Dark Victory in Raqqa
Kurdish revolutionaries helped the U.S. expel the Islamic State from its capital city. Will we soon abandon them?
In August, in the living room of an abandoned house on the western outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, I met with Rojda Felat, one of four Kurdish commanders overseeing the campaign to wrest the city from the Islamic State, or isis. Wearing fatigues, a beaded head scarf, and turquoise socks, Felat sat cross-legged on the floor, eating a homemade meal that her mother had sent in a plastic container from Qamishli, four hours away, in the northeast of the country. In the kitchen, two young female fighters washed dishes and glanced surreptitiously at Felat with bright-eyed adoration. At forty years old, she affects a passive, stoic expression that transforms startlingly into one of unguarded felicity when she is amused—something that, while we spoke, happened often. She had reason to be in good spirits. Her forces had recently completed an encirclement of Raqqa, and victory appeared to be imminent.
The Raqqa offensive, which concluded in mid-October, marks the culmination of a dramatic rise both for Felat and for the Kurdish political movement to which she belongs. For decades, the Syrian state—officially, the Syrian Arab Republic—was hostile to Kurds. Tens of thousands were stripped of citizenship or dispossessed of land; cultural and political gatherings were banned; schools were forbidden to teach the Kurdish language.
Qamishli, Felat’s home town, has long been a center of Kurdish political activity. In 2004, during a soccer match, Arab fans of a visiting team threw stones at Kurds, causing a stampede; a riot ensued, during which Kurds toppled a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of Syria’s current President, Bashar. Government security forces subsequently killed more than thirty Kurds. Amid the crackdown, a new Kurdish opposition group, the Democratic Union Party, organized and recruited clandestinely.
In 2011, when anti-government protests began spreading throughout Syria, Felat was studying Arabic literature at Hasakah University. The daughter of a poor farmer, she’d begun her studies late, “for economic reasons,” she told me. Along with several dozen other students, Felat left the university and returned to Qamishli. Within a week, Felat, who’d harbored ambitions of attending Syria’s national military academy and becoming an Army officer, had joined the Democratic Union Party’s militia, the Y.P.G. After a day of training, she was issued a Kalashnikov.
Felat expected to fight the regime. But, as the anti-government demonstrations evolved into an armed rebellion and insurrections broke out in major cities, Assad withdrew nearly all the troops he had stationed in the predominantly Kurdish north. The Democratic Union Party allowed the regime to maintain control of an airport and of administrative offices in downtown Qamishli. Arab opposition groups decried the arrangement as part of a tacit alliance between Assad and the Kurds. Islamist rebels began launching attacks in northern Syria, and the Y.P.G. went to war against them. “Many Kurdish families brought their daughters to join,” Felat told me. “Many women signed up.” She described her female compatriots as “women who had joined to protect other women” from extremists and their sexist ideologies.
By mid-2014, isis had become the largest Islamist rebel group in Syria. It seized Raqqa, a mostly Arab city that lies some forty miles south of the Kurdish region, and declared it the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate. isis then pushed into Kurdish territory, and by October thousands of militants—armed with tanks, mortars, machine guns, and suicide vehicles—had reached Kobanî, a city on the Turkish border. Although the United States bombarded isis from the air, the militants quickly captured several key neighborhoods, and raised their flag on a hill visible from Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s President, announced, “Kobanî is about to fall,” and isis vowed that its members would celebrate the coming holy week of Eid al-Adha by praying in Kobanî’s mosques.
The Y.P.G. fought back, deploying small, lightly armed units throughout Kobanî’s streets. Felat was put in charge of eleven other women. Some, like her, were former students; some were professionals; some were wives and mothers. Apart from their rifles, they had one machine gun and one rocket-propelled-grenade launcher. “There were people who didn’t even have a Kalashnikov,” Felat told me. “They had to share.” When I asked her where she was when isis declared that it would conquer the city before Eid al-Adha, she answered, “I was fighting on Mishtanour Hill.” The battle is famous among Syrian Kurds, partly for the heroic action of another female fighter, twenty-year-old Arin Mirkan. At the time, Felat and Mirkan were on the same side of the hill. isis militants were closing in on them with tanks commandeered from Assad’s forces. Mirkan, Felat recalled, “put a lot of grenades on her chest and snuck under a tank and exploded herself.”
Mishtanour Hill fell to isis, but Kobanî didn’t. The U.S. intensified its bombing, and air-dropped weapons and medical supplies; Iraqi Kurdish soldiers, along with some moderate Arab rebels, reinforced the Y.P.G. By late January, 2015, isis had been pushed back. The Y.P.G. capitalized on its momentum and reclaimed swaths of the countryside.
Felat was assigned to command forty-five fighters, and then three hundred. When I pressed her for the accomplishments that had occasioned her promotions, she reluctantly allowed, “I was good at strategy.” By chance, it was the week before Eid al-Adha, and I could not help marvelling at how swiftly the besieged had become besiegers. I asked Felat whether any of the women whom she’d fought with in Kobanî were still with her.
She shook her head. “Five were killed,” she said. “Two were wounded. The others went back to their families.” Felat did not mention having been injured herself, but I later met a fighter who recalled sharing a hospital room with her while they were both recovering from shrapnel wounds.
The Y.P.G. presents itself as the antithesis of isis. Not only does it aggressively recruit women into its ranks; it promotes democracy and religious pluralism. Like many of her comrades, Felat has decided never to leave the Y.P.G., or marry, or have children. Her younger brother, Mezul, who joined the Y.P.G. after she did, was killed by a roadside bomb in 2013. Felat, who identifies as a nonpracticing Muslim, said that she has sworn on Mezul’s blood to devote her life to the Y.P.G. Although the battle for Raqqa is over, she, like most Syrians, foresees more fighting to come.
Two thousand isis militants and hundreds of Kurds died in the battle of Kobanî. It took months to extricate the bodies from the wreckage. Locals say that the town’s feral cats, rummaging among the corpses, began to go bald; birds lost their feathers. Today, white placards stand amid rubble and outside damaged buildings, marking places where Kurdish fighters were killed, and listing their names in black and red paint. Many of the names belong to women. On a street downtown, two waist-high Plexiglas boxes are installed in the middle of a sidewalk that has been carefully rebuilt around them. Inside the boxes, debris and broken asphalt are preserved. At first, it’s hard to tell what else the boxes contain. Then you notice the remains of two female fighters who were killed there: tufts of dust-caked hair still rooted to gray, desiccated flaps of scalp.
A few blocks away, at a local institution known as the Commission for the Martyrs, the high walls of an expansive gallery are covered with hundreds of framed portraits of slain Kobanî natives. When I visited recently, the pictures ended midway across one wall. Scaffolding had been erected, and dozens of new frames were stacked on the floor. A volunteer told me that the memorial was a work in progress; organized chronologically, it hadn’t yet caught up to 2017. At a far end of the gallery, faded portraits, from the nineties, showed local residents who had died in Turkey while fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K. Pointing at one image—a pale girl with cropped hair and a determined stare—the volunteer said, “My sister. She left before I knew her.”
The Democratic Union Party and the Y.P.G. grew out of the P.K.K. Though it is a matter of dispute precisely how involved the P.K.K. remains in their activities, the organizations share the same objectives and beliefs. In the seventies, a Turkish university dropout, Abdullah Öcalan, founded the P.K.K. as a Marxist-Leninist movement committed to the creation of an independent Kurdish state. The group launched an insurgency that mainly targeted Turkish security personnel but also murdered Turkish civilians and Kurdish adversaries.
In 1997, the United States added the P.K.K. to its list of foreign terrorist organizations, and two years later the Central Intelligence Agency helped Turkish agents capture Öcalan. Placed in solitary confinement on a prison island off Istanbul, he did what many people would do: he read. He became fascinated by an obscure American political theorist—a Communist turned libertarian socialist named Murray Bookchin. The œuvre of Bookchin, who died in 2006, is vast and dense (a typical title is “The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism”). Öcalan was particularly influenced by Bookchin’s advocacy of “libertarian municipalism”: the proposition that citizens, instead of attempting to change, overthrow, or secede from oppressive capitalist governments, should build confederations of “popular assemblies” that can function as a parallel system within existing states. In 2004, one of Öcalan’s German translators wrote to Bookchin—then eighty-three and bedridden, with osteoarthritis, in Vermont—to inform him that Öcalan was determined to “implement your ideas.” Bookchin confessed to the translator that he wasn’t really familiar with Öcalan. “Thanks to our parochial press, Americans are barely informed about Kurdish affairs,” he wrote.
Öcalan, who remains imprisoned, has published many pamphlets. In 2011, he released “Democratic Confederalism,” in which he repudiates the pursuit of an independent Kurdish state, on the ground that nation-states are inherently repressive, sexist, and complicit in the depravities of “the worldwide capitalist system.” He also discusses the peril of Middle Eastern nations’ being defined by religion or ethnicity. As an alternative, Öcalan suggests creating decentralized networks of community councils, where all “cultural identities can express themselves in local meetings.”
The P.K.K. had always included female guerrillas; the longer Öcalan remained in prison, however, the more preoccupied with feminism he became. In a 2013 manifesto, “Liberating Life,” he writes that “the 5,000-year-old history of civilization is essentially the history of the enslavement of women,” and argues that no genuine political emancipation can happen without first achieving gender equality.
The P.K.K. adapted to Öcalan’s evolving ideas with surprising facility. But over the years many of its members, seeking refuge from the Turkish authorities, decamped to Iraq’s remote Qandil Mountains, where there was little society to revolutionize. Öcalan’s vision seemed destined to remain the utopian fancy of—as Bookchin called himself—“an old radical.” But then the Democratic Union Party came into possession of most of northern Syria.
At a rally in Kobanî this summer, hundreds of residents congregated at a traffic circle, around a thirty-foot-tall statue of a Kurdish female fighter with enormous white wings. Made from iron and fibreglass, the statue towered over two tanks that isis had used in its failed assault on the town. Now onlookers straddled the tanks’ cannons. A Y.P.G. soldier poured black oil from a plastic water bottle onto handmade torches, and distributed them to people. Traditional Kurdish songs blared through an industrial sound system installed in the bed of a pickup truck. Children and teen-agers danced.
It was August 14th, the eve of the thirty-third anniversary of the P.K.K.’s first attacks against the Turkish government. The conflict has left some forty thousand people dead, mainly Kurds. At some point, the music stopped, and a woman climbed into the truck, wielding a megaphone. “No life without our leader!” she shouted.
“Long live Apo!” everyone cried, using a nickname for Öcalan.
In Kurdish parts of Syria, Öcalan is hard to escape. His image appears on billboards, flags, walls, phones, pins, posters, and patches; usually he is depicted with a warm smile beneath a paintbrush mustache. He tends to look avuncular and professorial, and is rarely shown with a weapon. In January, 2014, the Democratic Union Party promulgated a charter based on Öcalan’s concept of democratic confederalism. Meant to lay the groundwork for “a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs,” the charter established three autonomous cantons in Rojava, as the Kurdish region in northern Syria is known. Each canton would be composed of councils overseen by a general assembly. The charter recognized the equal status of religions, languages, and minority groups—Arabs, Syriacs, Chechens, Armenians, and Yazidis. It also mandated that women comprise at least forty per cent of every governing body, institution, and committee. In an echo of Bookchin’s extensive writings on social ecology, protecting the environment was deemed a “sacred” duty.
After the Y.P.G.’s victory in Kobanî, it continued liberating towns from isis, and increasingly collaborated with Arab fighters and Christian militias. The global anti-isiscoalition, led by the U.S., offered limited air support. The battlefield successes of the Y.P.G. contrasted starkly with the generally hapless efforts of American proxies elsewhere in Syria. By mid-2015, a five-hundred-million-dollar Pentagon program intended to train and equip more than five thousand anti-isis fighters had produced only about a hundred of them; according to the Pentagon, most had been killed, abducted, or relieved of their weapons by Islamists. A C.I.A. initiative, which eventually cost more than a billion dollars, sponsored anti-government rebels. In 2015, when Russia intervened in Syria, on behalf of Assad, it effectively neutralized these units with air strikes.
Although the Y.P.G. was prevailing militarily, the Obama Administration remained leery of it. Turkey, a nato member that allows the U.S. to conduct air strikes over Syria from one of its military bases, does not distinguish between the Y.P.G. and the P.K.K., which it considers an existential threat. At this year’s Aspen Security Forum, General Raymond Thomas, the head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, recounted telling Y.P.G. leaders, in late 2015, that if they wanted meaningful American support they had to change their “brand.” Thomas went on, “With about a day’s notice, they declared that they were the Syrian Democratic Forces. It was a stroke of brilliance to put ‘democracy’ in there.” Soon after the S.D.F. was conceived, a U.S. aircraft parachuted a hundred pallets of weaponry to its Arab contingents, and Obama dispatched Special Operations Forces to train and advise them.
The Trump Administration has doubled down on the strategy. In May, Trump approved a plan to arm Syrian Kurds in the S.D.F. directly, and deployed several hundred marines and Army rangers to support them. Around this time, Turkish jets bombed sites in Rojava, reportedly killing twenty Y.P.G. members. The attack prompted U.S. troops, in marked vehicles, to join Kurdish fighters patrolling the Syrian-Turkish border. “This needs to stop,” Erdoğan declared, adding that the presence of American flags in a “terrorist” convoy had “seriously saddened us.”
The S.D.F., however, was the only rebel force capable of removing isis from its capital. And though Raqqa does not have a large Kurdish population, Kurdish fighters were prepared to help capture it. Rojda Felat told me, “There were a lot of discussions. But all of them were about what our role would be, not whether we would play a role.”
The U.S. has not only ignored Turkey’s objections; it has bolstered the Kurds diplomatically. In Aspen, General Thomas explained, “They wanted a seat at the table, and because they had been branded as P.K.K. they could never get to the table.” According to Thomas, U.S. diplomats have pushed for the S.D.F.’s involvement in national peace talks that could determine the future of the country.
And yet none of the Kurdish fighters I met described the Raqqa campaign as a political quid pro quo. For them, it was a necessary phase in an ambitious, lifelong revolution.
One afternoon this summer, near a front line in West Raqqa, I sat in a requisitioned residence with Ali Sher, a thirty-three-year-old Kurdish commander with a handlebar mustache and the traditional Y.P.G. uniform: camouflage Hammer pants and a colorful head scarf tied back pirate-style. Before the war, Sher sold clothes in a market in Kobanî. He joined the Y.P.G. when isis attacked the city; after the battle, he made the same blood oath as Rojda Felat. “I have nothing else,” he told me. “I don’t have a wife. I don’t have children. I don’t even have a car.”
When I asked Sher what he was doing in Raqqa, he said, “Don’t think we are fighting only for Rojava. We’re not soldiers—we’re revolutionaries.”
Two young women walked into the room, and Sher greeted them enthusiastically. One was a P.K.K. fighter from Turkey. (“Leave me alone,” she said when I tried to interview her.) The other had been Sher’s first commander in Kobanî. “During the training, he was very tired,” she said with a laugh. Her nom de guerre was Çîçek 23. In Kurdish, çîçek means “flower.” Twenty-three comes from the name of a gun that she used on Mishtanour Hill. She told me that she, too, had devoted herself to the Y.P.G.
“Think about this society,” Sher said. “If you’re married here, what can you give your children? Clothes? Food? Even slaves have clothes and food. When you are resisting oppression and injustice, you are fighting for more than just your own small family. You are fighting for your big family—society.”
The frontiers of the society for which Sher and Çîçek 23 are fighting have expanded considerably since they defended Kobanî. On March 17, 2016, the Democratic Union Party announced the creation of a “democratic federation” in Rojava, with the S.D.F. serving as its military. A draft constitution was soon put forward. It largely preserved the canton structure, and included a mechanism for incorporating other parts of Syria into its federal system.
Sher and Çîçek 23 shared the expectation that once isis had been expelled from Raqqa the area’s citizens would vote to join the new federation. They hoped that Raqqa residents, having endured the Draconian rule of isis, would be open to the diametrically contrary values championed by Öcalan, from secularism to gender equality. “When we liberate areas from isis, we start a revolution in the mentality of the people,” Sher said. “This is the most important part.”
The assertion might have sounded quixotic, if not for some men who were sitting in the room with us. They were Yazidis from Shingal, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan. isis harbors a special disdain for Yazidis, who are not Muslim, and after its militants in Iraq seized Mosul, in 2014, they attacked Shingal. Thousands of Yazidis were slaughtered; thousands of women and girls were abducted and forced into sexual slavery. Those who escaped made for a mountain range that looms over the town and extends into Rojava. P.K.K. and Y.P.G. fighters opened a corridor from the mountains into Syria. Sick and elderly Yazidis were evacuated. Able-bodied men and women were brought to training camps, formed into an armed militia, and sent back to fight isis.
A short and stocky twenty-seven-year-old Yazidi named Zardesht, who’d been trained and armed in Rojava, said of the Syrian and Turkish Kurds, “They saved us. They gave their blood to prevent our extermination.”
Zardesht and more than a thousand other Yazidis fought alongside the P.K.K. and the Y.P.G. on the outskirts of Shingal until November, 2015, when Iraqi Kurdish forces and a heavy U.S. bombing campaign helped them take back the town. Countless P.K.K. and Y.P.G. flags were raised across Shingal. “We started to trust in their ideology, because we thought that these beliefs would help us to protect our people,” Zardesht told me. “Now we are trying to apply the same council system in Shingal as the Kurds have in Rojava.” When the Raqqa offensive began, Zardesht and about forty other Yazidi militia members—half of them women—volunteered to take part.
“We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan,” Zardesht said.
lthough most of the commanders in Raqqa were Kurds, most of the troops were Arabs. A few days after speaking with Ali Sher in West Raqqa, my translator and I followed two pickup trucks, crowded with about twenty Arab fighters, through the southern fringes of the city. (Arab units of the S.D.F. are entirely male.) As the trucks traversed a ravaged dirt road along the wide and calm Euphrates River, through overgrown orchards and sunflower gardens, the fighters cried out, “We are from Raqqa!” Turning north into ruined residential neighborhoods, we passed gutted husks of cars and buses, levelled buildings, and a depot littered with the twisted remnants of blown-up construction equipment.
Inside the city, the devastation was apocalyptic. Block after block of tall apartment towers had been obliterated. Every building seemed to have been struck by ordnance: either destroyed entirely, scorched black by fire, or in a state of mid-collapse, with slabs of concrete hanging precariously from exposed rebar and twisted I-beams. Bulldozers had plowed a path through heaps of cinder blocks, felled power poles, and other detritus. Up ahead, missiles hit: a whistle, then a crash, then a dark plume. Smoke and dust roiled over rooftops.
A melee broke out as soon as we stopped. It was unclear who was in charge. Amid arguments about which teams should go where, some fighters were herded inside a building while others piled into a Humvee, which then sped off toward an abandoned children’s hospital that they were meant to capture. I joined a group of fighters gathered on the ground floor of the building. Most of them were from Tabqa, a city about twenty miles to the west. They had joined the S.D.F. when it liberated Tabqa, in May. After seventeen days of training from U.S. soldiers, they told me, they had been given Kalashnikovs and sent to the front. Some of them looked extremely young. One boy, Joresh Akool, must have been about fourteen. (He hesitated when I asked his age, then said that he was seventeen.) Smoking a cigarette and wearing a ski vest, despite it being well over a hundred degrees, Akool told me that he was the only member of his family left in Syria—everyone else had fled to Turkey. “My mother keeps telling me to come,” he said. “She says if I come she’ll find a wife for me.” The men around him laughed.
Several of the Arab fighters wore patches featuring the face of Abdullah Öcalan. When I asked them what they thought about his ideas, however, they seemed indifferent. Many of them had battled the regime at the beginning of the war. Akool told me that one of his brothers had been killed in Aleppo while fighting Assad’s forces. “That was a long time ago,” he said. It wasn’t, really—about three years—but I knew what he meant. It was before isis created its caliphate, before Russian and U.S. involvement, and before the S.D.F.
Despite the Arab fighters’ lack of interest in the Kurdish social revolution, they said that they planned to remain in the S.D.F., even after the Raqqa offensive, as long as it continued to oppose isis. “Wherever there is isis in the world, I will fight them,” one of them said. “I’ll go to America to fight them.” He wanted revenge for the indignities that isis had made him suffer, and for his friends and relatives who had been killed. He said, “When isis came to Tabqa, they arrested us and gave us Islamic instruction in the prison. They collected all the children and forced them to do military and Koranic training.”
We hadn’t been talking long when the Humvee returned with several men looking stunned and battered. Upon entering the children’s hospital, they’d triggered a mine. “We thought it was safe,” one of them said, explaining that a coalition jet had hit the hospital with an air strike, which should have detonated any improvised explosive devices that isis had planted inside. A report came over someone’s radio: two men were dead, several wounded. The injuries included lost limbs.
The vast majority of S.D.F. fighters who were killed in Raqqa were Arabs, and most of them were killed by blasts. Firefights were rare. While I was there, at least, very few isismilitants seemed to be defending the city. The leadership was thought to have escaped south, to the province of Deir Ezzor. The problem now was the confounding proliferation of mines that isis had left behind—and the S.D.F.’s inability to deal with them.
In Mosul, where isis had recently been defeated, the Iraqi Army had relied on an extensive fleet of American tanks and mine-resistant armored personnel carriers. But the U.S., in an effort to appease Turkey, has strictly limited its supply of matériel to the S.D.F. The five thousand troops fighting in Raqqa had access to only fifteen Humvees. Ali Sher’s men and another unit—two hundred and fifty fighters, in total—shared one of the Humvees, and shortly after I met them it was disabled for a few days by a grenade dropped by an isisdrone.
Another afternoon, on a street in East Raqqa, where the S.D.F. had pushed into the city’s old quarter, breaching a huge mud-mortar wall from the eighth century, I watched an armored bulldozer return from clearing some rubble nearby. Snipers had pierced the bulldozer in three places, and it leaked a black trail of oil in the dirt. The driver was a fifty-seven-year-old Arab from Hasakah—the city where Rojda Felat had attended college. Before joining the S.D.F., he’d worked on construction projects. Now his main responsibility was excavating mines with the bulldozer’s blade, often exploding them in the process. One blast had shattered a window in the cab.
Front-line units carried sacks full of jury-rigged bombs: softball-size amalgams of homemade explosives, packaged in plastic wrap and spiked with six-inch fuses. At least one bomb was thrown into every building that the fighters planned to enter, in order to set off any mines inside. This precautionary measure, however, insured the destruction of whatever structures had managed to evade aerial bombardment—and it wasn’t even foolproof. Before the Arab fighters from Tabqa had entered the children’s hospital, they had deployed ten such bombs.
Four days after the incident at the hospital, I visited the surrounding area. The Humvee I was in stopped next to a Toyota pickup truck with Iraqi plates and a Russian machine gun mounted in the bed; it had been compressed beneath a building pancaked by an air strike. Next door, in a second-floor bedroom of a once luxurious home, I met three mine-removal technicians—the first I’d seen in Raqqa.
