Following is an excerpt from an account of a reporting trip undertaken by the author to the Kobani enclave in northern Syria and to the Syria-Turkey border area in May 2014. During the course of this trip, the author interviewed both YPG and IS fighters and visited frontline areas in which the two forces faced each other. The excerpt is part of a book project on the sectarian war in the northern Levant and in Iraq.
ISIS was already by this stage acquiring a reputation that set it apart from other rebel groups. It had not yet declared its enclave to constitute a “Caliphate.” But the power of its name was based on a florid, stony cruelty in its approach to prisoners and to its enemies. Beheadings, executions, the primitive desecration of corpses had all become synonymous with it.
In Tell Abyad to the east of Kobani city, the sides were camped in abandoned villages. The ruined landscape had a lunar quality. ISIS had forced the villagers to leave when the fighting began.
The fighters of the YPG moved carefully around their positions in the eerie, empty villages, ever mindful of the presence of ISIS snipers. In places, the two sides were less than 500 meters apart. ISIS favored mortar fire by night and sniping by day. Around 80 YPG fighters had died since the fighting erupted in March 2014.
Dead ISIS fighters could be seen in the flat fields between the village and the position of the jihadists.
“They don’t bother to come and get them,” one of the YPG fighters told me. “But when one of their ‘Amirs,’ their big commanders, died here, they came with an armored vehicle to pick up his body.”
So the twisted bodies of the jihadists remained, like strange and random dark colored piles dotted around the field. “They wanted to go to janna (heaven),” one of the fighters remarked with a smile, “so we sent them there. But don’t spend too long staring out at the field from the window opening there or you’ll be heading the same way. They have a sniper operating ‘round here.”
There was particular hatred for the Chechens, the fighters from the Northern Caucasus who formed a formidable and brutal element among the jihadists. The education afforded the YPG fighters was that of the PKK, with its Marxist-tinged language of internationalism. So the fighters became embarrassed when I asked them of their views about the Chechens, and they smiled shyly at each other and muttered until one of the bolder among them, a cheerful looking man with a brown moustache spoke up and said quite simply, “They are animals. Monsters.”
The Chechens, it seemed, had brought some of the more savage practices of war in the Caucasus to northern Syria. Among these, the desecration of corpses and their use as totems to terrify the enemy was a matter of particular wonderment and disgust on the part of the Kurds.
The Chechen commander in ISIS, Abu Omar al-Shishani–real name Tarkhan Batirashvili–was a frequent subject of conversation for the Kurdish fighters. “He has vowed to drink tea and to pray in Kobani,” one YPG man said to me. “He won’t, though.”
Batirashvili had also vowed to change the name of Kobani to Ayn al-Islam. On official Syrian maps, it still appeared as Ayn al-Arab, the name that the Ba’th regime had given it.
Surkhwi, a female YPG commander, was contemptuous of the enemy, as we talked at an abandoned school near Tel Abyad that had been converted into a base.
“They outnumber us, often. But they lack tactics,” she said, in a variation of a comment I would hear again and again from the fighters of the YPG. “We think many of them take drugs before entering combat, and they attack randomly, haphazardly. They desecrate bodies, cutting off heads, cutting off hands. They don’t respect the laws of war.”
This claim of drug use was also a common one against the fighters of ISIS. It was never clear what exactly the drug was. But the picture that emerged was one of a fanatically committed force given to the employment of fairly simple tactics and to a wasteful approach regarding the lives of its own combatants.
The YPG, it appeared, was more tactically proficient, trained by PKK fighters, and this was reflected in its far lower casualty rates.
I was of course cocooned among activists of the PYD and fighters of the YPG in the course of this visit, and so I cannot claim that my experiences reflected the entirety of the Kurdish experience in Kobani.
All the same, it was difficult to spend any time with these young militants without being profoundly impressed by them.
