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Meet the Women Taking the Battle to ISIS

At the command of a charismatic leader, a cadre of female Kurdish soldiers is taking the battle to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria

A colorful scarf is all that is left of Cicek Derek, who was 17 when she died a few months ago in the besieged city of Kobani, Syria, where her compatriots were unable to retrieve her body.

Cicek was one of hundreds of young Kurdish female soldiers who have taken up the fight against ISIS. They’re part of the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Unit, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish nationalist movement that has long fought a war of independence against Turkey.

Now the PKK and other Kurdish groups are at the forefront of the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, a militant group that would severely curtail the rights of women. It’s fitting that ISIS will be facing off against female fighters like 18-year-old Zilan Orkesh, who left her small village on the Turkish-Syrian border to join YPJ in 2011. When she killed an ISIS fighter for the first time, she began cheering loudly, hoping the sound would reach the ears of other jihadis. “I wanted to let them know that their worst nightmare had come true,” she says. “Their friend had been killed by a woman.”

But it’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. Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, is unusual in the region in that he has long promoted gender equality. 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.”

That fight has a cost. Several miles from the all-female camp, there is a fresh graveyard. Men are digging the earth, clearing space for new arrivals as the sun sets, and a YPJ flag dances above a grave. Not far is the house where Cicek once lived. Inside, Cicek’s three sisters and her mother sit around a portrait of the fighter.

Cicek’s mother, Nasiba, didn’t want her daughter to join the YPJ. “She was only 13,” Nasiba says. “She met a YPJ member [an armed Kurdish force] at her brother’s house and he started influencing her. And before we knew it, she left home and went to Mount Qandil [the PKK’s main base in northern Iraq]. She was 17 when she was killed.” Nasiba isn’t alone in her criticism. There’s something uncomfortable about girls barely into their teens leaving home to join a guerrilla army at Ocalan’s behest. Especially when—like Cicek—they don’t come home at all.

But her older sister Rojin remembers the way that joining the YPJ seemed to transform Cicek. “She came back from Qandil after four years, and she was a different person,” says Rojin. “She was tough and confident.”

Once the sun sets, the town is dark—power has long been out here. The only lights seen are those of passing cars, among them a truck that drives slowly through the town. Revolutionary Kurdish songs play from megaphones attached to the truck. The music seizes the attention of young boys and girls hanging around the neighborhood. One by one, they join the trail of people following the vehicle.

In a dark corner of the house, with a little bit of light falling on her face, Cicek’s sister stands in silence. She is listening to young revolutionaries chant along with the songs that the megaphones blare, songs about Kobani and martyrdom that urge the survivors of battle to rise and continue the fight. Rojin is the last person to leave the mourning caravan behind the truck, lost in thought.

Newsha Tavakolian is an Iranian freelance photographer based in Tehran. Last year, she won the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.

Read next: Los Angeles Airport Security Boosted Amid Possible ISIS Threat

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TIME the backstory

Photojournalism Daily: Oct. 16, 2014

Photojournalism Links is a compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Kiana Hayeri’s work that explores Iran’s sexual minorities. The photographs capture the story of a 19-year-old gay man called Amir, who moves to Turkey in the hope of a better future. The series is a powerful document of the young adult at a life’s crossroads and in the midst of continuing sexual transformation, and it just received an Honorable Mention from the 2014 Emerging Photographer Fund.


Kiana Hayeri: Jense Degar (The Other Sex) (Burn Magazine)

Misha Friedman: Bogdan and Yegor (Time.com) A Crimean gay couple decides to emigrate as Russian homophobia sets in.

Katie Orlinsky: Bear Town USA (Al Jazeera America) A small Alaskan village goes through major changes as Arctic Sea ice retreats.

Seeing Beauty Where Others Do Not (The New York Times Lens) Sarah Stacke writes about Marc Riboud, whose Asia work is now on show at the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York.

A Lens to the Front (Roads & Kingdoms) The story behind Metrography, the first and only independent photo agency in Iraq.

Chasing Militants While Pregnant (BBC World Service — Outlook) Fascinating radio interview with French photographer Veronique de Viguerie on some of her most dangerous assignments. Starts 30 seconds in.


Photojournalism Links is a compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen, Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.


