The Women Who Helped Topple the Caliphate

“The Daughters of Kobani” chronicles the female Kurdish fighters who battled terrorists, fought for equality, and then got stabbed in the back.

By Elise Labott, an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Members of the Kurdish Women's Protection Units arrive on the front lines in the eastern outskirts of Raqqa on July 18, 2017.
Members of the Kurdish Women's Protection Units arrive on the front lines in the eastern outskirts of Raqqa on July 18, 2017. Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

For many people outside Iraq and northeastern Syria, the Islamic State remains an abstraction. For the commanders of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), one of the most intrepid fighting forces on the ground, the terrorist group was anything but. The women of the YPJ saw firsthand the savagery of the Islamic State fighters who raped, killed, and, in some cases, beheaded women, including their friends. Their existential fight against the Islamic State was also a battle to defend their deeply held commitment to women’s equality and democratic self-rule.

Few, if any, writers have told their story better than Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, whose Daughters of Kobani records in rich detail the story of the female Kurdish fighters who achieved mythical status as a key part of the U.S.-backed force that ultimately defeated the Islamic State. Lemmon, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a pair of previous books profiling heroic women, vividly chronicles the YPJ’s grueling fights with the Islamic State on the battlefield—from the recapture of the strategic northeastern Syrian city of Manbij in 2016 to the final liberation of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold, in 2017. The reader can feel the tension in a sniper’s knees as she crouches for a shot and hear the hiss of Islamic State fighters taunting the female commanders over the radio.

The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Penguin Press, 288 pp., , February 2021

The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Penguin Press, 288 pp., $27, February 2021

Ferocious and unwavering, these women were protective of the troops under their command, many of them men. But they were also deeply committed to their cause. This was not just a military fight but a political struggle and a responsibility to shape the future for the next generation. As Lemmon tells it, few women seem more comfortable with their power and less apologetic about owning it. When it came time to cross the Euphrates River to liberate Manbij, for instance, the YPJ women went first under the dark of night to secure the riverbank. As they racked up victories against the Islamic State, their regional stature grew, with women coming from Iraq, Iran, and Turkey to join their ranks.

Lemmon dedicates the book to her Iraqi father, with whom she shared a lifelong dialogue about the treatment of women in society. When she was young, she writes, he believed women were not equal to men. By the time he died, his daughter’s work highlighting the struggles of women had changed his mind.

Her heroines would only have reinforced his new convictions. Many Kurds follow the teachings of the Turkish Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militia considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. But while the Turkey-based PKK fights with Ankara to carve out an independent Kurdistan, Syrian Kurds are more attracted to Ocalan’s left-leaning ideology of grassroots democracy leavened with environmental justice; Ocalan also believes that women must be equal for society to be truly free.

But, as Lemmon notes, the Kurds’ ideological convictions also created headaches for Washington’s fraught involvement in the war. Overwhelmed by the Islamic State’s gains in Syria around 2014, the United States began casting about for a ground force willing and able to retake Islamic State-held territory. The YPJ was one natural partner (joined by other Kurdish fighters, such as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG). The female-led Kurdish forces were already engaged in a David-and-Goliath battle against the Islamic State and were in need of international support. Also, unlike the Syrian opposition—dedicated to fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad—the Kurds were focused on defending their areas, making any showdown with Russia less likely. But Turkey, which views the PKK as a terrorist group, long objected to any U.S. support for armed Kurdish forces, even though they formed the bulk of the ground troops that eventually beat back the Islamic State.

The U.S. Special Forces working with the female Kurdish commanders felt a mixture of admiration, pride, and even jealousy.

All of Lemmon’s threads come together in Kobani, a city in northern Syria and the hometown of many of the commanders—and also the place where the YPJ delivered the Islamic State its first decisive loss. In 2016, as Kobani was on the brink of falling to the Islamic State, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to deny the international coalition fighting the Islamic State access to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base if the United States armed Kurdish fighters on the ground. At the time, the Obama administration deferred the decision to then-President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, which opted not to arm the Kurds.

But Trump would later change course, ultimately arming the Kurdish YPG as part of an expanded force of Kurds and Arabs known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the only ground formation capable of retaking the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa and destroying what was left of the group’s physical caliphate. And destroy it they did—at the cost of 10,000 SDF fatalities and another 20,000 wounded.

The U.S. Special Forces working with the female Kurdish commanders, Lemmon writes, felt a mixture of admiration, pride, and even jealousy over the women’s determination and courage. And there was guilt: Even before the fall of Raqqa, they knew the political will didn’t exist in Washington for what would come after the end of the Islamic State. The United States was destined to repeat the mistakes it made in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, where it won the war only to lose the peace by failing to provide political support. In each case, the United States ceded the ground to weak governments and fragile institutions, leaving a vacuum for terrorists. The Islamic State was a symptom of Syria’s weak government, and officials predicted the group would reemerge if the root causes of instability were not addressed.

But there was another danger. After the defeat of the Islamic State, Erdogan threatened to invade northern Syria to push Kurdish forces away from the border, leery of allowing a permanent Kurdish presence so close to Turkey. In a late 2019 phone call with Erdogan, Trump gave tacit approval for the invasion and ordered U.S. troops away from the border to avoid being caught in the crossfire. “Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them!” he wrote on Twitter. After Trump’s phone call with Erdogan, Turkish forces began attacking Kobani, killing 200 civilians and displacing more than 100,000.

The Kurds are living on borrowed time. My heart sank reading Lemmon’s account of the female fighters once again having to defend their hometown—the same place they’d just liberated from the Islamic State—against Turkish-backed forces, in disbelief that Washington stood idly by. “After their initial shock at the speed with which the Americans pulled back, they each went to work defending their respective towns,” Lemmon writes. “It would be back to war for all of them.” The United States had never pledged to protect the Syrian Kurds against Turkey, even as it pressed them to capture more terrain. But by asking them to shoulder the burden of fighting the Islamic State, the United States had put a target on their back as their visibility, capability, and reach grew. In an internal memo, the top U.S. diplomat working on the ground with the Kurds called the Turkish offensive an “intentioned-laced effort at ethnic cleansing” that damaged U.S. credibility and ended up weakening the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State.

With reports that the Islamic State is regrouping, President Joe Biden will soon be confronted with the decision of whether to stay in Syria or pull out the few remaining U.S. troops. He’ll also have to decide whether to partner again with the SDF to prevent the Islamic State’s resurgence. But the Kurds are living on borrowed time. They cannot prioritize the fight against the Islamic State, rebuild their cities, and protect their citizens, all while being forced to fight Turkey. U.S. diplomacy can make a huge difference, if Biden has the fortitude to stand up to Erdogan and make protection of the Kurds a condition of future U.S.-Turkish relations.

Even before the Turkish invasion, Lemmon writes, the 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.”

“In the end, it wasn’t in our control,” said Rojda, one of the female commanders. “It is really painful to have to fight Turkey in the same places we liberated from ISIS.”

Elise Labott is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott