.
T

here is a clip that occasionally resurfaces on social media of a young Kurdish sniper. The unidentified woman is looking through her rifle’s scope and takes a shot, only to have a round fired from the Islamic State impact inches from her head. Remarkably unphased and unharmed, she laughs the incident off, sticking out her tongue. The casualness with which she shrugs off this brush with death would be familiar to any American soldier or Marine who found themselves in a similar scenario—the dark humor of combat, known only to those who have fought.

The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice | Gayle Tzemach Lemmon | Penguin | February 2021.

It is one of the curious things about modern war, in which the violence and barbarity of conflict are joined by the strangely lighter moments, all viewed through a black mirror. The campaign waged by and waged against the Islamic State is perhaps the first “social media” war in which platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others all offer viewers and users direct access to the frontlines. It was a campaign in which Syrian Kurdish women played a pivotal role, a role that achieved remarkable battlefield successes against a hardened and vicious adversary, and without whom the fight to degrade ISIS would not have been a success.

It is also a campaign that few will have fully understood were it not for the wonderfully written, powerful, and poignant Daughters of Kobani by Ms. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Ms. Lemmon, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of several other exceptional books, offers a moving portrait of bravery, heroism, and a dedication to principles that must be read. A book which Washington’s policymakers should reflect on when they think of the second and third-order effects of their policy decisions.

Bravery & Barbarism

The juxtaposition of the humanity of the women’s units and the barbarism of their Islamic State opponents are on graphic display. In one incident, Azeema’s mother repeatedly calls, checking in to make sure her daughter is okay. Rojda, another fighter’s brother, tracks her voice over the radio and when she is not heard, he calls her mobile phone to check in on her, illustrating the strangeness of the modern battlefield, in which one can watch, in near real-time, the movements of loved ones. The Kurdish fighters fought not just for their lives and their communities, but to make their communities more inclusive from the beginning; to build a better society and future.

Against this are the horrors inflicted by ISIS, the beheadings, the rape and sexual violence, the torture, and the selling of women and children into bondage. ISIS sought not to build for the future, but to return to a medieval world of Sunni domination and the subjugation of women, a twisted interpretation of Islam that sought to bring about the apocalypse fluttering under black flags. That their march in Syria was stopped by women-led units is all the more ironic and, hopefully, all the more damaging for ISIS’ already twisted psyche.

There is a familiarity in reading the Daughters of Kobani that may surprise some readers, but it shouldn’t. The sights, the sounds, the smells of battle are the same whether the fighter is a woman or a man. War does not care about one’s gender. Its friction, fog, and noise are eternal and uncaring. Were one to de-gender the names or swap the women’s names for men’s, the story would be just as visceral. The heroism of Azeema, Rojda, and Nowruz is just as powerful as the heroism of any of their male counterparts. Heroism and bravery are heroism and bravery regardless of gender.

Indeed, the issue is not whether or not women possess the bravery, strength, or skill necessary to serve in these units, but whether the establishment has the bravery, strength, or skills necessary to adapt to and provide the opportunity for women to succeed and serve their country in those roles. That is fundamentally a policy and political challenge, one with which gender has nothing to do and one that can be overcome.

Strategic Objectives & Tactical Successes

The YPJ’s success speaks for itself. In one story recounted by Ms. Lemmon, a young Syrian Kurd jokes with a grizzled American special operations soldier, noting she probably killed more ISIS fighters than he. Another special operator reflects with equal parts frustration and admiration that he finds himself well behind the frontlines, only providing support to the YPJ fighters bravely taking the fight to ISIS.

Ms. Lemmon provides a ground-level perspective on this campaign—the house to house, street-to-street, gritty urban warfare that took place against ISIS. The Islamic State, as others have written, was much more than just a rabble of insurgents. By the time of the events of Kobani, it was a battle-hardened, experienced fighting force that bordered on conventional capabilities with seized up-armored vehicles, tanks, and artillery. That the YPJ and other units were able to hold their own without assistance (early on) is all the more impressive and remarkable. When the United States finally provided on-the-ground assistance, it turned the tide, and swiftly. Backed by American airpower coordinated by tip-of-the-spear special operators, the YPJ and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were able to degrade ISIS and roll back their advances.  

