As the de facto chief negotiator of the liberated region called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, Ilham Ahmed, the Kurdish co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, has much on her mind. In recent months, she has traveled in the US and Europe, negotiating the future of a domain that is home to an estimated 5 to 6 million people, including a substantial portion of Syria’s 6.2 million internally displaced persons, and, now in addition, thousands of families implicated in Islamic State terrorism who are today living in refugee camps. As Ahmed continues delicate talks with the world’s superpowers over the status of this territory, its future is, to a certain degree, in her hands.
With determination in her eyes and a furrowed brow, her face bears witness to this formidable responsibility. But riding in her black armored utility vehicle through plains lush with green spring grasses and grazing sheep, south toward Deir al-Zour province for the official announcement last month of the defeat of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, Ahmed allowed herself a moment to muse about a lesson from history. In the year 612 BCE, she told me, the Guti, ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia whom Kurds sometimes identify as forebears, banded together with the Medes and other tribes to throw off their oppressor, the Assyrian King Zuhak.