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Kurdistan Commanders Fight To Protect Iraq, But Hope For Independence

The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins discusses reporting from Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region, a town with a Jaguar dealership and sushi restaurants. Just 30 miles away is the Islamic State.



September 25, 2014

Guest: Dexter Filkins

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Whenever there's big news from Iraq or the region, I always want to hear what Dexter Filkins makes of it. Fortunately, he's my guest today. During this first week that the U.S. military started bombing in Syria targeting ISIS and the al-Qaida affiliate the Khorasan group, Filkins was reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan before 9/11. He covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times and now writes about the region for The New Yorker. He shared a Pulitzer Prize and won two George Polk Awards and wrote the book "The Forever War," which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Over the summer Filkins made two trips to Kurdistan, the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, which operates somewhat independently from Iraq and is seeking complete independence. ISIS is on Kurdistan's border but the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, have managed to push back ISIS from several towns.

Among the people Filkins spoke with in Kurdistan were Peshmerga commanders who fought ISIS. His article about Kurdistan is in the current edition of The New Yorker.

Dexter Filkins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming back. Before we get to your current piece in The New Yorker, I want to ask you a little bit about Syria. Let me just start with a broad question. What do you think are some of the intended effects and some of the unintended consequences that we might be facing?

DEXTER FILKINS: (Laughter). Well, the intended effects are pretty easy. I mean, the unintended effects, of course, are harder to predict. But, the intended effect, I think, immediately you know you can say it's to destroy you know, ISIS - degrade and destroy ISIS. But I think the real purpose attacking them in Syria is to basically bolster the government in Iraq. Because I think honestly, we're not at the point where intervening - at least, I think the feeling in the White House is that intervening in the middle of the Syrian civil war is going to sway it one way or another. It's just a giant, you know, knife fight.

But, that ISIS, which is - it's main base is in Syria and that was the base from which they went into Iraq and are threatening Iraq and now occupy a huge piece of Iraq. So I think the intent is to hit them where they live, in Syria. And thereby, you know, take some of the pressure off of the government in Baghdad and the Kurds and to kind of weaken them in Iraq.

But, God, the unintended consequences? I mean, that's all - you know, that's all war ever does is produce unintended consequences. It's really hard to say. I think one thing that when you look at the strikes - and the airstrikes carried out against ISIS were huge. I think more bombs were dropped on the first day than in all of the 200 strikes that the Americans carried out inside of Iraq. So really extensive strikes. I think - to me the unintended consequence is, OK, what happens now? And what I mean is that almost necessarily, the United States has created a vacuum in Syria because they've really hit ISIS very hard and some of the other groups there. And who's going to go into those areas? And it's basically a three-way fight in Syria. You've got the really horrible regime led by the murderous, genocidal Bashar al-Assad. And then you've got ISIS and the al-Qaida affiliate, which is called the al-Nusra Front over here. And then you've got this kind of third force, the Free Syrian Army, which is you know, the guys that we're backing but they're very weak. They're not in any position to move into any of these areas that the United States is bombing. So it's unclear. It looks like if anybody's going to benefit from these strikes, initially, it's going to be the Syrian government. And that's not something - you know, I'm sure the White House has thought that through, but it's not anything they want. But they feel like they need to act now against ISIS and some of the other groups there because they pose such a danger to people outside Syria, including the United States.

GROSS: Do you agree with that analysis?

FILKINS: It's hard to say. I think that if you look at the available evidence, ISIS - look, it's led by a megalomaniacal psychopath, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He's clearly a murderous individual. They've beheaded and kidnapped a number of Americans. But it's not entirely clear to me that at the moment they pose a threat to the United States or to Europe. And they may. I think they may at some point. And I think that - but my sense is that the danger that ISIS poses is not so much to the United States or to Europe, you know, today or tomorrow, but it's to the region, to the entire Middle East. And I think the fear is is that if the United States doesn't do something to stop ISIS now in Syria and Iraq then, you know, potentially the monarchy in Jordan could collapse and potentially further down the road, Saudi Arabia and potentially Lebanon. So you're talking about - you know, you're talking about potentially, a really calamitous situation that's going to take years and years to fix.