TIME the backstory

Photojournalism Links Daily Digest: Sept. 23, 2014

Photojournalism Links is a compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Samuel Aranda’s continuing coverage of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, where the government took the unprecedented measure of ordering a three-days long, nationwide curfew in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading. His photographs capture the desperate efforts of police, military, and tens of thousands of volunteers to educate citizens about the dangers of the virus. Aranda first covered Ebola in Guinea.


Samuel Aranda: Sierra Leone’s Aggressive Attack on Ebola (The New York Times)

Andrea Bruce: A Busy Border in Iraqi Kurdistan (The New York Times) These photographs show that the movement of people on the border between ISIS and Kurdish held territories, somewhat surprisingly, is not just refugees heading north. Many people move back and forth between the two regions, entirely voluntarily, for a variety of reasons.

Lexey Swall: Bakersfield Is the Worst Place to Breathe in the U.S. (Time.com) Photographs document the human cost of living in one of the most polluted cities in the country.

Laura El-Tantawy: In the Shadow of the Pyramids (Project website) A website dedicated to the Egyptian expatriate photographer’s long-term project exploring the country of her heritage. A book will be published in 2015.

Ernest Cole, photographer of apartheid (Al Jazeera America) Carole Naggar writes about one of the first black photojournalists in South Africa to coincide with the exhibition of Cole’s work at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery.

Matt Black (Photo Wings) The photographer, most known for work on rural California, talks eloquently about his craft as well as photography in general.

Keeping True to an Iranian Vision, Minus Big Money (The New York Times Lens blog) Newsha Tavakolian interviewed about her choice to return the prestigious Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award.


Photojournalism Links is a compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen, Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.


TIME Iraq

Iraq’s Battleground Dams Are Key to Saving the Country from ISIS

Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014.
Osama Al-Dulaimi—Reuters Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014.

U.S. airstrikes prevent ISIS from seizing control of Iraq's water supply—but now the Kurds control a major dam, complicating Iraqi politics

When militants in Iraq made their recent assault on Haditha Dam, it pushed the U.S. to strike in this part of western Iraq for the first time since August. The Iraqi national army and allied Shi’ite militia have been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for months in Anbar province, but until yesterday, Washington had shied away.

“The potential loss of control of the dam or a catastrophic failure of the dam—and the flooding that might result— would have threatened U.S. personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad, as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in statement Sunday, justifying strikes which seem to fall just outside of the American mission’s mandate.

The facility, wedged in the Euphrates River, is the country’s second-largest dam, and along with its big brother the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, it has been a strategic target of the expansionist Sunni militants. Over 95 percent of Iraq’s water comes from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, making it easy for anyone controlling those dams to put a stranglehold on the country’s water.

“If these dams—Mosul and Haditha— are outside of the control of the Iraqi state, it would be a national catastrophe,” says Shirouk al-Abayachi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and previously an adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources. “This is the ultimate danger.”

Given that ISIS’s stated goal is the end of the Iraqi state, to be replaced by a new, flourishing Islamic Caliphate, it’s no surprise that the terrorist group has focused on the country’s dams. The power to dry-out Baghdad and the Shi’ite farmlands south of the capital—along with the ability to provide water and the electricity produced by these facilities to their new subjects—could put ISIS in the driver’s seat.

“Military decision makers should take into consideration that these dams are the most important strategic locations in the country,” says al-Abayachi. “They should be very well protected because they affected everything—economy, agriculture, basic human needs and security.”

For all the talk that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was primarily about oil, even in the early days of the offensive, significant military resources were put into controlling water and electricity facilities. In fact, this weekend wasn’t the first time U.S. forces were employed to keep the Haditha Dam out of unwanted hands. In June 2003, the U.S. carried out air strikes near Haditha to allow collation forces to seize the facility from Saddam Hussein’s army. But while al-Qaeda—which essentially gave birth to ISIS—and other militant groups repeatedly targeted infrastructure in Iraq during the chaotic years that followed the invasion, none dared to attempt ISIS’s blatant grab for control of these resources.

From January to April this year ISIS used its control of the Fallujah Dam to flood adjacent lands, and cut water to south and central Iraq. But the impact was nothing compared to what the militants would be able to do with control of the Mosul or Haditha Dams.

However, ISIS may not be they only group that wants strategic control over the taps in Iraq. In February, as Baghdad halted transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, the Kurds shut off the water to Iraqi farmers from Kurdish-controlled dams.

“Let them endure a water shortage; that’s their problem,” Akram Ahmad Rasul, general director of dams and water storage in the KRG told the local news agency Rudaw of the farmers outside the Kurdish region.

