National Security & Defense

The Unknown American Heroes of Syria’s Civil War

Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in Tal Samin, November 2016. (Reuters photo: Rodi Said)
Americans have fought valiantly in support of the democratic movement in northern Syria. We should make sure their efforts weren’t in vain.

The Anglo-American hero Winston Churchill once said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” There is no better way to describe the impact that the March 2015 victory in Kobanî had on the war against the Islamic State. ISIS’s defeat in this north Syrian city will go down in history as the moment the group began to decline. There would be death throes over the subsequent years, as ISIS scored victories in places such as Palmyra and Ramadi, but the group’s rapid growth and aura of invincibility were be shattered in Kobanî by the heroic fighters of the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units).

The liberation of Kobanî wouldn’t have been possible without the intervention of the American military. High in the sky, U.S. Air Force pilots killed hundreds of jihadists and annihilated their heavy equipment. American intelligence officials watched the heroic defense and, with growing confidence in their Kurdish allies, began to build closer military ties. The Kurdish fighters were surrounded, outgunned, and short on supplies. Refusing to surrender to the jihadists, many used up their bullets and ran at the enemy with their last grenade, dying in one final act of defiance.

What few in the West realize is that from the very beginning of this war, young Americans have been fighting against the Islamic State in support of the fledgling democratic movement in Rojava, the unofficially autonomous region that is home to Kobanî. One man, Keith Broomfield, was in Kobanî at the same time those U.S. jets circled overhead. This year, I met a man who knew Broomfield and described a terrible firefight on a hill outside Kobanî. With bullets cracking overhead and the fanatical screams of jihadists in his ears, Broomfield couldn’t have been further away from his hometown of Westminster, Mass. Those that knew him in the YPG describe an intelligent, easygoing man with a great sense of humor and a deep Christian faith that inspired him to help others.

During the firefight, while running between positions, Broomfield was shot in the chest and grievously wounded. His friend, a Kurdish man named Merdem, ran to his aid and pulled him into cover. As they lay there, with bullets snapping and cracking overhead, the hopelessness of their position struck Merdem: Without the knowledge or equipment to treat his friend, all he could do was try and stem the blood loss and wait for help. Merdem gently shook Broomfield and pleaded with him to stay conscious. Their eyes met. “You can’t die, heval,” Merdem said, using the Kurdish word for friend. “You’re my commander.” It was a private joke, shared a hundred times around campfires, over stoves, and on cold, nighttime guard duties. A smile passed over Keith’s lips and soon afterward he died in his comrades arms.

It’s not just Americans who have flocked to aid the Rojava Revolution; hundreds of volunteers from around the world have joined the fight, too. I first went to Rojava in December 2014. Like everyone else in the world, I had watched the sudden and brutal rise of ISIS in horror. I couldn’t sleep at night thinking of Yazidi girls as young as nine being sold into sexual slavery. My heart broke when I thought of the suffering endured by the families of men such as James Foley and Alan Henning, both murdered by a death cult that aims to return humanity to the dark ages. And the inaction of David Cameron’s British government and the Obama administration dismayed me. So I joined the YPG.

I wanted to join the volunteers from America, Britain, and the rest of the free world in fighting the Islamic State. In doing so, I hoped to show the innocent people of Syria that they weren’t alone. More importantly, I hoped to highlight the appalling inaction of the West and the vacuum it has created for Russia, Turkey, and Iran to fill.

How many more great Americans such as Keith Bloomfield have to die before our governments see the light?

What the International Volunteers are supporting is truly remarkable. The Syrian Kurds believe in secular democracy, societal equality, and the rule of law. They want devolved power so each community has control over its own affairs. There is no law in the land that can tell you who to worship, when to worship, how your children should be educated, or how you should lead your life. It’s no wonder that the Assyrian National Council, which represents Syria’s Christian minority, supports the Syrian Kurds and the new Rojava administration. While the rest of Syria slips into anarchy, as the Assad regime barrel-bombs people from the sky and the Free Syrian Army rips itself apart, the entire northern part of the country has children in school, police on the street, and a functioning democracy.

The Syrian Kurds worked with the Americans and created the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is by far the most successful group battling against the Islamic State. They receive a lot of military assistance from the West, but no political or humanitarian support. If we want a quick resolution to the Syrian crisis, we need to identify who is capable of defeating ISIS and building a system of government that will provide lasting peace. The answer lies within the SDF and the Rojava administration. How many more great Americans such as Keith Broomfield have to die before our governments see the light?


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