They were preparing to sweep the hospital for a third time. “The first time we went in, we found about twenty mines,” one of them, a bearded Arab in gold-rimmed sunglasses, told me. They had no formal training: their primary qualification for the job appeared to be their willingness to do it. The man with the sunglasses was coiling rope tied to a grappling hook. Whenever they found an I.E.D., he explained, he placed or tossed the hook near its triggering device, paid out the rope, and pulled. Their other tool was a plastic mirror that had been Scotch-taped to a paint roller. A second technician proudly showed me how a pole attached to the roller’s handle extended and collapsed, enabling them to see around corners. isis had dug a tunnel into the hospital’s basement. “That last air strike was trying to damage it,” he said. “We heard on the radio that isis wants to capture some of us alive.”
In another bedroom of the house, I found the ranking commander for the area, a Kurd, sitting on a box spring beneath a shattered window that overlooked the hospital. Twenty-one years old, diminutive, and clean-shaven, with a line of pale scalp on the side of his head where a bullet had grazed him, he introduced himself as Vietnam Kobanî. His real name was Khairee Halal. Before the war, Halal had been a barber in Aleppo. When Y.P.G. fighters arrived in the city and set up a militia in the Kurdish quarter, he joined them. As Aleppo became divided between regime forces and rebel groups, the Kurds were caught between the two sides. “We were not with either,” Halal told me. “We were just defending our neighborhood.” I spent a month in Aleppo in 2013, and many Arab rebels I met there believed that the Kurds were not as neutral as they claimed: Assad’s intelligence agents were said to enjoy free rein in the Kurdish quarter. That April, however, the Y.P.G. in Aleppo formally allied itself with the opposition.
In 2015, Halal left Aleppo and joined the campaign against isis in northern Syria after his father, who was also in the Y.P.G., was killed near Kobanî. According to Halal, an Arab member of his father’s unit betrayed his comrades, removing the firing pin on their sole machine gun while they slept. The next day, isis militants ambushed the position, killing all thirteen Kurdish fighters stationed there. “This man had been in my father’s unit for two years,” Halal said. “They trusted him. He’d said he wanted to help the Kurds.”
Whether or not the story was true, Halal believed it. I asked him how he felt about commanding Arabs now. He nodded toward the broken window, beyond which explosions and sniper fire had been sounding. He said simply, “A lot of them are brave and fighting in a strong way.” Then, seeming to recognize the irony of his situation—or, in any case, seeming to recognize that I found it ironic—Halal added, “We think that man did what he did for money. isispaid him to do it.” As Joresh Akool had told me, 2014 was a long time ago.
In Aleppo, certainly, a lot had changed. After regime soldiers killed Akool’s brother, moderate Arabs in the opposition were gradually vanquished by Islamists, and so the Y.P.G. switched sides. Last December, Kurds helped Assad’s forces retake the city.
The deep grievances that many Arabs harbor toward isis have brought about their unlikely collaboration with the disciples of Abdullah Öcalan. But it is not clear if this temporary military alliance will translate into an enduring political one after isis has been purged from Syria. In Raqqa, the Kurds seem determined to try to strengthen the bond. This April, a delegation of a hundred and ten displaced natives of the city—technocrats, teachers, attorneys, and other professionals—established the Raqqa Civil Council, a governing body modelled on the regional assemblies of the new democratic federation in northern Syria. Once Raqqa was secure, the delegation declared, the council, which has U.S. backing, would assume administration of the city.
When I visited its interim offices, in a town forty miles north of Raqqa, dozens of people had crowded outside the door of a senior councilman, Omar Alloush. Inside, Alloush, a rotund, gray-haired, chain-smoking Kurdish lawyer from Kobanî, was talking with two men: an S.D.F. official, in a suit, and an Arab sheikh, in a kaffiyeh and traditional white robes. The sheikh, Farris Horan, served on a committee for the Raqqa Civil Council that acted as a liaison to Raqqa’s Arab tribes. An S.D.F. fighter had accidentally shot an Arab civilian, and, after meeting with the leaders of the victim’s tribe, Horan was negotiating financial compensation. Once the two men had settled the issue and left the room, Alloush, speaking of the Arab tribes, told me, “They don’t necessarily believe in our ideology. But they see a future with us. That’s why they joined us.”
By “us,” he did not mean only the Raqqa Civil Council. Alloush had helped found a political arm of the S.D.F. that is responsible for managing the envisaged expansion of the democratic federation beyond Rojava. “We believe in a new constitution for Syria,” Alloush told me. Every community that the S.D.F. liberated from isis would be urged to join the federation. “Maybe some places will be autonomous,” he said. “Federal system, noncentral system—this decision will come from the people. We have to wait and see how they’ll vote.”
A few days later, my translator and I gave Horan a ride to a village about ten miles east of Raqqa, across a black expanse of volcanic sand flats. The village, which hugged the banks of the Euphrates, was in an area called Karama, and Horan had been invited to attend a ceremony in which Karama’s largest Arab tribe would announce its endorsement of the Raqqa Civil Council. In the car, Horan said, “They were the main tribe supporting isisaround here. Even now, a lot of them are still with isis. But others are with us. So it’s complicated.”
In March, when the S.D.F. took Karama, hundreds of villagers retreated to Raqqa with isis. Some were forced to go; some had been recruited as militants and went willingly. Among those who stayed in Karama, twelve hundred men had joined the S.D.F. They were now fighting their former neighbors and relatives on the front lines in Raqqa. Indeed, Horan said, the brother of the sheikh hosting the day’s ceremony had joined isis, and was a high-ranking official within the caliphate.
In the village center, five long tents stood in a field beside a concrete water tower lying on its side. (isis had sabotaged it.) Under the tents, hundreds of Arab men, representing forty-odd tribes from Raqqa Province, sat on carpets, watching several sheikhs mingle with one another, as well as with Kurdish members of the S.D.F., many of whom were women. When one of the two co-chairs of the Raqqa Civil Council entered the tent—Laila Mustafa, a twenty-nine-year-old Kurdish engineer, wearing black jeans and boots, her hair in a ponytail—the sheikhs stood to shake her hand.
