology lessons, cut off from school and their parents’ homes, to become rank-and-file fighters. In interviews in Arab media outlets some of the girls complained of the harsh conditions and their longing for home and family, not seen sometimes for months.
Other girls, though, say they enlisted voluntarily because of the tough economic situation at home, and that army service has helped their parents, who receive about $300 a month from the Kurdish military command in exchange for their daughters’ service.
About a year ago the United Nations intervened in the matter and after negotiations with the leadership of the Kurdish forces, an agreement was signed by which the Kurdish forces would stop drafting girls under 18, the age of the obligatory draft in the Kurdish units. But despite this agreement and the Kurdish commitment, it seems that young girls continue to enlist, voluntarily or not, into the fighting forces. Heartbreaking letters to the commander of the Kurdish forces, Mazloum Abdi, and the command center of the women’s units, begging for their daughters’ release or at least to allow them home visits, have gone unanswered or received brief, harsh responses.
However, in late August the autonomous Turkish government in northern Syria renewed the work of the office that deals with the drafting of minors. The office invited families of the draftees to submit complaints against their induction or against the conditions of their service, and pledged that every complaint would be dealt with by the military command of the defense units, and that renewed efforts would be made to prevent the phenomenon, which leads to the destruction of families and damage to “the social and traditional values prevalent in Kurdish society.”
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This decision, which came following reports by human rights groups, itself shows that the pledge not to draft the girls was not really met, and the usual reply, that these are “exceptional cases,” is not correct.
In the war against ISIS, the pretext for the establishment of the Kurdish defense forces is largely outdated. But now the Kurds are preparing for a difficult struggle against the Turkish forces and the Syrian militias operating under Turkey. To the Kurds, this is a war for their homes, perhaps more than a war against ISIS, which it joined together with American and international forces and became the most efficient ground force in this arena. The Turkish invasion of the city of Afrin in the western part of the Kurdish district, the takeover of the “security zone” in northern Syria and the Turkish plan to deepen its control in the Kurdish area, pits the Kurds against one of the most threatening challenges to their ability to hold onto their territory and survive as an autonomous ethnic group.
The American assistance they receive, which Turkey defines as “support for terror,” does not tip the scales against the massive forces facing them. Not only does the Turkish army use air power and heavy artillery, which the Kurds do not have, but the pro-Turkish militias, about 100,000 strong, significantly outnumber Kurdish forces. That’s why they need every Kurdish young man and woman to fight the threat. In such a battle, the Kurds say, there is no choice but sometimes to bend the induction rules and the agreement signed with the United Nations.
Another threat is in the makeup of the Kurdish units known as the “Syrian Democratic Forces.” These units, established in 2015 by the United States as part of the war against ISIS, include Syrian Arabs, Armenians and Turkmens, but most of the fighters are Kurdish. The American goal in establishing the mixed force was to evade Turkish opposition to American assistance to the Kurds, by making it possible to present these units as “Syrian” and not purely Kurdish.
Turkey saw it as an American trick to assist the Kurds, yet as long as the war against ISIS was underway it kept quiet. But recently Turkey has been trying to enlist Syrian Arabs and remove them from the Kurdish military framework. As a result, internal power struggles have developed in these units, and the Kurdish units recently arrested about 18 Syrian Arabs on suspicion of joining pro-Turkish militias.
The lack of internal faith could lead to thousands of Arab fighters deserting or being pushed out of the Kurdish units, deeply eroding Kurdish military capabilities. The empty ranks might now be filled by Kurdish teenage girls, either willingly or forcibly.