A Crossing of the Lines (an excerpt from a book I want to write)

On the night I was due to leave I sat in the media center talking to a very thin, very tall and soft spoken Kurdish man in his mid-30s, who everyone treated with a sort of quiet deference.  This was Nuri Mahmoud, a ,local man who had lost a leg fighting the Turks with the PKK in the Qandil mountains, between Northern Iraq and South East Turkey.

Nuri spoke very quietly, and at length, and was never interrupted.  He had come down from Qandil to oversee the building of political institutions in the enclave.  He was one of the senior PKK cadres that one came across everywhere in the Kurdish parts of Syria.  He was keen also to ask me about Israel, and how Israelis and Jews viewed the Kurds. And as was usual in Kurdish circles, he said some kind words about the Jews, their history, their sufferings and their aspirations.

After our interview, an impromptu concert began in the media center.  A man with a Saz, the Kurdish stringed instrument began to play and sing and some of the young activists joined in.  I am fond of this instrument, with its wild, jangling tones and I stayed and listened to the singing too.  The light was falling and it would soon be time for us to leave for the border area.  I remember the feeling of quiet sanity around the center. There was a small lawn outside and some young activists were diggjng in a vegetable garden.  The atmosphere was one of idealism, good humor, and quiet devotion.

They played YPG songs in the van as we drove out of the city westwards for the rendezvous with the smugglers.  There was one of the anthems that I particularly liked.  It had a kind of defiant swagger to it.  The chorus was ‘Biji, biji, YPG!’ (long live the YPG).  It came out of the radio as the darkness descended and we drove west in the direction of Jarabulus.  I remembered a line from Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ about a moment in the Spanish war where he was attested by the nagging doubt that perhaps war was indeed glorious after all.  This was how it felt in Kobani in the spring of 2014.

The exit proved a challenge on a level I had not experienced before.  The Turkish security measures were tight.  I was placed with some smugglers in a remote and tiny hamlet close to the border fence.  On the first night, a Turkish armored vehicle with a camera was patrolling along the fence and the smugglers decided not to risk trying a run.

A man called Adnan with his two small and well-dressed children had attempted to make it across earlier. He had been caught by the patrol and beaten.  Brown-haired Adnan, who must have been about forty, was stoic and quiet as he described the events.  They had shouted at him to stop and he had done so. Then the officer and the soldiers had kicked and punched him and sent him back in the direction of Syria, and he had returned to the smugglers’ village from where he had started out.  His children were silent.  A girl of about ten and a boy slightly younger, with pale, set, serious faces.  They huddled together very quietly under the covers of one of the makeshift beds in the hut.

‘Tomorrow I’ll try and head back for Damascus, and look for work there.  And you – make sure you don’t end up in a Turkish jail,’ Adnan told me as we sat on the floor and ate a meager meal of raw vegetables.

The night passed slowly, and in the morning the smugglers informed me that we would hopefully be trying again the following night, but much depended on the presence of the mysterious camera vehicle.  ‘Its from Israel,’ they said with a sort of fearful wonder regarding the device, ‘the Turks bought it from them.  It can see in the darkness.’

The smugglers lived in astonishing squalor and poverty.  An outside squat toilet overflowing with human excrement was in the yard. Chickens and a goat came and went freely inside.  An ageing matriarch with blue tattoos on her face was in charge, with her five sons and their wives together inhabiting the small house and the adjoining hut.

They were friendly enough, though. The youngest, a musclebound man of about 25 called Samir was permanently connected to the internet through his cellphone.  ‘Are you on Facebook?’ he asked me, and began to search for my profile, with a rusty old rifle placed by his side as he scrolled down,looking for me.  A scene that in most of its details could have been unchanged for 150 years, armed Kurdish smugglers on a remote border –  and then the smartphone.

We got across that night. Samir and I made the final run towards the fence.  He pulled it up and I crawled under.  It felt like a real border, not a forgotten one.  Searchlights and a gendarmerie base close by. The wire was tough and young and Samir used all his strength to pull it up as I crawled under.  I had to sprint about 100 meters towards a house where the smugglers’ associates were waiting for me.  I made it.  The strange vehicle, it seemed, had deployed elsewhere that night.

