I Fought ISIS with the Kurds In Syria. This Is What It Was Like

Robert Amos

Robert Amos

Former volunteer for Kurdish armed forces in Syria

click for full bio >>

~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Robert Amos ~

From the Blog

I dropped out of school to join the fight against tyranny. I learned much more than I had expected.

“The Jews and the Kurds, we are alone in the Middle East,” a fighter named Zagros told me as I was leaving Syrian Kurdistan. “Go back to Israel and tell the Kurdish Jews in Israel that they are welcome back here in Kurdistan.”

I had been there for almost six months fighting ISIS alongside Kurdish soldiers. A year before, I had been a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem studying politics and sociology. But after I saw the horrible images of the rape and destruction of Yazidi communities in Iraq, and without any previous military training, I put down my studies and went to Syrian Kurdistan to fight.

I was not alone in this. There were many foreign fighters participating in the Kurdish struggle, and we were now on our way back home, waiting at a transit camp in the beautiful forested mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Zagros, who temporarily helped run the camp, was a local and an experienced fighter. As we stepped outside the tent, he told me that his village used to be home to many Jews.

Jewish history in Kurdistan goes back many centuries. Kurdistan is part of the land in which the Babylonian Talmud was crafted. Many prominent rabbis and prophets lived and died there. Before every Shabbat, Jews around the world recite the candle lighting blessings from the Siddur written by Nachum the Mede, a Kurdish Jew. In the 17th century, the very first female rabbi, Asenath Barzani, was born in Kurdistan. The Star of David was probably first used as a symbol of Judaism by David Alroy, a Kurdish Jewish warlord and rebel against the Islamic Caliphate in the 12th century. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, was a Kurd.

In recent years, the fight against ISIS has evoked much symbolic solidarity between Iraqi Kurds and Israelis. The reasons for this friendship include their shared values and historical connections, as well as the common enemy of Islamist terror. For these and other reasons, Syria’s Kurds could be an even greater partner with Israel than their brothers in Iraq.

The Kurds are the world’s largest stateless people. After World War I, Kurdistan was split into four different countries, making them a universal minority. After this dismemberment, each area of Kurdistan has attempted to achieve independence at one time or another. Until recently, Iraqi Kurdistan was the only one to win relative autonomy. But since 2011, a new autonomous democracy known as Rojava has been established in Syrian Kurdistan. Rojava is the Kurdish word for “west” or “western Kurdistan.” Many around the world have heard of the Iraqi Kurdish army known as the Peshmerga, but in Rojava, those fighting for their homes are known as the YPG, the Kurdish acronym for “People’s Protection Units.”

When ISIS massacred the Yezidis in the Shingal area of Iraq, the Peshmerga lines fell back, allowing ISIS to enter the region. Thousands of Yezidi families fled and were trapped without food or water in the desert mountains. It looked hopeless, but when no local or foreign power did anything to rescue the Yazidis, the YPG crossed the border from Syria and pushed ISIS back long enough to create a corridor to safety, saving thousands of lives. These images motivated me to join the YPG.

After this battle, recruitment swelled, and many Westerners and Kurds joined the YPG. As a result, the Yezidis are more loyal to Syrian Kurdistan than to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. When I was fighting in Tell Hamis, I met one Yezidi who stayed with us for several days. He told me that he was on his way to another location for military training. Before the war against ISIS, the Yezidis had insisted on autonomy from the KRG. After the massacre, they trusted the KRG even less, and began to align themselves with the Syrian Kurds who helped train them and create a new satellite militia known as YBŞ, the Shingal Resistance Units.

As I spoke Kurdish with my Yazidi friend near the front lines, we faced Mount Shingal, which loomed over the Iraqi-Syrian border. He told me that he knew of 10 childhood friends who were executed by ISIS because of their religion. Their women were sold into sexual slavery. On the mountain that night we would occasionally see lights from PKK and YBŞ units. Between us there was a long desert plain under the rule of ISIS. And to the north, completing the horseshoe-shaped frontline, was the Peshmerga.

There is no usable airport in Syrian Kurdistan, so to get to Rojava I had to land in Iraqi Kurdistan first. My contact had given me nothing but a phone number and the instruction to fly to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. Not knowing Sorani, the largest Kurdish dialect in Iraq, I handed a piece of paper with the phone number to the taxi driver. A phone call was made and the driver dropped me off in front of what I thought was an abandoned park.

