Adjunct Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice; @gaylelemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon discusses her new book, The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice. In an unlikely showdown in northeastern Syria in 2014, an all-female militia faced off against ISIS in the little-known town of Kobani. From this conflict emerged a fighting force that would wage war against ISIS across northern Syria. The Daughters of Kobani introduces the women fighting on the front lines, playing a central role in the territorial defeat of ISIS and, in the process, they worked to make women’s equality a reality. The Daughters of Kobani shines a light on a group of women intent on not only defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield, but also changing women’s lives in their corner of the Middle East and beyond.
The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows.
LINDSAY: Hello, everyone. I want to welcome all of you to today's on-the-record Council on Foreign Relations meeting. I am Jim Lindsay, senior vice president here at the Council. It is my great pleasure to introduce today's speaker, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Gayle is adjunct senior fellow for women in foreign policy here at the Council. She is also a contributor to the Atlantic's Defense One site, where she writes on a range of national security and foreign policy issues. Gayle is the author of two New York Times best-selling books. One is Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield. The other is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything To Keep Them Safe. Today we're here to recognize and discuss Gayle’s newest book just out today, The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice. We begin by welcoming Gayle and congratulating her on the publication of her most recent book. Thanks for joining us, Gayle.
LEMMON: Thank you for having me. I'm so glad to be here, Jim, it's been ten years since Dressmaker. I was just thinking about this. Yes, it was March 11 of 2011.
LINDSAY: And you had been very productive. I want to congratulate you. Now I know, as I mentioned your earlier two books, Ashley's War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, New York Times best-selling books, and it seems to me that The Daughters of Kobani is off to a hot start. I will say that not just because I like you and you're a member of the David Rockefeller Studies Program, but you're getting early great reviews. I'll note that Kirkus Reviews says you "have told a well-told story." Publishers Weekly says, "The Daughters of Kobani enthralls and informs." Library Journal says, "This is a story that needed to be told, it needs to be heard." So let's talk a bit about that. I'm not trying to make you blush, I just want people to realize what piece of quality work this is, but you write that every great story starts with a question you cannot answer. How does that apply to The Daughters of Kobani?
LEMMON: So this story starts with, actually, one of the soldiers in Ashley's War calling me in 2016. I was actually at preschool pickup for my kids hiding in the bushes, Jim, so that they wouldn't see me. And she called me from Syria and said, "You know, you have to come see this. This is a truly remarkable thing. There are women not just leading in battle, but they're also really possessing this ideology that is focused on women's equality." And she had been part of the all-women's special operations team that's chronicled in Ashley's War. And she said, "Honestly, you know, it is remarkable to see because they have the respect of the men, who they lead in battle, as well as the respect, deep respect, of the U.S. forces that with whom they work every single day." And as I asked her questions and as I got started with the story, the question became, how on Earth did one of the most far-reaching experiments in women's equality come to be right on the ashes of the ISIS fight, created by women who fought the Islamic State room by room, house by house, and town by town for a half decade? And that question was the same as the questions that had really intrigued me in both Dressmaker and Ashley's War because the next question then is how do we not know about it? And this book is really an effort to take readers into my own journey of trying to understand who these people were and the complexity of all this. And the fact is that there were women who were doing the fighting against ISIS for the rest of us.
LINDSAY: So let's talk about it. You've laid out some of the elements of The Daughters of Kobani. It's a multilayered tale. In part, it's about the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria. It's partly about the Syrian civil war. It's partly about Kurdish desires for autonomy. It's partly about geopolitical tensions between the United States, Turkey, and Russia. But at its core, The Daughters of Kobani is a story about women who you track over the course of the book—Azeema, Rojda, Nowruz, Znarin—can you tell us a little bit about them? What were their lives like before they became fighters?
LEMMON: So I mean, I think some of them had political awakenings on the Kurdish cause. You know, one of them had watched their father lose his land. One of them watched as an award was taken from her because she wasn't from the right ethnic group in high school. But really, most of them were motivated by really wanting to see their people at the beginning be able to speak their own language, name their babies what they would wish, celebrate their holidays, and they felt deeply this political sense of wanting to be able to practice, you know, having certain liberties that would come with being, you know, freedom of expression. So you have that. Then comes 2011 and the Syrian civil war. And if you rewind back a little bit in 2004 there were protests at a soccer match in the town of Qamishli. And unarmed protesters were shot at and it gave the young people at that time the sense that we can't let this happen to us again. And so women who were part of this, you know, come to the Syrian civil war, they are determined to protect their neighborhoods. And I think we all know women in our own families who if they face that kind of threat would be very determined to protect their towns. But at the beginning, no one I spoke with thought there would be going up on the global stage against the Islamic State, right? They thought that what they would be doing would be, you know, keeping extremists potentially out of their neighborhood. And that only became clear as the Syrian civil war metastasized from a peaceful protest for democracy to something that was taken over by extremist groups and became a political venue in which any number of powers fight.
LINDSAY: This is really a story about women's empowerment because the people you talk about, it introduces to in the story, their life before they enter the militia face a lot of constraints. One of the people you talk about is denied the right to become a doctor and to marry the man of her choice because it was opposed by her family. So tell us about, sort of, that change from that to joining a militia to fight on behalf of their fellow Kurds.
