American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
Ryan O'Leary, 28, poses with a weapon in the mountainous region between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan.Jawdat Ahmed—Pacific Press/Diimex.com
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
American Ryan O'Leary fighting Iraq
Ryan O'Leary, 28, poses with a weapon in the mountainous region between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Jawdat Ahmed—Pacific Press/Diimex.com
1 of 10

Meet the American Who Went to Iraq to Fight ISIS But Ended Up Taking on Iran

Aug 24, 2015

When Ryan O'Leary went to war for the third time, he was expecting to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the militant group that has captured vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. After serving with the Iowa National Guard in Iraq in 2007-8 and then in Afghanistan in 2010-11, he went back to Iraq earlier this year of his own volition. The intention, he told the Des Moines Register in June, was to train Kurdish soldiers — the Peshmerga — to drive ISIS out of its northern Iraqi strongholds. "ISIS isn't just a fight for them," he said then. "It's a fight for all of us."

But the 28-year-old's journey took a slightly different direction once he got to Iraq. Now, O'Leary is patrolling the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan embedded with a faction of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) deep in the Qandil mountains. And he's training the soldiers not to fight ISIS, but Iranian forces he says are repressing Kurdish minorities in the region. "I've pretty much changed my view," he tells TIME in a telephone interview. "There's no difference between Iran and ISIS, they do the exact same thing to these people. It's just not reported as much."

The KDPI is one of several political organizations representing Iran’s Kurds, an ethnic group of about 7 million people living both in Iran and in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. The party has been outlawed in the Islamic Republic for decades, as it advocates for greater independence and European-style social democracy. The unit O’Leary is with patrols the mountainous border ostensibly to defend Kurds against Iranian aggression.

So how did O'Leary get involved? He says he felt rootless after returning from Afghanistan in 2011, and itched to serve again in some way despite suffering some symptoms of PTSD. “I felt a bit lost when I got back,” he says now. “I didn’t have a purpose.” A Kurdish translator for his National Guard unit put him in touch with a British former soldier who was training Peshmerga, who gave him some contacts in northern Iraq. Against the advice of his family — and the U.S. government — he flew out in June.

When O'Leary arrived in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, he said he went looking for a Peshmerga unit "that wouldn't allow me to get babysat." He met with an official with a faction of the KDPI who convinced him the bigger threat to the region's Kurds was not ISIS, but Iran. "ISIS isn't a permanent threat to Kurdistan or even the region," O'Leary says. "But the influence from Iran in this region is getting insanely huge. It's a hardline religious view."

So he teamed up with KDPI soldiers in the border region northeast of Erbil, becoming "basically the first Westerner they've ever let in," he says. He claims to be teaching the soldiers tactics picked up from his own days in the military, using what little Kurdish he has picked up; how to mount an ambush, how to observe troop movements, how to give basic first aid. His trainees aren't like the battle-hardened Peshmerga, who are fighting ISIS in northern Iraq; there's no rank structure, and the men can be as old as 60.

Tensions have indeed been rising between Iranian Kurds and the regime in recent months. In May, thousands of Iranian Kurds took to the streets in the Iranian city of Mahabad and elsewhere in a series of sometimes violent protests against the regime. Armed Iranian Kurdish parties threatened to send militia to Tehran if the Islamic Republic wouldn't grant them autonomy. O'Leary claims Iran has shelled border villages and executed civilians on the border and that Kurdish groups have made raids on Iranian outposts.

He won't talk about current operations but said the troops he is with are "trying to avoid direct conflict." Instead, O'Leary says, the focus is on preparing to defend the border during an Iranian incursion he believes will come once the U.S. approves a nuclear deal. Without military sanctions the country will finally feel emboldened to crack down on its rebel minorities, he says. "I think this will escalate to armed conflict, and when it does I'll be there for it."

It may not come to that, says Martin van Bruinessen, professor of the comparative study of contemporary Muslim societies at Utrecht University. Although there have been Iranian military incursions into Kurdish areas in the past, he says, the regime has long agreed to forgo military action on the border so long as Iraqi Kurds prevent Iranian exiles from mounting attacks. As for the pending nuclear deal, "the Iranian Kurds are in fact rather hopeful of a liberalizing impact," he says.

There's little doubt who is the more serious regional foe, he adds. "The confrontation with ISIS, in which Iranian proxies are playing a significant part and Iran's influence in general appear to be increasing, represents a more serious threat to the KDPI."

So what do the U.S. authorities make of a U.S. citizen inserting himself into a decades-old conflict between Iran and its Kurdish minorities? Rasheeda Clements, a spokesperson for the State Department, tells TIME that the U.S. government does not support any U.S. citizen traveling to Iraq or Syria to train soldiers for the KDPI. "Any private U.S. citizens/civilians who may have traveled to Iraq or Syria to take part in the activities described are neither in support of nor part of U.S. efforts in the region."

O’Leary says he’ll stay in the country until he feels he has made a difference. His goals are to make the international community aware of the threat posed by Iran to Kurdish minorities, he says, and to prepare the troops for whatever fighting there is to come. Finally he has a purpose, he says. "I'm not just out here running around with a gun, I'm trying to change things."

