Volatile and Vulnerable: Inside Rojava’s Conflict

Photojournalist Stanton Sharpe follows the Free Burma Rangers on mission to Rojava, Syria

Rojava, Syria: The northeastern autonomous region of Syria and one of the final strongholds against ISIS when they were at their peak. Now, many of the cities in Rojava are left in shambles due to years of unrelenting conflict, with buildings half-destroyed, roads eroded by mortar fire, and entire cities peppered with bullet holes. Though the threat of ISIS has been mitigated since the capture of its final stronghold last year, Syria faces a long journey on the road to peace. And as one ISIS threat diminishes in Syria, a new threat to the Syrian people arises in the form of Turkish offenses.

The situation throughout Syria is volatile. On February 28th, Turkey opened its border with Greece, allowing refugees—many of whom were Syrian—to flood into Greece. This was an attempt by the Turkish President Erdoğan to pressure the EU and Nato to support the Turkish offensive in Idlib, Syria. To date, Turkish attacks in northeastern Syria have created over 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Leaders in Iraq are pressuring the US partner force, the Syrian Democractic Forces (SDF), to surrender to and join Assad forces, which could trigger an end to the democratic system in Rojava. In western Syria, conflict over Idlib creates more IDPs each week. Since December, the continual bombing and fighting in Idlib has displaced nearly one million people.

Last month, I accompanied Free Burma Rangers on a mission through Rojava, Syria. Free Burma Rangers is an NGO that gives medical aid and support to oppressed communities in some of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world, including Burma, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. No matter what the mission, they are willing to work on the dangerous fronts where most other NGOs will not. The main goal of this mission in Rojava was to remind the Syrian people that FBR, and more importantly, God, have not forgotten them, and that FBR will continue to be a voice for them on the international stage. Through embodying God’s love, the FBR team could give hope to a people who so desperately need it.

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A gas leak causes an explosion outside of the hospital of the northeastern border town of Ain Issa, Syria. The hospital was used to treat injuries when Turkey launched an offensive on SDF forces there in October and November, 2019.

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An IDP child from Idlib stands in the freezing temperatures in a new IDP camp in Manbij, Syria. The child had arrived in the camp two days earlier and faced the coldest days of the year without proper food, shelter, supplies and clothes to protect himself from the elements.

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The inside of the wreckage of a shelling on the front lines of Kobane, Syria. The building is about 250 meters from the Turkish border.

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A Syriac Military fighter stands guard at an MFS base in Tal Tamer, Syria.

The kind of work is hazardous. But where there is danger and destruction, there is also a need for help and support—and that is where the FBR team does their best work. The FBR team traveled through villages and towns in Rojava and met with different leadership groups like the Syriac Military Council and Raqqa Civil Council. They gave aid to IDPs who escaped from Idlib, supported those displaced by the recent Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria, and even organized and led a visit from Louisiana Congressman Ralph Abraham, who is determined to share with US leadership the real cost of pulling troops out of Northeastern Syria and advocate for the people of Rojava.

It is unclear what the future of Syria holds. What is clear, however, is that we are entering a new era of war in Syria. The threat is no longer just ISIS or Assad’s totalitarian regime. Turkey seems relentless in their pursuit to expand their borders in Syria, supporting extremist Islamist groups and using heavy artillery to fight the regime and SDF forces. The US has pulled out of most areas in northeastern Syria, except for oil fields in the far east of Rojava. And Russian and regime troops are quick to fill the gaps that the American forces have left.

Although the future feels grim, there are small beacons of hope for democracy and freedom in Syria. The SDF continues to fight for a free and safe Rojava. There remains a small number of US forces in Rojava that suggests the US is not ready to completely pull out of Syria. Though hope for peace may seem small and, at times, unobtainable, Dave Eubank of Free Burma Rangers has an idea of how FBR can be a messenger of God’s love and empower the chance of unity in Syria: 

“I think our goal is to follow Jesus and to share his love in Syria, to encourage people to call on God themselves, and to provide any help we can. And then make our observations and recommendations that we hope will affect policy (especially US policy) and encouraging the Americans to stay in Syria—not because we can solve the problems but because the US presence enables the Kurds, the Muslims, the Christians, the Yazidis and others to have a chance at solving the problem.”

FBR believes that the lives of these vulnerable Syrians are just as valuable as American lives—as their own lives—and so they put their lives on the line, side-by-side with the Syrian people, in their struggle against oppression. This is only possible through love—and it is only this love, God’s love working in people’s hearts, that will bring real change in Syria.

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Drying clothes are iced over at the Resem Alakhdar IDP camp in Manbij, Syria. The IDP camp is receiving increasing numbers of IDP’s from Idlib as the violence in Idlib continues to increase.

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A Russian attack helicopter flies over the Resem Alakhdar IDP camp in Manbij, Syria.

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A woman rushes into her new home in the Resem Alakhdar IDP camp. She, like many other IDP’s, arrived at the camp two days prior.

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Snow falls on the newly built homes for Idlib IDP families at the Resem Alakhdar IDP camp.

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A father comforts his son in the cold at an FBR food distribution in Manbij, Syria. The father and son are IDP’s from Idlib who recently fled to Manbij for protection from the violence.

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A US convoy drives through Tal Tamer. At any given time it is possible to see American, Russian, SDF and Syrian Regime troops all operating in the town.

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Ruins from previous fighting in Kobane. Kobane is a very sensitive area that many fear Turkey will launch an attack on in an attempt to take over in the near future.

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Dave Eubank prays with an IDP from Idlb after the FBR team finishes a food and supply distribution for IDP’s in Manbij.

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A combat helmet hangs in one of the FBR armored vehicles as the team drives through Rojava.