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These Women Are Fighting Al-Qaeda In Syria

In Syria, female fighters fill out the front lines for a Kurdish militia that is locked in a bitter battle with rebels linked to al-Qaeda. They say they’re sending a message: “When you fight against them, the first thing you think about is the freedom of women."

Posted on December 2, 2013, at 10:28 a.m. ET

Nojin, a 20-year-old fighter from northern Syria, has been a soldier since the country erupted into civil war.

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She is an ethnic Kurd, the country's largest minority group at 10% of the population. Based predominately in northeast Syria, near the borders with Turkey and Iraq, the Kurds have pushed to keep out of the conflict, saying they don't trust either side. And they've relied on their powerful local militia — known for deploying men and women alike to the front lines — to enforce that demand.

Rebels linked to al-Qaeda are pushing to expand into Kurdish territory, sparking months of clashes. The fighting brought Nojin to a military post outside the city of Ras al-Ain, the last Kurdish checkpoint before area controlled by extremists.

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Sitting at the post one recent afternoon, Nojin, who declined to give her surname, said her motivation as a fighter was simple: "The freedom of our land." But she also conceded another objective for facing down the jihadis: "When you fight against them the first thing you think about is the freedom of women."

About 15 fighters were manning the post that afternoon, most of them women.

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Though the Kurds are on the upswing, winning a series of important strategic victories of late, the soldiers said they remained locked in a bitter battle — one for ideology as well as territory. "These groups want to build a radical Islamic system here," said Serhat Aso, a male fighter at the checkpoint. "And we are in the 21st century. No one will accept this."

The 29-year-old woman running the checkpoint wore a rifle slung over her shoulder and a braided ponytail running down past her waist.

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She asked not to be photographed, citing safety concerns, but gave the name Berwelat Dunya, and that she was from a Kurdish town near Aleppo. Dunya said that when the fighting began, she'd been wary of facing al-Qaeda, having heard that "their fighters were the strongest in the world." But after killing her first, she said, she looked down at the dead body and thought, These are just normal people.

Syria's Kurdish region is dominated by a political party, known by the acronym PYD, that stresses equality for men and women in both politics and war.

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The region's Kurds have a long history of deploying women to battle, a fact made famous by fighters from the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. for its decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The two groups are linked — though PYD leaders downplay these ties.

"For us, there is no difference between women and men," Dunya said.

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Then she added: "But, women are better shooters than men. We're more accurate." One of the male fighters at the post was quick to agree.

Dunya also said that in the battle with extremists, having women on the front lines sent a message.

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“We are fighting for freedom as women fighters," she said. "Not just for our people, but for women across the world — because in the al-Qaeda system, women should be like slaves.”

Beyond the checkpoint, on the Kurdish side, villages that had been controlled by jihadis until Kurdish fighters pushed them back still bore some signs of the fighting, a reminder of the continued threat of war.

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Rebels accuse the Kurds of siding with the Syrian regime, and also want their territory, which has oil wells and important border posts. Various rebel factions have taken up arms against the Kurds, but al-Qaeda-linked groups have been the most prominent in the fight.

One man gave a tour of his ransacked home — pointing out where rebels had killed his nephew, looted his possessions, and kicked over his beehives.

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Yusuf Sayman for BuzzFeed

The man, Abdullah Cheikho Said, said his wife and children had fled to Ras al-Ain — and he couldn't convince them to return home. "My family says they are too afraid. They will not come back."

All around the Kurdish region, checkpoints had been erected in endless succession to guard against the car and suicide bombs that have become a regular feature of the conflict for the Kurds.

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Women fighters and police were a regular presence at the checkpoints. Some had been killed in recent blasts.

In late November, Kurdish officials said that some 350 of their soldiers had been killed in the fight against the jihadis since July, 13 of them women.

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Some Syrian Kurds are wary of the PYD, accusing it of using authoritarian tactics against its Kurdish rivals. But it has consolidated power amid the growing threat from extremists.

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"Judging them on their ideology, of course I am against them. But when you look at the situation on the ground — of course I prefer them to the alternatives," one opponent said.

Kurds in Syria said that having women on the front lines reinforced their resistance to the extremists, whom they often called "terrorists."

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A group of young girls playing with plastic guns on a sidewalk said they looked up to the female soldiers — and all said they hoped to one day join their ranks. Asked whether she'd rather be a doctor or a soldier, 6-year-old Solin (pictured here) replied, "Both."

Nojin, the fighter manning the checkpoint, said she knew she and her female colleagues were making a name for themselves both at home and abroad.

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"We are not only famous in America. We are also famous in the whole world," she said, before posing with her sniper rifle.

"It’s something unique," Nojin added. "It’s a unique experience to fight against Islamic groups for the freedom of women worldwide."

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