KOBANI, SYRIA – One out of five Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) soldiers died in battles since the 2011 uprisings in Syria, with most of them dying while liberating the area from ISIS rule. That translates to approximately 1,200 men and women who gave their lives fighting to drive ISIS from the Syrian cities and villages of Raqqa, Kobani, Tal Abyad, Deir ez- Zor, Hajin, and Baghouz, among others, and thousands severely wounded. The SDF, a Kurdish-led multiethnic military alliance, raised an army of male and female warriors that first fought, through the help of the United States, Jabhat al Nusra, and then ISIS, to liberate Syria from the scourge of terrorism.
Through these tumultuous times, the liberated areas of north and east Syria gave birth to a type of grassroots, localized democratic form of self-governance, namely governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), commonly referred to as Rojava. However, the question lingers as to whether this current democratic administration will be recognized by the Syrian government and, more importantly, whether it will be internationally recognized and supported by Western powers.
As part of an international delegation of experts, this past week ICSVE researchers took part in the ISIS Terrorism: Dimensions, Challenges, and Strategies of Confrontation conference, held July 6-8, 2019, in Qamishlo, Syria. We also visited Raqqa, as well as the northern city of Kobani, which sits near Turkey’s southern border. In 2014, ISIS invaded Kobani from the Syrian side. As we walk through and witness the twisted ruins of bombed-out buildings where the battles raged, the Rojava officials tell us that scores of ISIS cadres were also allowed to pour in across the Turkish border into Kobani, creating a pincer effect that allowed ISIS to take over and besiege most of the city and surrounds for six months.
We walk near the Turkish border, through which thousands of foreign fighters joining ISIS once poured, and see the Turkish flag flying in the distance behind a cement barrier wall that has since been erected. “Don’t go much farther,” our guide warns, telling us to be careful as we photograph ourselves with the border wall and Turkish flag behind us. “The snipers may create an incident,” he states. The SDF counterterrorism special forces guarding us have all been told to stay far behind, fearing that if spotted near the border, they, and we, may be fired upon. We snap photos and quickly fade back into the ruins.
The dangers for people living here are real. In the Kobani city center we pass the funeral procession of Diyar Gharib Mohammed, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) senior leader who was killed by Turkish airstrikes in Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s Qandil Mountains just days before. From the Turkish government’s point of view, the YPG is simply an extension of the terrorist-designated PKK group that preceded them, and are enemies to be confronted, which they regularly do. According to the SDF, Turkish armed drones have killed two SDF fighters in the last year. The Turkish army also fired long-range mortars into Karashok in 2018, killing 20 men and women, according to SDF reports. Long-range Turkish mortar also hit the Semalka bridge crossing between Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan. The bridge is also used for commerce and trade between Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan as well as an entry-exit point for humanitarian organizations, researchers, and the press. Likewise, Turkish troops in 2018 incurred into Afrin, taking control over the area and causing a massive Kurdish population displacement. While Turkey has the right to exert control over PKK activities in the area, for American and other delegation members visiting the area, it became concerning that aside from all the dangers emanating from residual ISIS cells, the region also remains unsafe from sudden and random attacks by our NATO ally.
We also sat with General Ismat Sheik Hassan, commander of the Kobani Military Council. Considered a national hero, we were told by our guides that he was one of the 150 YPG soldiers who remained in Kobani throughout the siege and battled with ISIS through the help of U.S. air support for four months. Bullet-ridden Syrian heavily armored Russian built vehicles and mortar gunners that ISIS captured from the Syrians and brought to fight against the Kurds now remain in the rubble and destruction making up large parts of the city.
“There were 12 of our soldiers who fought one battle from a school,” General Ismat explains, while diverting attention from himself to the brave youth who fought alongside him. “Five of them were women. They were in contact with us by radio. We ordered them to withdraw from their position, because it was hopeless. They were way outnumbered by the ISIS cadres. But they radioed back saying sorry, that they could not obey the order and were ready to fight to the death,” the general recalls, suddenly becoming overwhelmed with emotions. Choking back a sob, tears roll down his cheeks as he continues, “I still remember their voices. As one fell to the terrorists, the next one picked up the radio, and it continued like that till they all fell in battle. It was hopeless, they were facing far too many.”
We ask how these brave men and women who fought ISIS in Kobani, and later in other cities throughout Northern Syria, were trained and equipped to become a formidable fighting force, given that under the Syrian regime rule they were not even allowed to own rifles. We wonder if the PKK or Western powers trained and armed them. In response, General Ismat shakes his head, explaining, “It was never about arms. We never had the same firepower as them. We had light rifles and PKC’s, whereas they had tanks and mortars. Surely, the American air support and troops on the ground helped us to win, but for us it was never about arms, but about what was in our hearts, our vision for the future, and our will to fight for it, at all odds.”
Sweeping his hand out over the room of 12 young female YPJ soldiers who have joined the fight against ISIS, he further explains, “These women are all volunteers. Some have fought with us since 2014, for five years, and none of them take any pay. They fight for freedom and for what we believe in, for our vision of freedom.” He also states that many in the male YPG also serve unpaid and fight out of dedication, vision, and courage.
