Azeema paced her breath -making it move through her quietly, nearly silently-and coached herself to do something that did not come naturally to her.
"Stay in your position. Hunt the enemy. You must be calm to succeed," she said to herself. "Especially when your goal is right before you."
If you asked any of her eleven sisters and brothers to describe her when she was young, none of them would have included the word patient in their answer. "Intense," they would have said. "Take charge, a leader," they would have said. Someone who acts immediately. "Determined."
And yet here she sat, now hovering around the age of thirty, hunched over on all fours in the sniper's perch in full stillness, her knees tucked beneath her, her body forming a near-perfect letter S as she rounded her neck to peer into the narrow square of daylight through which she would shoot her weapon. Her life and-more important, in her view-the lives of her teammates hinged on her ability to bide her time, to know just the right moment to shoot-not a fraction of a second sooner. Snipers like her played a central role in the situation in which they now found themselves: under siege in Kobani, a Kurdish town of around four hundred thousand pressed right up against the Syrian-Turkish border. Azeema and her comrades in arms had one job: defend Kobani.
"The secret is to keep calm," she had been telling the newer snipers working alongside her and looking up to her. "No movement, no excitement. Any excitement at all, and you won't hit your target."
Azeema slowly leaned onto her right elbow, tilting her head ever so slightly as she looked down the barrel of her rifle. Her thick brown-black hair tried to escape the flowered blue, white, and purple scarf that covered it, but Azeema pulled the scarf down farther to fix it firmly in place. She moved her other elbow, propped up on a tan-colored sandbag, just a fraction of an inch to the left, and stayed as close to the ground as she could while she shifted her weight. Every movement mattered.
For Azeema, as for many other members of the Syrian Kurdish PeopleÕs Protection Units, the path to the Kobani battlefield in 2014 had started during street protests in her hometown of Qamishli ten years earlier.
The Kurds made up Syria's largest ethnic minority at roughly 10 percent of a country of around twenty-one million. The Kurds were a people split across four countries, the largest ethnic group with no state of its own. This hadn't been the plan: The 1920 Treaty of Svres had promised the creation of a Kurdish state, but Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal AtatŸrk, rejected the treaty immediately upon taking office in 1923. The Treaty of Svres soon gave way to the Treaty of Lausanne, negotiated with AtatŸrk's new government, which did not reference a Kurdish homeland at all. Lacking their own state, thirty million Kurds found themselves spread across what became, in the post-Ottoman era, modern-day Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Turkey was home to the largest Kurdish population.
None of these four countries embraced Kurdish identity or the Kurds' push for their own land. With the rise of Arab nationalist governments in Syria, the rights Kurds did enjoy began to narrow: Kurdish-language media outlets shuttered and teaching in Kurdish became illegal. By the end of the 1950s, Kurds could not apply for positions in either the police or the military.
The Syrian Kurds in many ways lived as outsiders within their nation, a regime officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic. The national government denied citizenship to tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds who missed the surprise one-day census in 1962 in the Kurdish-dominated province of Hassakeh. As a result, Kurds were unable to attain marriage and birth certificates, university slots, and passports; officially, they were stateless. The repression grew in 1963 when a coup brought the Baath Party to rule in Damascus. A decade later, the Syrian regime's "Arab cordon" policy took Kurdish lands along the borders with Iraq and Turkey. As part of the policy, the government brought Arab families to live on these lands owned by Kurds and now confiscated by Damascus. Syrian regime teachers taught in Arabic in Kurdish-area schools-no Kurdish permitted. Kurds had no legal right to speak Kurdish and publishers no legal right to print Kurdish text. Kurds had only a minimal right to own property, no right to celebrate traditional Kurdish holidays, which remained illegal by law, and no ability to name their children in their own language or to play their own music. Anyone-Kurd or Arab-who opposed the regime faced jail or worse, and the Syrian government's security apparatus monitored the area closely. Stepping out of line or moving against these rules meant defying a watchful regime that regularly jailed, tortured, and disappeared its enemies.
For decades, young Kurds had gone along with their elders as they sought to live their lives within the regime's boundaries. The regime officially outlawed political parties other than its own, but Kurds still organized loosely in an alphabet soup of political organs. Yet by 2004, the winds were shifting, in no small part because Kurds across the border in Iraq had won more rights as a result of the U.S. ousting Saddam Hussein. A no-fly zone in place for decades had offered a de facto safe neighborhood for Iraqi Kurds. The 2003 ousting of the Iraqi leader who had murdered and gassed his Kurdish population had opened the way for greater recognition of Kurds' rights in the Iraqi constitution-and had been greeted enthusiastically by young Syrian Kurds. News that U.S. president George W. Bush might soon turn to sanctioning the Syrian regime was not lost on this group.
Against this backdrop came the fateful March 2004 championship soccer match, which took place on a Friday in the largely Kurdish town of Qamishli but would have consequences across Kurdish areas. Facing off were rival soccer clubs from Qamishli and the majority-Arab town of Deir Ezzor. The usual trash-talking between fan groups soon turned ugly and political. Some reports said Kurdish fans kicked off the confrontation when they waved Kurdish flags and held signs praising George W. Bush. Others said fans from Deir Ezzor started it by holding signs with images of Saddam Hussein and by chanting insults about Iraqi Kurdish leaders. Before long, a brawl broke out. In response, the local authorities of the Syrian regime opened fire on the Kurdish side, killing more than two dozen unarmed fans and injuring around a hundred. Riots and attacks on government buildings and offices by young Kurds-including the defacing of murals honoring the now deceased Hafez al-Assad-followed. By Saturday night, Syrian state television had announced that the government would investigate the riots, which the regime blamed on some rogue elements reliant on "exported ideas." The unrest spread to other towns in the area and became the biggest civil uprising Syria had seen in decades. Government offices were destroyed, thousands of Kurds were thrown in jail by the Assad regime, and hundreds were left wounded.
By the end of March, after nearly two weeks of upheaval, the regime had imposed order once more. Bashar al-Assad, who had taken over ruling Syria four years earlier, following his father's death, sent tanks and armed police units into Kurdish areas, and quiet returned.
The 2004 protests marked a significant shift: Assad was growing more isolated as change came to Iraq. Young Syrian Kurds had shown that they would defy their elders and go out into the streets, despite the dangers and the risk of jail. The uprising laid bare a generational divide and exposed the will of young Syrian Kurds like Azeema, who felt impatient both with the rulers in Damascus and with their own Kurdish political leaders, who favored continued dialogue and quiet back channels over direct confrontation with Assad. Indeed, Kurdish leaders vied for the role of key interlocutor in any future talks about Kurdish rights with the Syrian regime. Some had condemned the defacement of government installations during the protests and urged an end to the unrest.
To Azeema and other young Kurds determined to shape a political future different from that of their parents, the events of March 12, 2004, showed the need for organization. The Kurds who came out to protest had no weapons and no strategy to protect themselves against the armed security forces of the Syrian regime, men willing to deploy any violence required on civilians. As Amnesty International noted, the aftermath of the incident in Qamishli brought "widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including children. At least five Kurds have reportedly died as a result of torture and ill-treatment in custody." As Azeema and her friends saw it, the disarray of the Syrian Kurds during those weeks cost dearly in lives. They vowed they would be armed and far better organized the next time an opening arose.
In the wake of the 2004 protests, a Syrian Kurdish political opposition group, the recently created Democratic Union Party, went to work recruiting and organizing members. This political party traced its origins directly to a Turkish Kurdish party, the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party. Illegal like all opposition parties in Syria, the Democratic Union Party worked in secret to spread its ideas and gather followers, drawing on nearly two decades of PKK presence inside Syria.
The PKK had taken root in Syria in the late 1970s when its founder, a charismatic college dropout from southeastern Turkey named Abdullah Ocalan, brought his Marxist-Leninist movement for an independent Kurdish homeland from Turkey to Syria. Turkey had long denied Kurds nearly all their rights and even took issue with the idea that an ethnic Kurdish identity existed, instead calling the Kurds "mountain Turks." The rebellion for Kurdish rights was bolstered following the imposition of martial law after the 1980 military coup and the enactment of the 1982 constitution, which named citizens members of the "Turkish nation" without regard for minority rights.
