Aras's brother, Sores, is head of Rumeilan's police force. He meets us at his new office inside the former Syrian state oil complex, wearing a new police uniform. "Not Assad, but the Islamists are now our biggest enemy," he says. "The Assad regime only oppressed us. The jihadists want to exterminate us."
According to the police commander, the Kurds did not have a choice when they opted for self-governance. "The war created a vacuum. There was no authority," he explains, "What we have on the ground is not separatism, but self-administrative areas. We are just filling up this vacuum. We don't want to separate. We want to get our rights and stay within Syria."
And they have filled this vacuum with alacrity. On the roads through Kurdish territory in Syria, heavily-armed Kurdish defense units (YPG) stand guard over checkpoints every six miles or so. The YPG is the unofficial army of Rojava; most members are local Syrian Kurds, but they have also been joined by Kurds from Iraq and Turkey.
Most of the YPG fighters wear buttons of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of Turkey's Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a staunchly secular Kurdish nationalist organization that has long waged a guerilla war against the Turkish state. As a result, it has been designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.
"We are not a threat to Syria's unity," says Sinam Muhammad, a pro-YPG politician and a member of the Higher Kurdish Council in the town of Qamishli, 30 miles west of Rumeilan.
Nor does Muhammad, one of the top leaders within Rojava, believe that the burgeoning Kurdish movement in Syria is a threat to Turkey. "It is in Turkey's interest to have safe borders," she said. "But until now Turkey is supporting radical fighters, not the Kurds. This I find very strange, because these extremists might turn against Turkey any moment. These Islamists say they want to topple the Assad regime -- but Assad is in the heart of each of them."
At least 40 percent of the YPG fighters are women, and they are organized in units called the YPJ. Kurdish men and women fighters have separate barracks where they prepare for war, but they fight in mixed-gender units on the front lines. Women also command units comprised of men and women throughout the Kurdish areas.
"These al Qaeda guys go crazy when they hear that we are women fighters," says Roshna Akeed, the YPG commander who leads the Kurds on the frontlines of Ras al-Ayn. She notes that the Islamists benefit from thousands of volunteers from Europe and the Middle East, but the imbalance in numbers does not bother her. "Yes, they have quantity," she says. "But they are lousy fighters. They are unorganized. It is easy for us to kill them."
The Kurds, however, have not been successful in beating back the Islamists everywhere. In northern Syrian cities like Aleppo and Raqqa, the Kurds have lost territory. In the countryside around Aleppo, meanwhile, YPG officials say Kurdish towns have been ethnically cleansed by Islamists. Most Kurds in and around Aleppo have fled to the town of Afrin -- which is itself partly surrounded by Islamists and is not connected to the main parts of Kurdish territory.
But at least in Ras al-Ayn, the YPG is winning. On July 17 it kicked al Qaeda-linked groups out of the town. "Kurds and Islamists first both controlled it," remembers YPG spokesman Redur Xelil. "But the Islamists became more and more aggressive. They destroyed places where alcohol was for sale. They started to forbid women to walk on the street without a veil. What kind of revolution is that?"
The Kurdish victory, however, came at a high cost for the town. Most of the civilians of Ras al-Ayn have escaped and now wander the country as refugees. The Sunni Arab population of the town generally went west, to the areas under control of the Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups. The Kurdish civilians of Ras al-Ayn went east, deeper into YPG territory and toward the border with Iraq, where Kurds live in relative safety.
Ras al-Ayn is now a ghost town. Many walls are still covered with Islamist slogans. YPG fighters have erased some of them and added their own: "Kurds and Christians will always be friends" is scrawled next to one church.
During the night, sounds of shooting and shelling between the YPG forces and Jabhat al-Nusra in the neighboring western villages often fills the air. And if there isn't shooting, Ras al-Ayn residents are often woken by the rumble of Turkish tanks.
Everyone is worried about what will happen in this slice of land. Syrian Islamists are concerned that the Kurds will break up Syria and start their own country. Turkey is worried that an independent Kurdistan in Syria will give a new momentum to separatist aspirations among Turkey's own 30 million Kurds. And the Syrian Kurds themselves fear that their tenuous new independence will be obliterated by the powerful forces that surround them. As the United States expands its role in Syria, how it will deal with this war's many complexities remains to be seen.