The second group of smugglers were a number of very young boys, the youngest about 14, the oldest no more than 18, living semi-ferally in a shack close to the border fence.  They began to demand additional payment from me a few minutes after I arrived.  I refused, knowing that if I paid up, there would be more demands all the way through to Urfa. Instead, I told them I’d give them something the next day once they’d got me off the mountain and down to Urfa. For a moment, I feared that things were about to get strange, but the moment passed. The next day, they drove me down from the mountain in an ancient car which we had to push to get it to start.   I was in Sanliurfa by morning and back in my hotel in Gaziantep by lunchtime.

I savored moments such as these:  entering the hotel, covered in earth and dust and sweat.  Everything was worth it for that brief euphoria, and then the peace and silence for a while afterwards.   The ice cold beer, and the hot showers, and the trashy American comedy shows that I loved to watch for hours, with the air conditioning on, and the Syrian war just a few miles and a long, long way away. ‘Two Broke Girls’ and ‘Veep’ and ‘Family Guy’ in all their wondrous inanity coming out of the screen.  And privacy. And solitude.

I had three days til I was due to leave Gaziantep.  But my job wasn’t quite over.  The town, and neighboring Cielis were, I knew, a hub for the fighters of ISIS.  I wanted, if possible, to make contact with members of the organization, and to interview them on the Turkish side.

This was not as difficult, nor as dangerous, as it sounds.  Of course, ISIS were already reknowned for their cruelty and violence.  But they were seen quite differently among the circles of the Syrian rebels  – even those who did not support them.

ISIS were not bogeymen or monsters for the rebels.  The rebellion as a whole was Arab, Sunni and Islamic.  So they were not seen as some strange creatures who had emerged from outside – but rather as a particular manifestation of the rebellion, albeit one with its own problems and peculiarities.

I tried to reactivate some of my old contacts among the Arab opposition to see if they could connect me to the jihadis.  First, I called Zaher Said, my fixer from Aleppo.  Zaher came to my hotel late in the evening and it was joyful to see him.  He hadn’t changed, still the same lustrous sheen of black hair and the same tech-savvy, cool demeanor.  I asked about Meysoun and was told that he was ok too.  But Zaher wasnt sure if he could help me about ISIS.  ‘They don’t usually talk to journalists, you know.  They have to ask their Amir for permission, anyway.’

I thought of the frontlines near Jarabulus and the dead ISIS fighters lying there like strange mounds of earth.  And how they had sent an armored vehicle to collect the fresh corpse of one of these Amirs.  I remembered them in the distance blasting away across the flat ground, and the Kurdish fighters racing to their positions.  Zaher said he would get in touch with some friends of his from the organization and would let me know if anything else came up.

I tried someone else, another contact with the Arab rebels. This was Mahmoud Mousa, who I had met in Antakya, and who I regarded as among the most impressive of the rebels that I knew.

Mahmoud was from Jisr a Shughur, a former head teacher.  An early supporter of the rebellion, he had fled with his family across the border when the fighting reached his hometown in late 2011.  Re-settled temporarily in the Cielis refugee camp, Mahmoud had set about finding himself a new profession.  With fluent, clipped English and a fine analytical mind, he had started as a fixer for the foreign media and had progressed to working as a kind of unofficial political analyst and educator for the more serious among the journalists.  His knowledge and his insights into the balance of forces in northern Syria and the more general situation were invaluable.

Ginger, bearded Mahmoud was a born teacher, with a natural air of quiet authority about him.  And he told me he’d make some enquiries among his friends and family and would give me a call if anything came up.

Part of me, a large part, actually, hoped that he wouldn’t get back in contact.  My conscience wouldnt have let me rest if I hadn’t tried to contact the jihadis.  But once the effort was made, I was perfectly happy spending a few relaxed days around Gaziantep.