Since then the stakes have been raised. Kurdish peshmerga fighters led the ground offensive to retake the Mosul Dam from ISIS, as Iraqi national forces had already proved they were incapable of holding the position. Now the Kurds control the dam, and amid the chaos in recent months, they have intensified their calls for complete independence from Baghdad. “If the Kurds keep control of the Mosul Dam…they will have about 80 percent of Iraq’s water, which is tremendous leverage for them,” says John Schnittker, who served as a U.S. advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. “They will essentially have a vital lock on the water supply for central and southern Iraq. It just leaves the government of Iraq in a very weakened position in negotiating with the Kurds.”

While the U.S. strikes seem to be the only way to keep these facilities out of the hands of ISIS militants, Schnittker said the attacks may have effects not necessarily intended by Washington. “The Kurds are in a really strong position to leverage Baghdad,” says Schnittker. “And my real concern is that the U.S. would be kind of complicit in a Kurdish land and water grab.”

TIME Follow Friday

#LightboxFF: On the Streets of Tehran with Ako Salemi

Iranian Photographer Ako Salemi brings an artful vision of Tehran to his Instagram feed through street scenes inspired by old Hollywood and classic film noir

Welcome to this week’s edition of TIME LightBox Follow Friday, a series where we feature the work of photographers using Instagram in new, interesting and engaging ways. Each week we will introduce you to the person behind the feed through his or her pictures and an interview with the photographer.

This week on #LightBoxFF, TIME speaks to Iranian photographer Ako Salemi (@f64s125). Inspired by cinema, Salemi brings an artful vision of Tehran to his Instagram feed through street scenes that recall old Hollywood and classic film noir.


LightBox: Tell us about yourself and how you became interested in photography

Ako Salemi: I was born in a small town called Bukan in Kurdistan province in Iran in 1981. As a child I had a passion for reading. I was particularly interested in poetry. I moved to Tehran when I was fourteen. In high school I developed a strong interest for cinema and watching classic movies with friends became my main hobby. I was a fan of Billy Wilder, Carol Reed, Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman. I initially intended to become a film maker and I got a degree in drama. Later I realized that my shy and introvert character better suited an art that can be made in solitude. So I started to express my visual ideas through photography.

LightBox: When and how did you end up using Instagram?

Ako Salemi: I’ve been working as a photojournalist for eight years. I became interested in mobile photography a couple of years ago as it gave me a lot of freedom for street photography. I joined Instagram almost exactly three years ago.

LightBox: Where do you usually photograph? What kind of things are you most drawn to photograph?

AS: Tehran is my main location for my pictures (Editor’s Note: All the photographs seen here are from the capital except the one below, which is from Kish Island, south of mainland Iran). I try to keep myself ready at any given moment. Sometimes I shoot from the hip but often I wait for ‘the decisive moment’ when the action, the light and all other elements make the right composition. I’m very interested in how light and composition play in my photos and I shoot wherever I find the right graphic elements.

LightBox: What do you hope the viewers will see in your photographs? What does Instagram provide for you that other platforms don’t?

AS: I hope my viewers will get a sense of daily life of Tehran as I see it through lights, shadows, lines, etc. As a person who has always expressed himself with images, it feels great to know so many people are seeing your photos everyday on Instagram. It’s as if I was having a dialogue with each of these Instagram friends. I like other platforms such as EyeEm as well, but the number of visitors to IG is larger, so I prefer it!

LightBox: Who do you follow on Instagram?

AS: I mostly follow mobile street photographers, photojournalists, photo agencies and their editors. I don’t like to see pictures of food, pets or selfies in my feed. My role model in mobile photography is Richard Koci Hernandez (@koci).


Ako Salemi is an Iranian photographer based in Tehran. Follow him on Instagram @f64s125.

Mikko Takkunen is an Associate Photo Editor at Time.com. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism


See more from TIME’s #LightBoxFF series here

TIME Iraq

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s Likely Next Leader, Has the World’s Toughest Job

Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014,
Iraqi Prime Minister's Office/AFP/Getty Images Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014,

With divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally stepping down, Iraq looks to a new leader. But can he knit his country back together?

Few in Iraq this morning were mourning the loss of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down Thursday night after months of domestic and international pressure.

