On the front line in Syrian Kurdistan, militias fight to free kidnapped families

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Ruth Pollard reports from the war zone as Kurdish, Assyrian and Arab militias hold the line against the jihadists of Islamic State.
Atur Aisak, an Assyrian from Tel Tamer. Many of the first 90 Christians kidnapped from the village by IS were members of her extended family. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
Tel Tamer, Syria: “They want to divide us, to drive us from our lands, to separate us from our families, our tribes and our homes,” Atur Aisak tells me.

She is standing at her post dug into a hill in Tel Tamer, an assault rifle slung over her shoulder, and looking out to the nearby village of Tel Shamiran, where at least 90 Assyrians – most of them her extended family – were abducted by militants of the so-called Islamic State in a terrifying predawn raid on Tuesday.

We have no choice but to stay and defend our area . . . they kill whoever they please.

Lying just a kilometre away, the village is a no-go zone for all but frontline fighters from the YPG, or People’s Protection Units – the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – who are engaged in a fierce battle with IS to free Tel Shamiran and other Christian villages and prevent further abductions.

A fighter of the Syriac Security Office, or Sutoro, an Assyrian militia, looks out over territory held by Islamic State militants at a post in Tel Tamer.A fighter of the Syriac Security Office, or Sutoro, an Assyrian militia, looks out over territory held by Islamic State militants at a post in Tel Tamer. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk

As the boom of mortars and crack of gunfire echoed around the town, reinforcements from the YPG along with the Christian fighters of the Syriac Security Office, also known as Sutoro, gathered to establish new lines of defence in the area, part of the Kurdish-controlled sector of north-eastern Syria that Kurds are now calling Rojava.

But the reinforcements came too late. The number of Assyrians kidnapped by IS has risen to 220, forcing thousands to flee to the cities of Hasaka and Qamishli, and IS is now in  control of at least 10 Assyrian villages around Tel Tamer, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The attacks, the latest in a string of vicious massacres and mass kidnappings of minority Christians and Yazidis in Syria and Iraq, are designed to drive Christians from the Middle East and unravel the tapestry of religious and ethnic groups who have co-existed in this region for decades, Aisak says.

Sutoro Assyrian militiamen in Tel Tamer.Sutoro Assyrian militiamen in Tel Tamer. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk

Many Christians living in Iraq and Syria have already received IS ultimatums to convert, pay a religious levy known as jizya, or face death. Thousands have already fled Syria – a country torn apart by a civil war that has killed more than 210,000 and displaced millions.

“Ever since our families came to this place in 1933 it has been the safest place for us, we have felt no danger – we have no intention of leaving. Forever we will be here,” Aisak says.

The 32-year-old, who is co-chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society, also known as Tevdem, along with her Arab colleague Mohamed Said, says all she has left is  the hope that those who were taken will survive.

Residents of Tel Tamer line up for bread during a lull in the fighting.Residents of Tel Tamer line up for bread during a lull in the fighting. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk

On Wednesday, Osama Edward, founder of the Swedish-based Assyrian Human Rights Network, told CNN that IS planned to release a video message aimed at US President Barack Obama and threatening to kill scores of Christian hostages. The video has not yet been released.

Massacres targeting Assyrians in Iraq in 1933 forced her family, who belong to one of the largest tribes in the area, to flee Mosul and Baghdad, making their homes in a string of small villages along the Khabur River in north-eastern Syria. Since then they have lived side by side with their Sunni Arab and Kurdish neighbours – trading together, going to school together, working together.

Said says he too is worried for his family – his son and brother are on the frontline with the YPG, while others are in hospital with injuries sustained in the fighting. “We have no choice but to stay and defend our area – Daesh [IS] are taking Assyrians, they have taken Arabs – they kill whoever they please.”

Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia, near the besieged town of Tel Hamis.Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia, near the besieged town of Tel Hamis. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk

The streets are all but deserted in Tel Tamer, save for short but urgent lines that form when the local bakery opens and a sudden influx of YPG fighters and the Kurdish internal security service, Asayish, who rushed here when news of the attack broke.

Gowan Ibrahim, the head of Asayish in the region, sits in his office, a two-way radio taken from an IS fighter occasionally crackling to life with call-ins from the front line.

Have you heard anything interesting on the radio, I ask? “Yes,” Ibrahim smiles. “We’ve learned a lot.”

The areas of Syria now run by Kurdish militias and known as Rojava.The areas of Syria now run by Kurdish militias and known as Rojava.

Like everyone in town, he is worried about what IS will do to the Christians they have kidnapped. Locals believe they have been taken to nearby Mount Abd al-Aziz, south-west of Tel Tamer, an area controlled by IS.

“We fear they will kill them – after they burned to death the Jordanian pilot and beheaded the Egyptian Christians, all we can do is fear.”

In the nearby YPG headquarters, established in a large abandoned farm, the bodies of 19 IS militants lie under a eucalyptus tree, each of them torn apart by the fighting. “Chechen, Chinese, maybe Saudi,” one young YPG soldier says as he walks along the line of dead men, attempting to work out their origins.

A bulldozer waits nearby to dig the grave for their mass burial, while inside the compound local YPG leaders plan the evening’s attacks.

“We know the fighting will start again soon, when the commanders gather,” one local said.

By Thursday, the fighting was still ongoing, YPG spokesman Redur Khalil confirmed. “Daesh [IS] attacked the villages around Tel Tamer to distract us from our advances on the town of Tel Hamis,” he says. “After four days, fighting is continuing on both fronts.”

He was speaking from a village about three kilometres from Tel Hamis, a town near the Iraqi border that has become a secondary base for IS, allowing them to gather fighters, weapons and other supplies and cross into the Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell into their hands in June, astonishing the international community.

There are concerns that the YPG will be dangerously overstretched if it is forced to fight on three fronts: Tel Hamis, Tel Tamer and pushing outward from Kobane, which is now also held by Kurdish forces. And if IS were to take control of Tel Tamer, it would sever the main highway connecting YPG positions in Hasaka to Ras al-Ain, potentially limiting the flow of Kurdish reinforcements to the area.

“[IS] raids and abductions targeting the Assyrian Christian population near Tel Tamer may serve as retaliation against the participation of the Syriac Military Council in the ongoing YPG offensive against Tel Hamis, or provide leverage for a future prisoner exchange,” the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, reported.