It wasn’t til I was out of Kobani that I realized how very little I’d eaten in the week inside.  No meat, just lots of mashed potatoes with hot paprika sprinkled on them (the YPG were fond of that, for some reason) and coarse pita bread and a few raw vegetables.

So I wolfed down helpings of ‘Iskander’ (a Turkish lamb and yogurt dish) at the restaurants by the hotel, and I drank the small, exquisite cups of sweet coffee available in the old cafes and smoked and felt my limbs relaxing from the strains of the running in the dust and falling.  And I drank ice cold Efes Pilsen beer in the evenings at the hotel, quite alone and happy.  Modern cities, even modest ones like Gaziantep, become things of wonder after a few days in a place like besieged Kobani.  And all was good and might have stayed that way. But then Mahmoud called and said that he had an ISIS fighter who was willing to speak to me in Cielis.

The man, he said, was a distant relative.  He was a former, or resting fighter of the organization, but he had asked his Amir if he could speak with me, and the man had apparently agreed.  I’d need to get to Cielis the next morning.  The meeting would take place in a private apartment belonging to an older man close to the circles of the jihadis.

The prospect filled me with some trepidation.  I didn’t quite like the thought of being alone and enclosed in an apartment with the ISIS guys.  Also, Mahmoud said that another man would be accompanying his relative.  This man, it appeared, was still involved with the jihadis.  The organization had already kidnapped journalists and this arrangement raised some alarm bells.  On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that I was quite important enough for an operation like this to be raised in my honor. There had been no previous indications of similar actions on Turkish soil, and I imagined that the organization’s complex relationship with the Turks would be something it would wish to preserve.

Anyway, whatever the advisability or otherwise of the meeting, I wasn’t going to turn down the chance.  The opportunity was too fascinating, and too good for the stories I wanted to write.  So I had a quiet and subdued evening in the hotel and I set off in a service taxi for Cielis in the morning.

I had passed through Cielis before, but by evening and when I was very tired, on the way out of Syria.  This was the first time I had seen it by daylight and at a time when I was able to pay attention.  It was fascinating the extent to which it had effectively become a Syrian town.  One heard Arabic everywhere, and Turkish hardly at all.  The streets were teeming with Syrian refugees.  The Cielis refugee camp was clearly not the main place of residence anymore.  Rather, the Syrians had taken up residence in the town, where they sought any available employment.

I waited for Mahmoud at the bus station.  He was late and I began to think he wasn’t coming at all. But finally he was there, unshaven, ginger and smiling.  I remembered his slow, quiet way of talking and his modesty and dignity and working on instinct I felt that things would be ok.

We walked to the flat.  The owner of the apartment would receive us, Mahmoud explained, but he wasn’t connected to ISIS. Rather, he was a member of the Hizb al Tahrir party, and from the general camp of the Sunni Islamists.

The apartment was on a dusty side street about ten minutes walk from the bus station.  Up some stairs to the second floor.  The owner answered it, and ushered us in, sending me a side glance and a smile which was supposed to indicate that he found me an amusing character and was looking forward to playing cat and mouse with me.

We drank coffee and sat on cushions in the small reception room of the apartment.  One of the nice things about being back on the Arab side was the chance to drink coffee, instead of the tea that the Kurds preferred.  And we waited for the two ISIS men to arrive.  The older man asked me questions about why the western media were writing lies about ISIS and expressed the hope that I would be honest in my own writing.  I assured him that I would. This went on for some time.

Finally the ISIS men entered the room.  Two of them.  They came in with a kind of young masculine speed and swagger, clearly enjoying the fearsome reputation of the group of which they were a part. They knew I was a westerner and probably assumed I was somewhat nervous.  I wasn’t, exactly, but seeing their faces fascinated me.  It was nothing to do with the specific context of ISIS and the YPG.  It was to do with the sheer cellular strangeness of being in the same room as these men just two days after the skirmish at Haj Ismail, when their organization had been trying to shoot me.