But I do think many of the strikes that were undertaken in Syria - the American strikes - were directed at another group. Not ISIS but this group called Khorasan, which is an al-Qaida offshoot, or I should say, an offshoot of the al-Qaida franchise in Syria, which is called Jabhat al-Nusra. And according to the Pentagon, this very small group of guys - and they were sent there by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two of al-Qaida back in Afghanistan, he was Osama bin Laden's number two - that an attack on the United States was imminent and that the planning was pretty extensive and I think the phrase they used was the execution phase was nearing. And it looks like it was going to be some kind of attack, on you know, an airplane or airplanes.

So you know, to answer your question more simply, I think that there was a threat against the United States from this smaller group, Khorasan and so the United States acted against them. But I think ISIS is a much more amorphous but still pretty terrifying threat.

GROSS: So did ISIS in a way give the United States an opportunity to go into Syria? Like, everybody knows now what ISIS is. I'd never heard of the Khorasan group until this week.

FILKINS: Well, I'm not sure because it's pretty clear that the White House and that the United States government have been watching the Khorasan group for a while since they got there. In The New York Times this week there was a quote from somebody in the White House saying that there had been some debate in the White House for some time over whether just to go after Khorasan on its own. But it's pretty clear that now that we've - the opening gun has been fired, that they decided to go after more than just ISIS.

GROSS: It's such a complicated situation in Syria...

FILKINS: It's pretty bewildering.

GROSS: ...And what happens if we do end up unintentionally bolstering Assad because we're weakening his major enemies?

FILKINS: It seems to me that that's inevitable, at least in the short term. I mean, you know, Assad, he was quoted after the airstrikes began as saying, you know, these strikes were illegal, you know, they're terrible, the United States is a terrible country. He must be you know, reaching for the champagne bottle because I mean, this was - ISIS was the strongest group in Syria. It's his strongest opponent. They occupy a huge piece of eastern Syria.

So inevitably when the United States goes after and destroys and or degrades ISIS, it's going to be a boost to the Syrian regime. I think the longer-term plan here - and frankly, it's much shakier - the longer-term kind of American plan is to bolster this kind of third force, you know the Free Syrian Army, which is stuck between Assad on one hand ISIS on the other. And they're real people and they fight and die, but they're just - they're very small and they're very weak and they've just been kind of hammered in the course of this war. And so the idea is, is that - I mean, just a couple weeks ago Congress passed a pretty substantial piece of legislation which is going to allow the U.S. military to train and equip the Free Syrian Army. And that was being done covertly by the CIA before that, at a very small level.

This could potentially be pretty large. So you know, when the U.S. military guys at the Pentagon stand up as they did this week and say, this is going to be a long-term effort, it is. It is. I mean, this is just the beginning.

GROSS: So can I just ask you a question about the word ISIS, you know, the acronym ISIS? Like, the Obama administration seems really intent on calling and ISIL...

FILKINS: Oh, I know, I know.

GROSS: ...The Islamic State in the Levant, which is like, the greater territory around there.

FILKINS: Yeah, but see, the S is not Syria. The S is al-Sham and that's the Levant in Arabic.

GROSS: Do you know why the administration is sticking with ISIL, even though like, no one is picking up on it? Everybody in the media's talking ISIS and any spokesperson from the Obama administration is saying ISIL (laughter).

FILKINS: Yeah, I mean, ISIS sounds like this kind of, you know, this figure from Greek mythology. But I don't know, I think maybe they're you know, they're maybe talking to each other to much.

GROSS: And what does ISIS call itself?

FILKINS: They call themselves the Islamic State. They announced that.

GROSS: Right, that's right. And you call it ISIS?

FILKINS: Yeah, yeah. I'm not going to call it ISIL.

GROSS: You're not going to call it ISIL? (Laughter). OK.


GROSS: All right. Thank you for the clarification.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins and he writes for The New Yorker. He's been covering Iraq since the start of the American war there and he's been covering the region since even before that. He's continued to go there for The New Yorker. He covered the war for The New York Times.

Now he has a piece in The New Yorker called "The Fight Of Their Lives" and it's about the Kurds and how they're trying to fight ISIS in northern Iraq. Dexter, let's take a short break and then we'll talk about your New Yorker piece.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's a writer for The New Yorker. He covered the Iraq war for The New York Times, won several awards for doing that. He's covered the whole region for many years. He just went to Kurdistan in the north of Iraq from a period of June through August. He made two trips during that period for a total of about a month's time. And now he has a piece in The New Yorker called "The Fight Of Their Lives: The White House Wants The Kurds To Help Save Iraq From ISIS, The Kurds May Be More Interested In Breaking Away." That's the title and subtitle of the piece.