LEMMON: So you have someone like Rojda, who becomes the commander with whom the Americans are working to retake the so-called capital of the Islamic State—Raqqa. You know, she was somebody who as a girl, her uncle dressed up as a ghost in her grandmother's town so that she and her cousin, who was also a girl, wouldn't play soccer in their grandmother's village because it was shameful to do that. Then you have Znarin, who is, you know, even early already people have been writing me about her, because she's this young woman with lots of hopes, wants to go to university. Her uncle says "No, that's not necessary for girls." She wants to marry the person she loves. Her uncle says, "No, that's not necessary. I want you to marry one of my sons." And she just says, "No. If I'm not going to marry the person I love, I'm not going to marry anyone." And by the time folks from a group that really advocates for women inside this political movement knocks on her door, she's ready. She's receptive. And we follow her journey from being a driver for Nowruz, who is the commander of the all-women's force to really becoming one of the leaders who goes back to her hometown and ends up being part of this all-women force that liberates, you know, the town that she's from, from ISIS. And then you have Nowruz whose mother said to her, "Don't be like me. You have no agency, no voice, and make sure your life looks different than mine." And we follow all these women as they go on this journey from taking up arms to protect their neighborhoods to really be thrust onto the global stage by the United States, which finds it as it really is the only partner that it thinks can take the fight to ISIS and captured on the world's cameras as you have this truly David-versus-Goliath showdown in the town of Kobani.
LINDSAY: So let's talk a little bit about that. Because one of the striking things about the story isn't just that women who come from a culture and a society that limited their choices go and fight on behalf of that community, but they eventually form in all-women's militia. Sort of walk us through because that's a step further than simply just going out and fighting on behalf of your friends and family.
LEMMON: Yes, so, you know, by 2013, and any number of al-Qaeda linked groups are now part of this conversation, right, this is now no longer the kind of conflict that started with boys protesting on a wall. This is now a war that has lots of groups.
LINDSAY: The Syrian civil war at this point?
LEMMON: That's right, two years into the Syrian civil war, which really becomes the tragedy that extinguishes the power of adjectives to describe it. So in this backdrop come these young people who say, "Listen, we are going to defend what we can. We're going to take up arms. We have to be part of it." And by 2013 they've actually already seen some fighting. They've seen some skirmishes trying to protect their areas. And one of them, when I asked Rojda in an early interview, I think you always think about when you're undertaking a book, is this a book that, you know, I think my godmother in PG County will want to read? You know, is this something that can transform—
LEMMON: Yes, Prince George's County, Maryland.
LINDSAY: Prince George's County?
LINDSAY: The DC area.
LEMMON: And I said to her, "Why did you form these Women's Protection Units in 2013. You already had full equality according to your ideology. You already had the ability to lead a fight right alongside men. You didn't need this." And she looked at me and she said, "We just didn't want men taking credit for our work." And in that moment, I think, you know, there is honestly no woman has ever been born who doesn't understand that sentiment. And I thought it's just such a universal moment of even in the most extreme arena, this is what they wanted to make it clear that they were going to go up against men who thought women had no value.
LINDSAY: Gayle, you mentioned the ideology. I think we may want to dwell on that for a moment because it's not just about women's empowerment, but it's wedded to a larger movement spurred by a gentleman named Abdullah Öcalan, who is Turkish, but a Kurd, who spent two decades in hiding in Damascus agitating for the freedom of Turkish Kurds, eventually was kicked out of Syria, was captured with the help of the United States, taken back to Turkey, tried, sentenced of death, then had his sentenced commuted. But he was the head of something known as the PKK, which a Turkish government has long insisted is a terrorist organization. And so can you sort of paint the picture for us the connection between Öcalan in what the women in the protection groups militia were doing?
LEMMON: So these all-women's protection units form and they are truly inspired by the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, who has now written extensively from jail about the need for grassroots local participatory democracy that has environmental awareness at its center and women rights at its heart. And the grassroots piece comes from—I think readers will be quite astounded by this—by a gentleman named Murray Bookchin, who really had come to talk about this idea of social ecology, that there should be no hierarchy. It was well ahead of his time talking about the green movement. And in fact, his former wife bites Bernie Sanders on a waterfront development project. So that is very much a part of the story. So Murray Bookchin's ideas, you know, he's a young man born to a family that has found a home in New York. He becomes a communist and an anarchist and moves to this idea of social ecology. He publishes this book that gets read by Abdullah Öcalan in prison and they put these ideas into place in this sliver of northeastern Syria that ends up backed by the United States. And the whole notion is that the Kurds can't be free until women are free and that they should not be advocating for a nation state but for local grassroots autonomy and participatory democracy, really, I think, somewhat akin to what many in the progressive side of this country would recognize.
LINDSAY: Okay, so but the Turkish government still considers the PKK or anyone associated with the terrorist organization. So they're hostile to the work of these women. But I want to come back to that. Before we do that I want to sort of talk about sort of the opposition here. On the one hand you have these women who are part of a movement believing that it's fundamentally important to empower women to give them equal rights, that really sort of changing life in northeastern Syria. But they're fighting against the Islamic State, which has clearly sort of the 180-degree opposite view of women. They believe in subjugation, enslavement, and the sale of women is actually sort of at the center of their ideology. So can you sort of walk us through sort of that tension?
LEMMON: Yes. And then we can get back to this whole idea of what the difference is between in the conversation on the policy about Turkey and Syria. This really becomes a David-versus-Goliath story, only David also happens to be a woman, right? You have this showdown in the town of Kobani, the men who buy and sell women, which is very much central to the Islamic State's ideology and what it had done in Sinjar with the Yazidi community and the tragedy of what had happened, and they come to this town in Kobani. They expect very little opposition. They've had no battlefield losses at this time. And they come up against this fighting force that very few outside had heard of—certainly the Americans were educating themselves as this was all happening—who is putting up deep resistance to the Islamic State and fighting to the death. And women are right at the heart of that and we join, in the book, Azeema leading in battle in Kobani. Rojda battles, you know, sometimes with the men that they're leading. They're playing music at night playing the tanbur just trying to find humanity amid the inhumanity. And you have this showdown that starts in Kobani and goes all the way, really, through 2019 of the men who buy and sell women and who subjugate women to incredible violence, of which we have only begun to contend, who come right up against, every single day for a half decade, the full fighting force and the women who have women's emancipation right at the center of what motivates them and what drives them. And the book is really an attempt to take readers into that showdown and that clash of worldviews into which the United States becomes a part.
LINDSAY: Well, your writing there, Gayle, is riveting. In the fight for Kobani comes down to a matter of a couple of blocks before Azeema, Nowruz, and the rest of the members of the militia are able to pull them back and sort of mark the first defeat of the Islamic State certainly in its westward expansion in Syria. And then that brings them really to the attention of the United States. You yourself have written that in 2013-2014, that the U.S. government was really sort of hunting for a Syria policy. And now all of a sudden, at least, some members of the then-Obama administration think they see a potential partner in these militias, these Kurdish militias. Can talk a little bit about them?
LEMMON: Sure. So you have to go back and remember that the ghost of the Iraq War hung over every decision made on Syria. And you have the Obama administration, which deeply believed it was elected to end wars in the Middle East, not start new ones. And yet, the Islamic State is on a tear. Once Mosul falls, and you know the book really works to take readers into this, U.S. policymakers are taken aback the same as everybody else. And this is in the summer of 2014. Then the tragedy with the Yazidi community in Sinjar happens—families are separated, men are killed, women are taken to be bought and sold by the men of the Islamic State. And the terror that ISIS is on looks nearly unstoppable. And U.S. officials are saying, you know, "What are we going to do?" knowing that we cannot put U.S. boots on the ground, that was something that was very clearly stated. And so they're on this hunt for a fighting force that will bring the fight to the Islamic State and be able to take and fold land against ISIS while also not seeking to topple Assad. And they start to look around and they catch, you know, they see what's happening in Kobani, and it's that convergence of conversations that are already underway, watching these men and women fight against ISIS and put up extreme resistance. Because you have to remember these women are—they have fewer weapons, less training, they're up against the ISIS all-stars who come in for this big, you know, the next win in Kobani. They have less food. They have, certainly, less weaponry and in some moments in the book we see they're down to almost no ammunition, right? And so this is what they are up against and the Americans are struck, and I spent a lot of time talking to folks who said they were so struck by the heart and the will of these women and men to keep fighting that they would even sometimes sleep at the bases where they were helping to then eventually support them from the air because they never wanted to miss an opportunity to support this force that was really bringing the fight to ISIS.
LINDSAY: So we'll talk a little bit more about that because the United States eventually does make a bet on these Kurdish militias, again, alienating Turkey, which remains hostile to this alliance. And a number of U.S. Special Forces operators go in, work closely—you mentioned they sleep on occasion at the bases—but talk a little bit about, sort of, how they felt about finding themselves working with an all-female militia because there's nothing like that in the United States military.
LEMMON: No. And, you know, it was interesting because one of them, I guess I'll tell you two stories. These are really people who've come of age in the post-9/11 conflicts—Iraq, Afghanistan, back and forth for, you know, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen deployments. And one of them said to me, "At first I wasn't sure what it would be like to have a partner force where I would be spending most of the time talking with women." And then he said, "And then a couple hours in you realize they have the same warrior ethos, right? They're in the fight." And that all goes away. And he said, "And actually, you know, I kept thinking I wanted my daughters to be like them." And then there was another moment where there's another member of Special Operations community who goes to see how he can help, right? There now and Americans reach this "advise and assist" mode, and they are, he goes to this town and he is standing there on the side of the road as twenty-five or thirty young women in fatigues, braids, wearing, you know, Timex watches and AK-47s slung across their shoulders and are going off to fight the Islamic State and they're hugging each other and they're, kind of, high-fiving and he's, you know, watching and he has this true mix of emotions that, you know, respect for them, you know, bringing a real spirit of commitment to the fight, kind of marveling at this visual we don't have of these young women, you know, going off to fight ISIS on the front lines. And then he has this moment where he thinks about the MacArthur speech at West Point: "Duty, Honor, Country." And he wrote to me, you know, he said, "That's what I kept thinking of. Here were people who just embraced the fact that some of them might not come back but that what they were doing mattered not just to themselves, but to the world." And I think that is such an important point that these are the people who fought ISIS on the ground when, you know, for the rest of us.