The tactical and operational-level successes took place against a complex strategic backdrop, one in which Turkey, Syria, Iraq, the United States, Russia, and others all sought to shape. Turkey, for its part, painted all Kurds with the same Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-brush—all Kurds were terrorists, marching to the PKK’s drum according to Ankara. Syria’s Kurds had far narrower goals and while they did subscribe to Abdullah Ocalan’s teachings, they were distinct from the PKK. Damascus, for its part, was focused on survival, backed by Moscow and Tehran, and less interested in fighting ISIS.

The United States found itself with few partners on the ground capable of expelling ISIS, seizing, and holding territory—whilst Washington did not want to introduce its personnel. The only viable options were the YPJ and YPG, which necessitated diplomatic flexibility to assuage Ankara, as Ms. Lemmon recounts. Reluctant to arm the YPJ and YPG, the White House under Trump eventually shifted policy, arming the Arab/Kurd Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

What is fascinating throughout this story is the extent to which the Syrian Kurds put into practice that which they preach in terms of equality and representation for women. Their Social Contract included mandated representation for women, equal rights from the beginning, and, in many cases, co-management of localities under their control. Perhaps even more impressive was the Syrian Kurds’ limited strategic objectives—their fight was not for independence or a broader Kurdish state, though some certainly wanted that. Rather, for the Syrian Kurds, it was self-governance, representation, and respect for their Kurdish identity, all of which had been denied to them by the Assad regime and was existentially threatened by ISIS.

Looming Betrayal

Lurking in the background for well-informed readers is a creeping sense of dread, of foreshadowing of what is to befall the Kurds after the events of Kobani. In 2019, President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw all U.S. forces from northern Syria, abandoning Kurdish allies and ceding the political power on the ground to Turkey. Ankara launched a military offensive, effectively green-lit by the White House’s decision, against the Kurdish forces; forces who, at the time of the U.S. withdrawal, had already lost 11,000 killed and 24,000 wounded fighting the Islamic State since 2014.

Speaking to The Atlantic at the time of the decision, an unidentified senior administration official said it best, “The abrupt decision to withdraw [U.S. troops] and green-light the Turkish operation in northeast Syria was a betrayal of one of our best partners in the global war on terrorists.” They added, “It disrupted our ‘Defeat ISIS’ fight and hurt our reputation as a reliable partner worldwide.”

The tragedy is captured in the words of Rojda who said, “It is really painful to have to fight Turkey in the same places we liberated from ISIS.” In a few short months, from the celebration of the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity to the decision by President Trump, the situation on the ground went from success to failure. From a model of cooperation and joint operations, to a stain on America’s character. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Kurds did everything the United States and the global coalition against ISIS asked of them, and more, sacrificing countless lives, shedding blood for every street retaken, only to have Washington turn its back on them for seemingly no rational or strategic reason.

Yes, ISIS was operationally degraded (but not defeated), and it is true that the United States never committed to the long-term political aspirations of the Syrian Kurds—but was defeat snatched from the jaws of victory? As Ms. Lemmon writes, the Syrian Kurds “had not wanted to fight Turkey—they knew the military mismatch better than anyone and were seeking any way to avoid war. Indeed, at the Americans’ request, the SDF destroyed all of its positions built to defend against a Turkish incursion.”

That Daughters of Kobani is slated to be turned into a television show by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s production company is not surprising in the least. It is a powerful story about bravery and heroism that demands to be read and heard by a broad audience. Ms. Lemmon’s book is beautifully written with affection and respect for the women whose stories she tells, and an attention to the personal as well as the policy details that will easily lend itself to translation for television. One can only hope that this translation allows the story to tell itself, which Ms. Lemmon does exceptionally well and with marked success

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Book Review: The Daughters of Kobani

March 6, 2021

The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice | Gayle Tzemach Lemmon | Penguin | February 2021.