So why did you want to go to Kurdistan for this piece that you just wrote?

FILKINS: Well the - you know, the Kurds are - I mean, when everybody looks at Iraq including me and you just say Iraq, what do you think of? I mean, you think of chaos, and car bombs, and bloodshed, and political strife and stalemate and everything else. And when you go to Kurdistan, this small corner of Iraq, there's nothing - it's nothing like that. And it really struck me when I was there writing the piece earlier this year when I was there doing a piece on Maliki in Baghdad and I was in Baghdad and I wanted to go to Kurdistan. And I had been in Baghdad for about three weeks - and Baghdad in 2014 looks pretty much the way it did in 2004. It's - despite the fact that the Iraqi government is pumping enormous amounts of oil and making tons of money, they're the second-largest producer in OPEC. We're talking tens of billions of dollars, $85 billion a year. There's just not much evidence of that oil money being spent and I think frankly, it's because a lot of it's being stolen. But, it's not a happy story - but, Baghdad's a wreck. I mean, it looks pretty much the way it did during the war.

And then I got on a plane and I flew to Erbil, which is the capital of Kurdistan. And it's like - you know, you feel like Dorothy (laughter) and it's amazing. You know, there's a Jaguar dealership in Erbil and there's sushi restaurant and there's dance clubs. And I remember one night I'd been out of town and I drove back in at 3 a.m. and I found a liquor store open and bought a six-pack of beer at 3 o'clock in the morning in the Middle East. I mean, that's impossible anywhere for a thousand miles. So it's such a shock when you see it. You think, oh, my God, I can't believe I'm still in Iraq. And in a way - and really that's what the story's about - in a way, it's not part of Iraq, not anymore.

GROSS: And they don't want to be part of Iraq anymore.

FILKINS: No, I mean, sort of technically - technically they're part of Iraq, but, you know, they don't want to be and, you know, a de facto way, in a very real way, they're not, they're not part of Iraq. I mean, they're pulling away. And I think they want to make it official and I think probably - I mean, you can never foretell the future in that part of the world - but probably it will be independent, I think, sooner rather than later, although it's hard to tell exactly when.

GROSS: So how close his ISIS now to Kurdistan?

FILKINS: It's right on the border. It's really weird actually. You know, the Erbil that I just described, you know, sushi restaurants and Jaguar dealerships and high-rises, you know, being built everywhere - 30 miles away is ISIS and, you know, the 8th century. And it's weird because you can just drive, you know, you can leave your fancy hotel, get in the car and drive to the front line in an hour and there it is. You stand - like I was on a canal south of the city Kirkuk, I was on a canal. And right across the canal was ISIS. And you could see they were flying the flags and they were driving around and you could sort of see them over there manning their checkpoints. And I have to say, it felt really eerie. It just felt like I was on the border of two countries so they're close. They're really close.

GROSS: What is Kurdistan trying to do to protect itself?

FILKINS: Well, it's - I mean, that's a really good question. They - all of this started in June when ISIS, which at the time was just in Syria, launched basically what amounted to an invasion of northern and western Iraq. And they grabbed a huge chunk of - I mean, it fell - you know, Iraq fell into their hands, really. The Iraqi army just disintegrated. But they moved into all these areas, which were basically Arab. And that's sort of the key difference here. The Kurds are not Arab. They, you know, any Kurd will tell you we're not Arab, we're not Turkish, we're not Persian, we are Kurdish. So ISIS essentially captured all the Arab areas surrounding Kurdistan. But so overnight - really, literally overnight - the Kurds woke up and instead of having the Iraqi army on their borders, they had ISIS. And so now they have something like 640 miles of border with ISIS. And there's still like a 10 mile sliver where the Iraq army - there's like one little Iraqi army outpost down by the Iranian border. But the rest of it's ISIS. So they're - you know, inside of Iraq, they're basically surrounded by ISIS. And then they've been pushing back and forth essentially. I mean, ISIS made this big push. They captured the Mosul Dam, which was a pretty dangerous moment. They captured some Kurdish towns. That's when President Obama - this is in August now - that's when President Obama decided to do airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq because he was concerned that some of the Kurdish areas were going to start to fall. And so he wanted to - he basically wanted to help the Kurds out. And I think that's - that gets to the heart of the dilemma, I think, at least in the White House, which is - and , you know, they'll tell you - we love the Kurds. You know, they're here in the middle of the Middle East, in the heart of this ocean of chaos, is a pro-Western, largely secular, largely Democratic, stable, prosperous state. And it's not a state, but there it is. And I think on one hand, the White House wants to support the Kurds and they certainly want to enlist the Kurds in fighting ISIS. But they don't want the Kurds to leave Iraq. They are very much opposed to Kurdish independence.

GROSS: So that really puts them at odds because the Kurds very much want their independence. That's really what they're fighting for. Why doesn't the United States, the Obama administration want the Kurds to become an independent state?

FILKINS: It's weird. You know, the Kurds and the Americans, for a long time now, more than 20 years, have had this very strange relationship. I mean, the reason why the Kurds are where they are is because you have to go all the way back to 1991 to the first Gulf War when after the United States and the NATO countries threw Saddam out of Kuwait after he had invaded Kuwait, the Kurds rose up in mass against Saddam and then they were really, really brutally attacked by Saddam's forces. And then the United States came in and set up what they call this no-fly zone, which was - basically prevented Iraqi helicopters and aircraft from flying into the area. And that began in 1991. No one really knew it at the time but that began sort of the ear of Kurdish self-rule. I mean, they basically began to set up a state. So they've had a long - they've had about a 20 year head start here to get this thing going. And they largely have the United States to thank for that. So it's very strange. And now at the moment where they're kind of at the doorstep of independence, the White House is saying don't go there.

GROSS: Why not?

FILKINS: I think the reason is that - I mean, first of all - and this is me talking - I think nobody in the White House wants to be there and preside over the breakup of Iraq. I mean, after all the bloodshed and all the money that was invested and spent there over the past decade, you know, there's a kind of symbolic - we've got to at least hold this thing together, we don't want to be around when it falls apart. But I think there's a more - you know, publically, I think what they'll say is that, you know, we - the whole region's falling apart and we've got to try to hold it together or it's going to just spin out of control. And so, you know, if we sort of sign off on Kurdish independent then, you know, how can we turn around and say, well, the Islamic State, you don't get to have your state. And then Syria breaks up and the rest of Iraq breaks up. I mean, so I think they want to just try to freeze everything and that's really, really hard to do. These are not - you know, these are very artificial states in the Middle East. You know, they're not 100 years old and they're not holding together very well. And there's not that much to hold them together. And so we're really - the United States, I mean - is really swimming against the tide here.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins will be back in the second half of the show. 'His article about Kurdistan and ISIS is in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dexter Filkins. His article in the current edition of the New Yorker is based on his reporting during two trips he made over the summer Kurdistan, the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq. The Kurdish fighters known as the Peshmerga, have been holding back ISIS on Kurdistan's border. Filkins is a staff writer for the New Yorker. He covered the Iraq war for the New York Times.

GROSS: Earlier you said you interviewed some of the deserters from the Iraqi Army.

FILKINS: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: Tell us one or two of the stories you got from them about why they deserted.

FILKINS: Yeah, I talked to a number of Iraqis who deserted from the Iraqi army and, you know, it's pretty sad. It's just a pretty sad story really. You know, the Iraqi Army was this, you know, enormous institution. I can't remember exactly the numbers, you know, close yo a million troops or something, which is an enormous army built, you know, at great human American expense. Equipped with the best American stuff, you know, Humvees, tanks, weapons, everything- and you know a lot - the guys that I interviewed were just Arab kids and they had basically joined up because they wanted a job. You know, and they joined up like 10 years ago. What everyone told me which was fascinating, I thought, was the army was kind of holding together until the Americans left in 2011 and then that's when stuff really started to fall apart. And, you know, they all told pretty much the same story which is our commander started stealing everything and selling it. People started to desert from the Army and the commanders are just - they were marking the deserters as present and then just pocketing the wages. They were selling all the equipment, you know, I remember this one soldier said to me, I had to go down just to get a new pair of boots, I had to go down and buy them, you know, at the bazaar. And just became this incredibly demoralizing experience for all of them and there was no reason to fight, everything was falling apart. And then suddenly ISIS appeared and so, you know, the first people in Mosul to desert in ISIS were the commanders. I mean, the general's - the generals were like first plane out - they took off and so the soldiers saw that and they all left. So had, you know, overnight in Mosul you had 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and police just vanish and the guys that I talked to, who were in Kirkuk, these Arab young guys who were in the Army and they said, you know, we saw what happened in Mosul and then ISIS was headed our way. And they were like, you know, we're not going to - we were already betrayed. And I remember they said that, they said the betrayal began in Mosul and they said, what is there to fight for? So we went home.