Omar Alloush, the Kurdish senior councilman, presided over the ceremony. He stood before the tribesmen and passionately condemned isis, the Assad regime, and anti-government rebels not belonging to the S.D.F. Only the S.D.F., he said, “aims to end the Syrian crisis and build a new democratic Syria.” Other Kurdish leaders followed with similar speeches, vowing to spread their revolution to the entire country.
The head of the main tribe in Karama, who was known as Abu Jihad, stepped forward. An older man with a pockmarked face, he was, compared with the Kurdish speakers, conspicuously tepid. He thanked people for coming and mumbled, “We are ready to be with you.”
Alloush stood up again. “Out of respect for everyone who is here today,” he said, the S.D.F. would release fifty local families who, suspected of having especially close ties to isis, had been held in a nearby camp for internally displaced people. The news was greeted with loud applause.
After an elaborate lunch was served, I spoke privately with Abu Jihad. He told me that before isis arrived “there were no radical beliefs” in Karama. “No one thought like that, not even the people who ended up joining isis.” This included his younger brother, Tobat. Abu Jihad said that Tobat had opposed the Assad regime, but was not particularly religious. When isis came to Karama, in 2014, Abu Jihad urged Tobat to stay away. “I told him, ‘There’s no future with them.’ We argued a lot.” Abu Jihad claimed that many people in Karama fell under the sway of isis simply because “there were no schools—there was only the Sharia instruction.” He added, “isis filled all the young people’s minds with their ideas. My brother was one of them.” Tobat retreated with the isis militants to Raqqa, and one day he sent envoys home to recruit fighters. “I called him and told him, strongly, not to do that again,” Abu Jihad recalled. “I said, ‘You made your decision. Now you have to fight alone.’ That was the last time we spoke.” Still, Abu Jihad insisted that Tobat was “a good person.” In Raqqa, he said, Tobat had “helped many people” by standing up for them against less fair-minded isis officials. Abu Jihad said that most of the local men who’d joined isis were redeemable. “A lot of them want to come back,” he told me. “But isis won’t let them.”
I asked him if these men would be welcomed by his tribe if they somehow escaped.
And Tobat? Did he want to come back?
“I don’t know,” Abu Jihad said. He studied the prayer beads in his hands, then told me, “I’m sure he will leave them and return to us.”
The Raqqa Civil Council’s forgiving attitude toward former isis sympathizers, and its deference to Arab tribal structures, contrasted strikingly with what I saw in Rojava. In the majority-Kurdish cantons, winning Arab support is not essential, and indoctrination seems to be more the goal. All men in Rojava between the ages of eighteen and thirty, regardless of their ethnicity, must serve at least ten months in a kind of national guard. In a camp outside Kobanî, I attended a graduation ceremony for some five hundred conscripts, who’d just completed basic training. Most of them were Arabs. When I asked one of the instructors—nearly all of whom were Kurds—what the training entailed, he said, “We really focus on the mentality, the beliefs, more than the military stuff. Our main objective is tosend a new man back to society, and in this way to build a new society.”
The instructor’s classes were intellectually ambitious. “I explain the federalist project,” he said. “I begin with the whole history of federalism, from before the term existed, when it started in Greece. We talk about the Romans, about Columbus discovering America, and about the first American Congress and the colonies. Then I explain the system here in Rojava, which is not a nation-state but a mixing of different communities.” The class lasts six hours a day for twenty days. Arab conscripts take workshops in the Kurdish language twice a week.
The instructor didn’t mention Öcalan to me, but when the graduation ceremony began and conscripts marched across a dirt parade ground to the bleating of a brass band, they chanted, “No life without Apo!”
“Who’s our leader?” a Kurdish female instructor shouted.
Later, in a speech, the female instructor invoked the anniversary of the P.K.K.’s first attacks on the Turkish government: “This month was a holy month, because we are continuing the path that was started by Öcalan.”
After the ceremony, a Kurdish poet recited some of his revolutionary verse, and musicians performed traditional Kurdish songs. While talking with a Kurdish instructor, I remarked on the dozens of abandoned mud-mortar dwellings scattered throughout the camp, which appeared to have once been a village.
“Arabs used to live here,” he said.
“What happened to them?” I asked.
“They left with isis.”
“Where are they now?”
In late 2015, after a two-month investigation, Amnesty International accused the Y.P.G. of forcibly displacing Arabs in northern Syria, and of razing Arab villages there. According to Amnesty, the attacks constituted a “campaign of collective punishment of civilians in villages previously captured” by isis, or in places “where a small minority were suspected of supporting the group.” A subsequent U.N. commission, which investigated more recent allegations, found “no evidence to substantiate claims that Y.P.G. or S.D.F. forces ever targeted Arab communities on the basis of ethnicity.”
At the camp, Kurdish instructors never left my side, and I had difficulty meeting Arab conscripts. Finally, I sat down with a young man named Malik Mohammad, and asked him what he thought of his training.
“It’s useful,” Mohammad said.
The reply felt unconvincing. Like most Arab conscripts, he would probably spend the next ten months performing menial duties, away from his family. Although sixty new graduates had been selected to become officers, all but two were Kurds.
When I asked Mohammad to elaborate, he glanced timidly at several Kurdish conscripts hovering around us. Then he said, “They teach us about the importance of a free society. But if we were free we’d be able to choose whether or not to serve” in the national guard.
Many Kurds also dislike the conscription policy. But the Democratic Union Party, despite its lofty charter and constitution, has shown little patience for dissent. While the Party was consolidating power in northern Syria, rival figures in the Kurdish opposition were arbitrarily imprisoned; others were killed, or went missing. In 2013, Y.P.G. fighters shot and killed three Kurds protesting the detention of anti-Assad activists. The leader of an alliance of Kurdish political parties that are wary of the P.K.K. has been forced into exile. In March, more than a dozen offices belonging to groups opposed to the Democratic Union Party were forcibly shut down.