LINDSAY: So the book actually takes readers through a number of battles from Kobani to Manbij to Raqqah to Deir ez-Zor. It ends with the defeat of the Islamic State at Baghuz in Syria, and there's a celebration to mark the notion that the Islamic State no longer has any territorial control in Syria. And on that sense, it's an upbeat ending. But the story doesn't actually end there. Can you tell us what happened after that?
LEMMON: Sure. And that moment, which I watched for hours on video, is this ceremony where there are, you know, thirty-five young people with orange wool suits in a brass band playing the Star-Spangled Banner to mark the end of the ISIS fight. The people we've gotten to know throughout the story are all there. It's like the last episode of the season that you've followed all of these people, and you're watching them and the question mark is hanging over the entire event—what comes next? What will the Americans do? Will this whole experiment in women's equality that we have been really transitioning from military gains to the governance piece, right? Because the whole point for them was that you lead in battle so you can govern in peace and so no one can say women can't do it. Then comes October 2019 and Turkish-backed forces launch an incursion into this territory. And I think what is striking about this is, truly I was there about two months later, and so much of what they built indoors. You know, I often joke I have much more hope when I'm in northeastern Syria than in northwest Washington because the, kind of, can-do spirit, you know, really pervades everything. And I do hope people see that. You know, I kept asking my colleagues, you know, “So has this changed?” They're like, "No, no, no." Because, you know, truly, I think they have built something that is very fragile, but indoors, and does look different from the conflicts that, I think, have shaped our lens in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think now we have a moment where the "and then what?" continues to be the question written in invisible ink perceptible to very few right now.
LINDSAY: Well, let's talk a little bit about that. Because, obviously, you have the Turkish incursion into Kurdish-controlled portions of northeastern Syria. President Trump reminded that. There was a lot of anger among elements of the U.S. military over that decision.
LEMMON: And the U.S. State Department.
LINDSAY: They were angry that the United States was abandoning an ally, which had, as you just eloquently pointed out, done most of the heavy lifting in fighting the Islamic State. But we now have a new administration in office. The Biden administration has to make some choices about U.S. policy toward northeastern Syria. But where do you think the Biden administration is going knowing that many of the people in the Biden administration also had important positions in the Obama administration dealing with just this issue?
LEMMON: And this is the next round of the same conversation, right? And actually none of the players have moved their pieces on the board. They continue to be more or less where they were when the Obama administration left office. There is a group that thinks you cannot work with these folks who, Turkey, a NATO ally, and an important ally, viewed as an existential threat. And then you have people who say, "These are America's partners in stopping the Islamic State." They took back the land from ISIS, right, with ten thousand losses. And they're building this experiment in governance that when you drive around, and I've had the privilege of going seven times and hope to go more, it does look different than other U.S. interventions in part because America is the Oz-like presence that you never see on the ground but you know exists and, sort of, keeps this very fragile political seesaw in place. So now the Biden administration will face a decision because ISIS is seeking to regroup in places like Deir ez-Zor, and it is taking advantage of the spaces as it always has, right? And it will face this decision coming up in the approachable future as to what comes next. My personal hope is that diplomacy becomes a huge part of the conversation. I think that's theirs as well.
LINDSAY: I take your caution, Gayle, that northeastern Syria remains a question written in visible link. But with that caveat, where do you think we're headed in terms of Turkey's attitudes toward the region? Just in the last day or so, something like a dozen Turkish hostages were found killed in northern Syria. President Erdogan has blamed the United States for it because of its alliances in the region.
LEMMON: I think that was northern Iraq, right?
LINDSAY: Was it in northern Iraq? I thought it was in northern Syria. I stand corrected. But where do you see, sort of, the issue of Turkey in dealing with the Kurds in northern Syria? Do you see them, sort of, holding pat? Or should we anticipate potential for another incursion?
LEMMON: So I believe deeply in the power of U.S. leadership and I believe deeply that if U.S. diplomacy really exerts muscle with the folks coming back in who knows this conflict, right? Secretary Blinken, his comments are woven throughout The Daughters of Kobani, which at the heart of it is really a story about communities of women underestimated by the outside who rise to the moment, really, in cause to a purpose greater than themselves. And now you have this moment where previously, even as recently as 2015, diplomatic talks were ongoing. And there were people who are in this book from the political side who were able to travel to Turkey without incurring the wrath of the Turkish government. So I believe deeply that there has to be an opening for diplomacy. And I also would point folks to what's in the book, which is Ambassador Roebuck's memo, present at the catastrophe right after the Turkish-backed incursion that says, in part, you know, "We put a bull's-eye on the back of the people who fought ISIS for us because this was never resolved and because we elevated them in the eyes of the world. They now became America's partner." And so I do believe that there is an opening and a chance for diplomacy if we have a group of government officials who care deeply, which we do, right, who want to see a way forward that doesn't involve military action.
