Talking with Refugees from ISIS


“They believe in some strange religion, not Islam,” a Muslim refugee from the Iraq city of Ramadi told me when I talked with him recently in a refugee camp near the Kurdistan capital of Erbil in Northern Iraq. ISIS territory was some 40 miles away, but he spoke as if the extremists could return at any moment.

“They reject our religion and say we are not sufficiently Muslim, but they kill the men and rape the women. What kind of Islam is that?”

Though his religious affiliation was Sunni Muslim and his ethnic identity was Arab–the kind of people that ISIS regards as its preferred community–he had been a policeman in Ramadi and knew that he would be targeted. His neighbors were frightened as well, having heard stories about the harsh rule of the ISIS commanders and the loss of freedom under their control. As soon as he heard fighting at the edge of town he and other families quickly climbed into their cars at two o’clock in the morning and escaped. Most of the rest of the city joined them, he said. Now they are waiting in the camp, hoping for ISIS to leave the town so they can return.

It was a story repeated by dozens of refugees that I met in camps and makeshift shelters in Kurdistan and southeastern Turkey. They seemed puzzled about who ISIS was and what it wanted.

Most of the refugees used the term “Daesh” for ISIS, based on an acronym for the Arabic name for the movement, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (“the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [wider Syria]”–ISIL or ISIS). By coincidence, the term daesh also means something like the Arabic word for “bullies,” and for that reason ISIS leaders are annoyed by its usage. Probably also for that reason the term persists among those victimized by it.

“The Daesh leaders are foreigners,” a Kurdish man from a village near the Iraqi city of Mosul told me, saying he didn’t know where they came from, since he didn’t recognize their form of Arabic. The local members of the movement, he said, were poor people forced into it, though some seemed to be true believers.

An automobile dealer from a town west of Mosul recognized one of the ISIS fighters who captured him as a neighbor man to whom he had sold a car. The car dealer was from the Kurdish ethnic community; the man who bought his car was an Arab.

When the town was surrounded by ISIS, the militants forcibly divided the population into its Kurdish and Arab groups. One of the Arabs suggested that representatives from both groups wave a white flag and go to the ISIS leaders to negotiate their way out of the situation. That’s when the car dealer recognized his former customer among the ISIS fighters. The customer-turned-ISIS-fighter looked down and tried to avert the gaze from his former neighbor.

The negotiations soon broke down and the Arabs were told that they would not be harmed as long as they did nothing to impede ISIS’ authority and if some of the men would volunteer to fight on their side. The Kurds were not given any assurances, and fearing the worst most of them slipped away that night in the darkness to safety. They heard that those who stayed were divided into men and women’s groups. The men were killed and the women were taken into slavery.

I talked with another fellow, a Syrian Christian pharmacist, who had in fact stayed in his village in Syria after it had been taken over by ISIS forces. When he became a refugee he was able to stay in a slightly more comfortable Arab Christian camp than the one for Arab Muslims; it was set up in what had formerly been a playground next to a Catholic church in the Erbil suburb of Ankawa. The camp consisted of one-room campers instead of tents, supplied by the Christian charity, the Good Samaritans.

The pharmacist told us that the Syrian Army had assured them that they would be safe as ISIS approached. But then they suddenly disappeared, and ISIS had taken the town. At first, the ISIS militants told them they would not be harmed as long as they gave them all their money and their cell phones. In other villages, they heard, an agreement to convert to Islam and a payment of $7 per month would allow them to survive. But initially they were not given those options. Moreover, his wife was taunted for wearing a Western-style dress, as many Christian women do, so she could not venture outside. They also kept their daughters hidden, fearing they would be captured by ISIS and sold into sex slavery.

They waited until the middle of the night and then they and their neighbors made a break for freedom. They piled into the back of trucks and with the lights out drove madly through checkpoints and down the road towards Iraq and Kurdistan. The pharmacist showed me a video he had made with his cell phone, which did indeed look like a cattle surge of vehicles illumined by a few eerie lights. Now the news from his town is “very bad”—there is no water or electricity or food in stores. Christians are forced to make payments to be allowed to survive and have to pretend to be Muslims and go to the mosque, and ISIS militants roam around the streets and do whatever they want.

When I asked several of the refugees whether ISIS was motivated by religion or by power, they said “power,” but that they used religion as an excuse for their authority. One Kurdish man from the Syrian town of Dierzor said that he had evidence that the ISIS fighters weren’t really religious.

