On the Lonely Iraq-Syria Border, Snipers Battle for a Strategic Road
A first-person account
This story originally appeared on Oct. 1, 2014.
I don my helmet and scoot onto the rooftop with the Kurdish fighters, all of us keeping low to avoid forming silhouettes.
Because silhouettes are targets—and there are Islamic State snipers out there, somewhere in Rabia, the nearby Iraqi town just across the Iraq-Syria border.
A sniper from the Kurdish-Syrian YPG militia settles into a fortified fighting position with his enormous precision rifle, and carefully takes aim.
We’re in the town of Al Yarubiyah on the Syrian side of the border. It’s September, many months into the Kurds’ seesaw war with Islamic State militants, who have captured much of eastern Syria and have also infiltrated northwestern Iraq.
In towns like Al Yarubiyah and Rabia up and down the Iraqi and Syrian frontiers, Kurdish militia and Islamist fighters stalk each other with high-powered rifles from sandbagged rooftops.
It’s a tense, terrifying way of war—and I’m here to experience it firsthand.
The YPG sniper slowly squeezes his trigger. With a violent blast, he sends a lethal round lancing toward a militant position hundreds of yards away.
And then we run.
Pock-marked by bullets, a sign near the Syrian border town of Al Yarubiyah thanks people for visiting Syria’s Hasakah Governate. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Rabia lies on the Iraqi side of the Iraq-Syria border, right across from Al Yarubiyah. Islamic State captured both towns in August.
The road through Al Yarubiyah and Rabia could have been a useful supply route for the militants as they pushed deeper into Iraq. The road skirts Mount Sinjar and leads directly to Mosul, the militants’ main stronghold in northern Iraq.
But the Syrian-Kurdish YPG—Yekîneyên Parastina Gel in Kurdish, meaning “People’s Protection Units”—retook Al Yarubiyah and successfully defended the road.
Now the democratic militia, which has battled the Islamists and the brutal regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, is fighting its way across the border into Rabia. The YPG has managed to push two kilometers into the town.
The fighting has been bitter.
B’sher, a local journalist and my fixer, takes us from the Syrian Kurdish town of Derike to a YPG base just outside Al Yarubiyah. We want permission to enter the town itself.
This is the first time I have come in contact with the YPG and the affiliated YPJ, the all-women wing of the YPG.
Straightaway I’m struck by how professional the Kurdish fighters are. Their weapons are clean. The fighters look battle-ready. Scanning the base, I catch glimpses of the improvised weapons that the YPG and their allies in the Free Syrian Army are famous for.
In the beginning these weapons were pretty rudimentary—vehicles with steel plates welded to their sides, for instance. Sometimes the Western media poke fun at their crudeness. But the large mortar I spot at the Al Yarubiyah base looks pretty sophisticated.
The YPG’s weaponry has gotten better with trial and error. B’sher tells me that the YPG now even produces its own tanks in a dedicated factory.
Our driver takes us to a nearby tower block. We grab our body armor and helmets and run inside. There are Islamic State snipers out there. We weave past ammunition boxes piled high in the hallway.
We ascend the stairs, passing various YPG and YPJ fighters on the way. Our destination is the rooftop sniper position. At the top of the stairwell, next to a door that opens onto the roof, a homemade 12.7-millimeter sniper rifle leans against the wall.
The YPG sniper rifle. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
One of the fighters in the stairwell asks where I am from. He speaks in unaccented English. He says he was born in North London and has been with the YPG for four years.
B’sher and I don our helmets and hurry onto the roof, keeping low.
Outside, a young YPG sniper hunkers behind a wall reinforced with sandbags. His rifle is also homemade. It fires massive 14.5-millimeter rounds.
“The 14.5-millimeter rounds are too big,” the London fighter explains. “We cannot carry as many rounds. The 12.7-millimeter is more useful for sniping. More manageable.”
“When we are on the roof firing, every shot sends up dust from the muzzle blast,” he continues. “Often, we receive incoming fire in an attempt to suppress our snipers.”
Islamist attacks are frequent.
“Two days ago there was an attack by ISIS,” the British fighter recalls, using one of the many acronyms for Islamic State. “They used two cars packed with explosives but we stopped both of them before they could get to us.”
“The attack came very close,” he says.
He explains that Islamic State has heavily fortified their lines with buried bombs and booby-traps. “One of our fighters tried to pick up a mine the other day and there was another underneath,” the fighter says. “It was made so that the release of pressure would set it off.”
As the sniper prepares to fire at a target, I notice the brickwork to the left of him. A large divot is visible with a smaller hole inside it—a sign that the other side also has heavy-caliber rifles that can penetrate brick.