This was not because of the particular strange ideology of “Apo-ism” promoted by the PKK. In fact, it was rather in spite of this philosophy, which was a curious hodgepodge of far left and anarchist thought that seemed particularly unsuited to the realities of the societies of the Levant.
It was something else. Here was a people whose experience was perhaps without parallel in wretchedness in the blighted modern history of the region. The Kurds had been divided up between four repressive and authoritarian states–Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. But the Kurds of Syria seemed perhaps uniquely sealed off.
They had been confined to their remote northern corners of the country–their language, traditions, and most basic rights trampled by the Assad regime, far from any media interest. But in Kobani and the other enclaves, finally, the very modest project of simply securing protection for the area’s civilian inhabitants and their language and culture–in the face of assaults from some of the most vicious military organizations anywhere–was being achieved.
It was far from idealism or idealization. But it didn’t take any particular ideological outlook to understand that ISIS was one of those periodic manifestations of the utterly monstrous to which humanity appears inclined. This was now knocking at the door of Kobani. The defense against it seemed motivated by generosity, a very youthful optimism, and a sort of rough, warm decency.
Image 1: YPG fighters
The frontlines were periodically active, even when a major offensive was not under way. Outside the village of Haj Ismail, I was able to watch as the YPG fighters mobilized in response to ISIS fire on their positions.
I was interviewing Nohalat Kobani, a senior commander of the YPG in the area, when we heard the pop-popping of small arms fire. The fighters immediately rushed from the tent towards their positions. I followed close behind, fumbling for my camera.
The mobilization was swift and efficient. There was a machine gun post at the front of the outpost, concealed behind sandbags. A few hundred meters beyond it, across flat ground, was the position from which ISIS was firing. Two of the YPG men began to sprint toward the machine gun, doubled up as though sheltering from rain. I followed them in a similar position.
This doubling up would be no protection against bullets, of course, but it seems to be an instinctive reaction. We reached the position and the machine gun was swiftly brought into effect as the fighters loosed off a series of bursts toward the ISIS line.
A third fighter joined us, and began to fire rounds from his AK-47 toward the jihadists’ positions. The firing was still coming from the other side. I tried to keep my head below the sandbags while photographing the YPG men.
The tension was high as we waited to see if this was the prelude to a ground attack by the jihadists. But after a while the shooting tailed off. We returned, sweating and laughing, to the commander’s tent.
“They are trying to test our reactions,” Nohalat the commander told me as we continued the interview. “Almost every day they fire off like this. And in the night time, with mortars. Trying to wear us down. But they haven’t advanced here, not a centimeter, since March.”
Image 2: Returning fire
There were some Arab fighters among the YPG at Haj Ismail. And on the other side, among the ranks of ISIS, were Kurds, mainly from the Halabja area in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Islamic and tribal traditions were strong. But for the most part, this was an ethnic war, Sunni Arabs against Kurds.
And the Kurds appeared to be prevailing. The Islamists hadn’t broken in. From Jarabulus in the west to Tel Abyad in the east, the enclave was holding. But the siege was tight. And getting out proved more of a challenge than getting in had been.
On the night I was due to leave, I sat in the media center talking to a very thin, very tall and soft-spoken Kurdish man in his mid-30s, who everyone treated with a sort of quiet deference. This was Nuri Mahmoud, a local man who had lost a leg fighting the Turks with the PKK in the Qandil Mountains, between Northern Iraq and Southeast Turkey.
Nuri spoke very quietly, and at length, and was never interrupted. He had come down from Qandil to oversee the building of political institutions in the enclave. He was one of the senior PKK cadres that one came across everywhere in the Kurdish parts of Syria. He was keen also to ask me about Israel and how Israelis and Jews viewed the Kurds. And as was usual in Kurdish circles, he said some kind words about the Jews, their history, their sufferings, and their aspirations.