LINDSAY: Let me ask you this, Gayle, and we'll bring the rest of the group into the conversation. But when readers put down The Daughters of Kobani, what are you hoping they will have learned?
LEMMON: I hope they feel inspired. I deeply do. I hope people feel inspired by the fact that there were people who, even when their backs were against the wall, never gave up. And that there were young women, who in this moment where we're having the same conversation in the United States, truly rewrote the rules governing their lives not just for themselves, but deeply for them was about the next generation. I asked one of the leaders at the end, you know, "What do you want a girl or boy born twenty years from now to know?" And she said, "I want them to know this happened." And there were moments even in towns that were from different ethnic groups, and I really don't want to underplay this, but I saw this myself, there was a moment where one of the towns where ISIS was planning the attacks on Europe and then the United States is freed from ISIS rule. And it's a horrible fight, right, because they really did spare no expense at shedding humanity. And one of the women, when a young woman comes to, you know, is trying to tell people that it's okay to come out that they're there now, and this older woman comes up and kind of puts her hand on her face, and says, you know, "We didn't know you were real. We heard about you." And I think it's that. I hope people are inspired by this moment of really rethinking what is possible and by seeing women who did challenge the rules that govern their lives and they did so not just for their sake, but truly for the rest of us who don't have to live within the Islamic State that has territory from which it can plan against the rest of the world.
LINDSAY: At this time I'd like to invite everyone else to join the conversation with their questions. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue.
STAFF: [Gives queuing instructions] We'll take the first question from Linda Robinson. Ms. Robinson, please accept the unmute now button.
Q: Hello, very much pleased to congratulate Gayle for this wonderful book. And I would like to ask about what she thinks the U.S. Special Operations forces can learn from this going forward because I think for a number of them this was really a transformational experience in actually supporting forces rather than being at the pointy end of the spear as they were taught to be. And I know you know them well so I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thank you.
LEMMON: Well, first of all, I would just encourage everybody to read Linda's work, including work she's done for CFR on the Special Operations community. I would say this, this is in the view of many who had lived through, I would say truly lived through more than a dozen deployments, this was a "by, with, and through" that delivered what it set out to without requiring U.S. boots on the ground. And one of them had said to me, "I had hoped from this," and this is sort of a moment in the book too, "that we wouldn't bequeath to our daughters and our sons the same fight and that we would have a shot at stopping in its tracks some of the momentum for groups that are extremists and but that practices kind of an ideology." And yet they were the first ones to say it is much easier to slay a terrorist than to kill an ideology. And I think nobody thought that the territorial defeat would mark the end but they did hope deeply that America would continue to keep the pressure on ISIS not just from the military side, but to allow governance that actually delivered for people to get into place. And I think as the Biden administration thinks about CT-plus or counter terror-plus and a light footprint that has U.S. airpower backing it but ground forces, which are doing the frontline fighting, belong to the region. I think this is something that many people are studying because it was an unexpected policy that actually did what it set out to. And I hope people do see that at the end of the story.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Peter Galbraith.
Q: Hi, Gayle. I'm really excited about your book. I've been into northeast Syria about fourteen times since 2014 and was in Kobani shortly after the siege ended. So the things you describe, I think, are quite extraordinary. And I'm also glad you mentioned my fellow Vermonter, Murray Bookchin, although it has to be said, if you visit there the environmentalism probably needs some work. But a couple of points I wanted to ask you about. You speak about rewriting the rules. And I wonder, though, my sense of it is, and this comes from Bookchin, and is that it's a little more top-down then strictly bottom-up. I mean, there was the ideology and then you had these women's groups formed rather than them forming themselves and then participating. And that goes to the related question, which I've had conversations with people there, is this going to lead to a rewriting of the rules for these young women in terms of their personal lives— choosing who their partners are and choosing to live their lives more freely? Or is it just in the context of the struggle? And finally, as you know from being there, it's a bit like the bar scene from Star Wars these days if you go to commissary with the Americans, the Russians, Assad, now back since November of 2019, the Turks, not very far away. And I wondered if you had, and of course they've never really fought against Assad, so I wonder if you see any possibility of this experiment continuing to exist in some kind of political deal with Assad, who's clearly won the civil war everyplace else and has a presence in northeast Syria?