Ocalan came from a poor family of farmers with seven children, including a beloved sister who was married off for some money and several sacks of wheat. He studied political science at Ankara University and began to embrace Marxism while advocating for the Kurdish cause. He ended up dropping out of university after being jailed for distributing brochures and founded the PKK. Inspired by Marxist-Leninist thought, the group called for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan, with its most urgent priority the liberation of what it called northern Kurdistan, a part of Turkey. The PKK carried out its first paramilitary attack against Turkish government forces on August 15, 1984, killing two government soldiers in a coordinated assault in two southeastern provinces. One year later, a CIA memo noted that the insurgents had clashed with Turkish security forces more than thirty times and in the process taken the lives of fifty-six Turkish soldiers. These attacks grew in scale and reach over the next decade, and so did the range of targets, with the PKK using bases in the mountains of northern Iraq and in Syria as refuge.
At this time, the Syrian leader was Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, who ruled until his death in 2000. At Assad's invitation, Ocalan fled from Turkey to Damascus, Syria, in 1979, one year after the PKK's formation in a Turkish teahouse. The Assad regime, which denied Syrian Kurds their rights and shared none of Ocalan's goals, hosted the Turkish Kurdish leader as a means of spiting the enemy Syrians and Kurds shared: Turkey. Syria clashed with Turkey on a number of issues, including access to water from the Euphrates River. The two also landed on opposite sides of the Cold War, with Turkey joining NATO in 1952 and the Soviet Union backing Assad's regime. For Assad, hosting Ocalan and the PKK would keep his rivals in the Turkish capital of Ankara insecure and off-kilter. In exchange, Ocalan kept his focus on Turkey, not Syria. For two decades, Ocalan built and operated a PKK organization out of Syria and ran training camps in Lebanon from there. Quietly, his adherents taught families like Azeema's about Kurdish rights, economic justice, and-right at the center of the work-women's equality, even while the PKK escalated attacks in Turkey, which saw Ocalan and his organization as its chief security threat. The Syrian regime sometimes allowed Kurds to serve in the PKK's armed wing instead of completing their state-mandated military service in the Syrian Army.
By the late 1990s, Turkey, by then growing in military and economic strength and forging diplomatic and military ties with Israel, grew impatient of demanding Ocalan's expulsion. Ankara at last ended Syria's support of Ocalan by repeatedly threatening military action and suspension of Syria's water supply. Assad, no longer enjoying Soviet backing, agreed to Turkey's decades-long demand to evict the PKK's founder. The Syrian regime threw Ocalan out of the country in October 1998, forcing him to hunt for asylum and his PKK forces to find refuge in northern Iraq's Qandil Mountains, thus ending two decades of Ocalan's presence and influence in Syria. By then, Turkey also had persuaded the Americans to get involved in cracking down on Ocalan and the PKK: In 1997, the U.S. agreed to Turkey's request to designate the PKK, which Turkey counted as responsible for close to forty thousand deaths, as a terrorist organization. Not long after Ocalan fled Syria, U.S. surveillance information helped Turkey arrest him as he sought safety in Nairobi, Kenya. Turkey sentenced its highest-profile prisoner to death in 1999, but revised the sentence to life in prison after abolishing the death penalty in 2002. Since 1999, Turkey has imprisoned Ocalan in a one-man jail on Imrali Island in the Marmara Sea.
Turkey may have considered Ocalan its most-wanted man, but for the Syrian Kurds who followed him, Ocalan lived in the public imagination somewhere between Nelson Mandela and George Washington. Central to his teachings was the position that Kurdish rights could not be divorced from women's liberation because the enslavement of women had enabled the enslavement of men. Ocalan stated that the Neolithic order of a matriarchal society in which everyone was protected and people enjoyed communal property, sharing of resources, and a lack of social and institutional hierarchy had given way to a social order in which women's work became relegated to the home, women's rights had been denied, and women faced what he termed the "housewifization" of their contributions. Modern capitalism had taken people's freedoms and exploited its workers, spreading sexism and nationalism:
The 5,000-year-old history of civilization is essentially the history of the enslavement of woman. Consequently, woman's freedom will only be achieved by waging a struggle against the foundations of this ruling system.