Meet the Kurdish Women Taking the Battle to ISIS

18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our future. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobani. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been martyred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18-year-old YPJ fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live ina world where women are dominated by men.We are here to take control of our future..I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Zinar base, Syria "I joined YPJ about seven months ago, because I was looking for something meaningful in my life and my leader [ Abdullah Ocalan] showed me the way and my role in the society. We live in a world where women are dominated by men. We are here to take control of our own future. We are not merely fighting with arms; we fight with our thoughts. Ocalan's ideology is always in our hearts and minds and it is with his thought that we become so empowered that we can even become better soldiers than men. When I am at the frontline, the thought of all the cruelty and injustice against women enrages me so much that I become extra-powerful in combat. I injured an ISIS jihadi in Kobane. When he was wounded, all his friends left him behind and ran away. Later I went there and buried his body. I now feel that I am very powerful and can defend my home, my friends, my country, and myself. Many of us have been matryred and I see no path other than the continuation of their path."
YPJ fighters on their base at the border between Syria and Iraq. Young female fighters are indoctrinated to the ideology of their charismatic leader, Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), who promotes marxist thought and empowerment of women.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
18 year-old YPJ fighter Saria Zilan from Amuda, Syria:"I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "It's been one year and four months since I joined YPJ. When I saw Martyr Deli on TV after ISIS beheaded her, I went to her burial ceremony the next day in Amuda. I saw Deli's mother sobbing madly. Right there I swore to myself to avenge her death. I joined YPJ the day after. In the past, women had various roles in the society. but all those roles were taken from them. We are here now to take back the role of women in society. I grew up in a country, where I was not allowed to speak my mother tongue of Kurdish. I was not allowed to have a Kurdish name. If you were a pro-Kurdish activist, they'd arrest you and put you in jail. But since the Rojava revolution, we have been getting back our rights. We were not allowed to speak our language before, and now ISIS wants to wipe us off completely from the Earth. I fought with ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me do so. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman. I have changed a lot. My way of thinking about the world has changed since I joined YPJ. Maybe some people wonder why we're doing this. But when they get to know us better, they will understand why. We are emotional people."
20-year old YPJ fighter Aijan Denis from Amuda, Syria: "Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. "Newsha Tavakolian for TIME I joined YPJ in 2011. One day when I was watching TV, they were showing pictures of women who had been killed. I was really impressed by that and decided to join the army myself. Where I am now, men and women are equal and we all have the same thought, which is fighting for our ideology and the rights of women. My three sisters and I are all in YPJ. They all operate RPGs. I wish to become so skilled that I will be allowed to do the same."
YPJ members take part in daily combat training at their base in Serikani. Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Three YPJ fighters sit in an armed vehicle at their basein eastern Syria, days after returning from the front. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
YPJ members, including some who were wounded fighting against ISIS in Kobani, Syria, at the all-women Asayesh Security Base in Derek, Syria. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
16 year-old YPJ fighter Barkhodan Kochar from Darbasi, Syria. "The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME "I joined YPJ in 2014, because I wanted to defend my homeland. The war influenced me a lot. Before joining YPJ, whenever I asked my family about politics, they'd say 'that's not your business, you're just a girl'. But when I saw how the women of YPJ gave their lives for what they believed in, I knew that I wanted to be one of them. I feel much more empowered as a woman now. As a 16-year-old girl, I think that I have a very important role in my country and I will keep on fighting until the last drop of my blood is shed."
A billboard showing fallen YPJ solders,reading, “Withyou we live on and life continues.”Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
In Western Kurdistan, the Syrian autonomous region Kurds call Rojava, young people are taught the ideology of the PYD (the Democratic Union Party of Syria), an affiliate of PKK (Kirdistan Workers' Party). Many of these young people will soon be drafted into YPJ and YPG armies to fight ISIS.  Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
in Syria, graves of YPJ members who were killed fighting ISIS. In the foreground, female fighters are buried together.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A picture of 17 year-old Cicek Derek, who died in the besieged city of Kobani, Syria, where her fellow fighters were unable to retrieve her body. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
Rojin, the sister of 17 year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek who died fighting in Kobani, Syria. "When my mother told Cicek, please stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME"My sister was very naive and sensitive when she left us. But four years later, when she came back to bury the body of her friend who had been killed in Kobane, she was smart and tough and I could see lots of self-confidence in her eyes. When my mother told her 'please don't go back, stay with your mother', she answered 'I left to fight for all the mothers of the world. I cannot stay here'. When she came back for her friend's burial, she briefly visited the house. She kept taking pictures in every corner and with all of us, as if it was her the last party of her life."
A scarf belonging to 17-year-old YPJ fighter Cicek Derek, who was killed in Kobane, Syria, was all that could be brought back to her family. Her body remains in kobane, Syria.Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
A wedding dress outside a bridal shop in a town near Qamishlou, Syria. YPG graffiti can be seen on the walls of adjacent buildings. YPJ and YPG members are neither allowed to marry, nor can they have sexual relationships, according the their ideology. Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
20 year-old YPJ fighter Beritan Khabat from Derek, Syria. She joined the YPJ four years ago to protect her homeland and put an end to the suppression of women. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS." Newsha Tavakolian for TIME Beritan believes that in her society women should be armed with guns and fight for their rights. She says that they have created a new idea for the men of the world. telling them that women too can be good fighters. "I fought with ISIS in Jezza and Serikani. And the first time I heard the sound of bullets next to my ears was in Talala town, while I was fighting with ISIS for the first time. The first time I thought about facing ISIS, my whole body was shivering and the whole thing seemed more like a joke to me. But when I thought deeply, I realized that I was going to fight with a radical group, and this empowered me so much that all my fears faded away. Women of YPJ are not scared of ISIS".
18-year-old YPJ (Women's Protection Unit) fighter Torin Khairegi: “We live in a world where women are dominated by men.
... VIEW MORE

Newsha Tavakolian for TIME
1 of 16
TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.