“We are thirsty for change. We had this government since 2003 and still it’s not united. We want someone now who can unite Iraq,” said Ammar Al-Jaf, watching al-Maliki’s resignation re-run on television in his barbershop in Erbil. A Sunni who grew up in Baghdad, like many here, he says al-Maliki favored his own Shiite—sect and in so doing deepened divisions between the people of Iraq.

Even in refugee camps, filled with Iraqis who fled the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) in June, there were calls for al-Maliki to step down. Many displaced Iraqis said they fled because they feared being caught up in battles between Iraqi government troops and ISIS, but still preferred the rule of the Islamist militants to al-Maliki’s Shiite-first agenda.

File photo of Haider Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad
Ahmed Saad—ReutersHaider al-Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad in July 2014.

The hope now is that Haider al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker and the man named to replace al-Maliki, will be able to bring Iraq’s divided political factions together. “Al-Abadi promised to support dialogue with the Sunnis and said that he will consult Kurdish and Sunni factions,” said Sarmad al-Taee an Iraqi journalist and commentator. He argues that al-Maliki ran Iraq and his own Al-Dawa party with orders rather than discourse, alienating Kurds, Sunni and eventually his own Shiite sect.

This feeling of disenfranchisement among Sunnis may have helped ISIS claim, and hold, swathes of Iraqi territory. The well-armed Sunni tribes of Nineveh province and west to the Syrian border could have turned the tide against ISIS, but there was little incentive to fight for a government they felt has sidelined their needs for years. On top of that, many Sunnis and Kurds argue al-Maliki stacked what should have been a non-partisan, non-sectarian army with politically appointed, often Shiite commanders, turning the Iraqi national forces in to his own private militia. That army proved weak and thousands of Iraqi soldiers simply dropped their weapons and fled in June as ISIS fighters approached.

“In every country the military should be separate from the government,” said Al-Jaf. “But al-Maliki used the military to serve himself. The army should serve the country and the people. He filled all the military’s with high positions from his family.”

Now, there is heavy pressure from inside Iraq, regional leaders and the U.S. to dismantle the sectarianism that has fractured the country and left it vulnerable to ISIS. Al-Taee, who is from Basra, says many Shiite leaders now understand this and will push for more inclusive politics under the new government. “If al-Abadi doesn’t do this he will be considered weak and the other party leaders will sack him,” he said, noting that a failure on this front could cause the international community to withdraw diplomatic and military support. “The Shiites now know the importance of dialogue and they don’t want to make the same mistake as before.”

But it may be too late. The mistakes by al-Maliki’s government have further exacerbated the divisions in an already fractured country and may have made the disintegration of Iraq all but inevitable. Many here now talk of dividing the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish territories. Since the start of the crisis with ISIS sectarian calls to arms have intensified on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide. The task ahead for al-Abadi will not be an easy one.

“If he can build a strong Iraq and share equally with all the people of Iraq, the people will support him and we can defeat ISIS,” said Irfan Ali, an engineer from Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. Getting the Sunni masses and tribes back on board for a national government will be key. But even if the Sunnis give their support, Shiites and Kurds may be hesitant to provide them with arms to fight ISIS—worried about where those guns will be pointed once the militants are defeated.

For their part, the Kurds have kept their distance with the central government, and are now engaged with ISIS themselves. They have been in conflict with Baghdad for months over power sharing and oil exports resulting in the central government halting transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in January. “We have been clear that we are not just looking for a change in the faces in the government,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations. “We want a change in the power sharing arrangement and a more inclusive government.”

Amid the chaos created by the ISIS invasion, the Kurds have managed to secure contested territories, such as Kirkuk, and have inched closer to independence. Last month, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said that he will hold a referendum on Kurdish sovereignty, a decades-old goal of the Kurdish people.

It’s not clear what a new prime minister could offer the Sunnis and Kurds to bring them back into the political fold with Baghdad. But leaders in Iraq seem hopeful, though cautious. “This is the start of process,” said Bakir. “But we need to wait and see. We shouldn’t be too optimistic.”

TIME portfolio

Tragedy on Mount Sinjar

The Yezidis – one of Iraq’s oldest and most secretive sects – believe that following the great biblical flood, Noah and his ark came to rest on Mount Sinjar, a range of mountains that run parallel to what is, today, the border between Iraq and Syria. But, for up to 50,000 of Iraq’s Yezidis, this sacred land has become a deadly prison.

