Syrian Women Helped Find Baghdadi, Beat ISIS, Will Face ‘Tough Time’ Ahead, Leader Says

A YPJ fighter looks around a corner in this undated file photo.

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A YPJ fighter looks around a corner in this undated file photo.

'We will continue our resistance and our struggle,' says the head of the all-women’s YPJ, in a rare interview.

For the women who have given more than five years of their lives and lost close to 1,000 of their friends to the fight against the Islamic State, the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi meant a great deal — and marked a truly historic moment.

“I feel that this means we could do something for women around the world,” said Nowruz Ahmed, the head of the all-women’s People’s Protection Force, or YPJ, in a Sunday phone call. The all-women’s force formed a key component of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, who fought ISIS from the ground while the U.S. led from the air and served as advise-and-assist partners.

Nowruz and I have spoken several times before, in a series of several-hour-long interviews for a book I am writing. This was the first time we had spoken since Turkey attacked her forces and created chaos from a region that had enjoyed a fragile, but real, stability that I had seen for myself in regular trips to the area. It’s also the first time we weren’t speaking in person. I’m used to seeing her sitting before a suite of phones that tracked the fight against the Islamic State. Now I was on the other end of one of those phones. She sounded determined, but exhausted. Her voice made clear that for the first time she really felt her forces stood alone in standing up against this kind of extremism the Islamic State represented.

I began by asking her about the Baghdadi news. After all, no one I’ve met speaks more personally about fighting the men of the Islamic State, street by street, house by house, and sometimes even room by room, than these women who have gone up against them for the better half of a decade. ISIS is no abstraction for these women who devoted years of their lives to ending the rule of its fighters. “They are the same animals,” one of Nowruz’s commanders, Rojda Felat, who led the fight against ISIS in Tabqa and Raqqa, told me last December. At that time, she had had to cancel one of our interviews because ISIS had placed an explosive beneath a fellow SDF member’s car and blown her leg off. Instead of meeting me at our scheduled time, Rojda instead had driven her teammate three hours to the hospital in Qamishli. “They haven’t changed one bit since Kobani; they have just gotten more desperate,” she said, then.

Nowruz, who led Rojda against ISIS in the 2014 battle for Kobani, and for years afterward, told me she felt thrilled to know Baghdadi was dead.

“We knew of this operation and worked on it quite a lot,” Nowruz said, of the secret U.S. special operations forces mission to find Baghdadi on Saturday. No hint of the extraordinary hung in her voice, she was simply acknowledging that this operation had been one of so many in which they had taken part with the United States.

Members of the all-women unit — now a force several thousand strong — played a role in the intelligence sharing that led to the successful weekend operation against the head of the Islamic State, a group which institutionalized the enslavement of women, among its long list of crimes. “This is a great victory for all the women around the world, because the people who were suffering the most from the ISIS ideology and mentality were women.”

Over the past two years I have met with so many of the women who led the battle against the Islamic State, first on their own and then alongside the Americans following Kobani, which was  ISIS’s first battlefield defeat. Americans who led the ISIS fight from the air and as advisors have spoken to me about the deep respect they have for these women, describing them as “warriors.” Women in Syria have served as snipers, battlefield commanders and front-line leaders against ISIS. One veteran American soldier who has spent most of his career fighting the post-9/11 conflicts told me months ago that working with these women brought to mind for him the three-word motto in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous 1962 farewell speech at West Point: “duty, honor, country.”

In Syria, these women also fought for equality as much as they fought to end the Islamic State. Women’s rights sat at the center of the ideas they had worked to bring to the area, not at all because of American influence, but because of their own ideology inspired by Abdullah Ocalan, Murray Bookchin, and the ideas of near-utopian grassroots, participatory democracy with women’s equality at its center. While critics often saw these ideas as unique to this group of Kurds, the many young women I met from Arab and Christian communities across the region very much shared at least the women’s piece — the idea that they merited a say in their own future. For the members of the Women’s Protection Units that Nowruz led, beating ISIS meant beating the ideology that said women meant nothing and mattered even less.

‘We are passing through a tough time here’ - Nowruz Ahmed, head of the YPJ

“We are trying to remove this whole mentality from the world and we believe the operation attacking Baghdadi will help in standing against this,” Nowruz said. “Personally, this is a historic day for all of us and we hope we can achieve more victories in the future.”

But she also acknowledged the grim reality the Kurds now face, as they confront Russia imposing a deal with Turkey agreed to in Sochi, and the inescapable realty that Turkey will attack the Kurds again if they don’t submit to its conditions. As she put it to me, the Kurds have no other options at the moment. More than 15 women have died since Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds began two weeks ago. Turkish-backed forces released a video showing their capture of one of the YPJ fighters.  Another video shows Turkish-backed forces calling a dead YPJ fighter a “whore.”

 The end of Baghdadi offered the only bright spot she and her forces have experienced since Turkey launched its attack.

“We are passing through a tough time here; we have been really disappointed by what is going on, on the ground. But talking about ISIS and the operations and what happened to Baghdadi  — I am so glad about this news,” she said. “All of us who played a major role in fighting ISIS, we all have a part in this victory.”

For all those who cared about battling extremism, Nawruz said, an international force and possible peace talks offered part of the answer. In their experiment in self-rule, she said, they sought to bring people together, including religious and ethnic minorities.

“We have been fighting ISIS for seven years, and we were trying to build community in the newly liberated areas,” she said. “We tried to create a strong society and for all the people who lived under ISIS control, including religious minorities and all the ethnic groups.” I had seen it for myself in a year’s worth of interviews with Christian young women in Hassekeh, and Arab young women I met in the towns of Raqqa, Tabqa and Manbij since 2017 — women who had lived under ISIS, and who took on roles in the governance that came next. It is not that it was perfect, but it constituted fragile progress, and they took their part to make it better and to make it enduring.

Then came Turkey’s attack, which has sent all that fragile stability into a 52-card-pick up everyone on the ground is struggling to understand and to divine how to make right so that they can go back to battling ISIS instead of defending their families.

“Killing al-Baghdadi, we hope that we can remove this mentality in the region,” Nowruz said. “We will continue our resistance and our struggle against these people and these ideas.” 

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