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Syrian Kurds now say they now control territory the size of Qatar and Kuwait combined

rtr4ro7bKurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters stand with their weapons in Tel Hamis in Hasaka countryside March 1, 2015.

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A Kurdish militia that has captured swathes of northern Syria from Islamic State has signed up thousands of fighters in recent months as it seeks to tighten control over newly won territory.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has been fighting Islamic State with U.S.-led air support, says it now controls territory the size of Qatar and Kuwait combined.

YPG spokesman Redur Xelil, speaking to Reuters, said the YPG had drawn 5,000 new recruits, growing to 40,000 fighters. After a period of rapid territorial gains, the priority was to strengthen defensive positions in newly captured land.

“This is the priority now but this does not mean there are no plans to hit Daesh in places near the front lines,” Xelil said, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State group also known as ISIS and ISIL. “Attack is the best form of defense.”

The YPG has doubled the amount of territory it controls between the Euphrates river and the Syrian border with Iraq to 21,000 square kilometers (8,000 square miles) this year, Xelil said. It also controls an area of the northwest known as Afrin, and parts of Aleppo.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war using its own sources, said the YPG had grown by 4,000-5,000 fighters in the last three months, though it gave a bigger estimate for the militia’s overall size at more than 50,000.

Turkey’s concern about the expansion of Kurdish influence in northern Syria is seen as a major factor behind its new plan to help Syrian rebels seize Islamic State’s last remaining zone of control at the Turkish border in an area north of Aleppo.

The autonomous Kurdish administration in northern Syria is deeply suspicious of the Turkish plan, believing its primary aim is to contain the YPG and stop Afrin being joined to the expanding zone of Kurdish controlled territory further east.

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