After our interview, an impromptu concert began in the media center. A man with a Saz, the Kurdish stringed instrument, began to play and sing, and some of the young activists joined in. I am fond of this instrument, with its wild, jangling tones, and I stayed and listened to the singing too. The light was falling, and it would soon be time for us to leave for the border area. I remember the feeling of quiet sanity around the Kobani media center. There was a small lawn outside and some young activists were digging in a vegetable garden. The atmosphere was one of idealism, good humor, and quiet devotion.
They played YPG songs in the van as we drove out of the city westwards for the rendezvous with the smugglers. There was one of the anthems that I particularly liked. It had a kind of defiant swagger to it. The chorus was “Biji, biji, YPG!” (“Long live the YPG”).  It came out of the radio as the darkness descended and we drove west in the direction of Jarabulus. I remembered a line from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia about a moment in the Spanish war where he was attested by the nagging doubt that perhaps war was indeed glorious after all. This was how it felt in Kobani in the spring of 2014.
Image 3: Author with YPG fighters
The exit proved a challenge on a level I had not experienced before. The Turkish security measures were tight. I was placed with some smugglers in a remote and tiny hamlet close to the border fence. On the first night, a Turkish armored vehicle with a camera was patrolling along the fence, and the smugglers decided not to risk trying a run.
A man called Adnan, together with his two small and well-dressed children, had attempted to make it across earlier. He had been caught by the patrol and beaten. Brown-haired Adnan, who must have been about forty, was stoic and quiet as he described the events. They had shouted at him to stop, and he had done so. Then the officer and the soldiers kicked and punched him and sent him back in the direction of Syria, and he returned to the smugglers’ village from where he had started out. His children–a girl of about ten and a boy slightly younger, with pale, set, serious faces– were silent. They huddled together very quietly under the covers of one of the makeshift beds in the hut.
‘Tomorrow I’ll try to head back for Damascus and look for work there. And you–make sure you don’t end up in a Turkish jail,” Adnan told me as we sat on the floor and ate a meager meal of raw vegetables.
The night passed slowly, and in the morning the smugglers informed me that we would hopefully be trying again the following night, but much depended on the presence of the mysterious camera vehicle. “It’s from Israel,” they said with a sort of fearful wonder regarding the device, “the Turks bought it from them. It can see in the darkness.”
The smugglers lived in astonishing squalor and poverty. An outside squat toilet overflowing with human excrement was in the yard. Chickens and a goat came and went freely inside. An ageing matriarch with blue tattoos on her face was in charge, with her five sons and their wives together inhabiting the small house and the adjoining hut.
They were friendly enough, though. The youngest, a musclebound man of about 25 called Samir, was permanently connected to the internet through his cellphone. “Are you on Facebook?” he asked me, and began to search for my profile, with a rusty old rifle placed by his side as he scrolled down, looking for me. A scene that in most of its details could have been unchanged for 150 years, armed Kurdish smugglers on a remote border–and then the smartphone.
We got across that night. Samir and I made the final run towards the fence. He pulled it up, and I crawled under. It felt like a real border, not a forgotten one. Searchlights and a gendarmerie base close by. The wire was tough and young, and Samir used all his strength to pull it up as I crawled under. I had to sprint about 100 meters towards a house where the smugglers’ associates were waiting for me. I made it. The strange vehicle, it seemed, had deployed elsewhere that night.
The second group of smugglers was a number of very young boys, the youngest about 14, the oldest no more than 18, living semi-ferally in a shack close to the border fence. They began to demand additional payment from me a few minutes after I arrived. I refused, knowing that if I paid up, there would be more demands all the way through to Urfa. Instead, I told them I’d give them something the next day once they’d gotten me off the mountain and down to Urfa. For a moment, I feared that things were about to get strange, but the moment passed. The next day, they drove me down from the mountain in an ancient car, which we had to push to get to start. I was in Sanliurfa by morning and back in my hotel in Gaziantep by lunchtime.