The rooftop YPG sniper. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The fighters tell us that as soon as the sniper fires, we need to move back into the stairwell. The snipers often attract incoming fire from the other side.
Taking careful aim through his telescopic sight, the sharpshooter slowly squeezes the trigger.
A huge boom—and the rifle bucks and kicks up a cloud of dust. We dodge back into the relative safety of the doorway. But this time there’s no return fire.
Inside, a fighter named Azad greets me. He gestures at the wall opposite the door to the roof. “Sometimes they fire through the door,” he says in English, pointing at two bullet holes in the masonry.
As the report of another outgoing round echoes in the stairwell, I ask Azad what the sniper is shooting at. He says they are suppressing Islamic State’s own sniper positions.
Azad, too says he prefers the 12.7-millimeter rifle over the 14.5-millimeter weapon.
We run outside and to a nearby building, heading upstairs to a room where several YPG and YPJ fighters are relaxing. Weapons lean against the walls. A Kurdish news channel shows footage of the fighting in Kobane, a town on the border with Turkey that Islamic State recently surrounded.
A YPG fighter watching TV. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The English teacher
As B’sher leaves to speak to a local commander and ask for permission for us to move forward, I sit down on a sofa. Azad sits next to me. He tells me in his soft voice that before he joined the YPG, he was an English teacher. As we chat, sniper fire from the roof booms through the building.
“The ISIS inside Rabia are not a large force,” Azad says. “They have suffered a lot of air strikes in other places and are busy fighting in other places. They are here to make sure we stay where we are.”
He says it took around 12 days to retake a small part of Rabia from militants. The fighting never let up after that.
“When they attacked us the other day, there were bullets coming from every direction,” he says. “At that time we had few fighters here, just a small force. But we were able to fight them off until our reinforcements arrived.”
He says that any time the militants got a glimpse of the YPG fighters, they fired. “During the attack, I was firing at as many as five different targets at once using the 14.5-millimeter rifle,” he recalls. “A lot of them were around two kilometers away. We did not need to search for targets, but could not see if we hit them.”
He says that the 14.5-millimeter rounds easily punch through walls—sometimes penetrating more than one and slicing right through buildings. The militants positions are heavily fortified. And the Islamists have lots of hardware.
The YPG used this tower as an observation post. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
“The Islamic State [fighters] have one tank in the city at the moment, but they have many prepared positions for it,” Azad explains. “They fire once and then it moves.”
He points to a tower outside the window that was once a YPG observation post. “When ISIS had more tanks in the city, it was hit seven times.”
He says he thinks the attack was a show of strength by Islamic State, and that the militants intended to keep the YPG tied up in Al Yarubiyah. “This place belonged to the Syrian army, after that ISIS and then the YPG,” he says of the room we’re sitting in. He motions at the other fighters lounging around. “These guys are all snipers.”
We drink tea, talk politics and then B’sher shows up. We say our goodbyes. B’sher asks me to follow him.
We sprint from building to building until we reach the Syrian side of the border. A sign welcomes us. “Syria Thanks Your Visit.”
Sprinting across the Syrian border toward Rabia. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
We are now in Rabia. A dust storm rolls in, cloaking the battered buildings of both towns and at times restricting our visibility to a couple hundred yards.
Emerging from behind a building, we find ourselves behind a large section of a blast wall. Two pickup trucks mount heavy machine guns that point toward Islamic State’s lines. YPG fighters wait by the trucks, ready to man their weapons at a moment’s notice.
Empty ammunition boxes and spent bullet casings litter the ground around the vehicles.
We are at one of the support-weapons lines that provide covering fire for the troops at the front. The support crews’ job is to send suppressing fire over the heads of the guys who are in direct contact with Islamic State insurgents a few hundred yards from where we stand.
We sit behind the blast wall and listen as sporadic heavy machine gun fire breaks out. We can hear the crack of rounds passing over our heads.
YPG authorities tells us we can have two hours in the town—but we must wait for permission to go forward to the front line. If we go at all, it’ll have to be before late afternoon, when the insurgents typically start firing at the YPG positions.
A YPG gun truck. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The attack the other day—the one involving suicide vehicles—took place slightly farther down the road from where we wait. A large crater, not visible from where we sit, testifies to the fate of one of the militants’ vehicles.
The YPG shows us a photo of a disabled armored car that also took part in the attack. The YPG shot it up before it got too close.
The wind picks up, everyone squints against the dust swirling around us as we head to a nearby building for tea. There we meet Mazloum, a friend of our interpreter.
Mazloum is a YPG combat photographer. He shoots photos and video for YPG press releases. We discuss cameras and crack jokes as we drink our tea.
Graffiti covers the buildings here. Jokes between fighters, YPG slogans, tributes to the dead. Rifles lean against walls. Otherwise, the fighters carry very little with them. They must be ready to move quickly.
Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Several long bursts of machine gun fire rattle outside. We run out to the blast wall. Now we hear the scream of an incoming mortar. Everyone spreads themselves in the dust. But the bomb detonates elsewhere in the line and we get up grinning, brushing bits of Iraq from our clothing.
We’d wanted to move forward to a prominent YPG position, but word comes down that it’s too dangerous to advance.
The gunfire intensifies. We climb to the roof of the building where we had tea. Two female YPJ fighters offer us seats on a couch they have up there.
In front of the couch are two very battered coffee tables covered in equipment and ammunition. A PKM machine gun leans against a wall next to a Dragunov sniper rifle and a Kalashnikov assault rifle. There’s an RPG on one sire plus rocket motors and warheads stashed neatly in a bag hanging from the roof.
Fighters look out over Islamic State positions. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The women here are constantly on watch. At all times, at least one of them is peering through the firing holes in the wall. They point out Islamic State’s black flag flying from the tops of two distant buildings.
I peer through the hole and see damaged buildings. There’s a damaged mosque and a house with gaping holes in its roof and walls. Later, Azad tells me there are Islamist snipers in the house.
One of the YPJ fighters grabs the Dragunov sniper rifle. Apparently, she’s seen something.
Something that could be an Islamic State sniper changing position. We peek around the corner to see her crouched low, making sure none of her body protrudes above the sandbag revetment. She kneels back with just the barrel of her rifle inside the firing hole.
The YPJ sniper prepares to fire. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
She stares through the scope—taking her time keeping the target in her sights—and slowly moves her right hand up to the safety catch. With a steady movement and a metallic snick, the rifle is ready to fire.
Her finger rests lightly on the trigger. Slowly, she takes up the slack until the rifle fires. Still looking through the scope, she re-applies the safety catch. The other YPJ fighter joins her and they use a pair of binoculars to check the target area.
Whatever the sniper saw … doesn’t move again.
Her face is emotionless. She displays no pleasure. Just doing her job.
We’ve overstayed our two-hour welcome and we should go back. But then a machine gun fires several long bursts nearby.
Again, we seek cover behind the blast wall. Gunners climb onto the two gun trucks, cock their weapons and scan for targets. They pass a radio back and forth, conferring with their commanders.
After a few minutes, the shooting dies down—just a few pops of rifles. The dust in the air grows thicker. A fighter brings around some apples.
Mazloum moves behind cover. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
We’re chewing on the fruit when the militants lob another mortar round and we all hug the ground—still eating our apples. The mortar round impacts elsewhere. The order for the gunners to fire never comes. They stand down.
We run through the sandstorm back the way we came, pausing only long enough to take a group picture with some Asayish intelligence troops manning a hut on the Syrian side of the border—at their insistence, of course.
We arrive back at the original building block, soaked in sweat. As we rest in the break room, my body armor becomes a source of amusement. The YPG fighters don’t wear armor—not out of choice, really, but because the militia can’t afford it.
Still, the Kurds think I’m insane for carrying around so much weight.
The house. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Azad tells me how his teams operate. The YPG snipers work in pairs—one observer and one shooter—just like in Western armies. The main difference, he says, is that Western snipers carry instruments to help calculate changes in wind and other conditions.
Azad taps the side of his head and says he keeps all of his information “in here.”
As I sort through my pictures, he looks over my shoulder. I stop at a picture of a house. “They often fire from there,” Azad says. “I have shot at it often.”
“From inside the house?” I ask him.
“Mostly no,” he replies. “They fire from beyond the house. They usually make sure there are obstacles between us and them. They shoot through, under and between several things to hide the flash from their guns and the dust they kick up. Just like we do.”
Lightning crackles in the sandstorm outside as I head to bed.
Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Gunfire occasionally chatters and mortars thump as I doze off.
Early the next morning, B’sher tells us we must leave. He says that there are signs of an imminent attack. We say our goodbyes to the snipers.
It’s not until we get back to the relative safety of Derike that B’sher confides in me. “Last night, Mazloum was on the roof of our building,” he says. “He was shot and killed by a sniper.”
After we left, Islamic State launched a massive offensive against the YPG positions in Rabia. The militants also executed several Arab villagers in the area, after they learned that the villagers had been secretly helping the Kurds gather intelligence on Islamic State positions.
Two days later, the news broke in Kurdish media that Kurdish forces had taken Rabia and Islamic State had fled. The combined might of the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi army, the YPG and American and British air strikes had driven the Islamists from the town.