The Syrian civil war has produced many strange bedfellows. But it’s especially curious that Öcalan’s revolution, which strives to eliminate “capitalist modernity,” has made its recent advancements under the patronage of the United States. In Rojava, Kurds often refer to Donald Trump as Bâvê şoreş—“Father of the Revolution”—and in Kobanî there is a kebab restaurant called Trump, with the President’s visage painted on its window. I met a Y.P.G. fighter who’d named his infant daughter America.
During the Raqqa offensive, U.S. Special Operations Forces were deployed throughout the city, but they avoided journalists. The S.D.F. also severely restricted the press. Reporters were assigned minders, and access to active front lines was almost impossible to obtain. More than once, I was told that I couldn’t go somewhere, only to find out later that U.S. soldiers had been in the area, or that bombardment from coalition planes and artillery had taken place nearby. U.S. Special Operations Forces ran a field hospital in Raqqa that treated wounded S.D.F. fighters; when I went there and asked if anyone would speak with me, I was aggressively confronted by half a dozen armed Americans, one of whom said, “Absolutely not.” He confiscated my phone and demanded its password. (I didn’t give it to him, and he eventually returned the phone.) An older American, with a graying beard and a ball cap, told me, “For you, information is a good thing.” He then explained that, for security reasons, it was better if nobody knew that they were there. Several soldiers escorted me to my car, and for the next two days the S.D.F. shut down the entire area to reporters.
No doubt the security concerns were legitimate. But the efforts to limit media coverage in Raqqa, by both the Americans and the Kurds, might also have been tied to the controversial way that the campaign was conducted. According to the watchdog group Airwars, the coalition deployed some twenty thousand munitions during the Raqqa offensive and killed more than thirteen hundred civilians, including at least two hundred and fifty children. Thousands were injured. In August, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, declared that civilians were “paying an unacceptable price.” The coalition went on to escalate its bombing.
Many of the coalition’s strikes on Raqqa originated with front-line revolutionary Kurdish commanders like Ali Sher. At all times, Sher carried an iPad on which was installed a satellite map of Raqqa. The map allowed him to pinpoint the G.P.S. coördinates of any structure by touching its image on the screen. He could radio the coördinates to a tactical-operations center and request that the structure be targeted by coalition missiles, mortars, rockets, or artillery. Usually, Sher told me, his requests were approved. The numerous air strikes I witnessed each day in Raqqa seemed incongruous, given the apparent paucity of isis fighters there. One day, Sher’s unit moved its line forward by five blocks, capturing forty buildings in the process. While they were completing the operation, I talked to Sher, who told me that nobody had shot at them the whole time. According to the latest intelligence, he said, between five and six hundred isis fighters remained in Raqqa. I asked him what all the bombing was for.
“Snipers,” he said. “And mines. Sometimes it’s just one guy.”
The U.S. has largely disparaged criticism of its strikes. The coalition’s commander, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, recently wrote that assertions by groups like Airwars “are often unsupported by fact.” Omar Alloush, of the Raqqa Civil Council, was similarly dismissive about civilian casualties. He told me, “There are only two kinds of people left in Raqqa—isis and thieves. Otherwise, why haven’t they left yet?”
At the time of this conversation, an estimated twenty thousand civilians were still trapped in Raqqa; attempting to escape was extremely dangerous. isis snipers often shot at fleeing civilians, and many others were killed or maimed by mines. S.D.F. commanders told me that isis used civilians as shields, putting them on the rooftops of buildings they occupied. Two primitive aid stations treated wounded civilians in Raqqa. At both of them, I was told that the vast majority of patients had stepped on mines while trying to reach the S.D.F.’s front line. (When I asked the American with the graying beard if the field hospital treated civilians, he replied, “That’s not our mission.”)
After coalition air strikes took out two bridges over the Euphrates, in February, the main option for fleeing civilians was to hire a smuggler with a boat. The next month, the coalition dropped leaflets over Raqqa with a warning: “Do not use ferries or boats. Air strikes are coming.” Lieutenant General Townsend told the Times, “We shoot every boat we find,” adding, “If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft.”
One would think that the killing of civilians, along with the total demolition of Raqqa’s infrastructure, might risk alienating residents, or turn them against their would-be liberators. For some, surely, this is the case. But others whom I spoke with exhibited a remarkable—and heartbreaking—forbearance from judgment. In South Raqqa, I met Ahmed Almoo, an S.D.F. fighter who had crossed the Euphrates, in a boat, two months earlier. Almoo was fifty-six but looked decades older. I’d noticed him standing guard outside an Arab unit’s position one morning, and was struck by the sight of a man so wizened and fragile wearing a uniform and holding a Kalashnikov. He told me that he’d been a butcher in Raqqa. To pay his smuggler, he’d sold all the equipment from his shop and the furniture from his home. His brother, who couldn’t afford to join him, had been killed by an air strike. All the same, Almoo had not hesitated to join the S.D.F. “I suffered a lot from isis,” he explained. He blamed the group for the death of his son. “He started feeling sick, and we took him to a doctor who did some tests and told us he had stomach cancer. But there’s no medicine or anything in Raqqa, and isis won’t let people leave to find a hospital. So I just brought him home, and he died.”
This echoed previous conversations I’d had. The day I went to Karama, Farris Horan, the tribal liaison, had pointed out a village on the way. His cousin had lived there with her husband, a sheikh. After they had a son, she invited friends over to celebrate. Horan said that the coalition must have mistaken the party for an isis gathering. An air strike hit the house, killing eleven people, including Horan’s cousin and her baby. In the car, Horan brought out his phone and showed me a photograph of the boy, purple-faced and swaddled in white blankets. The sheikh survived. I asked Horan what the sheikh was doing now. “He has a unit in the S.D.F.,” Horan said. “He coördinates directly with the coalition.”
I expressed incredulity.