I savored moments such as these–entering the hotel, covered in earth and dust and sweat. Everything was worth it for that brief euphoria, and then the peace and silence for a while afterwards. The ice cold beer, the hot showers, and the trashy American comedy shows that I loved to watch for hours, with the air conditioning on, and the Syrian war just a few miles and a long, long way away. “Two Broke Girls” and “Veep” and “Family Guy” in all their wondrous inanity coming out of the screen. And privacy. And solitude.
I had three days till I was due to leave Gaziantep. But my job wasn’t quite over. The town and neighboring Cielis were, I knew, a hub for the fighters of ISIS. I wanted, if possible, to make contact with members of the organization and to interview them on the Turkish side.
This was not as difficult, nor as dangerous, as it sounds. Of course, ISIS was already renowned for their cruelty and violence. But they were seen quite differently among the circles of the Syrian rebels–even those who did not support them.
ISIS were not bogeymen or monsters for the rebels. The rebellion as a whole was Arab, Sunni, and Islamic. So they were not seen as some strange creatures who had emerged from outside, but rather as a particular manifestation of the rebellion–albeit one with its own problems and peculiarities.
I tried to reactivate some of my old contacts among the Arab opposition to see if they could connect me to the jihadists. First, I called Zaher Said, my fixer from Aleppo. Zaher came to my hotel late in the evening, and it was joyful to see him. He hadn’t changed, still the same lustrous sheen of black hair and the same tech-savvy, cool demeanor. I asked about Meysoun and was told that he was okay too. But Zaher wasn’t sure if he could help me about ISIS. “They don’t usually talk to journalists, you know. They have to ask their Amir for permission, anyway.”
I thought of the frontlines near Tell Abyad and the dead ISIS fighters lying there like strange mounds of earth, and how they had sent an armored vehicle to collect the fresh corpse of one of these Amirs. I remembered them in the distance blasting away across the flat ground at Haj Ismail, and the Kurdish fighters racing to their positions. Zaher said he would get in touch with some friends of his from the organization and would let me know if anything else came up.
I tried someone else, another contact with the Arab rebels. This was Mahmoud Mousa, whom I had met in Antakya, and whom I regarded as among the most impressive of the rebels that I knew.
Mahmoud was from Jisr al-Shughur, a former head teacher. An early supporter of the rebellion, he had fled with his family across the border when the fighting reached his hometown in late 2011. Resettled temporarily in the Cielis refugee camp, Mahmoud had set about finding himself a new profession. With fluent, clipped English and a fine analytical mind, he had started as a fixer for the foreign media and had progressed to working as a kind of unofficial political analyst and educator for the more serious among the journalists. His knowledge and his insights into the balance of forces in northern Syria and the more general situation were invaluable.
Ginger-bearded Mahmoud was a born teacher, with a natural air of quiet authority about him. He told me he’d make some enquiries among his friends and family and would give me a call if anything came up.
Part of me, a large part actually, hoped that he wouldn’t get back in contact. My conscience wouldn’t have let me rest if I hadn’t tried to contact the jihadists. But once the effort was made, I was perfectly happy spending a few relaxed days around Gaziantep.
It wasn’t till I was out of Kobani that I realized how very little I’d eaten during the week inside. No meat, just lots of mashed potatoes with hot paprika sprinkled on them (the YPG were fond of that, for some reason) and coarse pita bread and a few raw vegetables.
So I wolfed down helpings of “Iskander” (a Turkish lamb and yogurt dish) at the restaurants by the hotel, and I drank the small, exquisite cups of sweet coffee available in the old cafes, and smoked and felt my limbs relaxing from the strains of the running in the dust and falling. And I drank ice cold Efes Pilsen beer in the evenings at the hotel, quite alone and happy. Modern cities, even modest ones like Gaziantep, become things of wonder after a few days in a place like besieged Kobani. And all was good and might have stayed that way. But then Mahmoud called and said that he had an ISIS fighter who was willing to speak to me in Cielis.