After a few minutes, I was approached by my contact. He talked very little and I followed him down several streets into a back alley. A door opened and I saw three Westerners sitting in the room—one from Texas, another from England, and a third from Portugal. All of them had the same goal I did, but told me they weren’t sure what they were doing there. One had been there for around a week. We all concluded that this was some sort of safe house.

I slept for two hours when I was awakened by a Kurd yelling “Bichin, bichin Rojava” (“We’re going, we’re going to Rojava”), which I thought was, well, bitchin’. I jumped into the back seat of a car with the Brit and the Texan. The driver drove like a madman, weaving in and out of cars for hours until we reached our destination in the middle of a lush, wooded, mountainous wilderness. There, we stayed at a transit camp with about 15 Westerners who, like me, were waiting to enter Rojava to join the YPG. It was a great comfort for me to meet likeminded people who didn’t think I was crazy.

I met three different types of foreign fighters there. Some had a previous military career. Others were motivated by purely humanitarian concerns. Most of us had seen the pictures of the horrible massacres of Yazidis. Those of us who were Jews all saw a connection to the Holocaust. We felt the same indifference from the world and we all wanted to do something.

Photo: Robert Amos

Photo: Robert Amos

The third group was motivated by socialist or anarchist ideology. Most of these idealists were preachy hipsters from the U.S. and Europe who came to join La Revolución, but were quickly disillusioned by how different the people of Syrian Kurdistan were from what they imagined. The Syrian Kurds did have an ideal and they were creating a real revolution, but it was not really the type that would be attractive to international socialists. One of the ideologues I met was an anarchist hacktivist from London. Every night, we would fall asleep listening to his utopian ideas of revolution. Another fighter told me that he had seen the hacktivist in the customs line at Sulaymaniyah airport. He was pulled aside and one of his bags was opened to reveal that it was full of Guy Fawkes masks, a symbol of the hacktivist group Anonymous. This hipster had bizarre romantic ideas of turning the YPG into an Anonymous army. Not all of the anarchists had such quixotic aspirations, however. Some were there for the right reasons and put humanitarian concerns in their rightful place above politics.

When I arrived in Rojava, I was surprised by how similar the spirit was to the early Zionist pioneers. We did not have any ideological indoctrination, as some of the Kurds did. But we were given a brief ideological introduction to explain the Syrian Kurds’ political goals to us.

There was a very strong spirit of optimism and a belief that anything was possible if one’s desire and will were strong enough. Everything in this new country had changed and everything had started anew. Our instructor told various anecdotes of small groups of fighters holding off vastly superior forces and other feats that people had said were impossible. This wasn’t just propaganda. It was all quite true. As I later came to realize, we were experiencing a nationalist optimism and an expression of collective human will at a level that I had only heard of in relation to those who helped found the Jewish state. We were living what the early Zionists had experienced.

Soldiers from the YBŞ and PKK hold up a painting of their political leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Photo: Kurdish Struggle / flickr

Soldiers from the YBŞ and PKK hold up a painting of their political leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Photo: Kurdish Struggle / flickr

Before we entered the kitchen every morning for breakfast we were greeted by a giant life-size picture of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish leader and philosopher currently jailed by Turkey. Öcalan (pronounced “O-ja-lan”) is affectionately known to the Kurds as Apo (“uncle”). His followers are known as Apoçî or Apoists. The Syrian Kurds are profoundly influenced by Apoism. We were informed, for example, that equality between the sexes is not just a major tenet of their ideology, but rigorously enforced by military protocol, beyond anything in the West. In an active battlefield situation a man could never command a woman, but a woman could command a man. Such a situation mandated that a woman take command over any situation with mixed groups. I personally witnessed this practice on the battlefield, where my favorite commander was a woman. The female fighters of Rojava are known as the YPJ, the “Women’s Protection Units,” the female counterpart of the YPG.

