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Report from Rojava: What the West Owes its Best Ally Against ISIS

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images
A member of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces next to an SDF flag signaling their victory over the Islamic State’s final stronghold of Baghouz, in Deir al-Zour province, Eastern Syria, March 24, 2019

Qamishli, Syria—As the de facto chief negotiator of the liberated region called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, Ilham Ahmed, the Kurdish co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, has much on her mind. In recent months, she has traveled in the US and Europe, negotiating the future of a domain that is home to an estimated 5 to 6 million people, including a substantial portion of Syria’s 6.2 million internally displaced persons, and, now in addition, thousands of families implicated in Islamic State terrorism who are today living in refugee camps. As Ahmed continues delicate talks with the world’s superpowers over the status of this territory, its future is, to a certain degree, in her hands. 

With determination in her eyes and a furrowed brow, her face bears witness to this formidable responsibility. But riding in her black armored utility vehicle through plains lush with green spring grasses and grazing sheep, south toward Deir al-Zour province for the official announcement last month of the defeat of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, Ahmed allowed herself a moment to muse about a lesson from history. In the year 612 BCE, she told me, the Guti, ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia whom Kurds sometimes identify as forebears, banded together with the Medes and other tribes to throw off their oppressor, the Assyrian King Zuhak. 

“All agreed to light the torch of freedom on that day, March 21, the same day we declared the end of battle [against ISIS],” she said, recounting the legend of Nowroz, the Kurdish new year—a celebration of rebirth and renewal that has come to symbolize popular resistance. “At that time, there was a confederation of tribes, in the same way as today there is agreement between Kurds, Arabs, and Syrians over injustice, over oppression,” she went on. “The injustice of ISIS has been defeated by all the groups of this region. We have a confederal agreement. Same circumstances, different dates. Same geography, same results.”

Debbie Bookchin
A crowd of thousands celebrating Nowroz, the Kurdish New Year, in Kobane, Northern Syria, March 21, 2019

Confederation, said Ahmed, is vital to the stability of the Autonomous Administration (commonly known by the acronym NES). The region, which now encompasses one third of Syria and some 30 to 40 percent of its population, is also known more informally as Rojava, from the Kurdish word for West, referring to its location as the western-most part of greater Kurdistan, the ancestral homeland of the Kurds that includes parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. This entity dates from the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2012, when the Kurds began to implement what would become a new form of political organization based on self-governing, confederated communities. “The project,” as the Kurds sometimes refer to this region and its government, has pioneered a pluralistic, multi-ethnic political system—unique in the region—in which Arabs, Syriacs, Turkmens, Kurds, and other ethnic groups share all positions of power and govern their communities autonomously while participating in a broader democratic network. They view their model as the only hope for lasting peace and stability, and seek to work with Damascus to achieve recognition for the NES within a federated Syria.

As I traveled through the region, members of minority communities told me that, for the first time in decades, they were truly collaborating instead of being pitted against each other by the divide-and-rule policies of the dynastic Assad regimes. The Rojava project is based on a vision of economic, political, cultural, gender, and educational equality that they hope will transform Syrian society. Women’s rights, ecological awareness, and grassroots democracy are the three main pillars on which their “social contract” rests. Despite these convictions, NES leaders say that they don’t have the resources to stem a resurgence of ISIS without outside help. Unless the Coalition partners that formed to defeat ISIS including the US, Britain, and other leading nations provide the military, financial, and, above all, diplomatic support necessary to ensure political stability, the Islamic State movement will return in the region and from here, will export its terrorism to the West. 

“If the political problems of Syria are not solved now, then Daesh will come back stronger than ever before,” said Sherwan Darwish, a spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, using the Arabic term for ISIS. “The future is even more dangerous than right now.” The MMC, as it is known, is the military force that began protecting the Manbij region after its liberation from ISIS in August 2016, when Turkey insisted that the Kurdish forces withdraw from the region. Manbij is one of seven cantons that make up the NES. The other six are Afrin, Jazeera (sometimes given as Cizre), Raqqa, Tabqa, Deir al-Zour, and Euphrates, which includes the border town of Kobane. Among the challenges facing Ahmed and her colleagues is that despite holding this large land mass, the NES has no internationally recognized status, hence her busy diplomacy these past months.