The man, he said, was a distant relative. He was a former, or resting fighter of the organization, but he had asked his Amir if he could speak with me, and the man had apparently agreed. I’d need to get to Cielis the next morning. The meeting would take place in a private apartment belonging to an older man close to the circles of the jihadists.
The prospect filled me with some trepidation. I didn’t quite like the thought of being alone and enclosed in an apartment with the ISIS guys. Also, Mahmoud said that another man would be accompanying his relative. This man, it appeared, was still involved with the jihadists. The organization had already kidnapped journalists, and this arrangement raised some alarm bells. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that I was quite important enough for an operation like this to be raised in my honor. There had been no previous indications of similar actions on Turkish soil, and I imagined that the organization’s complex relationship with the Turks would be something it would wish to preserve.
Anyway, whatever the advisability or otherwise of the meeting, I wasn’t going to turn down the chance. The opportunity was too fascinating, and too good for the stories I wanted to write. So I had a quiet and subdued evening in the hotel, and I set off in a service taxi for Cielis in the morning.
I had passed through Cielis before, but by evening and when I was very tired, on the way out of Syria. This was the first time I had seen it by daylight and at a time when I was able to pay attention. It was fascinating the extent to which it had effectively become a Syrian town. One heard Arabic everywhere, and Turkish hardly at all. The streets were teeming with Syrian refugees. The Cielis refugee camp was clearly not the main place of residence anymore. Rather, the Syrians had taken up residence in the town, where they sought any available employment.
I waited for Mahmoud at the bus station. He was late, and I began to think he wasn’t coming at all. But finally he was there, unshaven, ginger, and smiling. I remembered his slow, quiet way of talking and his modesty and dignity, and working on instinct I felt that things would be okay.
We walked to the flat. The owner of the apartment would receive us, Mahmoud explained, but he wasn’t connected to ISIS. Rather, he was a member of the Hizb al-Tahrir party, and from the general camp of the Sunni Islamists.
The apartment was on a dusty side street about ten minutes’ walk from the bus station. Up some stairs to the second floor. The owner answered it, and ushered us in, sending me a side glance and a smile, which was supposed to indicate that he found me an amusing character and was looking forward to playing cat and mouse with me.
We drank coffee and sat on cushions in the small reception room of the apartment. One of the nice things about being back on the Arab side was the chance to drink coffee, instead of the tea that the Kurds preferred. And we waited for the two ISIS men to arrive. The older man asked me questions about why the Western media were writing lies about ISIS and expressed the hope that I would be honest in my own writing. I assured him that I would. This went on for some time.
Finally the ISIS men entered the room. Two of them. They came in with a kind of young masculine speed and swagger, clearly enjoying the fearsome reputation of the group of which they were a part. They knew I was a Westerner and probably assumed I was somewhat nervous. I wasn’t, exactly, but seeing their faces fascinated me. It was nothing to do with the specific context of ISIS and the YPG. It was to do with the sheer cellular strangeness of being in the same room as these men just two days after the skirmish at Haj Ismail, when their organization had been trying to shoot me.
They called themselves Abu Muhammad and Abu Nur. Abu Nur was Mahmoud’s relative. Abu Muhammad was a current ISIS member. The former was the one I had been scheduled to see, but as it turned out, it was the latter who did most of the talking.
Abu Nur, the relative, had a small beard, and was relaxed and smiling and monosyllabic.
Abu Muhammad, by contrast, was engaged, full of words. Clad in a black and white tracksuit, clean shaven, muscular, with a sort of pointed, marionette-like face and black curly hair, he offered justifications, delivered in rapid Arabic, and even had a sense of the absurd.
I had not expected ISIS men to be keen to show the ludicrous absurdity of their opponents’ positions. This was not how I had imagined them. This says nothing regarding the murderous nature of the organization. It appears that no one, or hardly anyone, is ever the “bad guy” in his own eyes. Rather, the default stance of almost everyone, apparently even the representatives of murderous jihadi groups, is that they have been misrepresented, come with goodwill, want only the best, and have been baffled by the unreasonableness of others.
