Wladimir van Wilgenburg reports from Raqqa province: [A]ccording to the men here on the eastern front, the U.S. is hoping to capitalize on the recent successes of Kurdish and Arab rebels in Kobane and Tal Abyad, where, with coalition air support, they pushed ISIS back.
“There are around 20,000 Kurdish fighters, and around 3,000 to 5,000 Arab fighters,” senior Kurdish official Idris Nassan told The Daily Beast in his office in Kobane. That jibes, roughly, with the numbers given by Abu Hamza, an FSA fighter, who says there are a total of 30,000 troops poised to move on Raqqa, but the numbers could not be verified independently.
In the field, one way to spot the difference between the fighters of the Free Syrian Army and those of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, is that the FSA soldiers appear to lack strict military discipline, sometimes manning checkpoints without uniforms and in slippers.
They are, as they say themselves, reluctant soldiers. Many came from Raqqa and Deir ar-Zour, another eastern Syrian city, but were driven out by ISIS during clashes in January 2014. They consist of a ragtag band of Arab and also Kurdish fighters who are eager to go back to their home towns. Holding up a Kalashnikov, local FSA commander Abu Isa ar-Raqqawi says, “We were forced to hold this weapon, it was not our will.”
Their flight from ISIS put these FSA fighters in the territory of an unlikely ally. Previously they had fought against the YPG and accused it of links to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Unlike the FSA, the multi-ethnic but mainly Kurdish YPG force has dozens of years of experience fighting the well-equipped Turkish army as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) established in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, who is now held in an island prison near Istanbul. Until shortly before his capture in 1999, Ocalan had been able to operate out of Syrian territory with the cooperation of Hafiz al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor as dictator. So mistrust by other anti-Assad fighters today has deep roots. [Continue reading…]