In revolutionary Rojava, Kurds are much less traditional than Kurds in Iraq. Of the Kurdish fighters I met, only about half self-identified as Muslim. And of those, only half seemed to know much about Islam at all. I never saw anyone pray. Of the non-Muslim Kurdish fighters, half were agnostic or atheist; some, when asked about their religion, would humorously say that they were Apoists. The other half were from other faiths: Some were indigenous Christians, such as Assyrians or Armenians; but more often than not, they were Kurds who, seeking a distinctly Kurdish faith, converted to Zoroastrianism.

There is much in common between today’s Kurdish fighters and the pioneers who built and protected the State of Israel in its early years.

The PYD party largely controls Rojava and the YPG, and one day during training we were visited by a party official. We sat down on the floor of a trailer for a few minutes as the official explained the party’s philosophy and goals for Syria. He told us that nationalism had failed humanity and it was no longer the goal of the PYD to achieve independence in the form of a nation-state. I found this a bit surprising, because I definitely felt a desire for political independence in the atmosphere around me. But this was all a part of the PYD philosophy known as communalism. It envisioned a political order built on the idea of autonomy and cooperation of local communities. Each community would be completely autonomous and even control its own defense with little central authority.

Much of this came from Öcalan’s personal philosophy. He initially toyed with Marxist-Leninist theory, but rejected it in favor of something many Kurds told me was completely new and brilliant. I am usually skeptical whenever anyone thinks an ideology is completely new, so it took a while for these ideas to sink in.

Much later, while doing guard duty on the roof of our frontline base, I looked down on some off-duty YPG fighters playing volleyball. I began to think about who these people were. They were definitely not communists and they lacked any authoritarian hierarchy. They definitely weren’t anarchists either, despite what the hipsters thought. As I looked at one of the YPJ women guarding another post in the distance, it hit me. These people were kibbutzniks.

Everything began to make sense—the equality between the sexes in the community and on the battlefield, the sharing of everything in common, and the local autonomy of the community. It was all strangely reminiscent of the ideology of the early kibbutzim.

The most notable founder of the kibbutz movement, Yitzhak Tabenkin, like Öcalan, also toyed with Marxist-Leninist and anarchist ideologies. Tabenkin was an ardent Zionist, and a delegate to every Zionist Congress following World War I. But like Apo’s anti-statist vision for Kurdistan, Tabenkin was very much against a Jewish nation-state. He held that a socialist network of autonomous communities throughout the Middle East was the proper form of Zionism. He believed that the Sykes-Picot agreement that partitioned the Ottoman Empire into today’s array of Middle Eastern nation-states—and also dismembered Kurdistan—was an illegitimate product of Western imperialism that should be ignored in favor of his communalist vision.

Apoism has strong roots across the different Kurdish communities. Their organizations include the PKK in Turkey, PJAK in Iran, and PYD in Rojava. All of these organizations are members of an umbrella organization known as KCK. Today, Apoist organizations have by far the political influence in Kurdish society, surpassing any other movement. But they are also newcomers to the struggle, causing some jealousy in more traditional organizations.

In 1946 an independent Kurdish state known as the Mahabad Republic was declared around the city of Mahabad in defiance of the Iranian government. The establishment of this Kurdish state was largely the work of the KDP, the Kurdish Democratic Party. The Republic was crushed and its celebrated president executed, but the party lived on, creating branches in Iraq and Turkey. The momentum of the KDP’s resistance to Turkey, however, is minimal, late in coming, and overshadowed by the PKK, which began 14 years earlier. The KDP’s influence has been displaced in the southeastern half of Iraqi Kurdistan by the PUK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which broke from the KDP in 1975. The KDP’s Iranian franchise still conducts armed resistance operations against the mullahs’ regime, but in Iraq the KDP’s political influence has been largely reduced to the area around Erbil and Duhuk, and the border with Rojava.

This change has met with a great deal of resentment among KDP party officials. Despite this rift, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga came to the rescue of the ISIS-besieged Rojavan city of Kobani. During this Kurdish Battle of Stalingrad, rivalries were put aside for the common struggle.

There is no doubt that the two forces are very different. The Peshmerga is a conventional army and comparatively well-equipped with tanks and other heavy weapons, whereas in Rojava, the YPG lives a very Spartan existence, carrying out a Mad Max-style war against ISIS with homemade tank-like vehicles made of welded metal with tribal paint-jobs and modified pickup trucks laden with mounted mini-cannons and heavy machine guns. The Peshmerga has received much praise and some support from the West, and they should receive more. But the YPG is held together by wire, duct tape, and a determined spirit of resourceful optimism in dire need of a Western friend and patron.