“The media have exaggerated this,” Abu Muhammad said in response to a question I asked about ISIS executions and amputations. So what did this mean, I persisted. Were such punishments carried out, or weren’t they? “In certain areas they cut hands off, in others not,” he pronounced.
I evidently looked unconvinced by this response, and he added, “Look, we are trying our best to apply Shari’a law. Of course there have been some mistakes.”
On one level, the protestations of Abu Muhammad were merely ridiculous. The organization of which he was a member was engaged in creating something close to hell on earth for the millions forced to live under it. But there was something else going on.
I asked Abu Nur what it was that had made him decide to join ISIS. He had begun his career in the rebellion with the Northern Storm Brigade. I had come across this group before, when crossing the border at Bab al-Salameh in 2012. They were a non-jihadi operation, adhering to something resembling a Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism. They had also acquired a reputation for corruption and incompetence.
ISIS had fought a fierce battle against Northern Storm in the town of Azaz in October 2013. At that time, Abu Nur had chosen to side with the jihadists. His reason? As he related it to me, it was the visit of Senator John McCain to the Syria Turkey border area, as the guest of Northern Storm, in the spring of 2013. He was suspicious of what he referred to as the attempts by foreign governments to “use Syrians for their own ends.” ISIS, he felt, was not available for purchase in this way. And so he had joined it. The organization, he told me, ‘“imposes Shari’a, acts against criminals and robbers, and has no contact with any foreign government.”
Image 4: ISIS fighters in Anbar, Iraq
Still, as he described it, it had not been an instant decision. First, he had taken part in demonstrations against Northern Storm because of their corruption and criminality in Azaz. Then the militia had arrested him and his brother as a result of this. He had been released after a couple of weeks, but his brother had not been.
He had met with senior FSA officials and had even contacted General Salam Idriss in an effort to secure his brother’s release, but to no avail. At that time, someone had proposed that he join ISIS. He had refused. Instead, as he described it, he had become a “middleman,” providing supplies and intelligence to the fighters of both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Then, “we began to notice that after McCain’s visit, weapons started turning up in the hands of the Northern Storm, Tawhid Brigade, and other fighters. Enough weapons to conquer Aleppo in a few days. But they weren’t to be used against the regime, but rather against ISIS. We hadn’t been fighting with the other groups. But suddenly, everyone was against us.”
This had been enough to persuade him to enlist with the jihadists as a fighter. He described how he had taken part in the liberation of ISIS detainees from a makeshift Northern Storm jail in Azaz.
His contempt for other rebel formations was general, but he reserved particular scorn for Jamal Ma’arouf and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, whom he regarded as collaborators. Ma’arouf, a former laborer from the Jabal Zawiyya region of Idlib province, emerged as an early influential rebel leader in the northwest. But he had also acquired a reputation for corruption.
Our interview took place at a time when the first reports of the provision of U.S. Tow anti-tank missiles to the rebels had just been published. These were widely believed among the rebels to have reached Ma’arouf’s forces.
“Jamal Ma’arouf went to Turkey and Jordan,” Abu Nur said, “and the U.S. supplied him with Tow missiles. You know why? Because Ma’arouf’s forces control the border with Israel, with Palestine in the south. So they want to protect Israel through Jamal Ma’arouf.”
“In Jordan, there are many groups who want to fight ISIS. If ISIS falls, you can forget about Sunni people in Syria.”
What might be learned from this? I think what such accounts show is that for the Syrian rebellion, ISIS was one option among many. That is, it was emphatically not some outlandish or foreign implant. This was a different story to the one usually reflected in global media, which tended to place more stress on the phenomenon of foreign fighters with the organization. But clearly there were plenty of Syrian men too, who had started with the rebellion, and who had decided to throw their lot in with the group.
Even Mahmoud Mousa, who opposed ISIS, nevertheless noted that he, like many others, had regarded it positively when it first emerged on the scene in early 2013, turning against it only when it began to make war against other rebel groups. “In Syria today, there are three groups worth mentioning,” he told me. “ISIS, the regime, and the Kurds. Nothing else.”
At our meeting in Gaziantep, Mahmoud had described how corruption had spread into the rebellion. How local commanders concluded deals with besieged regime bases to bring food in and men out at agreed times. ISIS and Nusra did not take part in such schemes, he said. It was a problem of the non-jihadi fighters.
“The Arabs are nothing without Islam,” Mahmoud had concluded, with the quiet, sincere, and sad tone that was always in his voice.
The rebellion was a project of Sunni Arabs. ISIS spoke a variation of a language common to all. This was the crucial point.
As for the fighting in Kobani, which the ISIS men referred to as “Ayn al-Arab,” Abu Muhammad broke in and was keen to set the record straight, as he saw it. Abu Muhammad, it seemed, was more of a theorist, or a more senior figure than the other man. So when our conversation departed from the specific context of Azaz and its environs, he began to intervene in it more forcefully.
“This is not a sectarian war that is taking place there. There are some Kurds who have joined ISIS, and on the other side, there are even some Sunnis who are fighting with the Kurds.”
“But the issue is a clear one. There is a Kurdish goal of establishing a Kurdish state in part of Syria. This is completely unacceptable. This is what it is about.”
He then went on to describe the “shock” of many of the rebels in the north at what they regarded as the Kurdish “collaboration” with the regime (i.e., failure to fight the regime, and preference for carving out defensible Kurdish autonomous zones).
As for the ISIS goal, Abu Muhammad spoke about it with reverence.
“We want the caliphate, something old and new, from the time of Muhammad. The Europeans came here and created false borders. We want to break these borders.”
ISIS, in other words, was emerging directly from the reality of the Levant in 2014. It was utterly brutal, dysfunctional, and sectarian. But it was speaking a language that was able to mobilize the Sunni Arabs of the country in a way that nothing else apparently could.
This language was not something radically new in the local political discourse. It was the familiar cocktail of paranoia, furious self-righteousness, and ethno-religious supremacism that had long plagued the Arab world–in slightly new garb, that was all.
So why then, I asked, were the West and its clients so implacably opposed to ISIS? Here, too, the answer had a familiar ring to it.
“Why? Who benefits from this? The West benefits from Bashar. He protects the borders with Israel.”
The same old worldview–with the occult, rarely seen Jew at the pernicious, hidden center of it. Though of course Abu Muhammad was quick to add that Shari’a was not opposed to the Jews, but granted them an allotted place beneath its protection, as had been seen, he maintained, in the caliphate in previous days.
We talked that way for a couple of hours. Abu Muhammad and I made a certain connection when I began to respond directly to his statements in Arabic, anticipating Mahmoud’s translation. Perhaps my local appearance also helped in this. I think there is something basic and before words in this visual assessing of people. It has no political significance, of course, and wouldn’t have withstood the announcement of my actual identity. Yet it plays a role. Abu Muhammad seemed to think I was alright.
I think war and strife appear to be natural presences among human beings, and I am not upset by them. What makes it all strange though are the momentary connections of a pre-verbal and pre-intellectual type, which are as liable to happen as much or as little among “opponents” as among allies. This can be learned only by being up close to the enemy, and hence probably by wearing some form of disguise. The disguise doesn’t affect this deeper level. The strange parallel story of human chemistry. So yes, I quite liked Abu Muhammad, on some curious level, while also of course considering him an enemy.
Sunni Islamists, in my experience, often seem to display a lack of guile. There is something ludicrous and engaging about their genuine bafflement that not everyone rushes to embrace what seems to them to be the self-evidently superior system that they are proposing. This comes, perhaps, from the fact that Sunni Islam among the Arabs is a majority creed, a creed of historic victory and governance. This aspect perhaps also explains the laxness and lack of security awareness, which is a notable aspect of many Sunni Islamist outfits. The Shi’a, who are a minority sect with the clandestine and watchful traditions appropriate to this, are entirely different in this regard.