LEMMON: Those are great questions. I'm going to start with the first one about is it top-down or bottom-up. So I tell this story because it's in the book. When I was a kid my father, who comes from the region, we were talking about something and he looked at me and he said, "Do you really think men and women are equal?" Because it was an idea that was truly flummoxing, right, he really found the idea, not quite preposterous, but maybe a half-inch away. And what I saw on the ground was not a top-down "you have rights, we're giving them to you," it was a convergence of a lot of young women who had bumped up with their hearts and their heads against lots of people telling them what they couldn't do. And I know many women in this country will absolutely understand that, even if it looks different. So it is true that the ideology gave them an outlet to say, "See, we're not crazy. And we're not alone." But that instinctive feeling for every person I talked to, it was an absolute feeling the same moment that was just a fraction of a percent of what I experienced as a ten year old that they had, which is why, you know, why shouldn't I be able to play soccer? Why shouldn't I be able to marry who I want to marry? So absolutely the ideology gave them sort of a moment that's actually very similar to a moment in Ashley's War, where fifty-five young women who are trying to be part of this special operations program come to the lobby of the Landmark Inn on a base in North Carolina and realize that there's, as one of them told me, "more than one giraffe at the zoo." So I do think there's that community moment that is important, that is their personal lives meet the political moment and the ideology. Secondly, the Star Wars moment, I absolutely saw it. I mean, it is surreal to see Russian convoys, Syrian regime convoys, and American convoys all within sixty minutes on not terribly terrific roads. And it does look very different than anything we've seen and yet there is this uneasy coexistence with no one quite tangling most of the time with the other. And for those who are part of this project, they have made very clear that they would like to be part of the conversation about Syria's future. And there's a great piece in Enab Baladi for those of you who read publications in the region that's talking about those who are not Kurdish who are living in these areas who find that they have more liberties and more space to maneuver and want to continue staying there. So I think this is an open question as we go forward in terms of Syria's future. And then just one last point to Jim's question and I promise I'll wrap, which is this this whole idea of who the U.S. partnered with. And I think it's very important to note that this is about America's national security. These folks who are in this book are the people who America chose to partner with back in 2014 to bring the fight to the Islamic State. And they were, as the book talks about, Syrians.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Maryum Saifee.
Q: Maryum Saifee, State Department Foreign Service officer. What are some general lessons learned on the role of women's participation in the KRG to fight ISIS that we could actually apply here in our own country's fight against domestic terrorism and sort of this white supremacy-fueled radicalization that we've been witnessing sort of in real time? In other words, why does an inclusive approach to countering extremism matter?
LEMMON: So then, to be specific, this story really is—thank you for the questions, to all of you—really is about northeastern Syria and this kind of sliver of Syria that gets kind of bolted on to the world's attention by the cameras of CNN and the men of ISIS. And I think the lesson to me was, well, two things that were striking and both are in the book. One is that I had never seen women anywhere in the world more comfortable with power and less apologetic about running things. And it does look different. And I think part of that comes because of the military victory and because of their losses. Our car broke down one day in Al-Hasakah—I know Peter Galbraith will recognize the town as well many of you on this call—and three of the members of the Women's Protection Units drove us home and on the back of their rearview mirror is a picture of one of their fallen, you know, teammates. One of the women who had fought with them who died in the ISIS fight. And at the checkpoints, you know, they're high-fiving each other and they're hugging each other to the other women they're seeing and you just think this does look different. I think that the piece that is different is the governance piece, right? So every town they’d take from ISIS has a woman who is a head and a man who is a head. There are women who said there's co-heads of the civil councils. There are women everywhere. There are women councils that are specifically set up to address women's issues. I am not telling readers how to feel about that. You can feel however you'd like that that really is not the role. I believe that in the book my role is to take you into the world. But it does look different. And I think what was so interesting was a couple folks from Ms. Magazine said to me one time, you know, "Do you think that they're inspired by the U.S.?” And I said, "No, I think actually their ideology goes much farther than anything we had tried in the United States, including some of the political pieces in their founding document." Women are mentioned thirteen times even though this document really isn't recognized outside of northeastern Syria. It certainly is there and women know that they are part of that conversation and that their rights are front and center. They are not peripheral.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Henri Barkey.
Q: Hi, Gayle. As you know I love the book. I have a question about the impact of these women on other parts of the Kurdish regions, right? But especially in northern Iraq and the KRG. So when you go there you go in and out of the KRG and the Kurdistan Regional Government of [Masoud] Barzani have not been exactly friendly to these Kurds even though these Kurds were actually very helpful in defending the KRG from ISIS. But in your conversations in northern Iraq are you sensing the impact of these changes that you described in the book on the Iraqi Kurds or can they really build a wall between them and Syria in that sense? Thank you.
LEMMON: In part I would steer people to some of your work to answer this and I would also say that I think was an interesting moment in the Turkish-backed incursion to see the public from around the area really stand up that was not about where folks were living but was really across geographies and across ideologies. And there is this push, which is, you know, a number of folks from the State Department, who were here and might be able to talk about or maybe not talk about, that has been, you know, supported by the U.S. to have an intra-Kurdish dialogue. I think that is very much a living thing. I think it is fraught with challenge, but I think that that is an effort you definitely see in northeastern Syria, this push that we have to do this if we're going to have a future.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Amy Austin Holmes.
Q: Hi, Gayle, thank you so much for this wonderful discussion and presentation of your work. I'd like to try to ask a question that relates to both this issue of women's rights and women's participation in the conflict as well as the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, which we've also addressed. So as you know, the self-administration in northeast Syria has made a number of remarkable changes in terms of the laws that govern women's rights, for example, attempting to outlaw underage marriage, outlaw polygamy that are, you know, they're not applied everywhere in the northeast but they've at least put forward these ideas. And so this is one issue that obviously protects a lot of the women that live in this region that in the past may have been married off at a very young age. But this is also, I mean, these same rights are actually also in Turkey's civil code, right? So after the founding of the Republic, at the time of Ataturk, I mean, these laws outlawing underage marriage were also passed in Turkey and could it be that focusing on these commonalities between what is the Kurdish-led movement in the northeast and these ideas that actually also are not foreign to Turkey, that that could be potentially a way forward in terms of, you know, the United States trying to turn over a fresh page in this conflict and looking for resolution and a way forward?