GROSS: So, the Iraqi Army now has a reputation for being cowards. I mean they fled several cities that ISIS moved into, where as the Peshmerga have a reputation for being ferocious and for standing their ground. But they did lose some territory to ISIS, which they then took back and you talked to the Peshmerga commander who led the fight that took back a couple of cities from ISIS. He was successful, what did he tell you about fighting ISIS and what the Peshmerga strategy was to take back territory they lost to ISIS?

FILKINS: Well, I should say that I think the Kurds were pretty surprised that they got pushed around the way that they did and I think that they were embarrassed - and this happened in August. After - you know, in July you had the first push by ISIS. They moved into all these areas in northern Iraq, but they basically stopped shy of Kurdistan and then in August they started grabbing Kurdish areas. And they did, they pushed the Kurds out, they pushed the Peshmerga out of several places and I think that ISIS was at a disadvantage in these places because everywhere else in the overwhelming majority of the places that ISIS has gone into in Iraq, have been places where there are Arabs and not Kurds. And so they have relied essentially - ISIS has relied on local support and so in these Arab towns that they've moved into the locals, you know, the locals hated the government in Baghdad. They hated Maliki so much that even when these, you know, these lunatics from ISIS come in, they welcomed them basically. But that didn't happen In these Kurdish villages. Basically what happened was - it's amazing actually, when ISIS was moving into these places, I mean I mean Makhmur, Sinjar, there's another town called Guair (Ph) that the Kurds left. I mean en masse these villages were empty when ISIS moved into them and it's funny because I went to (laughter), I went to one city that ISIS held for a few days. It's called Makhmur and there was a brief fight and ISIS pushed out the Peshmerga and I found one old guy. He was like this 61-year-old Kurdish guy and he'd fallen asleep on his couch while he was watching a movie and, you know, it was like four o'clock in the afternoon and when he woke up ISIS was in the town. And so he was the one guy apparently in the entire town of Makhmur that didn't leave. And so I went and found him and he told me this strange story. So the Peshmerga came back in three days later and kicked out ISIS. And so that's kind of what's happening there and it's the reason why President Obama ordered the airstrikes in Iraq. It was basically to shore up the Peshmerga and to stop ISIS from moving any deeper into Kurdistan.

GROSS: So you also, while you were in Kurdistan in the North of Iraq spoke to General Fatih, who's a general with the Peshmerga, with the Kurdish fighters. You spoke to him at his headquarters right after a suicide bomber had driven into a Peshmerga checkpoint. What happened and what did you see when you got there?

FILKINS: It was crazy. I remember that day. I think it was a Friday that I went and saw Sherko was his first name I think. And Sherko's a really impressive militia commander. And I remember I had wanted to go see him on Thursday day and he said he didn't have time for me and said don't come down today, if you come down, I'm not going to be able to see. So we didn't go. And so I went down on Friday. And that suicide bombing, it just happened on the Thursday and was right out in front of his headquarters. And it was a pretty bad one. I mean, they all are, but it killed a lot of people. And Sherko had said to me, you know, ISIS was right across the canal. I mean, we went down and saw the ISIS positions. And he said to me - he said, well, you know, we don't trust those guys over there. He said just the other day they sent me a note, some local businessman brought me a note from ISIS saying can we sit down and talk. And I told the guy who brought the note tell them no, you know, I don't trust you. And then the next day, bang, comes the suicide bombing. And I should say that I went to the front lines with Sherko and he was standing pretty upright and pretty tall and he was walking up and down the front lines and he was pointing out the ISIS positioned. And I remember, I was kind of crouching down behind this big mound of dirt and I was a little worried for him because he was walking so tall and I left and the next day he was shot.

