In the middle of March 2017, after months of talking on and off to various people affiliated with the YPJ (the Women’s Protection Units, or Yekîneyên Parastina Jin, the all-female Kurdish fighting force that forms a large part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF), I spent a morning talking to Kimmie Taylor, who had recently become known as the first British woman involved in the fight against Isis. The interview took place at a pivotal moment in the eventual fall of Isis’s “caliphate” – the group, which once controlled an area the size of Great Britain, still held huge tracts of land in Syria and Iraq but the SDF were close to surrounding Raqqa and eventually took the city in mid-October 2017. In Iraq meanwhile, the Iraqi army/coalition-led campaign to expel Isis from Mosul, by far the largest city they ever held in either country, was at a more advanced stage – the extremists were already penned in to an area in the west of the city and were defeated there in mid-July 2017.
When I spoke to her Taylor was in the town of Jezra, a couple of kilometres from the frontline as the SDF forced Isis to retreat up the Euphrates towards Raqqa. Eighteen months on and Isis is down to its last major territorial redoubt in Syria: a small strip of land (the “Hajin pocket”) in the southwest by the border with Iraq. The SDF and coalition’s push to take this area (“Operation Roundup”) has been fully under way for around two weeks, but a gruelling fight is expected given that the area is the last refuge of Isis’s hardcore fighters.
Circumstances got in the way of me turning the interview into a piece at the time but as the end of Isis’s territorial control in Syria nears, it seems a good moment to read about the day-to-day experiences of the people who have done the most to defeat them and the socialist/feminist/ecological ideas that drive them, and reflect on the heartening fact that one of the world’s most backward ideologies has been been routed by one of its most progressive. Taylor had to head back to the front before we had the chance to discuss Turkey’s incursions (now full-scale occupation) in Afrin in Kurdish northern Syria, and a lot of other things I wanted to ask her about, but the conversation was fascinating while it lasted.
Taylor has been quiet on social media since February of this year – when I asked the Kurdish Female Fighters Facebook group about her whereabouts they told me that “due to the safety, we can not share any info about our YPJ, YPG's volunteers unless they do share themselves”.
Kit Macdonald: So, the story of why and how you travelled to Syria and joined the YPJ has obviously been told already so I'm thinking that this should be you talking about your experiences in the month or so since your story came out and also a bit about Turkey's incursions/occupation of Rojava. I'm not sure how specific you are able to be about geography, so my "where are you now?" question may have to be reframed as how close to Raqqa are you now?
Kimmie Taylor: I'm 2km from the frontline right now (for internet reasons lol) which is in Jezra town on the banks of the Euphrates river. We have a few km left until Raqqa is completely surrounded. We are on one side and other friends are coming from Tabqa dam. So this gap should be closed soon. I can't say much about dates and distances though coz it might compromise the war effort
KM: Of course, yes
KT: But we are close to finishing surrounding it
KM: I'm just looking at a map to see where the places you just mentioned are. Have you been involved in the effort to cut the supply road between Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor? What have you been encountering in terms of resistance?
KT: There is a "Syrian Civil War Map" that you can google – it's updated by the YPG so that's public domain, and yes, this is the part of the offensive that i've been involved in. Until about 10 days ago there was almost no resistance in this third step of the operation. Daesh (Isis) deserted the villages we were taking, a few stayed behind to fight but mostly we took all the villages without any resistance. When we saw any enemy locations, the airstrikes took care of that, so when we went in on foot there were no Daesh left to fight.
But in Jezra town we have seen much more resistance. It's a big town and this is the first time we have got to the Euphrates. We've had about seven friends injured and died before they could get treated in the week or so we've been in Jezra. But now we see many Daesh houses of the rich, important members – they all left but the young unimportant members of Daesh stayed to fight
KM: Do you think a lot of fighters who previously fled villages as you took them headed for Jezra and fought there?
KT: No i think they've gone to Raqqa city or Deir Ez-Zor. I don't know why they run. It makes no sense. Once we've surrounded Raqqa they can never succeed. It's baffling. But we can't know what their ideas were until we see Raqqa or the end of it and have perspective
KM: Have you been inside any of those rich members' houses?
KT: Yes we take their houses and use them for living and as coordination centres for the offensive. I'm in one now – they are such nice houses, like mansions with gardens, swimming pools...
KM: Wow, yes I've heard this, are they like really nice houses in Europe or the US?
KT: Yeah more like rich houses in America, like over the top nice
KM: That's crazy, they have no taste I bet haha
KT: I know right. They do! Although take into consideration it's their wives that keep the houses and the gardens well-kept
KM: Really? Hah! I was visualising big marble lions and suchlike
KT: Haha, no, stone-tiled floors and walls, fancy doors and bathrooms and nice toilets. It's hard to compare because I'm used to mud houses in Rojava
KM: This has got to be a pretty surreal moment in the journey for you
KT: I've searched through their houses too looking for anything interesting. Didn't find much, maybe they take important things with them. There are photos and clothes, that's it. I also went in a Daesh tunnel, which is a cool story
KM: Wow, go on
KT: Next to Jezra town it's all desert that we've been coming through and right next to the town there are some desert hills. I was on one of them. Daesh had been there before but left it before we got there. They had dug tunnels – enough room to stand up straight and walk easily
KM: Were they tunnels that led somewhere or to shelter from air strikes?
KT: It was like mud houses inside, you know like the density of the walls. There were several paths inside and exits and even a larger area carved out for sleeping and another area with a toilet and a kind of sewage system underneath. But I don’t understand how they made it coz outside its all sand desert. So how did they carve strong tunnels inside?
KM: i was going to say, how does that even work?
KT: Ask an architect how that works coz i have no idea
KM: Trucking top-end mud in from Raqqa or something
KT: So weird
KM: Have you met many Daesh prisoners face-to-face? How would you characterise them if so?
KT: No I've not, we caught some but i was not there
KM: What do your friends who were there say about what they're like when they're caught?
KT: They were crying, some of them in their 20s some in their 40s
KM: Do you know if they were voluntary fighters or forced conscripts? or a mix?
KT: I guess they'd claim to be whatever would make them seem more sympathetic. I don't know if they were forced or volunteers but as far as i'm concerned they all volunteer – if you're willing to give up any human morals, rape women and girls, cut heads off etc then nothing excuses that
KM: Is everything we hear about Daesh fighters from the YPJ (that they're easy to kill, that they're terrified of being killed by a woman, etc) true in your experience?
KT: I don't know, it's a tricky one. They want to kill women more than men, so they try harder
KM: Really? Why's that?
KT: I guess bcoz they hate us and what we are doing and stand for – to them women should be without a voice or thoughts, a possession of men, and that's it. And we are the opposite of that
KM: So YPJ are like the ultimate target for them?
KT: We aren't only fighting them but building a society where women are at the forefront. We are recreating society at every level. Knowing that the justice system, education system, political system etc were all created with patriarchal values and to keep women as less than men. It kills them to see women like this – they hate us more than they hate the capitalist West, so yes, YPJ women are the ultimate target along with foreigners coz its good for their propaganda. So I guess a foreign YPJ like me is even worse for them haha
On them being easy to kill – that's a tricky one. It seems they haven't learned in years of war to be quiet before they attack. They always shout "allahu akbar" or "takbir" before they shoot or attack, so that helps us
KM: Jeez, that seems pretty basic
KT: Haha right. They are good at sizmas, which is a guerilla tactic they learned from us doing it to them. We sneak up to where they live, in their controlled areas – you have to be really really careful to not be heard or seen – then you get in their room and shoot them all. They learned it from us and do that now but they blow themselves up. If our guard at that time doesn't see then they manage to kill a lot of friends. When we were attacked on my base a few weeks ago they also attacked another base close by. They did a sizma and one of them got in a room where four friends were sleeping, he blew himself up and all four friends died. Its really difficult to stop a sizma
KM: Their snipers also seem well-trained
KT: Yes they have good snipers and the snipers have an advantage now coz they are on the defensive. So they already know and control the right places high up and place snipers there when we attack. But otherwise the normal fighters on the ground are rubbish at fighting
KM: Yes they always just seem like inept cannon fodder
KT: The special thing between them and us and even other state armies is what we are fighting for. Daesh fight to die, armies fight to control. Their soldiers fight under orders and don't understand the truth behind the politics. Whereas we are fighting for life. For our lives, for the protection of our civilians, and to give life to others who are under Daesh control. And every one of our fighters understands these ideas, the true politics behind it all, and the politics of the world and systems. For this reason we fight with ethics and morals different to anybody else, not to just give physical life but because our social and political revolution gives real life away from political authority, control and oppression where people lead their lives in a human way. Not with competition on each other but to create a society where everyone can live well
KM: Are the Kurdish YPJ members you know generally aware of what an inspiration they are to many people in the “West”?