The Kurd told a story that he had heard about a Christian Syrian who was arrested by ISIS soldier at check point. The ISIS soldier asked the Christian to state his religion. “Muslim,” the Christian said, trying to save himself. The ISIS fighter then asked the Christian to prove it by reciting the Qur’an. The Christian mumbled some verses from the Bible, the only scripture he knew. “Good enough,” said the ISIS militant, unaware that the verses were not Qur’anic, and let him through unharmed.

When I asked the Kurd what kind of people supported ISIS in his Syrian home town of Dierzor, he said only a few did; they were mostly poor people who received money if they joined the movement as fighters. ISIS, he said, pays their soldiers 1000 dollars a month, whereas the Syrian opposition groups pay only $500. And ISIS does pay in US dollars, interestingly, perhaps from money it receives from illicit oil sales.

The Kurd said that all of his Kurdish neighbors in Dierzor were gone. They were told by ISIS they could stay but then killing began. Now they have either escaped and are refugees, or have been killed.

My hosts in Erbil found this fellow, the Syrian Kurd, encamped in a vacant lot, where they took me to meet him. Though most of the two million refugees in Kurdistan—a fourth of the population of the region—were in orderly refugee camps living in tent cities or in clusters of pre-fab modular rooms, some, like the Syrian Kurd, had taken refuge in empty lots or unfinished buildings in the city of Erbil. Since the rise of ISIS has brought Erbil’s economic boom to a halt and stalled its construction frenzy, there are plenty of abandoned buildings to serve as shelters.

In the case of the Syrian Kurd, he and his family along with three other families had created a tent city on an unused site at a street crossing. They poured concrete slabs and illegally tapped into an adjacent power line for electricity. They dug into the ground and connected to the city’s water supply to have drinking water and dug a pit for a latrine. With television and a refrigerator, they managed to create a viable living space.

The residents of Erbil were remarkably tolerant—sympathetic, really—to the situation of such impromptu refugee camps, and the refugees in vacant lots received hand-outs and help from the neighbors. The government of Kurdistan, however, is trying to encourage all refugees to live in camps, and are rapidly building more to house them. But new refugees continue to pour in.

Many of the approved camps consisted of rows of modular houses, or tent roofs over one-room buildings with cinderblock walls. Many had water, electricity and toilets in each unit, with solar-powered satellite dishes for TV. In other cases, each family had only a tent and shared rows of common toilets with hundreds of other families. The canvas roofs bore the insignia of the United Nations, though private relief organizations, including many from Kurdistan itself, were donors as well. Though most refugees came when ISIS overran the region two years ago, some were war-weary Syrians who had been nomads for years. A few were new arrivals.

One of the newest refugees I talked with was the young Sunni Arab man and his family who had just arrived from the town of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, that fell to ISIS forces in May, 2015. He said that he and 90% of the population left on one side of the town as ISIS entered the other. There had been heavy fighting, he said, and his own nine-month daughter had been killed in the fighting. And then the Iraqi Army just gave up and left. The townspeople panicked. They drove their cars into the desert, and then towards Baghdad, but were turned away at the edge of the city because they were Sunni and Baghdad was controlled by Shi’a militia. For that reason they came back to the desert, and a few, such his family and himself, were able to fly to Erbil to stay in safer refugee camps.

The Ramadi man had heard reports that ISIS had set up a check point at the entrance to the town next to an open pit that served as a mass grave. When people tried to enter the city, the ISIS guards checked their computers to see if their names were on lists that would allow them to pass through, and if not they shot them on the spot and tossed their bodies into the open grave.

In Southeastern Turkey there are additional refugee camps for Kurds, including those Kurds who worship the ancient Yazidi religion. I went to the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir to visit a Yazidi camp where some 3500 were living in tents in what had been a municipal park.

I had to get special permission as a writer from government authorities to enter any refugee camp in Kurdistan or Turkey, though in this case I also had to gain the approval of local leaders who ran the camp. One of them joined in the conversations and urged the Yazidi refugees to tell me what had happened to them. Their stories were particularly harrowing.

A middle-aged Yazidi woman from the town of Sinjar told me her story about how they waited too long to make their escape. She said that initially the Kurdish troops, the peshmurga, assured them that they would be safe, and not to worry. When they heard that a nearby city, Tel Afar, had fallen to ISIS, they still stayed. The peshmurga troops, however, were overrun, and ISIS took control.

