Women on opposite sides of Syria war
DAMASCUS - They are well-trained, can handle automatic rifles and big guns and excel in sniping. Um Ali’s Brigade, the First Commando Battalion and the Kurdish units are all-female detachments fighting on opposite sides of the raging Syrian conflict.
In a rare phenomenon in conservative Arab societies, Syrian women have been fighting side-by-side with male counterparts, be it with the Syrian Army and affiliated forces or with opposition groups.
Although women served in the army prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, their role was largely confined to administrative duties or military logistics and supply units. And according to an army officer who asked to be identified as Mohamad, the part played by women in the war has been exaggerated for mere political ends.
“For instance, the opposition groups highlighted the participation of women in the fighting on the side of the regime alleging a shortage in the number of male troops following the desertion or killing of thousands of soldiers. They claimed that the regime had to resort to women to compensate for the losses it had incurred,” Mohamad told The Arab Weekly.
He argued that female participation in the armed opposition was overstated as well “to give the impression that what’s happening in Syria is a real popular revolution encompassing all, including women”.
The First Commando Battalion of the Republican Guards, the main all-female detachment with the Syrian Army, has been deployed in Jobar on the eastern outskirts of Damascus. Yolla, a 23-year-old daughter of a retired army officer recently enrolled in the unit. She said she wanted to help liberate thousands of women and children kidnapped by militias.
“I joined the commando battalion after witnessing the horrors committed in rural Latakia in 2013, when gunmen overran the villages and took away scores of women and children to Ghouta Sharqiya near Damascus,” Yolla said. “I decided to take up arms with the hope of contributing to their liberation.”
Mohamad Sleiman, a retired army general, downplayed the importance of women in the actual fighting. “Women have been enlisting in the army for decades,” he said. “There are thousands of women officers who have graduated from the military academy but they have always operated in the back rows, in the administration and inside military installations.”
However, the Republican Guards Brigade includes 130 women snipers deployed in the outskirts of Damascus. An estimated 3,000 women, ranging in ages from 20-35, operate within the National Defence Forces, a pro-regime unit created during the conflict. They are mainly deployed at military roadblocks and search centres inside relatively safe areas in Damascus, Latakia, Tartus and Sweida.
“These girls are also present on front lines and engage in direct combat. Some have volunteered to transport arms and ammunition, while others handle sniper rifles and sometimes big guns,” said Salem Hassan, a spokesman for the defence forces.
On the side of the rebels, women are also active, especially in Aleppo and Idlib in north Syria, which fall under the control of Jaysh al-Fateh. “Syrian women have joined men in fighting against the regime forces to defend freedom,” commented a media activist in Idlib, identified by his family name, Taleb.
“Syrian women proved to be as courageous as men in conducting warfare aimed at liberating Syria (from the Ba’ath regime). They have participated in actual combat, and I have seen them handle automatic rifles and sometimes heavy weapons easily,” Taleb said in a telephone interview.
However, women fighters with the armed opposition groups are estimated to be not more than 1,000, because of the big supply of male fighters, he explained. “But thousands of females are active in rescue and medical assistance to the wounded and in preparing food for the combatants.”
“Guevara”, a former English teacher nicknamed after the Argentine Marxist revolutionary guerrilla leader Che Guevara, became famous as the “Sniper of Aleppo”. She took up arms against the regime after her two children were killed in an air strike. She has since been “hunting” soldiers on the front line of Saladin. Um Ali’s Brigade is another reputed female fighting group in the battered city. What started as a medical group of seven women developed into an all-female combat unit comprising 60 women specialised in sniping.
“Aleppo women have excelled on the front lines, especially in intelligence work, gathering information on army positions in the part of the city controlled by the regime,” said Mustafa Issa, a former combatant with al-Tawheed Brigade.
Kurdish women fighting with the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the women’s branch of the main Kurdish force, gained recognition as die-hard combatants during the battle of Kobani against the Islamic State (ISIS). “They participated in all types of combat in north Syria,” said journalist Marwan Hami.
“They are front-line combatants who played a major role in confronting ISIS terrorists who had committed massacres against the Kurds, prompting them to assume their responsibility in defending their people and their rights,” Hami said.
ISIS al-Khansa Brigade, which operates in Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital, is the most notorious female unit whose role is limited to intelligence gathering and the monitoring of opposition or criticism of ISIS rule. They also oversee the strict implementation of the group’s Islamic directives and instructions.