The following is an interview NOW conducted with Abu Saif, the field commander of Raqqa's Revolutionaries Brigades, which is now stationed in Kobane, fighting alongside the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militias of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syrian Kurdistan. Although not much-discussed in the international press coverage of Kobane, the FSA’s participation in this anti-ISIS campaign illuminates just how isolated indigenous Syrian forces are in combating a transnational terrorist army.
(Note: ISIS is referred to throughout this interview by its widely used epithet, Daesh.)
NOW: How many men did you have in Kobane fighting alongside YPG militias?
Abu Saif: We had 1,250, but now the force is down to 300 only.
NOW: And why did they leave?
Abu Saif: When we withdrew from Raqqa, after Daesh overtook the city, and went to Kobane, we were a force of about 1,250 fighters. Unfortunately, we had to turn away a lot of these guys because we could not feed them or provide them with ammunition. So we sent some of them across the border to Turkey to take jobs there.
NOW: Why haven't we seen more about the role you're playing in Kobane?
Abu Saif: The PR capacity of the Revolutionary Brigades is not that great. However, more importantly, we think of this battle -- we're not just fighting there to support the Kurds. This is also Syrian land, regardless of who populates that city, and it's being attacked by Daesh. So it is our duty to defend it. We also had a more conservative approach to Daesh. We did not pay a lot of attention to the media aspect because, as you know, a lot of people have turned that into a business. They'd carry out an operation, film it, and upload it to YouTube to receive assistance. We don't engage in that as often as other groups. We only advertise some of our operations, but it's not done in a very organized fashion.
[After this interview was conducted, Abu Saif sent me the above video, purportedly showing Raqqa’s Revolutionaries Brigades' operations in Kobane.]
NOW: In the past, the FSA has fought the YPG, often alongside Daesh. Is this cooperation with the Kurds just a tactical maneuver, or can you envision a long-term strategic partnership?
Abu Saif: Initially, we started out actually fighting against the YPG or the PYD, and then when Daesh moved on Raqqa, we stopped fighting against the YPG and shifted into fighting Daesh. Then Daesh pushed us out of Raqqa and we had to withdraw from the city and into the northern suburbs of Raqqa, which are close to Kobane. There was a sort of cease-fire or truce between the FSA and the YPG. Ahrar al-Sham played a role in that cease-fire. And so we were on board with the cease-fire. It was for six months. We reached out to the Kurds and we became friends. Then we withdrew even further into Kobane itself. The YPG were fighting Daesh, so we were forced into an alliance with the YPG. We had nowhere else to go. Daesh were surrounding us on all sides, except of course behind us was the YPG. As the Arabic proverb goes, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
NOW: Can you see the YPG joining the FSA, as both Turkey and the United States seem to want?
Abu Saif: I don't think the PYD will give up its identity and bundle itself into the FSA. However, in Kobane, our brigade received an offer from the Kurds to have the PYD to join with them and fight under the FSA banner. This might make it more amenable for the Turks to come to Kobane's rescue. This is still in the negotiations phase, no final decisions have been made.
NOW: You’re in Kobane now. Can you describe conditions in the city? What part is invaded by Daesh, what part is being held by the YPG/FSA?
Abu Saif: The situation right now is quite miserable. Unfortunately, we had to withdraw at least half of our men. In fact, the situation was quite bad even months ago when we were still fighting Daesh in the suburbs of Rae. No one gave us anti-tank weapons. We had RPGs, but Daesh relied on heavily armored vehicles, after the capture of Mosul.
When Daesh pushed against Kobane, the situation became even worse. We asked for assistance, but no one gave us anything. There were no anti-tank weapons. When Daesh breached the defenses and made their way into the city, the fighting became street-to-street. We decided we had to withdraw at least half of our forces to save their lives.
The day before yesterday, Daesh was in control of half of Kobane. However, before we withdrew, we — meaning my brigade and the YPG — planted car bombs, booby-traps and also bombs in some of the houses inside the city itself. So when Daesh took over that portion of the city, there were a number of explosions that came as a surprise to them. Because of that, we were able to push them back to the outskirts of the city. Now they're on the outskirts of Kobane.
NOW: We know why Turkey isn't allowing warms to the PYD, but why aren't they giving you any?
Abu Saif: At the end of the day, any weapons that came to us would benefit the PYD, and the Turks don't want that. I am struggling for words right now. When we were in Raqqa, we used to receive assistance from Turkey. These Kurds are also Syrians, and at the end of the day, they are fighting for their land, their women, their children. It’s not as if we are committing a crime here. The international community must come to our aid.
Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss