In Homage to the Kurdish Women Who Fought ISIS

Much has been written about Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds in Syria. But a recent tweet that showed up in my timeline brought it all home for me in a new way.

I was reminded that over the last few years, we’ve heard stories about the bravery of the Kurdish women (members of the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Units) who were fighting ISIS. That was particularly true during the siege of Kobani, which has been described as “one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the campaign against the militant group.” Here is what Newsha Tavakolian learned about the women who fought.

[I]t’s not just the battle against ISIS that brings these young women to a spare military camp in Syria, a half hour away from the front lines…The desire to break free from the macho Middle East was so strong that rural girls volunteered to join the YPJ, where they developed into soldiers ready to put their lives on the line. “In the past, women had various roles in the society, but all those roles were taken from them,” says 18-year-old Saria Zilan. “We are here now to take back the role of women in society.”

As Jen Kirby explained, Bashar al-Assad pulled out of northern Syria in 2012 in order to concentrate his forces on defeating rebels in the rest of the country, creating the self-governing Kurdish territory known as “Rojava.” Assad’s move had the added benefit of providing a disincentive for the Kurds to join with those who were fighting against the regime.

But in 2014, ISIS launched an attack on Kobani, which is part of Rojava, leading to a battle that lasted for the next nine months. The city was effectively demolished, with thousands killed and hundreds of thousands becoming refugees. The statue in the picture above was sculpted by a Kurdish artist from Iraq, Zirak Mira, as a monument to the role of Kurdish female fighters in the war against terrorism. It sits in a part of Kobani that remains in ruins as an open museum to the public.

During the siege of Kobani, U.S. forces bombed ISIS positions, while the Kurds battled them on the ground. It was the headquarters of that U.S. operation that was bombed by Turkey last Friday. As Lara Seligman reported, Turkey claims that was an accident, but a “senior administration official told Foreign Policy the attack was a deliberate attempt to push U.S. forces out of the town.”

Even though Turkish President Erdogan promised Trump that he would not attack Kobani, his forces have advanced on the town. In response, Assad’s military has moved in as well. While Erdogan has been clear about his intentions, if Syrian forces prevail, Assad has a history of denying the Kurds basic human rights. Back in 2005, the New York Times reported that the Kurds were denied citizenship and forced to carry red cards identifying them as “foreigner.”

As the largest stateless nation in the world, the Kurds are basically “foreigners” no matter where they live. That is the result of decisions made decades ago.

The Kurds ended up where they are — without a homeland — because of the Western powers who drew the region’s map after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. The Allied powers (the UK, France, Italy, Japan, and others) who won the war signed the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres with what was left of the Ottoman Empire. That pact set aside territory for the Kurds as it carved up the Ottoman Empire. But that got amended with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which established the modern Turkish state and the other borders in the Middle East. That treaty omitted a Kurdish nation-state and left the population divided across several different countries.

History never forgets, so we are still living with the fact that the Kurds are stateless as a result of the map-carving that created modern-day Turkey. But rather than recognize that context, the U.S. president just condoned the idea that Turkey has to have them “cleaned out.”

It remains to be seen what happens to the Kurds of Kobani and the statue that was erected to the brave women who fought to save the city from ISIS. Leaders like Trump, Erdogan, and Assad have the power to determine their fate in the short-term. But I hope that, regardless of what happens to the statue, the children of Kobani will always remember that their mothers were brave warriors.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.