LEMMON: I'm deeply hopeful. Maybe it's just the spirit of can-do that I try to keep nearby. But I do say that there is a diplomatic opening, that there is room, that it wasn't like this was as recently as 2013, 2014, and 2015—conversations were going on. That is not ancient history. And so I think there are interests that align that are much bigger, particularly for the United States if you pan out, than this region but then involve this region. And so I am hopeful that people will see there is more in common than divides and that the United States can actually play a role in exercising diplomatic muscle to make that clear and to bring parties to the table.
STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, as a reminder to ask a question, please click on the "raise hand" icon on your zoom chat box. We'll take the next question from David Phillips.
Q: Gayle, thanks very much for the presentation and for writing this book. Could you elaborate a little bit more on Turkey's role? There were reports during the Battle of Kobani that ISIS fighters were actually attacking Kobani from Turkish territory. It is also well documented evidence by Can Dündar and others of Turkey supplying weapons to ISIS and the jihadi highway from Sanliurfa to Raqqa that arranged for forty thousand foreign fighters to transit through Turkey to the frontlines. Did you encounter any of this in your interviews with people with whom you spoke about the book? And what about ongoing cooperation? We’ve seen jihadi's being transported by Turkey to Libya and now to Nagorno-Karabakh and Artsakh. It seems as though this cooperation between Turkey and jihadist mercenaries is ongoing. Could you comment?
LEMMON: Thank you for your question. I want to take people into a moment that actually is very much a part of this story where I talked to U.S. officials who are watching what's going on in Kobani. And they're watching this fighting force, which really no one is helping. And the fact is that cameras are catching it. And so the fact that, you know, people can see what's happening in real time actually changes some of the calculation, certainly the United States and also of other players. And the unintended consequences, I think, of that moment of folks not coming to the aid of those who are facing down ISIS ends up actually bringing in the United States to end up being on the side of the Syrian Kurds who they had not previously worked with or intended. So I think there are a whole area of unintended consequences that are involved here. And certainly some of the things you're talking about, you know, NPR was talking about them and others that are cited in the research that went into this story. Absolutely.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Rosa Ailabouni.
Q: Hi, Gayle, thank you so much for sharing the story with us and the world. As you know, there are women in the military, in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, do you see this empowerment continuing to change the role of women in the military in the Middle East?
LEMMON: I see women all around the region advocating for themselves, right? You do see that and it was interesting, there was a moment early on, it's actually in the beginning of the story, where I asked one of the young women who was on the frontlines fighting ISIS in in Raqqa. And we're there, we were there at the time for a news organization and she said, you know, "We're intending to be taking these ideas across the region and then around the world." And I said to this young woman, I said a kind of a dumb question, you know, "Why would you start in this neighborhood? It's really tough." And she looked at me with kind of disdain and said, "Yes, we know it's tough. We're from here. But if we can succeed here, then we can show people that, you know, back to [inaudible], that if you could lead in battle you can govern in peace. And I think that was very much a part of what motivated them.
LINDSAY: Gayle, can I jump in here and ask a question? I know as part of your reporting and in your many trips to northeast Syria, you have visited, among other places, the al-Hol camp—
LINDSAY: —where a number of the ex-ISIS fighters or families are kept. Can you tell us a little bit about what you saw during your visits but also give us some sense of your assessment to the potential for the Islamic State's ideology to continue to galvanize people in the future? Because again, it is such a different worldview than the worldview you lay out for these Kurdish fighters.
LEMMON: So I was in al-Hol camp for the second time in December of 2019. And there's a woman who is running security who actually fought the Islamic State and Manbij. And I asked her, "Did you ever think that you would be here really trying to get services and trying to navigate security for a camp with thousands of people whom the world would like to forget?" And she looked at me, she said, "No, I never in my wildest dreams thought that this is where I would be but yet here I am and that's my job and I'm going to do it." So al-Hol camp, you go through and there are—I think it's very important to remember that the folks in this story are holding thousands of ISIS fighters even after and during the Turkish-backed incursion, right? When they were having to go defend their own homes and their own neighborhoods they still, on the world's behalf, kept thousands of ISIS fighters in this detention that the United States requests and certainly the international community's benefit. And you go from, you know, you drive in and you see, you know, they're more than ten thousand of the women who were married to ISIS fighters who very much believed in the Islamic State—some of them. Some of whom were just young people who didn't fully understand what they were getting into but quickly did once they arrived and lots and lots and lots of kids who had no choice in what their parents decided. And we go in there and there's clothes hanging up and there are people, you know, kind of milling around and we found this young woman who was talking to us and another young woman from Russia who was there, and it really is the United Nations of ISIS. You hear any number of languages, any number of dialects of those languages going, and people coming—I've interviewed people from British Guiana, people from Somalia, people from Germany, who had [inaudible] from Russia, who had caved to answer the Islamic State's call as they heard it at the time. And I saw children chasing wild dogs. Jim, I mean, this will not end well for the world if it does not get involved. And the folks who fought the Islamic State who are not a nation state themselves, that they have nation state problems, are doing this on the international community's behalf and holding our hands over our ears as the international community will not make this problem go away. It is generational and is really urgent. It is an international problem that requires an international solution.
