The Female Fighters Who Took on the Islamic State and Won
Their fight for liberty and equality also resulted in the best religious freedom conditions in the Middle East.
In 2014, the world held its breath as ISIS swept through Iraq and Syria, committing atrocities against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities while targeting their women with especially egregious crimes. The U.S. government and much of the world would eventually designate this as genocide. Who would have expected that the force that would finally stop them would include a militia of extraordinary young women who chose to run towards ISIS instead of away from them?
In The Daughters of Kobani: A story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the unforgettable true story of how these remarkable young women in the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) overcame their fears, society’s restrictions, and their own family’s objections to fight for women’s rights, and eventually, for the survival of their own community.
While Lemmon’s writing is what one would expect from a great war novel, she also weaves in important historical information, including events in Syria’s decade-long civil war, the history of the Kurds in this region, and even U.S. policy in a way the reader will hardly notice. Her experience as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalist in conflict zones around the world is clearly exhibited in The Daughters of Kobani, as she seamlessly blends the narrative with information from both regional history and current policy.
I recently spent over a month on the ground in northeast Syria and was able to see for myself the result of their efforts. How could a city like Raqqa go from being the headquarters of the ISIS Caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to the headquarters of a government — the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria — where women serve in half of the leadership roles in just three years? How could it also become a refuge for Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities? This could not happen by accident, of course, especially in this region.
The most exceptional part of this story is not the drama of the battles — although that is exciting and will leave the reader breathless at times — but the human drama in how these women obtained the motivation and skill to embrace their roles as fighters. They did not just battle against ISIS and its Islamist ideology, but for the right to build a society that values liberty and equality for everyone regardless of ethnicity, religion, economic class, or gender.
The Story Begins in Kobani
The story begins in Kobani, Syria, a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey. It introduces 30-year-old Azeema, a sniper with the YPJ. She thinks back to her childhood and the repressive regime that forbid them to identify as Kurds, speak or publish in Kurdish, celebrate Kurdish holidays, name their children Kurdish names, or even play Kurdish music. She also recalls how 10 years earlier during a 2004 championship soccer match, the Syrian Regime ruled by Bashar al-Assad fired at unarmed Kurds killing two dozen. Riots would follow with additional atrocities by the Assad Regime.
This was a pivotal moment in the Kurdish region of Syria, as the newly formed Democratic Union Party (PYD) would begin an effort for women’s rights and self-governance, eventually transforming the region. In 2011 after the civil war erupted, they would set up a mixed-gender militia as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and would expand it in 2013 with the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
Later in 2015, they would expand to become the multi-religious, multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) by including the Christian Syriac Military Council and various Arab militias, led by General Mazloum Abdi. Lemmon describes the developing relationship between YPG and YPJ leaders and U.S. officials that led to an astoundingly successful partnership in the fight against ISIS. The SDF would end up losing 11,000 lives, with over 24,000 severely wounded, so that the U.S. could avoid putting boots on the ground in an unpopular war back home.
The other YPJ fighters featured in the book, Rojda and Znarin, have meaningful stories, but the book focuses on Nowruz Ahmed, as she was and still is the commander of the YPJ, having led women and men into battle and won. While all have unique backgrounds, each of their families had the same expectation that they would become brides, not fighters.
Ideology That is Often Misunderstood
They also were all inspired by the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, although that is often misunderstood and misrepresented. The most skilled part of The Daughters of Kobani is Lemmon’s care in laying out the ideology that inspired these heroic actions and also laid the groundwork for the remarkable gender equality and religious freedom conditions that would come later.
While Ocalan originally embraced Marxism, his ideology evolved away from that into a form of self-governance called Democratic Confederalism. This bottom-up approach gives power to neighborhoods, not the political class, providing them with the tools they need to build strong communities and solve most of their own problems.
Gender equality is a key tenant of Ocalan’s ideology, teaching that “no society could be free, could shake off its enslavement, without women playing an equal role in their communities.” Lemmon tells how YPJ fighter Znarin first heard the term “women’s rights” when Congress Star, an organization affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), came to her door in an effort to recruit followers.
While the PKK was founded in Turkey in opposition to the government because of the horrible suppression of rights for Kurds over the years, Ocalan eventually fled to Syria where he developed strong relationships and followers. In 1997, Turkey pushed the U.S. government to designate the PKK a terrorist group. Ocalan was captured in 1999 and is currently in a one-man prison on Imrali Island, Turkey.
As Lemmon says, “Turkey may have considered Ocalan its most-wanted man, but for the Syrian Kurds who followed him, Ocalan lived in the public imagination somewhere between Nelson Mandela and George Washington.” They believed it was his leadership and actions that made a way for them to finally enjoy freedom and embrace their Kurdish identity.
It is important to note that while they openly embrace Ocalan’s ideology on governance and women’s rights, they are no longer part of the PKK. There has never been an attack on Turkey from northeast Syria, and it is impossible for Turkey to make a legitimate case that they are a threat to anyone except ISIS. Nevertheless, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made it clear he won’t tolerate them continuing to build this governance on his border, complicating the situation for the United States, which Lemmon documents in some of the most dramatic parts of the book.
Self-Governance That Promotes Gender Equality and Religious Freedom
Lemmon chronicles the beginning of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) and their role in mass organizing, but she did not have the scope to get into how they built this self-governance or the structure of the actual government. During my recent visit, I was able to spend time examining each level of government and was astonished at how every citizen had the opportunity to have a say in their own governance, something otherwise unheard of in the region. Since they are not nationalists or separatists, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) was always designed to be a state in a future Syria, never as an independent country.