GROSS: No, really?

FILKINS: Yeah. And apparently he's OK, I mean, he's OK. But it was, you know, so it was quiet the day that we went to see the frontline, but, you know, the day before there was a suicide bombing and the day after the commander that took me around was shot.

GROSS: You also talked to the governor of Kirkuk, which is on the border of territory that ISIS has taken over. So Kirkuk is actually in a very vulnerable position right now in northern Iraq, so what did the governor of Kirkuk have to tell you?

FILKINS: Well, Kirkuk is really interesting. For years, for ever it seems, it was a disputed city. And it's disputed essentially between the Kurds on one hand and the government in Baghdad. But this dates all the way back to Saddam. It was historically a Kurdish city, but Saddam tried to Arabize it. So he, you know, kicked out a lot of Kurds, expelled a lot of Kurds, brought in a lot of Arabs, redrew the lines of the city in this kind of, you know, really bloody effort to remake the city and to make it Arab so that it was - and the reason for all this is oil because it's surrounded by oil field. And so I think that the feeling at the time - and I think it's still true - is that ISIS wants the oil fields around Kirkuk. They don't have them yet, but I think the fear is that they're going to try to take them. You know, if you stand back a little bit, you know, ISIS of course goes all the way back into Syria. And the figures - I don't think really anybody knows here but the figures, you know, ISIS is smuggling an enormous amount of oil out of Iraq and out of Syria. On the order of they're making something like five or six million dollars a day was the estimate that I heard, you know, because there's oil wells all over the place. So they're smuggling the stuff mostly into Turkey, but also, you know, they're smuggling into other parts of Iraq and other parts of Syria. They're selling it to the Assad regime, they're selling it to the Kurds. You know, they're selling it for something like, you know, a dollar a gallon or something. I mean, a really kind of bargain basement. But I think that, you know, the answer around Kirkuk is that ISIS wants those oil fields.

GROSS: How do you smuggle out so much oil?

FILKINS: I think they're doing it on trucks. You know, that's a big long unguarded border between Syria and Iraq on one side and Turkey on the other. You know, there's so much movement. And that's the problem with all these places. You know, if you look at the border between Iraq and Syria where ISIS is still in control, it's just a big open space, you know? It's just a desert. I mean, there's just nothing out there, so it's hard to police.

GROSS: Did you say that ISIS is selling cheap oil to the Syrian government?

FILKINS: That's the word. You know, that's the word on the street. It's kind of hard to prove, but everybody needs oil.

GROSS: But that's great.

FILKINS: Yeah, it's not.

GROSS: ISIS is the enemy of the Assad government, but the Assad government is funding ISIS by buying cheap oil. If this is true.

FILKINS: Well, their relationship is extremely complicated. I mean, because if you would think - I mean, and in certainly a really fundamental level they are like blood enemies, right, ISIS versus Assad. But on another level, they're not. And ISIS, in a way, is the best thing that ever happened to the Assad regime because, you know, here's Assad, this absolutely murderous dictator and he's able to stand up and say, look, it's either me or it's those guys over there, those fanatics that make al-Qaida look moderate, so you've got to support me because if you don't, you're going to get them. And so, again, one of the ironies here, one of the complications of what's happening right now how is, you know, the United States is doing airstrikes against ISIS and Syria and inevitably that's going to help Assad. But if you go back just in the last - over the last, you know, 18 months or so as ISIS has gotten going and gotten stronger and stronger, people have said to me - I mean, American officials, Iraqi officials, gave me really clear examples of when fighting has broken out between ISIS on one hand and the Free Syrian Army on the other, which is the kind of moderate opposition that I think frankly Assad really fears, that the Assad regime has come in and done airstrikes on behalf of ISIS. In other words, they are determined to wipe out the moderate opposition first and because I think they feel sure that, you know, ISIS will never come to power in Syria because the rest of the world won't allow them to come to power. So it's a very complicated relationship, but in many ways Assad can do nothing but thank his lucky stars that ISIS came out of the desert.