She knew that the Yazidi people would be targeted by ISIS since they were not Muslim. She had heard that they were killing Christians for not being Muslim, and Sunni Muslim Kurds for not being Arabs, so she knew that her people would be doubly damned since their religion was Yazidi and their ethnic community was Kurdish. The woman said that she and other Yazidis rushed through the main street and many of the men were killed, including her husband and his brothers, but she and her children kept going to safety. They fled to the Sinjar mountains along with thousands of other Yazidi refugees. After ten days the Kurdish militant movement, the PKK, opened a corridor of safety for them to escape.

She has heard reports that teenage girls were taken by ISIS to warehouses where they were auctioned off to old men who bought them as sex slaves. Some were bought for no more than a thousand Iraqi dinars, which amounts to less than a US dollar.

I asked her and several of the other refugees in her camp and in Erbil whether they thought that ISIS would stay in power long. Yes, they sadly affirmed, since “they were evil,” as one of them put it. They  they knew how to intimidate people through killing. At the same time they knew there was little future for them as refugees in Kurdistan or Turkey. They had no option but to hope that they could return to their villages and towns. “All we have left is hope,” one of the men said.

 [My thanks to those who helped with arrangements and translation while I was in Kurdistan, Iraq, and Southeast Turkey, including Ibrahim Barlas of the Pacifica Institute; Ibrahim Anli of the Journalists and Writers Foundation in Istanbul; Ardalan Jalal of Erbil’s Dialogue Middle East; and Hasan Yilmaz of the Diyarbakir Entrepreneurs and Businesspeople’s Association.]

DSC00304 (2)

The woman in the center is from the Yazidi religious community in Sinjar Iraq whose husband was killed by ISIS. The interview was in a refugee camp in Diyarbakir, Southeastern Turkey on July 28, 2015.


Behind the Iran Nuclear Deal–the Fight against ISIS


The urbane, articular foreign minister of Iran—Javad Zarif—recently did a remarkable thing. He filmed a YouTube video in English to explain the importance and significance of the current negotiations with the US and other countries that would guarantee that Iran is free of nuclear weapons and would end the economic embargo of that country. And then he did something more.

You can watch the clip here:

The video was remarkable not only because it was aimed at an English-speaking audience, most likely Americans, but also how the topic turned towards another subject midway through the brief clip. In the first two minutes Zarif focused on the crippling effects of the economic embargo, but then he morphed into quite a different topic. This subject was ISIS.

Zarif made the point that the world—implicitly the US and its allies—should join with Iran in confronting the new challenges of “extremism” in “the cradle of civilization,” the Babylonian heartland that is present-day Iraq. Zarif declared that Iran has always been against “extremism,” a point that many Americans would debate considering that country’s support of Lebanon’s Hizbollah militants over the years.

But few would debate the fact that on the subject of ISIS the US and Iran are thrown together in fighting the same foe. Iran has sent its top military strategist, Qassem Suleimani, to Baghdad to help the Iraq government in its efforts. The US has its own military advisors on the ground and have engaged in a series of air strikes on ISIS targets, including the recent battle to regain the city of Tikrit. No one can doubt that the US and Iranian military advisers were in communication with one another, if not directly coordinating their efforts together.

As long as the US and Iran are publically in opposition over the nuclear/embargo issue, however, it will be difficult to have more open and easy channels of communication between the two countries over ISIS, and to better coordinate their strategic efforts. Thus Zarif was correct in linking the battle against ISIS with the nuclear talks. As important as the nuclear issue is, a resolution of it will lead to a much more important goal: defeating ISIS.

Though in the US the media often imply that the US can win the struggle against ISIS by itself, this is far from the case. The players in the immediate neighborhood are far more important. Along with the Iraq government’s army and Shi’a militia, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces play a critical role. But the long range solution to the problem depends on the action of a much larger player: Iran.

Thus if the US sees the defeat of ISIS as important in facilitating global peace, it needs Iran. In an earlier posting, I explained why Iran is so key to this solution. It is related to the Sunni-Shi’a divisions within both Iraq and Iran, and how Iran plays an influential role in Shi’a politics in the region.

To understand the importance of Iran in solving the ISIS problem, it is important to remind ourselves how ISIS came to power in the first place. The ISIS militia may be portrayed in the Western media as crazy bloodthirsty fanatics, but that alone would not have allowed them to ascend to the heights of power that they have now attained.

The success of ISIS is due to the support of moderate Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq. According to an insightful article by Graeme Wood in The New Republic, the ISIS supporters consist of three types—psychopaths, believers, and pragmatists. The psychopaths and believers are largely recruited from outside the region. The cruel executioner in the videos of the beheadings of Westerners is likely a British citizen who was lured to the region as a soldier of fortune in a grand imagined war.