They called themselves Abu Mohammed and Abu Nur.   Abu Nur was Mahmoud’s relative.  Abu Mohammed was a current ISIS member.  The former was the one I had been scheduled to see, but as it turned out, it was the latter who did most of the talking.

Abu Nur, the relative, had a small beard, and was relaxed and smiling and monosyllabic.

Abu Mohammed, by contrast, was engaged, full of words.  Clad in a black and white tracksuit,   clean shaven, muscular, with a sort of pointed, marionette-like face and black curly hair,  he offered justifications, delivered in rapid Arabic, and even had a sense of the absurd.

I had not expected ISIS men to be keen to show the ludicrous absurdity of their opponents’ positions.  This was not how I had imagined them.  This says nothing regarding the murderous nature of the organization.  It appears that no-one , or hardly anyone, is ever the ‘bad guy’ in his own eyes.  Rather, the default stance of almost everyone, apparently even the representatives of murderous jihadi groups, is that they have been misrepresented, came with goodwill, want only the best and have been baffled by the unreasonableness of others.

‘The media have exaggerated this,’ Abu Mohammed  said in response to a question I asked about ISIS executions and amputations.  So what did this mean, I persisted.  Were such punishments carried out, or weren’t they?  ‘ In certain areas they cut hands off, in others not,’ he pronounced.

I evidently looked unconvinced by this response, and he added, ‘Look, we are trying our our best to apply sharia law. Of course there have been some mistakes.”

On one level, the protestations of Abu Mohammed were merely ridiculous.  The organization of which he was a member was engaged in creating something close to hell on earth for the millions forced to live under it.  But there was something else going on.

I asked Abu Nur what it was that had made him decide to join ISIS.  He had begun his career in the rebellion with the Northern Storm Brigade.  I had come across this group before, when crossing the border at Bab al Salameh in 2012.  They were a non-jihadi operation, adhering to something resembling a Muslim Brotherhood type Islamism.  They had also acquired a reputation for corruption and incompetence.

ISIS had fought a fierce battle against Northern Storm in the town of Azaz in October, 2013.  At that time, Abu Nur had chosen to side with the jihadis.  His reason? As he related it to me, it was the visit of Senator John McCain to the Syria Turkey border area, as the guest of Northern Storm, in the spring of 2013.  He was suspicious of what he referred to as the attempts by foreign governments to ‘use Syrians for their own ends.’  ISIS, he felt, was not available for purchase in this way. And so he had joined it.  The organization, he told me, ‘“imposes sharia, acts against criminals and robbers, and has no contact with any foreign government.’

What might be learned from this?  I think what such accounts show is that for the Syrian rebellion, ISIS was one option among many.  That is, it was emphatically not some outlandish or foreign implant.  Mahmoud Mousa, who opposed ISIS, nevertheless noted that he, like many others, had regarded it positively when it first emerged on the scene in early 2013, turning against it only when it began to make war against other rebel groups.  ‘The Arabs are nothing without Islam,’  Mahmoud had said to me, with the quiet and sincere and sad tone that was always in his voice.

The rebellion was a project of Sunni Arabs.  ISIS spoke a variation of a language common to all.  This was the crucial point.

As for the movement’s goal – Abu Mohammed spoke about it with reverence.

‘We want the caliphate, something old and new, from the time of Mohammed. The Europeans created false borders. We want to break these borders.”

ISIS, in other words, was emerging directly from the reality of the Levant in 2014.  It was utterly brutal, dysfunctional and sectarian. But it was speaking a language that was able to mobilize the Sunni Arabs of the country in a way that nothing else apparently could.  These would be energies that would need, one way or another, to be played out.

So we talked that way for a couple of hours.  Abu Mohammed and I made a certain connection when I began to respond directly to his statements in Arabic, anticipating Mahmoud’s translation.  Perhaps my local appearance also helped in this.  I think there is something basic and before words in this visual assessing of people.  It has no political significance, of course, and wouldn’t have withstood the announcement of my actual identity.  Yet it plays a role.  Abu Mohammed seemed to think I was all right.