The most memorable parts of The Daughters of Kobani are certainly the spellbinding battles for Kobani, Manbij, and then Raqqa, the city that was the headquarters of the entire ISIS Caliphate known for horrific beheadings in the town square. What is not included is what they did after they liberated an area from ISIS, which is immediately set up self-governance as the AANES. Some of the most stunning transformations in northeast Syrian in the past few years have been in the Arab areas, some only liberated a few years ago.
A highlight of my visit was hearing from the Arab and Kurdish Muslim co-chairs of the AANES Tabqa Regional Government in how they preserved the land of all four Christian churches destroyed by ISIS and the homes of twenty-five Christian families who were forced to flee but had not yet returned. They even replaced the cross over the largest destroyed church in the middle of town to publicize their support of Christians, and to send a message they were welcomed to return. Currently, only seven Christian families have done so because of the fear of the reemergence of ISIS, the Assad Regime, and further Turkish aggression.
No one is suggesting that this government is perfect, as it has many struggles, limited resources, opposition from the Assad Regime, Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Islamic extremists like ISIS, and from those internally who are aligned with them. They also bear the burden of rebuilding areas like Raqqa that were almost completely destroyed by U.S. airstrikes during the battle against ISIS. Usually, the U.S. rebuilds areas they destroy during wars, but Trump suspended all stabilization funds in northeast Syria.
Nevertheless, political participation in the AANES is open to all residents regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, or economic status. In fact, they have embraced three official languages, Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac, making it inclusive for religious and ethnic minorities, and they are involved in every level of government.
In the epilogue, Lemmon explains how on October 6, 2019, during a phone call between President Donald Trump and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump gave a green light for Turkey to invade northeast Syria without any consultation from his own advisors. He also announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops. Three days later, Turkey’s Air Force launched strikes against civilians, including Christian areas in the Khabur Valley, killing several hundred and displacing over 200,000. Turkey also sent a ground force that included the Islamist Free Syrian Army (FSA) using some former ISIS fighters, committing atrocities against civilians that have since been documented by the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others.
Many of these atrocities were posted by the soldiers themselves on social media, including the execution of female Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, who they killed after pulling her out of her car. The U.S. Department of Defense had no warning of this withdrawal and fled their fully stocked bases, even conducting airstrikes on their own structures in order to destroy them before Russian came in to occupy the former U.S. bases. Before the U.S. withdrawal, Russia had not been able to establish a presence in northeast Syria. The Assad Regime also took advantage of the situation to expand into the northeast, bringing their Iranian militia supporters as well.
Lemmon then accounts how Nowruz, Rojda, Azeema, Znarin, and General Mazloum responded to this surprise invasion. She also tells the important story of the fight within the U.S. Government to continue to support the SDF, in spite of Turkey’s objections. Deputy Envoy on Syria Policy, Amb. William Roebuck, in a leaked State Department memo said, “We asked these people to take on this fight. It was our fight, and Europe’s, and all of the international community’s. But we … put almost exclusively on their shoulders this burden of taking down what remained of the Caliphate. Our SDF partners did everything they told us they would do to fight ISIS, and did it with motivation.”
Trump ended up reversing his decision to withdraw the small footprint of about 500 U.S. troops, but the damage was done. This sent a message that perhaps the SDF and AANES were temporary, and ISIS immediately reorganized and has become more active and dangerous. On January 23, 2021, ISIS kidnapped and executed two AANES female Arab leaders in Hassakah in an effort to stop the women’s movement and the growth of AANES in the Arab community.
The Way Forward for Northeast Syria
While my visits to northeast Syria have been in my own personal capacity, I first learned about the positive religious freedom conditions from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I serve as a Commissioner. This independent, bipartisan government agency has the mandate to assess religious freedom conditions abroad and make recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.
USCIRF immediately condemned the October 2019 invasion and in June of 2020, held a Congressional hearing, “Safeguarding Religious Freedom in Northeast Syria” that documented the remarkable conditions under the AANES and the atrocities currently being committed against Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and other religious and ethnic minorities in the areas Turkey occupies to include killings, rapes, kidnappings, extortions, forced conversions, and the destruction of religious sites and cemeteries.
What is the best way forward for northeast Syria? With 80% of the oil and gas in Syria and some of the most fertile land in the Middle East, they have the ability to build a robust economy and become self-sufficient if the U.S. maintains its small military presence and follows USCIRF’s recommendations. They include expanding U.S. engagement with the AANES; giving political recognition to the AANES as a legitimate, local government; lifting sanctions on just the area of Syria they govern; pressuring Turkey to present a timeline to withdraw, and demanding the inclusion of the AANES in all activities pursuant to U.N. Res. 2254, including Geneva-based talks to resolve the Syrian conflict. AANES can govern and finance their government themselves, something Iraq cannot even do alone at this point in time.
“The Future of northeastern Syria remains a question written in invisible ink in a language no one can yet decipher,” writes Lemmon in the closing of this book. With the excellent writing and compelling story, I am hopeful that The Daughters of Kobani will be embraced widely and that the impact will increase support for this important project. In addition to remaining a refuge for religious minorities including one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, this could also be a beacon of freedom for the rest of the Middle East.
Editor’s note: The Stream spoke with author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon on Thursday. Read that interview here.
Nadine Maenza is a noted speaker, writer, and policy expert with more than two decades of experience as an advocate for working families and a champion for international religious freedom. She’s currently a Commissioner with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Read more on her here.