AL-HAWL, Syria — Khalil Darwish, a sheikh in northeastern Syria, stood in the center of his small desert village and recalled the moment the war arrived. Earlier this month, U.S.-backed fighters took cover in some houses as they advanced on ISIS across the sparse terrain. Then the militants sent in a suicide attacker with a car bomb, killing six civilians, including Darwish’s wife. “We had been like a buffer zone,” Darwish, an aging man wearing oversized eyeglasses and a white dishdasha robe, said as he pointed to the crater from the blast. “Then it became very dangerous.”
Far below the warplanes flown by the U.S. and its allies in their campaign against ISIS, Syrians in forgotten towns and villages like Darwish’s are witnessing what it means to fight the jihadis on the ground. At the southern edge of Hasakah province, near the border with Iraq, the path the battles have traced over the last month winds along dirt roads, through improvised minefields, and past mud-brick homes crushed by airstrikes, signs of a desperate war often fought across desperate land.
In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, Western leaders have talked tough about defeating ISIS and ramped up airstrikes on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of its self-styled caliphate. But the war against the militants won’t be won in the air — they can be rolled back only by local forces willing to face them. The U.S. has placed its hopes in a new group of fighters in Syria dedicated to that cause. On the edges of Raqqa, they are engaged in a grueling struggle against the jihadis, often with dated weapons, taking regular casualties as they work to slowly eat away at ISIS territory. “The war is difficult, and it’s painful,” said Ahmed Sarhat, 36, a soldier on a front line in Hasakah who had been a farmer before the conflict began. “But we have to fight. Because the enemy we have here is not just the enemy of this nation; it is the enemy of all nations. When you understand that they are against humanity, then you force yourself to fight them.”
Sarhat and his fellow fighters — part of a fledgling coalition dominated by ethnic Kurds and increasingly backed by the U.S. — have worked village by village to push ISIS back in Hasakah, driving the militants closer to Raqqa. Their offensive began on Oct. 31, and from Darwish’s village, it drove on to the town of al-Hawl. Little-known before the war, under ISIS al-Hawl became a logistical hub on the highway from Raqqa to Mosul, the largest city the group holds in Iraq. The militants trained fighters and built car bombs there. Last Sunday, just days after ISIS had been driven away, crumbled storefronts spilled into the deserted main road as explosions from mortars rang out. Remnants of the jihadis were everywhere — a Sharia court; a rest house for fighters, the beds left unmade. Billboards posted along the street showed women cloaked in black abayas. “Our sister with the veil, a million greetings to you,” one read. “How great you are when you’re virtuous.”
The highway through al-Hawl was an important supply and transit route for ISIS between its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Its loss was part of a series of tactical setbacks for the jihadis, who also lost the Iraqi town of Sinjar, 40 miles east of al-Hawl, on Nov. 13. While ISIS has put up resistance in these places, it also seems to have avoided greater losses through tactical retreats.
While the fighters are advancing, the question is whether the new U.S. effort in Syria can build real momentum in a war marked by misfires and stalemate. Washington has so far failed to prop up effective partners in its fight against ISIS in Syria, while ISIS and the local branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, have wiped out several U.S.-backed groups that sought to challenge them. A $500-million Pentagon program that aimed to train a rebel army to fight ISIS was scrapped in October after almost total failure.
One advantage of the new U.S.-backed coalition in Hasakah, the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), is that it is overwhelmingly made up of a force that has been successful against ISIS on its own already. Dominated by ethnic Kurds, it has beaten back the jihadis and other rival groups from its Kurdish-majority stronghold for more than two years. The roads through the 8,000 square miles of northern Syria now under the control of the People’s Protection Units — known by its Kurdish acronym, YPG — are lined with photos of the hundreds of soldiers who have died in that fight.
For the last year, the U.S. has aided the YPG with airstrikes, and now U.S. military planners hope to expand that effort by pushing it into ISIS’s Arab strongholds. To help, they have tried to draw Arab militias into the new SDF coalition alongside the YPG’s ranks. The hope is that the Arab fighters, largely natives of the areas under ISIS control, will be effective allies in the fight to take back their homeland — and just as importantly, that they will be able to hold the ground when ISIS is gone. They are also aimed at public relations; were the YPG working alone outside Kurdish areas, it would be seen as an invading force by many Arabs. It's also unclear how willing the YPG will be to sacrifice its soldiers to free Arab land. At the same time, America’s key NATO ally across the border, Turkey, is increasingly wary of U.S. cooperation with the YPG, because the YPG is closely linked to the PKK, the insurgent group with which Ankara is at war. The new Kurd and Arab coalition gives Washington some political cover.
The SDF was announced on Oct. 12, the same day the U.S. made headlines when it dropped a 45-ton crate of weapons into northern Syria destined for them, which was collected by the YPG. Shortly afterward, the Obama administration announced it would deploy 50 special forces operators to Syria’s Kurdish region to help the SDF with its new fight. U.S. officials reportedly hope it can eventually advance on Raqqa.