KT: Yes. They understand the systems in the world too, but because they haven't seen it with their own eyes, they don't understand how difficult it is to turn inspiration into practice. The West and activists there shout in support of Rojava. At the same time their governments sign huge arms deals with Turkey. The activists just continue shouting and that's it. Just shouting doesn't help enough, just saying that you support it doesn't help. People need to learn about our values and our revolution and start practicing it themselves. Radical socialism this way can't survive in one country. It needs to spread to make world powers obsolete so we don't have to rely on world powers to accept us or help us in any way and we can instead share and trade and support each other coz we have common goals as people and societies.
But for this reason they also feel isolated – we see that governments won't send us weapons to appease Turkey. Many of us don't even have grenades, never mind enough heavy weapons or new weapons that don't jam or have sights on them. We hear of support from the West from activists but it doesn't [translate into practical help]. Very few activists actually come here to support, not just YPJ/YPG but the civil society work too. Governments lie when they say they support us – they won't give us weapons because, again: Turkey. They say we are their allies in the fight against Turkey but know well that Turkey is determined to stop us at any cost – they refuse to accept our federation or the YPG/SDF as a force
KM: Where do most of the weapons you do have come from? Any one source?
KT: They are all old weapons from Soviet times made in Russia, Bulgaria, Romania. Some are also from the Syrian regime. The only new things we've been given by the West are tablets to send them coordinates [for airstrikes]. They even play with the airstrikes – many days they just don't answer when we are calling for strikes. I think they are playing games by doing this, to show that we need them and who's boss. To show that we don't have their unconditional support. So we feel isolated in every way. We don't want to rely on states but we have to. We have to compromise and make deals with those who oppose us and sell us out and could turn on us at any minute. And with the people of the West we know it's another fight to get their support to turn into action and practice. We know how strong the propaganda of the establishment is – films, TV, music, fake culture, political games – they all make people feel numb and helpless. It's a fight to get our messages out
KM: Do you think [coalition states] will just turn on you completely when Daesh have been dealt with?
KT: I imagine they will turn on us at some point but hopefully this new backlash against Erdogan, like in the Netherlands etc, will bring up more questions and other states will recognise us as the only democratic area and force in the region. I think when Raqqa is finished they'll say Daesh is finished, which won't be true
KM: You think they'll continue as an insurgency and not collapse totally?
KT: They aren't doing it to free the people from Daesh control like we are. They're doing it for their own political interests and to take away Daesh's power. Daesh is an ideology not just a force, and after Raqqa they'll still have a lot of Syria under their control if we or the regime don't take that too. The western powers won't care about that coz Daesh won't be a threat to them after Raqqa, they'll just leave the people to continue suffering under Daesh. i guess they'll just concentrate on stopping Daesh attacks in the West after that. But yeah after Raqqa liberation it doesn't mean that the ideology of Daesh has gone, it can just form into another group with a different idea, and that's where we come in. We have an ideology that opposes Daesh and a system that educates people properly on the way to live peacefully. It's a type of opposition that western powers don't have – they want to impose capitalism.
Daesh's ideology opposes capitalism and that's why so many people joined from around the world especially from countries that make Muslims feel isolated and used by the capitalist system. Our ideology is the alternative to both Islamism and capitalism and we teach that. The liberation of Raqqa alone won't free the people, education our way will. This is what will finish Daesh, not war. War is just necessary
KM: What do people around you think will happen in Raqqa once Daesh are ousted? Do they anticipate more war for control of it eventually or something relatively peaceful?
KT: No war will be needed in Raqqa when it's liberated by us – we'll control it militarily and then build up the society through institutions with the locals heading them once they've had education
KM: Won't Assad try to take it back from the SDF at some point?
KT: They might want to but its a political decision. They can't just war it out ... well they could, but we want peace agreements, not war. So there'll be elections. If the people there vote for Assad then they'll have a presence
KM: I know your job is in YPJ media – how much time is spent doing that and how much time is spent fighting?
KT: I left the media team because I realised it wasn't needed to get the audience i desired. I do reports and interviews with the media here and outside that has a much bigger audience than i can achieve alone or even just with YPJ. So i am continuing doing this type of media but not my own. I rejoined the Raqqa front just as a fighter. This way i get the full experience of a normal fighter and life in the YPJ on the Raqqa front as opposed to moving around in the media team and seeing things on a shallower basis. My experience now is fuller and I can respond to outside media in a better way about the messages we want to get out about the war effort and the ideology of the revolution here
KM: Are there many other foreign volunteers with you or is your unit mostly Kurdish?
KT: All of my unit is Kurdish and Arab. But I see other foreign volunteers here on the Raqqa front – there are four British men, two American men and a Swedish-Kurdish man