Forced from their homes by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Yezidis – most of them women, children and elderly – were given two choices: face certain death at the hands of fanatics or flee to the uncertain refuge that is Mount Sinjar.

“It’s a spectacular mountain range,” says Magnum photographer Moises Saman, who was on assignment for TIME this week. “Everything is flat and suddenly, you see these mountains pop out of nowhere. On one side you have the town of Sinjar, where most of the refugees are coming from, and on the other side, there’s Syria.”

With temperatures reaching 100 degrees, the conditions on the Sinjar Mountains are dire. Most of the Yezidis ran for the hills without food and water. “That’s why it’s been such a dramatic situation for them,” says Saman. “Without supplies on a mountain like that, nobody can survive more than a couple of days.”

Kurdish fighters from Iraq and Syria have been trying to establish a humanitarian corridor to provide relief to the thousands of trapped Yezidis, but their resources are limited. “They are using two or three old and rusty, [Soviet-era] helicopters,” says Saman. “There hasn’t been a mass airlift effort – there’s not that much aid that’s getting there, and that’s one thing that I was surprised about.”

While the U.S. sent 130 military advisers Tuesday to help repeal ISIS’ forces, the Yezidis continue to endure their ordeal. “I would think that by now there would be more of an international, concerted effort to help them, but I haven’t really seen it,” says Saman. “I think the Kurdish authorities are doing their best with what they have.” And that’s not much, especially after these militias lost one of their helicopters on Aug. 12, when it crashed with refugees and journalists on board.

“When I first saw the helicopter, the thought obviously crossed my mind, ‘Oh man. I hope nothing happens’. But it happened,” says Saman, who boarded the doomed helicopter at a Peshmerga [Kurdish forces] base on the outskirts of Fishkhabur, in Iraq’s Dohuk province.

“We flew in with supplies – bread, water, bananas, ready-to-eat meals,” he explains. “The situation was chaotic because people, obviously, were trying to get in. I was standing in the middle of this group of refugees, holding on with one hand and taking pictures with the other when the helicopter lifted up. I just lost track of time, but it couldn’t have been more than a minute when it banked to the right and crashed into the side of the mountain.”

Then, everything turned black. “The next thing I remember [was the thought] that I was still alive,” says Saman. “I felt that nothing was hurting, but I was pinned down [by the weight of some of the other passengers]. It was very hard to breathe, and I just couldn’t move. At that point, I really thought I was going to asphyxiate.”

One of Saman’s colleagues, freelance photographer Adam Ferguson, who suffered minor injuries, was able to help him up. “Most of the passengers were hurt, several of them badly. And the pilot was dead. Everyone was in a state of shock.”

It took an hour before another helicopter was able to rescue them. In that time, Saman was able to photograph the crash’s immediate aftermath. A few hours later, after receiving three stitches at a hospital in the city of Dohuk, he filed his work, which were first published in color as news broke of the crash. But, says Moises, “when I started talking with TIME about this assignment, I really saw it as a black-and-white story,” he explains. “I wanted to give a sense of timelessness to the situation because, one way or another, the Kurds have been refugees for decades. We’ve seen these scenes of Kurds stuck in the mountains back in the 1980s and ’90s, and now it’s happening all over again.”

Like many photographers who have covered humanitarian crises before, Saman hopes his images will force authorities into taking action. “I hope people will realize how bad the situation is for these people, I also hope that they will find a way to relate somehow,” he says. “I know it’s going to be difficult because these things don’t often happen in the West. But, it’s such a dramatic and sad situation.”


Moises Saman, on assignment for TIME, is an award-winning photographer represented by Magnum Photos.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent


TIME Iraq

Kurds Welcome U.S. Help in Iraq, But Remember History of Betrayal

Kurdish military volunteers amass near the frontline at the outskirts of the town of Makhmor, 35 miles south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Aug. 9. 2014.
Sebastian Meyer—The Washington Post/Corbis Kurdish military volunteers amass near the frontline at the outskirts of the town of Makhmor, 35 miles south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Aug. 9. 2014.

A brief history of the Kurdish/U.S. relationship shows why

For a few hours, the city of Erbil was in a state of panic. Word came that Gwar, just 30 minutes from the Kurdish capital, had been taken by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Kurds and ex-pats alike were packing up, trying to book airline tickets or, in a worse case scenario, preparing to drive to Turkey. But then American war planes swooped in and began bombing and President Obama pledged to defend Erbil.

