Barcham Zana knows her enemy. It is the Islamic State, which she calls “darkness.” Islamic State militants killed two cousins, she said. For her, the group is not an abstract threat. The 20-year-old spoke through a Syrian interpreter at a rudimentary training camp surrounded by golden waves of wheat in northern Syria. Zana and other young fighters had just finished target practice with AK-47s on a firing range encircled by earthen berms. The nearest front line fighting was about 50 miles away.
Zana is a member of the YPJ, a predominantly Kurdish women’s militia. She and her commander, Nujin Dirik, say they are dedicated to the cause. They also reflect the ethnic and other complexities facing the U.S. military in developing a network of local Syria forces to defeat IS. American military advisers work with Zana and other Syrian volunteers — mostly Arab men — who have taken up arms against what they see as a scourge on their country and a threat to their families.
The Americans said the number of Arab volunteers surged this spring, following battlefield gains against IS. That success triggered a recruiting boom, with more local Arabs seeking to join than could be accommodated, the Americans said.