T

here is a clip that occasionally resurfaces on social media of a young Kurdish sniper. The unidentified woman is looking through her rifle’s scope and takes a shot, only to have a round fired from the Islamic State impact inches from her head. Remarkably unphased and unharmed, she laughs the incident off, sticking out her tongue. The casualness with which she shrugs off this brush with death would be familiar to any American soldier or Marine who found themselves in a similar scenario—the dark humor of combat, known only to those who have fought.

The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice | Gayle Tzemach Lemmon | Penguin | February 2021.

It is one of the curious things about modern war, in which the violence and barbarity of conflict are joined by the strangely lighter moments, all viewed through a black mirror. The campaign waged by and waged against the Islamic State is perhaps the first “social media” war in which platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others all offer viewers and users direct access to the frontlines. It was a campaign in which Syrian Kurdish women played a pivotal role, a role that achieved remarkable battlefield successes against a hardened and vicious adversary, and without whom the fight to degrade ISIS would not have been a success.

It is also a campaign that few will have fully understood were it not for the wonderfully written, powerful, and poignant Daughters of Kobani by Ms. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Ms. Lemmon, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of several other exceptional books, offers a moving portrait of bravery, heroism, and a dedication to principles that must be read. A book which Washington’s policymakers should reflect on when they think of the second and third-order effects of their policy decisions.

Bravery & Barbarism

The juxtaposition of the humanity of the women’s units and the barbarism of their Islamic State opponents are on graphic display. In one incident, Azeema’s mother repeatedly calls, checking in to make sure her daughter is okay. Rojda, another fighter’s brother, tracks her voice over the radio and when she is not heard, he calls her mobile phone to check in on her, illustrating the strangeness of the modern battlefield, in which one can watch, in near real-time, the movements of loved ones. The Kurdish fighters fought not just for their lives and their communities, but to make their communities more inclusive from the beginning; to build a better society and future.

Against this are the horrors inflicted by ISIS, the beheadings, the rape and sexual violence, the torture, and the selling of women and children into bondage. ISIS sought not to build for the future, but to return to a medieval world of Sunni domination and the subjugation of women, a twisted interpretation of Islam that sought to bring about the apocalypse fluttering under black flags. That their march in Syria was stopped by women-led units is all the more ironic and, hopefully, all the more damaging for ISIS’ already twisted psyche.

There is a familiarity in reading the Daughters of Kobani that may surprise some readers, but it shouldn’t. The sights, the sounds, the smells of battle are the same whether the fighter is a woman or a man. War does not care about one’s gender. Its friction, fog, and noise are eternal and uncaring. Were one to de-gender the names or swap the women’s names for men’s, the story would be just as visceral. The heroism of Azeema, Rojda, and Nowruz is just as powerful as the heroism of any of their male counterparts. Heroism and bravery are heroism and bravery regardless of gender.

Indeed, the issue is not whether or not women possess the bravery, strength, or skill necessary to serve in these units, but whether the establishment has the bravery, strength, or skills necessary to adapt to and provide the opportunity for women to succeed and serve their country in those roles. That is fundamentally a policy and political challenge, one with which gender has nothing to do and one that can be overcome.

Strategic Objectives & Tactical Successes

The YPJ’s success speaks for itself. In one story recounted by Ms. Lemmon, a young Syrian Kurd jokes with a grizzled American special operations soldier, noting she probably killed more ISIS fighters than he. Another special operator reflects with equal parts frustration and admiration that he finds himself well behind the frontlines, only providing support to the YPJ fighters bravely taking the fight to ISIS.

Ms. Lemmon provides a ground-level perspective on this campaign—the house to house, street-to-street, gritty urban warfare that took place against ISIS. The Islamic State, as others have written, was much more than just a rabble of insurgents. By the time of the events of Kobani, it was a battle-hardened, experienced fighting force that bordered on conventional capabilities with seized up-armored vehicles, tanks, and artillery. That the YPJ and other units were able to hold their own without assistance (early on) is all the more impressive and remarkable. When the United States finally provided on-the-ground assistance, it turned the tide, and swiftly. Backed by American airpower coordinated by tip-of-the-spear special operators, the YPJ and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were able to degrade ISIS and roll back their advances.  