The benefits of such a friend would be economic as well as strategic. Like Iraqi Kurdistan, Rojava is rich in oil. Israel’s economic alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan has been so fruitful that 77 percent of Israel’s oil supply now comes from the area. Unfortunately, due to a Turkish blockade, Rojava’s oil reserves have not yet been explored by the West. This kind of animosity is a constant in Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds. It has long opposed any recognition of Kurdish autonomy anywhere and has only recently established relations with the KRG. The Islamist-leaning government in Turkey has both actively and passively fostered the expansion of the Islamic State; not necessarily for ideological reasons, but because it fights the common Kurdish enemy.

When I was fighting west of Serê Kanîyê, I had the unique vantage point of being on the last YPG position before the Turkish border. Every morning we would hear the call to prayer from behind ISIS lines atop a hill with an old cemetery they had desecrated to create fortifications. To our right, we would watch Turkish tanks and APCs patrol the border. As far as I could see, most of this posturing was for show, as on occasion I would witness ISIS fighters cross the border under the watchful eye of the Turkish military. Turkey had no problem with this until a recent falling-out in their clandestine relationship with ISIS.

Photo: Robert Amos

Photo: Robert Amos

For years Turkey has tried to court the West and harassed many governments into mislabeling the PKK a terrorist organization, even though it does not currently meet the necessary criteria. In April 2008, a European court ordered that the PKK be removed from a list of terror organizations for this very reason. In Turkey today the term “terrorist” has come to mean anyone who disagrees with or threatens the ruling political party, regardless of any armed resistance. But what most of us mean when we use the word “terrorism” is a form of resistance that is completely illegitimate, cruel, and immoral—namely, deliberately targeting civilians. Today, the PKK does not attack civilians, only police and military targets. It is more accurately described as a guerrilla force.

There is no comparison to Hamas, an organization that openly attacks Israeli civilians and freely operates in Turkey without any terrorist designation. Turkey and Israel used to have close relations, but today they do not, and it seems strange to sacrifice an alliance with the Kurds in order to mend a broken relationship with Turkey. Indeed, Turkey has repeatedly blocked Israel’s efforts to deepen its involvement in NATO and continues to harbor its enemies.

Israel has a long history of friendship with the KDP in Iraq, but it cannot attempt to foster a relationship with the Kurdish nation while only dealing with one part of it. Israel must reach out to the Apoist Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran.

On occasion I would go to a transit camp atop a mesa near the Turkish border. We would often stop there and remember the friends that had been there with us that were no longer among us, as they had fallen in battle.

To the south were dry rocking cliffs with a view of the semi-arid plan of Rojava. From below to the horizon was a scattered sea of dust and rusty oil rigs, most of which had fallen into disuse. To the north was the Turkish border. The view on the other side was a complete contrast, with rolling hills and towering Mount Judi, which would disappear into the clouds on a misty day. Muslim Kurds, Jewish Kurds, and local Christians all believed that this was one of the mountains of Ararat, on which Noah landed in his Ark. Behind the mountain was, according to legend, Shirnax, the first city built by Noah. And at night I could see the city of Cizre which holds Noah’s tomb. Large parts of both cities were completely destroyed by the Turkish military after I left Kurdistan. Many of the civilians had sought refuge in the basement of apartment buildings and were burned alive.

Last summer, the Turkish military, supported by a coalition of Wahhabi jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, invaded Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIS. Instead, Turkey spent much of its resources trying to kill Kurdish fighters who were previously fighting against ISIS. Among those killed in the Turkish bombings was an American named Michael Israel, who had joined the YPG to fight against ISIS.

The Turkish government has already done too much for Israel to swallow. It is hard to understand what strategic advantage Israel gains from partnering with a government that supports Hamas and other terrorist organizations. At the same time, a free and independent Kurdistan seems inevitable. What part will Israel play in its history? Will Jerusalem only limit itself to a marginalized faction in Erbil? Or will it reach out to the entire Kurdish people?

Banner Photo: Kurdish Struggle / flickr