LINDSAY: I think we have another question in the queue.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Ellen Chesler.
Q: Gayle, what a wonderful presentation and I can't wait to read the book. Not to take anything away from the exceptionalism of the situation or the lived experience and the raw courage of these women with Murray Bookchin as an ideology, there is, as you know well, a fifty-year discourse on the international level about the relationship of women's empowerment or condition for development and for security. In your conversations with these women, does that ever come up? Are they aware that they are, you know, leading the battle now and you mentioned that sort of but not in the context of this global discourse. And, you know, once we are out of this COVID world it would be so wonderful to have them at the UN and elsewhere to our, you know, to represent this [inaudible]. It's not one without a history, so I just wondered if this ever came up?
LEMMON: It's so interesting because there was a moment, Ellen, where I was interviewing young women who were part of the Manbij Military Council from Arab families and I spent the day with them and I previously spent a lot of time, a decent amount of time, with young Arab women who had joined the Women's Protection Forces from Raqqa, some of whom are part of this book and some of whom are maybe the most courageous people whose stories stay with me and I've ever met anyplace in the world and who I feel just humbled to have heard their story and feel a responsibility to do justice to it. And so I was with these young women and I said to them, you know, "Tell me how you joined?" You know, none of them came from families that wanted them to join this force, the Manbij Military Council, but then at the end I realized, you know, when they come in, they have this ideological training, which I know, and many folks on this call will know well, where they're starting [inaudible], they're talking about women's rights and women's equality, and then I realized that these young women who probably never collided with these ideas, Ellen, ever. And I said to them, and they're looking at the ground, they've clearly not met a foreigner before or been interviewed, and I said to them, you know, they're looking down, and I said, "So what about when you heard this idea of women's equality, what did you think? Have you ever heard those ideas before?" And this young woman looked up and just starts laughing. She said, "Of course we hadn't heard it before. We thought they were making it up. And then we called our cousins and we turned to our cousins and they thought we were making it up. And you know, we talked to our grandmothers and our grandmothers said that was ridiculous." But, you know, these are all women from strong women in their families. I'm not at all saying that, but just that whole concept was so foreign to so many of the young women that I met that it was really striking. And I think it is really an area for folks like you, Ellen, in terms of to do really, you know, deep on-the-ground work just to see that convergence because, for me, it was really a marvelous moment and a revelation that, you know, this really was something they had not heard before.
LINDSAY: Gayle, I'd like to ask you one final question. We're coming to the end of what's been a fascinating discussion. But I'm curious, you've thought about this issue for a long time. Again, you've been to the region, you've talked to a lot of people. If you were to get a few minutes with a member of Congress and you wanted to give them one message about this issue, what would it be?
LEMMON: I would say, and we have done this actually in part for CFR, you know, is that this is about America's security. This is about people who are keeping the pressure on the Islamic State so that they are not in a position to have terrain to plan attacks on places like capitals in the region, capitals in Europe, and capitals in the United States. And when we talk about "by, with, and through," or partner force in a moment when America feels exhausted by its twenty years of war, I would quote Senator Shaheen and Senator Graham, who both said, you know, "This is actually a policy that has achieved what it set out to. And these are folks that we must find a diplomatic way forward with so that American interests can be presented."
LINDSAY: On the issue of the concerns about Turkey, how would you address that?
LEMMON: I really would go, I know, David and others would have a lot to say on this, and I would deeply say that I think there is a moment for diplomacy, that you have a new administration facing old challenges and that is navigating conversations, including the S-400 and including trying to keep a NATO ally in the fold and not on the side of Russia. And I do believe that American ingenuity is still very much in existence and that we can find creative ways forward among people with whom we have shared interests and values. And that will be the diplomatic challenge ahead I do believe.
LINDSAY: And do you worry at all about a clash between U.S. and Russian troops as you talked about this, sort of, real-world version of the bar in Star Wars.
LEMMON: So I'll tell you why I don't is because this has—well, I won't even lie. So I should not say—I worry about everything—but I would say that, you know, and General Votel, who ran Central Command, who has spoken about Daughters of Kobani, really talked about at one point about Russia being both arsonist and firefighter in the region. But I think both Russia and the United States have decided that it is much better to not tangle in this slice of Syria, this piece of Syria where so many powers are present. It is a neither sides' interest to have a conflagration that is accidentally lit there that then extends out and you do feel that that there's a very uneasy, so far, but real coexistence.
LINDSAY: Gayle, I just want to thank you for an absolutely terrific conversation. As always, it's fun to chat. I want to thank everybody who joined us for today's conversation. I want to remind everybody this virtual book launch with Gayle was on the record. You may purchase a copy of Gayle's book through CFR's website; I encourage you to do so. And please note that the audio and transcript of today's meeting will be posted shortly on CFR's website. But again, Gayle, thank you very much, it's a terrific book. You give every reason to be very proud of The Daughters of Kobani. Thank you and stay well.
LEMMON: Thank you so much and thanks to the entire CFR team.