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images
Relatives of an SDF fighter killed by an ISIS terrorist attack in Manbij mourning at a burial ceremony in Kobane, Northern Syria, March 27, 2019

Her mission is set against a complicated geopolitical contest for control and influence over Syria, particularly between the Damascus-based regime of Bashar al-Assad and Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. NES officials have their own list of security concerns that apply to their territory: the establishment of ISIS sleeper cells, the continuing spread of jihadist ideology, economic instability, and the need for a legal process and repatriation for imprisoned foreign fighters for ISIS. On top of that, there are daunting humanitarian challenges: the tens of thousands of internally displaced persons living in refugee camps, vast infrastructure needs, and a program of rehabilitation for Syrians who aided ISIS or adapted to its rule in towns that were occupied by the Islamic State before the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed militia of Kurds, Arabs, and Syriacs, fought to reclaim the region.

Neighboring Iraq has become an object lesson in how territorial reconquest can provide a false sense of security. Since “victory” was declared in December 2017, ISIS sleeper cells have launched hundreds of attacks: assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings—some in towns and districts never held by the group. And already, a sleeper cell killed seven Kurdish soldiers at a Manbij checkpoint just days after the official defeat of ISIS in Syria.

Although they face a similar threat of jihadist terrorism and guerrilla tactics, Rojava’s leaders believe their region could become a model for stability in the Middle East—if they can get outside support. Iraq’s centralized government has implemented anti-terror laws that have undermined the capacity of local communities to deal with lesser infractions and has empowered sectarian militias that have aggravated civilian populations with their heavy-handed counter-terrorism operations. In contrast, in Rojava, such communities are encouraged to resolve local matters themselves, using a model they have found successful in which “women’s houses,” started by the influential women’s organization Kongra Star, sort out domestic, family, and economic disputes in communities across the region. This process, more akin to arbitration, prevents tens of thousands of legal proceedings every year. And officials here say that they aim to reintegrate Syrians who cooperated with ISIS, rather than warehouse them in prisons.

Many of the roots—such as tribal chauvinism, religious fundamentalism, economic inequality—that fed the growth of ISIS in Iraq and parts of Syria outside of the NES region, are largely absent in Rojava, officials argue. But to ensure that those elements don’t surface, Ahmed said, “We need an organized campaign against the cult of ISIS. This will require personnel, financial and material support.” First of all, she said, the Coalition should use its influence in Iraq to end that country’s embargo that has starved the NES region of the equipment it needs to supply industrial needs—mills to process the abundant wheat that farmers grow across Jazeera’s red clay plains, for example, or machinery to refine oil from the region’s wells. From asphalt to medical products, everything is in short supply. Even basic items like desks for schools are hard to come by because of their cost, though education is crucial in ridding people of what leaders here call the “ISIS mentality.” 

The US and European countries could also use their diplomatic influence with Turkey to end its military aggression that threatens the region’s sovereignty and security. At the same time, Ahmed said, the NES seeks to remain part of Syria, but wants Damascus to acknowledge its autonomy in a new Constitution. In an effort to appease Turkey, the US maintains that its relationship with the SDF alliance of Kurdish, Arab, and Syrian militias, led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), has been purely “transactional.” But this five-year collaboration has had huge military significance for Western security interests in the region.

Since the battle of Kobane in 2014, the Kurds have relied on US and Coalition air support to beat back ISIS and stave off other hostile actors. At a cost of 11,000 lives and thousands more wounded, the SDF pushed ISIS first from Kobane, and then from town after town, across northern Syria. It’s time for the Western powers of the Coalition to repay their debt to their SDF allies in the fight against ISIS by recognizing the NES diplomatically.