The tactical and operational-level successes took place against a complex strategic backdrop, one in which Turkey, Syria, Iraq, the United States, Russia, and others all sought to shape. Turkey, for its part, painted all Kurds with the same Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-brush—all Kurds were terrorists, marching to the PKK’s drum according to Ankara. Syria’s Kurds had far narrower goals and while they did subscribe to Abdullah Ocalan’s teachings, they were distinct from the PKK. Damascus, for its part, was focused on survival, backed by Moscow and Tehran, and less interested in fighting ISIS.

The United States found itself with few partners on the ground capable of expelling ISIS, seizing, and holding territory—whilst Washington did not want to introduce its personnel. The only viable options were the YPJ and YPG, which necessitated diplomatic flexibility to assuage Ankara, as Ms. Lemmon recounts. Reluctant to arm the YPJ and YPG, the White House under Trump eventually shifted policy, arming the Arab/Kurd Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

What is fascinating throughout this story is the extent to which the Syrian Kurds put into practice that which they preach in terms of equality and representation for women. Their Social Contract included mandated representation for women, equal rights from the beginning, and, in many cases, co-management of localities under their control. Perhaps even more impressive was the Syrian Kurds’ limited strategic objectives—their fight was not for independence or a broader Kurdish state, though some certainly wanted that. Rather, for the Syrian Kurds, it was self-governance, representation, and respect for their Kurdish identity, all of which had been denied to them by the Assad regime and was existentially threatened by ISIS.

Looming Betrayal

Lurking in the background for well-informed readers is a creeping sense of dread, of foreshadowing of what is to befall the Kurds after the events of Kobani. In 2019, President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw all U.S. forces from northern Syria, abandoning Kurdish allies and ceding the political power on the ground to Turkey. Ankara launched a military offensive, effectively green-lit by the White House’s decision, against the Kurdish forces; forces who, at the time of the U.S. withdrawal, had already lost 11,000 killed and 24,000 wounded fighting the Islamic State since 2014.

Speaking to The Atlantic at the time of the decision, an unidentified senior administration official said it best, “The abrupt decision to withdraw [U.S. troops] and green-light the Turkish operation in northeast Syria was a betrayal of one of our best partners in the global war on terrorists.” They added, “It disrupted our ‘Defeat ISIS’ fight and hurt our reputation as a reliable partner worldwide.”

The tragedy is captured in the words of Rojda who said, “It is really painful to have to fight Turkey in the same places we liberated from ISIS.” In a few short months, from the celebration of the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity to the decision by President Trump, the situation on the ground went from success to failure. From a model of cooperation and joint operations, to a stain on America’s character. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Kurds did everything the United States and the global coalition against ISIS asked of them, and more, sacrificing countless lives, shedding blood for every street retaken, only to have Washington turn its back on them for seemingly no rational or strategic reason.

Yes, ISIS was operationally degraded (but not defeated), and it is true that the United States never committed to the long-term political aspirations of the Syrian Kurds—but was defeat snatched from the jaws of victory? As Ms. Lemmon writes, the Syrian Kurds “had not wanted to fight Turkey—they knew the military mismatch better than anyone and were seeking any way to avoid war. Indeed, at the Americans’ request, the SDF destroyed all of its positions built to defend against a Turkish incursion.”

That Daughters of Kobani is slated to be turned into a television show by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s production company is not surprising in the least. It is a powerful story about bravery and heroism that demands to be read and heard by a broad audience. Ms. Lemmon’s book is beautifully written with affection and respect for the women whose stories she tells, and an attention to the personal as well as the policy details that will easily lend itself to translation for television. One can only hope that this translation allows the story to tell itself, which Ms. Lemmon does exceptionally well and with marked success

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.