Yet the U.S. has been forced to put so much focus on the SDF because its previous efforts in Syria have failed — and a policy born of previous mishaps doesn’t bring much optimism from those tracking the conflict. As one YPG official working with the SDF, Lawand Rojava, saw it, the U.S. had little choice but to turn to the YPG after attempts to work with rival rebels yielded such lackluster results. “America and their friends spent millions of dollars on [supporting other rebel groups] and it has been four years, and it failed from the beginning,” he said. “Why did it fail? Because they picked the wrong side.”
Talal Sillu has been given the difficult job of legitimizing the new coalition to its skeptics — as well as providing its self-consciously diverse face. A Syrian Turkmen who leads a little-known battalion that has worked with the YPG in the past, he is now the SDF’s official spokesman. Sitting in his office at a YPG base in Hasakah on a recent night, in military fatigues with bullet straps over his shoulders, Sillu said the coalition’s Arab groups were coming together, but needed time. “This project is not just the YPG’s — it belongs to all the groups, and we are partners,” he said.
A march on Raqqa would require more support from the U.S., he said. New weapons and ammunition had been slow to arrive, echoing a complaint of many U.S.-backed rebels who came before. He hoped more would arrive as the coalition proved itself on the battlefield. “American support is coming step by step,” he said. “It won’t just give us a large amount of weapons and say, ‘God bless.’”
Around al-Hawl, YPG soldiers said they were doing most of the fighting, and they seemingly controlled every checkpoint on the roads to the front. “We are all fighting ISIS together,” said Khaled Jelyan, 21, sitting on a tank. “But the biggest battles are happening on YPG lines.”
Piles of rubble and metal singed by airstrikes dotted the recently contested roads; the jets could be heard streaking overhead. The new territory came with new dangers. At a YPG checkpoint on the road to the town of al-Shaddadi — the focus of the offensive after al-Hawl — fighters grew nervous when a skinny Arab man arrived on a motorcycle wearing an oversized black coat. One rushed over to open it, fearing that the man might be wearing a suicide vest underneath, before letting him pass.
In the bed of a Toyota pickup, YPG specialists had stacked the IEDs they uncovered that day, dozens of what appeared to be mass-produced explosives in the shape of landmines. One said the area was “full” of the devices, adding: “If we told you how many we found you’d be shocked.”
Further down the road, YPG soldiers stared out from a hilltop at a tree line a half-mile away, where they said ISIS militants had retreated and dug in. “We are pushing them back,” said Mohamed Aref, 25.
Taking al-Shaddadi would help to clear the way for an offensive on Raqqa, YPG fighters said. From there the SDF could advance from the east while its comrades dug-in 30 miles north of the city, in the town of Ayn Issa, opened up a second front. It's unclear if the SDF would be able to coordinate such an offensive with rebel factions elsewhere in the country. Analysts tracking the conflict said a true push to take Raqqa still seemed a long way off. “The medium-term American strategy is to promote internal Arab uprisings that will displace ISIS, and prevent it from returning, utilizing the Kurdish-led, multiethnic Syrian Democratic Forces coalition to hammer ISIS and weaken it,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security.
Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesperson for the U.S. Central Command, said the early results in Hasakah were encouraging but stressed that “there is still much work to do.”
“A central aspect of the Coalition military campaign to defeat ISIL has been to support and enable indigenous anti-ISIL ground forces in Iraq and Syria through Coalition airstrikes and building partner capacity," he said. "The SDF's successful offensive to liberate al-Hawl is a good example of the effectiveness of this approach. This now puts the SDF in position to continue their offensive on to al-Shaddadi and Raqqa. These successes by the SDF continue to limit ISIL’s freedom of movement, constrain its ability to reinforce its fighters, and degrades ISIL's command and control capability.”
The YPG and its Arab allies took Ayn Issa from ISIS as part of a surprise offensive in July in which they also seized the town of Tel Abyad, on the border with Turkey, dealing a strategic blow to the militants. It was a preview of the kind of cooperation they hope to achieve with the SDF. But the YPG’s struggles since in managing Tel Abyad — where less than half the population were Kurdish before the war — also underline the problems that lay ahead without an effective Arab presence in the SDF’s ranks. YPG officials have attempted to oversee the city largely on their own, but they are deeply suspicious of many Arabs living there, believing that there are still pockets of ISIS support. And they also worry about those who have lost loved ones to ISIS trying to take revenge. ISIS suicide attacks and other violence still plague the city. On the roads leading in, the walls of checkpoints are crumbled and marred from repeated car bomb attacks.
An Arab battalion called Thuwar al-Raqqa, or the Raqqa Revolutionaries, has been working with the YPG in the area. It is led by a charismatic commander who calls himself Abu Issa; it has a presence on the front in Ayn Issa and has checkpoints on the road leading to the town. Compared to those run by the YPG, these checkpoints are far less professional, often manned by teens. Driving the road on a recent afternoon, one fighter with the group who goes by the nickname Abu Laith wore a green ski mask even though it was technically friendly territory. A Raqqa native, he feared retaliation by ISIS against family members living there if someone who still supported the jihadis recognized his face.
Over lunch at a home in one of the small villages lining the way, an official with Thuwar al-Raqqa, Mahmoud Khalil, said the group was eager to work with the U.S. to advance on Raqqa but support had been slow to come. He hoped it would pick up soon. “Maybe Syrians have more drive to liberate their own land," he said, "but America has its own plan."