“All people here want right now is to be finished with isis,” Horan told me. “They will accept almost anything if they can just get rid of isis.”
The willingness to countenance American crimes because of more egregious ones committed by isis, Russia, and the regime, speaks to how tragically tolerant some Syrians have grown of what might once have appalled them. It might also reveal a fear that U.S. involvement in Syria will be short-lived. One day, in a waiting room in Kobanî, a stranger handed me his phone to show me some Kurdish text that he’d typed into Google Translate: “We love Americans so much I hope you do not give up on us.” The sentiment was repeated by many others I met in northern Syria, especially by Kurdish members of the S.D.F.
Their worry is understandable. America’s partnership with the S.D.F. still infuriates Turkey. In July, Turkey’s state news agency published a map identifying ten undisclosed U.S. bases in Rojava, and the Turkish military began shelling a Kurdish district there. Turkish officials announced, “We will never allow the establishment of a terror state along our borders.”
Many Kurdish fighters I met in Raqqa said that they were ready to fight the Turkish Army next. At the graduation ceremony in Kobanî, the conscripts were commanded to stand against “our enemies in Turkey.” From the perspective of U.S. interests, however, once isishas been defeated in Syria the utility of Kurdish fighters will diminish significantly. If a direct conflict broke out between Turkey and the S.D.F., it is difficult to imagine the U.S. employing force against its nato ally. It is equally difficult to imagine the S.D.F. withstanding a Turkish incursion, unless it were supported by U.S. airpower.
In mid-October, isis holdouts in Raqqa were granted safe passage out of the city. According to Omar Alloush, the Kurdish senior member of the Raqqa Civil Council, two hundred and seventy-five Syrian isis members “turned themselves in to their tribes, in exchange for forgiveness.” (Although some of those who surrendered came from Karama, the home of Abu Jihad, his brother Tobat was not among them.)
This fall, S.D.F. fighters and regime forces have been racing for control of isis’s last bastion, the province of Deir Ezzor. The S.D.F. recently captured a large oil field there. The Assad regime, backed by Russian air power, is fighting in the provincial capital. A direct phone line connects the command centers of the U.S. and Russian militaries in Syria, so that they can avoid inadvertent clashes. Nonetheless, the coalition says, Russian planes have targeted S.D.F. positions, wounding fighters.
Even as the Democratic Union Party has embraced the U.S.-led coalition and forged alliances with anti-government rebels, it has tried to reach an accommodation with Assad. Crude from northern Syria’s abundant oil fields, which the Democratic Union Party largely controls, is exported in tanker convoys to Damascus, and an overland route links Rojava to regime-controlled Aleppo. The Kurdish quarter in Aleppo has been granted semi-autonomy, and regime soldiers still guard the administrative buildings that the government was allowed to keep after withdrawing troops from Rojava.
Outside Rojava, Bashar al-Assad’s military position is as strong as it has been in years. He has described the autonomous Kurdish cantonments as “temporary structures,” and he has never equivocated about his intention to bring the entire country back under his control. Robert S. Ford, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that Assad “will probably succeed.” Ford continued, “That means the United States will have to abandon any hopes of supporting a separate Kurdish region or securing respect for human rights and democracy.” In his view, “when the Syrian government and Kurdish forces inevitably fight,” it would be “a mistake” for the U.S. to “step in on behalf of old allies.”
On October 19th, in a ceremony at Naim Square, in the center of Raqqa, the S.D.F. announced that the city had been “liberated.” This feels like a misnomer. The coalition’s air campaign has left Raqqa an uninhabitable wasteland. More than three hundred thousand civilians have been displaced. In September, Omar Alloush told me that he’d met with U.S. State Department officials who’d pledged American financial help for the rebuilding of Raqqa’s infrastructure, power plants, schools, and water and sanitation systems. “Until now, this is only words,” he said. “They have given nothing.”
All the same, the event at Naim Square was celebratory. Under isis, the square had been the site of beheadings and crucifixions. Now a huge banner showing a smiling Öcalan was unfurled. Y.P.G. flags flew. “My heart was jumping for joy,” Rojda Felat said recently. “We thought it would be much more difficult.” She noted, “One time, on the front lines, the enemy attacked and the men took a step back—but the women didn’t. When the men saw them, they started fighting again.”
Hundreds of female Kurdish fighters, from various units around the city, congregated in the square. Nesrin Abdullah, the commander of an all-female branch of the Y.P.G., gave a speech commemorating the thirty female fighters who had been killed during the offensive. “Women have freed themselves of the exploitative male regime in political, social, cultural, and military aspects,” Abdullah declared. “We dedicate the liberation of Raqqa to all the women of the world.”
Whatever the Kurdish revolution is or isn’t, and however sincerely its adherents have sought to implement their ideals, its commitment to women’s rights cannot be dismissed. For many women in the Y.P.G., the revolution is, above all, an unprecedented feminist endeavor for the Middle East. One day in Raqqa, in September, I met a twenty-two-year-old fighter named Shilan, who was wearing fatigues, Chuck Taylors, and a calculator watch. She told me, “The men we are fighting against treat women like animals. They make them slaves, they rape them. As a woman, I have to fight these men.”
isis is spectacularly misogynist, but Kurdish society can also be sexist, Shilan pointed out. She said that joining the Y.P.G. and battling isis was, in part, a means of transcending limitations that would otherwise define her life at home: “Your family tells you that you can’t wear certain clothes. When you go out, people say you have to stay with your husband. You’re not free. Nobody listens to you. Here, you have the right to your opinion. Men care what you have to say. They want to put you in the front. It’s possible to have your place.”
I asked her whether she could imagine being a civilian again, when the war in Syria ends. From where we stood, it felt like a frivolously hypothetical question, but Shilan answered right away.
No, she’d never go back. ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the November 6, 2017, issue, with the headline “Dark Victory.”
Luke Mogelson has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2013. He is the author of the short-story collection “These Heroic, Happy Dead.”
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