The older man remained amused and skeptical of me and after a while began to take over the discussion, asking me if I practiced the Christian religion and whether I had ever considered becoming a Muslim. I answered diplomatically, already thinking about getting back to Gaziantep.
Image 5: ISIS fighter in Kobani area
After a while, we wrapped things up and said our goodbyes. Mahmoud accompanied me to the bus station, and I thanked him and took the service taxi out. It was early afternoon.
ISIS already controlled parts of Anbar and Nineweh province in Iraq at that time. But it was still a few months before the push east and north that would take them to the gates of Erbil and Baghdad, and through Mosul. They had carried out in January 2014 a strategic retreat from a number of villages in northwest Syria. Contrary to rebel claims at the time, there had been very little fighting between ISIS and the other groups for these areas. The jihadists had basically left of their own accord. As it turned out, this was part of the preparation for the coming offensive.
During our interview with the ISIS men, Mahmoud had encouraged me to ask them whether ISIS would turn west or east. That is, would the movement continue to push westwards towards Idlib and Aleppo, and perhaps across the desert toward Damascus, too. Or would it, rather, focus its attention eastwards, towards Iraq.
Predictably, the men had not given a straight answer. It is probable that they didn’t know, and if they did, they weren’t telling.
Abu Muhammad had answered cryptically that “If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back. And perhaps in the future I will return again.”
But the answer became rapidly clear in the summer months ahead. In the spring of 2014, ISIS was getting ready for its biggest move of all–namely, the extending of the sectarian war in Syria across the border into Iraq, effectively nullifying the border between the two countries.
I was aware of none of that, of course, as I chatted with the two jihadists in Cielis. The Kurds in Kobani were unaware of it, too. But it would cause an earthquake in their own situation and in the future of their enclave.
In the meantime, the service taxi back to Gaziantep was stopped by plainclothes Turkish police. I had to show them the Israeli passport in my pocket, as that was the way I’d entered Turkey. In a taxi full of Syrian refugees, I wasn’t sure how this would go down. But luckily, the gold menorah emblem on the cover of the passport had rubbed off when I’d had to shove the thing down my trousers while worrying about a possible search on the Turkish-Syrian border in 2012. So it appeared only as an anonymous blue document and did not arouse attention from my fellow passengers. The Turkish plainclothes man looked at me with bemusement but decided not to say anything. I left Cielis and Kobani behind and flew out that night.
The emergence of ISIS and its battle with the Kurds in Kobani was further evidence of the fragmentation that Syria was undergoing. In entirely different and opposing ways, both the Kurdish and the jihadi projects were successor entities to the fallen Syrian state, fighting over its ruins. The effective eclipse of Syria was the main outcome, it appeared, of the war.
“Syria has gone,” as one of the smugglers on the border had repeated to me several times in our conversation. What would replace it was not yet clear. But the disintegration of Syria was not the end of the story. This process was about to burst its borders. The Islamic State was gunning for Iraq.
*Dr. Jonathan Spyer is Director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs (formerly the GLORIA Center). He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master’s Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His reporting on the war in Syria and Iraq has been published in a number of major news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Times, Weekly Standard and many others.
 George Orwell, “Homage to Catalonia,” (London: Penguin Books, 1938).
 Most authorities believe that these weapons, which appeared in northern Syria, were not supplied to Ma’arouf’s men, but rather to a number of other U.S.-“vetted” groups. Scott Lucas, “Syria: The 9 Insurgent Groups with US-made Tow Missiles,” EA Worldview, May 9, 2014, http://eaworldview.com.
 This was the terminology that the ISIS men used, and it is interesting–after all, the Kurds are also Sunni Muslims. However, none of the jihadists this author spoke to made any ethnic qualifier, such as “Arab” Sunnis. There were “Sunnis” and there were “Kurds” in their lexicon.