But the largest group of followers are the pragmatists in the ISIS ranks, who are local Sunni Syrians and Iraqis who see the movement as their best hope for getting ahead. In both countries, the Sunnis have regarded themselves as oppressed by Shi’a political leaders—Nouri al Maliki in Iraq and Bashir Assad in Syria. In both cases the large Sunni population had lost hope that they would ever be treated as more than second class citizens in their own countries.

This is where ISIS entered the picture. In Syria, they rescued a failing Sunni insurgency against the Shi’a Alawite regime of Bashir Assad. In Iraq, they employed old army personnel and government administrators from the days of Saddam Hussein. In both cases they gave Sunnis hope and a role to play in public life.

But unlike the psychopaths and the believers, these pragmatic Sunnis could easily get tired of an ISIS regime run on beheadings, rigid social restrictions and strident ideology. They could turn away from the extremists if they were given a chance to become equals in the Syrian and Iraqi society.

This is exactly what happened in 2008 during the Awakening—a period in the US occupation of Iraq in which General David Petraeus called for a surge of troops in the city of Baghdad to maintain order, and a decrease of US military in the Sunni areas of Western Iraq where they had become an irritant and had driven young Sunni men into the hands of al Qaeda of Iraq—the predecessor of ISIS. With money and weapons from the US, the Sunni leadership not only turned away from al Qaeda but also turned on them with a vengeance, effectively keeping al Qaeda out of the spotlight—until 2014.

Once again Sunnis were lured by al Qaeda style of jihadi activists, now under the banner of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIL, since al Sham can be translated as Levant, the old name for greater Syria). It also calls itself the Islamic State, as if there could be only one. Many outside the movement call it by the term “Daesh,” which spells out the acronym of the group’s Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham; and conveniently the term in Arabic means something akin to “bullies.”

But even though they are bullies, Daesh or ISIS does give a role to the local Sunni leaders who feel alienated under Shi’a rule. Could these moderate Sunnis be lured back as they were during the Awakening in 2008? That depends to a large measure on what happens in Damascus and Baghdad, whether the Shi’a governments there are open to shared governance.

This is where Iran comes in. As a kindred Shi’a government it is more than a neighborly spectator on the trials of Iraq and Syria. The leaders of both of these countries are known to bow to the wisdom of Tehran, from which they get considerable amount of counsel and military support. And Iran has a vested interest in keeping calm within the region, and more importantly, keeping a strident, hostile anti-Shi’a crowd like ISIS from its doorstep.

Last year Iran showed that it understands the importance of shared governance in order to appease the Sunnis and keep ISIS support from growing. When the US said that it would not support the al Maliki government in Baghdad without a more open (that is, Sunni inclusive) policy, this position was echoed by Iran, and by the Shi’a clergy in Iraq most closely allied with Iran, Ali al-Sistani.

With weeks, al Maliki was gone. In September, 2014, the new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, took office and pledged to take a more open stance to the Sunni minority. The BBC dubbed his regime “a new era in Iraq.” But it will take some massive changes, including redrawing the pro-Shi’a constitution, to make Iraq as inviting to the Sunnis as it did during the Awakening period. A great deal of mistrust will have to be overcome on both sides.

Syria faces perhaps an even more difficult challenge in finding a solution that will be agreeable to the Sunni minority as well as to the Alawite and Christian minorities that support the Assad regime. Assad is adamant, and some years ago turned down the best opportunity for reconciliation a couple of years ago with a UN proposal for a shared governance peace settlement.

So neither Baghdad or Damascus want to change. But Tehran could make all the difference. The Iranian government is probably the only credible influence on both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes that could persuade them that radical change is essential to stave off the threat of ISIS and the specter of a permanent Islamic State carved out of the hind quarters of both of those countries.

The US can bomb all it wants to. But the only thing that will really make a difference is the erosion of Sunni support for ISIS. This will probably not happen until there is a change in attitude in both Syrian and Iraqi capitals. And in both cases, though the US can provide the military hardware, Iran holds the key to the political solution.

So Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif is right in his YouTube message to the world: behind the nuclear negotiations is a much bigger issue on which the US and Iran need to cooperate. It would be huge defeat in the united US-Iran struggle against ISIS if the two countries were unable to come together on a much more simple matter, the nuclear arms deal. Ultimately, we need Iran as partners in a much larger fight.