In the room hangs a giant poster of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader of the U.S. State Department-designated terrorist PKK group. Yet, the general points to Ocalan’s picture and explains that all this dedication and willingness to self-sacrifice comes from the writings of Ocalan and their shared vision of democratic values, self-sacrifice, feminism and communal living. “We have a vision that all of us are willing to die for,” he states.
When we ask the young YPJ women soldiers, all of whom have forsaken marriage while serving, about their motivations for joining in armed combat, Nuda, a 27-year-old YPJ commander states, “I can’t get married and have children when I don’t have freedom. How can I create a family while enslaved? We don’t have our rights. While I am enslaved, I am willing to fight for freedom to my last drop of blood. We all feel this way.”
When asked about their battleground experience, the women, whose ages range from 18 to 27, tell us that while minors (under 18) are kept from combat duty, adult women fight right alongside the men, never being kept behind the frontlines or precluded from any combat activities. “Of course, the men are physically stronger than we are, but we do everything they do, and our commanders share power with them. Sometimes a female commander is calling the shots, other times a male,” 27-year-old Ronahi explains. They report to us that there is no subjugation of women under their male leaders. These battle-hardened women with their wiry muscles and deeply suntanned faces belie a spitfire courage and audacity seldom seen among females.
When asked how they differ from their female Peshmerga counterparts in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ronahi answers, “They work for pay and will stop the minute you stop paying them. And they are tribal, serving their own factions, whereas we fight for the freedom of all people.” She further explains, “When the Yazidis were being massacred and taken into sexual slavery by ISIS on Sinjar Mountain, it was not the Peshmerga but the Syrian YPG and YPJ units that went to defend them. The Kurdish Peshmerga did not defend them because they are not their own people. But we fought to liberate and save them, as we did for all people.”
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) is by no means perfect, as also shared by Rojava officials during our many visits. However, it is quite remarkable that it managed to emerge and govern itself amid the brutality of both ISIS and the Assad regime. It is shunned by most anti-Assad rebel groups and faced serious military opposition by ISIS, as the latter managed to capture U.S., Iraqi, and Syrian military equipment to fight against the then-untrained SDF. It also faced uncertainty as to whether any international force would back them in their anti-ISIS efforts. The SDF leaders we met in Rojava now hope for the international community to extend its support to their vision of grassroots democratic values, self-administration, feminism, and inclusivity of all religions and ethnicities in the region.
“We have a vision for the future that is clear for setting up a free and good society and we need Western powers to stand beside us in building it,” General Ismat states. He points out that while ISIS was ruthless with their victims, the SDF abides by Western values and standards and neither execute nor torture their ISIS captives. He also shared that many of the captive ISIS fighters from Konya, Turkey, who fought in Kobani were handed back to Turkish authorities. They also ensured the transfer of dead ISIS fighters from Konya back into Turkey. “We don’t believe in torture or mistreatment of prisoners,” the general further says, confirming what ICSVE researchers also routinely hear from ISIS prisoners detained in SDF prisons.
The AANES’ battle for democratic self-rule within the Syrian federal system is complicated by the Assad’s government effort to install Damascus-appointed top-down rulers in the area. For AANES this remains unacceptable, as it would negate their self-administrative grassroots and horizontal vision of self-rule, which, thus far, according to several Rojava officials, also appears to have avoided the plague of corruption rife within the region.
Turkey views the People’s Protection Unit (YPG and YPJ), the most powerful military force within the SDF, as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). In discussing with YPG and YPJ leaders, it appears they have transitioned out of the former violent aspirations of their PKK predecessors. They claim to respect national rules both in Turkey and Syria and abide by Western laws and values, although they also voice grave concerns about the actions of both countries in support of terrorists operating in their region.
The SDF leaders claim the right to bridle over being labeled by Turkey as terrorists themselves after having lost 1,200 “martyrs” in liberating the area from ISIS. They assert that aside from their history with the PKK, the YPG and YPJ units fighting ISIS are not terrorists but rather a dedicated army that has sacrificed greatly to defeat and contain the worst terrorist scourge the world has ever witnessed. Even within our international delegation of experts from America, France, and the Netherlands, many expressed dismay at also being labeled as “terrorist supporters” by Turkey for having traveled to the region and taken part in the conference. “We discovered that terrorists could ask for an international court to be created. And I am proud to be with my friends, associated with such a new idea,” Dominique Inchauspe, a renowned criminal lawyer and professor of law from Paris, stated in response to reportedly being labeled in the Turkish press as a terrorist himself.
The YPG and YPJ leaders share with us their stories of how many of them never marry, forsaking family life on behalf of their vision of building a democratic, all-inclusive society. “Visits like yours fortify us for this battle,” one of the YPJ fighters tells us. “We need encouragement to keep fighting when we sacrifice everything for our vision of freedom.” As discussed by many participants at the conference, the question remains as to whether courage, dedication and self-sacrifice in the fight against ISIS can combine to ensure Western support in Rojava’s quest for autonomy.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=169) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College.
PERSPECTIVE: Enacting Western Justice in Regard to ISIS Foreign Fighters and Their Families