Kurds breathed a sigh of relief. “The most important development was the decision by the United States to save lives,” says Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign minister and a prominent Kurd. “U.S. help is deeply appreciated.” Dr. Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, welcomed the UN resolution condemning ISIS, and praised coalition forces for their technical and humanitarian assistance. He noted that the U.S. had co-ordinated tactical efforts with Peshmerga forces, allowing the Kurdish fighters to prepare to go on the offensive. “We used to say Kurds don’t have any friends but the mountains. But that doesn’t ring true anymore,” he said.

That said, many Kurds still carry lingering worries that the U.S. will betray them once again. “There’s a history of contact and betrayal with the U.S. and the Kurds where the U.S. made contact and helped but never jumped in with both feet,” says Quil Lawrence, author of The Invisible Nation: How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East, and a correspondent with NPR. “The Kurds have been very frustrated with a lot of the stages long the way,” he says. “But certainly these airstrikes would restore some of that trust. I feel like I’ve had many Kurds quote Churchill to me in the past week: ‘Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing… after they have exhausted all other possibilities.’”

Finally, it seems, the U.S. has exhausted all other possibilities in Iraq and all that’s left is to rely upon the Kurds. It’s only taken a century.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the Kurdish rebel leader Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji carried around in his pocket a copy of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, so inspired was he by American self-determination. And yet it would be the Americans who would help deny the Kurds the same right at nearly every turn. Two years after Wilson delivered that speech, the Allies agreed to an independent Kurdistan in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But by 1923, in the Treaty of Lausanne that recognized Kemal Attaturk’s Turkey, the international community abandoned the Kurds and the referendum promised in the Treaty of Sevres was never realized. Thus began the Kurdish struggle for independence.

After several thwarted attempts to break away from Iraq, the Kurds finally got their first indirect aid from the U.S. in the early 1970s, more thanks to the Shah of Iran than anything else. In 1972, Iraq aligned with the Soviet Union and the Shah pushed the U.S. to arm the Kurds by selling them Soviet weapons seized in Egypt. By 1974, the Kurds were in open rebellion led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, of the same tribe Barzanji was from. But by 1975, Iran and Iraq made peace under the Algiers Accords. Iranian support for the Kurdish uprising abruptly came to a halt and the rebellion collapsed.

Barzani fled to Iran and then America, where he died in 1979, the same year of the Iranian Revolution, where yet again U.S. allegiances shifted. And, yet, again, the Kurds were the unwitting victim.

Towards the end of the First Gulf War, the Kurds saw a window for independence. Encouraged by the Americans, they rose up against Hussein for the third time. Hussein sent in the army and rolled over the Kurds, slaughtering thousands of villagers as they passed through. More than 1.5 million Kurds fled through the mountains to Turkey. American troops and arms never materialized, though they eventually sent in air support, which helped the Kurds push Hussein back to Kirkuk. In order to protect the Kurds, a no-fly zone was formed that lasted nearly a decade, until the Second Gulf War.

By the time the Turks refused America passage for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurds were in a position to offer themselves as a viable alternative. Fighting side-by-side with American special forces, the Kurds believed that their day had finally come: independence couldn’t be far away. But in the aftermath of the invasion, the Kurds were taken aback when the U.S. tried to disarm them and insisted they join the new government. Warily, the did so, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not been the partner they’d hoped for.

Maliki warned repeatedly that the Kurds did not have the authority to drill and export their own oil, and that empowering them would lead to the end of Iraq. By late 2011 some 60,000 Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi forces were at a stand off near Kirkuk over the oil dispute. But, then, in 2013, Fallujah fell to Sunni extremists and then in the summer of 2014, Mosul and Tikrit fell to ISIS. The Iraqi Army retreated back to Baghdad. The Kurds took full control of Kirkuk and its refinery.

But U.S. refusal to equip the Kurds, and Baghdad’s refusal to share U.S. arms with the peshmerga, left Kurdish forces weakened, low on ammunition and unable to defend a 600-mile border border. ISIS advanced within 30 minutes of the Kurdish capital of Erbil as panicked Kurds and foreign workers began packing and fleeing to the airport or north towards Turkey. Last week, the U.S. stepped in and bombed ISIS and President Obama pledged to defend Erbil. For the first time ever, the U.S. said it would directly arm Kurdish troops. It’s not exactly self-determination — but it’s a start.

 

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