I think war and strife appear to be natural presences among human beings, and I am not upset by them.  What makes it all strange tho are the momentary connections of a pre-verbal and pre-intellectual type, which are as liable to happen as much or as little among ‘opponents’ as among allies.  This can be learned only by being up close to the enemy, and hence probably by wearing some form of disguise.  The disguise doesn’t affect this deeper level.  The strange parallel story of human chemistry.  So yes, I quite liked Abu Mohammed, on some curious level, while also of course considering him an enemy.

Sunni Islamists, in my experience, often seem to display a lack of guile. There is something ludicrous and engaging about their genuine bafflement that not everyone rushes to embrace what seems to them to be the self-evidently superior system which they are proposing.  This comes, perhaps, from the fact that Sunni Islam among the Arabs is a majority creed, a creed of historic victory and governance.  This aspect perhaps also explains the lax-ness and lack of security awareness which is a notable aspect of many Sunni Islamist outfits.  The Shia, who are a minority sect with the clandestine and watchful traditions appropriate to this, are entirely different in this regard.

The older man remained amused and skeptical of me and after a while began to take over the discussion, asking me if I practiced the Christian religion and whether I had ever considered becoming a Muslim.  I answered diplomatically, already thinking about getting back to Gaziantep.

After a while, we wrapped things up and said our goodbyes.  Mahmoud accompanied me to the bus station and I thanked him and took the service taxi out.  It was early afternoon.

ISIS already controlled parts of Anbar and Nineweh province in Iraq at that time.  But it was still a few months before the push east and north that would take them to the gates of Erbil and Baghdad, and through Mosul.  They had carried out in January a strategic retreat from a number of villages in north west Syria. As it turned out, this was part of the preparation for the coming offensive.

Abu Mohammed had answered diplomatically when I queried him regarding this retreat, stating cryptically that “If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back. And perhaps in the future I will return again.”  Contrary to rebel claims at the time, there had been very little fighting between ISIS and the other rebels for these areas.  The jihadis had basically left of their own accord.

So in the spring of 2014, the jihadis were getting ready for their biggest move of all – namely, the extending of the sectarian war in Syria across the border into Iraq, effectively nullifying the border between the two countries.

I was aware of none of that, of course, as I chatted with the two jihadis in Cielis.  The Kurds in Kobani were unaware of it, too.  But it would cause an earthquake in their own situation and in the future of their enclave.

In the meantime, the service taxi back to Gaziantep was stopped by plainclothes Turkish police.  I had to show them the Israeli passport in my pocket, as that was the way I’d entered Turkey.  In a taxi full of Syrian refugees, I wasn’t sure how this would go down.  But luckily, the gold menorah emblem on the cover of the passport had rubbed off when I’d had to shove the thing down my trousers while worrying about a possible search on the Turkish-Syrian border in 2012.  So it appeared only as an anonymous blue document and did not arouse attention from my fellow passengers.  The Turkish plainclothes man looked at me with bemusement but decided not to say anything.  I left Cielis and Kobani behind and flew out that night.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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1 Response to A Crossing of the Lines (an excerpt from a book I want to write)

  1. Jonathan Karmi says:

    In Syria, with an Israeli passport shoved down your trousers ?! God help us. Presumably all with the Foreign Ministry’s blessing.

    Jonathan, this is brilliant stuff. And good luck with the book. But make sure you’re around to tell these stories to your grandchildren.

    For me the overriding question is always how will this Middle-Eastern balagan pan out? Has the “Islamic State” already reached its natural limits? Any incursions against Jordan or Saudi Arabia would be swiftly rebuffed. Lebanon is a quagmire and all non-Sunni factions would unite against a major ISIS assault. Will the populations suffering under their rule be able to rise up against them? It would be quite funny to see hundreds of bearded ISIS heads stuck on the end of poles. A suitable end to the saga.

    One suggestion – a failing of so many books is the lack of quality maps that allow the reader to visualise the locations, the topography, the distances etc.

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