The Mothers Who Fled the Turkish Incursion

Batoul and her baby in 2017, shortly after they fled the ISIS capital of Raqqa, Syria..

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

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Batoul and her baby in 2017, shortly after they fled the ISIS capital of Raqqa, Syria..

Attacks by Turkish-backed forces shattered a hard-won pseudo-normalcy for Syrian women who had lived under ISIS.

I met Batoul in the summer of 2017. The mother of three had fled Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, and sought safety in the town of Ain Issa. Within weeks, she had delivered what must have been the first baby in the town’s camp for the displaced. She didn’t know what would come next for her family, but she knew that she wanted peace, security — some basic stability — so that she could send her children to school free of terror. Life under ISIS had offered a series of horrors: she feared her children would be forced to watch beheadings and hangings each time she left the house with them on her arm. Now she wanted only to send her children to school and live in quiet.

Two years later, I found her living in a camp outside Raqqa. She smiled with praise and thanked G.d for how well things were going: she worked for an American NGO as a cleaner and supported all her children with her salary. Her older children studied once more in a local school near the camp where she remained and she felt the future looked far more secure for her children.

Then came the incursion launched by Turkey last month. Turkish-backed forces shelled her camp, a place of refuge filled with civilians who had done nothing but seek safety from war. Batoul fled, the fragile stability she had built over two years crushed overnight. Now she is displaced and working to rebuild her and her children’s lives once more. 

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This week, when Turkish President Erdogan arrives in Washington, policy makers must not forget the mothers like Batoul and so many others I have met in the past two years whose fight for stability and security and against extremism is one the United States shares. When Turkey invaded northeastern Syria, it threw into chaos the fragile normality that mothers like Batoul had carved out for themselves. This had nothing to do with Arabs or Kurds — Batoul comes from the Arab community—and everything to do with regular people waging a battle against extremism and against upheaval. 

Turkey must not be allowed to continue its incursion. No towns outside the territories it already has used its proxies to capture must be allowed to fall into Turkish hands. This includes the town of Kobani, where the Syrian Kurds with help from Iraqi Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces and, eventually, the United States, handed ISIS its first-ever defeat back in 2014. The line drawn for what the U.S. is willing to tolerate in northern Syria from its NATO ally already is soaked with blood; more death and a renewed offensive must not be permitted. 

This is not about sentimentality, but about an American national security imperative to protect the security and stability which remains in the region from extremism, chaos and the reemergence of the Islamic State. These moms who found something better under U.S.-backed forces and already have suffered so much see their fates hang in the balance.

Malika, a mother of two, comes from the town of Deir Ezzor. Her husband had been imprisoned and then brutalized by ISIS. After escaping from jail, he went to fight with the U.S.-backed forces, defying his extended family, which continued to support ISIS. He died in the fight, and Malika struggled to support her children. Her husband’s family demanded that she bring her children to live with them, but she refused. She would never give them up, she told them, and definitely not to family members that continued to support ISIS

When I met her, she had landed at an all-women compound designed to offer safety and a home to widows and orphans. And she insisted that her daughter go to school before even thinking about marrying.

“I want my kids to be educated. I want them to be professors, teachers — that is my dream for my kids,” she told me in May. “I didn’t get to go to school and I want them to be educated. When I grew up, they said it was a shame for girls to be educated, but this is wrong. I will push my daughter to go to school — all my kids — two boys and one daughter, I will be hard on them to make sure they study.”

Last week, shelling from Turkish-backed forces forced Malika and her children and the other women in the compound to flee to another town. Kids who already had seen so much now were forced to go on the move once more.

The Turkish-backed offensive has brought fear, extremism, upheaval, and displacement to an area that had enjoyed a hard-won normalcy. This week’s visit from the Turkish prime minister offers a moment to say, “No more.” The offensive cannot go further and the U.S. must be prepared to act if Turkey will not follow what it says it agreed to: to stay within the zone it bombed and shelled its way into last month. 

These moms are now fighting for a future that hangs in the balance. America has no better ally than these women in its campaign to keep the ISIS fight ended. 

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