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The anti-ISIS militias of Iraq and Syria

The fall of Iraq’s second largest city Mosul into the hands of extremist group the Islamic State (ISIS) last summer caught the world’s attention. The defence of a 1,000 kilometre long frontline by the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in the following months became daily news. But the Kurdish Peshmerga are just one of several armed groups that are battling ISIS in Iraq, while in the neighbouring province of Hasakah in Syria, several other groups have been holding back the advancing tide of the ISIS extremists.


People’s Protection Units (YPG)

The YPG is the male faction of the biggest Kurdish armed force in Syria. Made famous by their staunch defence of the Syrian border town of Kobani, the YPG also fight in the Hasakah province and Aleppo. The YPG, along with their female counterparts, the YPJ, term the northern Kurdish regions of Syria Rojava, and are looking to form an autonomous Kurdish region in parts of the north. The YPG has fought against ISIS, Al-Nusra Front, and the Syrian regime. They have now agreed to a truce with the Syrian regime in the Syrian town of Qamishli where the town remains divided between both groups.

Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)

The female counterpart of the YPG, the YPJ hold defensive positions in the Hasakah province.

Rojava Reservist Force

Formed at the turn of the year, this reservist force in Rojava, is a mainly Kurdish volunteer force being trained in the Hasakah province, Syria. The volunteers are equipped for both trench warfare and close-combat street fighting, and are regarded as a reserve force ready to pick up weapons if ISIS ever manages to breach Kurdish towns and cities currently under YPG control.

Shammar Tribe

Comprising of 3,000 armed members of the Shammar Bedouin tribe, the Shammar militia aligns itself with the Kurdish YPG force in Syria’s Hasakah province. The militia formed after ISIS took control of Shammar territory in Hasakah. While some members of the Shammar joined ISIS when the territory was seized, they quickly switched allegiance when it was announced that a Shammar militia force would be created.

Syriac Military Council (MFS)

Founded by a former commander of the Swiss Army, Johan Coser, the MFS is an Assyrian militia of 700 fighters based in the Hasakah province, Syria. Formed as a defence force for the ancient Assyrian ethnicity in the region – who have been targeted by ISIS due to their Christian faith – the MFS has fought in significant battles in Tel Hamis, Syria, and in Sinjar, Iraq. Fighting alongside the Kurdish YPG, the MFS believes that by having a separate Assyrian force fighting in the Syrian civil war, the bargaining position for the minority will be increased in any discussion about the future of the Hasakah province.


Makhmour Volunteer Force

The town of Makhmour has become the scene of some of the most intense fighting over the past year, holding a strategically important position in the defence of the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil. As such, the town has been attacked frequently by ISIS militants. Last year, Makhmour was overrun by ISIS, however within days the self-proclaimed caliphate was forced out of the town by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters as well as armed volunteers from the town. These armed volunteers, whose ages range from 18 to 70, organised themselves, and in the immediate aftermath patrolled the outskirts of the town, helping to push ISIS back further. The Makhmour Volunteer Force continues to work and fight alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the area.

Dweikh Nawsha

Dweikh Nawsha is an armed Assyrian Christian group based in Iraq’s Nineveh plains. The group formed in response to the ISIS takeover of several Christian towns and villages around the city of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The fighters of Dwekh Nawsha, many of whom have been internally displaced, mainly carry out security duties around Christian settlements in the Nineveh under the direction of the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)

The PKK, best known for its military actions against the Turkish state, is a Kurdish armed group that has its base in Qandil Mountains, northern Iraq. The gender-mixed PKK helped in the formation and training of the YPG/YPJ in Syria, and fights alongside their Syrian-Kurdish counterparts in Syria and parts of Iraq.

Sinjar Resistence Units (YBS)

As Sinjar and the surrounding area came under attack from ISIS militants in August 2014, Sinjar’s majority Yazidi population ran in fear – thousands were killed and captured. Those that managed to escape fled to Mount Sinjar. From there, the beginning of the YBS was formed – an all Yazidi militia that defended the displaced on the mountain from the advancing militants. The YBS, trained by Kurdish YPG and PKK fighters, continues to be involved in intense battles with ISIS in the streets of Sinjar city below their mountain base. Numbering around 700 members, mainly young men and women, the Yazidi militia says it is the beginning of a permanent defence force for the ethno-religious group in Iraq.

Photos by: Abed Al-Qaisi

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