Fawza Youssef, another senior NES leader, was even more blunt than Ahmed. NATO powers should admit that Turkey “has become a dangerous source of instability in the region by sponsoring terrorism,” she told me, pointing to the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army militias that had recruited fighters from jihadist groups and overran the NES canton of Afrin a year ago. Besides terrorizing the local civilian population with kidnappings, rapes, torture, ransoms, and the bombing of important infrastructure like a water treatment plant, this Turkish-sponsored incursion forced as many as 350,000 people, mostly Kurds, to flee of which 170,000 are now living in outdoor refugee camps. Turkey’s claim that it was combating the threat of terrorism along its border is vigorously disputed by the NES, which says its forces have never fired a hostile shot in Turkey’s direction and that Turkey has been the aggressor. They have described the district’s resettlement by Free Syrian Army families as forced demographic change, essentially ethnic cleansing, a charge that has been backed by independent groups like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 

Meanwhile, it was the SDF that liberated the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa in October 2017, finally cornering the last zealots on the eastern border of Syria in the small town of Baghouz in January this year. The victory in Baghouz last month came after jihadist holdouts and their families—some 10,000 people in all—streamed out of the town over a period of weeks. There were long delays as the SDF tried to manage the process of disarming and imprisoning the fighters, and sending the women and children to the al-Hawl refugee camp, which now holds more than 72,000 people. 

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Women associated with ISIS foreign fighters walking under the supervision of an SDF fighter, al-Hawl camp, Northeastern Syria, March 28, 2019

The fate of these ISIS fighters and their families is another grave challenge facing the NES. No one can account for exactly how many of the Burka-covered women are citizens of other countries, but Nuri Mahmoud, a YPG spokesman, said the number was high even before the fall of Baghouz. Grabbing a sheet of paper from a drawer in his desk, he pointed to a prior count of 584 foreign jihadist women and 1,248 children in camps, while the tally of foreign fighters in SDF-controlled prisons was already 795, from forty-six different countries. Those numbers don’t include an estimated 20,000 Iraqis who had joined the Islamic State and are now being interned in NES, or the thousands of ISIS holdouts, mostly foreign fighters, who emerged from Baghouz. Given the camp conditions, all these jihadists and their wives, now numbering many thousands, pose a severe security risk—not just locally but for the world, NES officials said, especially in light of Turkey’s threats to invade other parts of the NES region.

Coalition countries have so far refused to accept the repatriation of their foreign fighters, and NES officials have largely given up pressing them on the issue. Instead, they argue, the fighters should be tried by an international tribunal in Rojava. In that way, the world can bear witness to their crimes and see their extremist ideology exposed. But a judicial process of this order will require resources and funds the NES does not have.

“The mentality of Daesh would get an international audience,” Mahoud said. “Sunni Arabs, who now believe it represents Islam, would see the difference between Daesh and real Sunni Islam.” An international tribunal would also show that the Coalition and its partners had observed international human rights conventions, NES leaders point out, which would give legitimacy to the adjudication and imprisonment of ISIS fighters.

While NES officials were pleased when President Trump walked back his decision to withdraw all US troops from the region, now agreeing to leave a force of about 400, they want to see Washington use its clout to press for a negotiated peace in Syria—one that gives the Kurds and other ethnicities from the NES region a seat at the negotiating table.

“The US always says the decision is up to the Syrians, but we know very well that it’s not like that,” Ahmed said. “So they should have a vision for Syria and they should be transparent about their vision regarding Syria and also the political project being implemented here.” In Rojava, American military might already helped strengthen a society in which “people were taking care of their own affairs,” added Mahmoud. “This is something that never happened in Afghanistan and Iraq.” 

A YPG commander named Polat Can, who dropped by Mahmoud’s office at that moment, chimed in: “We have to build a future together. It’s all the world’s job and mission—especially your country’s.”

Debbie Bookchin
Girls playing in the garden of the Museum of Martyrs in Kobane, the town where some 1,400 mainly Kurdish men and women died fighting ISIS in 2014 and 2015, Northern Syria, March 21, 2019