GROSS: My guess is Dexter Filkins. 'His article about Kurdistan and ISIS is in the current edition of the New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's a writer for the New Yorker. He's been covering Iraq and the region since before the beginning of the Iraq war. He used to write for the New York Times. In the current of the New Yorker he has a piece about Kurdistan and the Peshmurga. So let's get back to Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The Kurds want to be independent from Iraq and be totally self-governing. United States wants to keep Iraq intact. You write that the Kurds really see this war against Isis as an opportunity that may help them gain independence. What's the connection?

FILKINS: Well, I, you know, I think we saw the connection when ISIS moved into Iraq and the Iraqi army collapsed. I mean, 50,000 soldiers and policemen overnight just disappeared, threw their uniforms away, literally in some cases were running through the streets in their underwear. And I interviewed a lot of these deserters, but the Iraqi - I mean, that wasn't just the Iraqi army collapsing, which, by the way, was built at enormous American expense, you know, billions and billions of dollars over the years. So I think that was a measure of the collapse of the Iraqi state. So the Iraqi state has basically failed. And the Kurdish state is very, very strong. It's very cohesive. It's - you know, Kurdistan is essentially a self-governing entity. And so I think the Kurds look at the rest of Iraq and they look out and they say we have never had anything except bloodshed and tragedy visited on us by the government in Baghdad. And we are not going to do anything to save this country anymore and it's time to leave. And I think what potentially enables that - I mean, it's a - you know, we're talking about a landlocked area of probably 7 million people. What really enables that is that it turns out, as we've discovered over the past 10 years or so, that the Kurds are sitting on an ocean of oil and huge reserves of oil. And so, you know, all the big American oil companies are there, European companies are there. And they haven't - they're not really pumping all that much oil yet, but there's a ton of oil there. But the thing that makes that really difficult for the Kurds is that they're landlocked. So they need another country to allow them to move their oil out to see where they can get out and sell it. And they've had a really, really hard time doing that. You know, the Iraqis aren't going to help them. The Iranians aren't super helpful. Syria is a nightmare. And so that leaves Turkey and the Turks have historically been very hostile to the Kurds. And so lately, over the last 10 years or so as the Turks have just - you know, the economic boom in Kurdistan has made a lot of Turkish companies rich and so that's kind of transformed their relationship. And so there's a pipeline now that Turks are allowing the Kurds to ship their oil, but it's very, very complicated because the Americans for one thing - I mean, the White House is, because it's opposed to Kurdish independence, it's kind of put the word out that, you know, as they feel obliged to do that, gee, any country or any company that buys Kurdish oil could get a lawsuit. And so that's really chilled the market for the Kurds. It's made it very difficult for them to sell their oil. And so there's literally something like 11 - I don't know - 11, 12, 13, 14 Kurdish tankers filled with oil at sea right now looking for buyers. Some of those tanker, you know, they're filled with oil. Some of them have sold and some of them haven't because it's becoming really, really difficult. And, you know, these tankers are like - they've turned their beacons off so they can't be tracked and they're offloading oil in the, you know, the middle of the ocean to other tankers. And it's become this really, really, you know, weird game. But essentially, oil is the key to Kurdish independence. If they can sell their oil, then I think probably they're home free. But if they can't, then they're in trouble because Baghdad has basically cut them off from any kind of revenue. They're landlocked. You know, and if they can't sell their oil then they can't pay their bills.

GROSS: Right and because Baghdad has cut them off from revenue and because they're having trouble selling their oil, the government has been unable to pay its workers for - well, for all of this year so far.

FILKINS: Yeah, it's a pretty weird situation because, again, when you go to a place like Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, it's just a boom town. I mean, it's crazy. There's highway - they're building highways. There's high-rises being built across the horizon. I mean, there must be 100 cranes - or 100 high-rises under construction. It's amazing, but - and that's basically developed over the past decade, but what's happened is that as the Kurds have kind of accelerated their movement towards, you know, building their own state, building their own oil industry, Baghdad - the government in Baghdad has gotten more and more angry and more alarmed. And finally the moment came in - I think it was March this year when the government in Baghdad basically cut off any kind of revenue, particularly oil revenue, from the rest of Iraq. They cut the Kurds off. And that's kind of starving the Kurds, frankly. So they're shipping these tankers out to sea in hopes of just at this point just paying their bills. But they're having a really hard time.

GROSS: My guest is Dexter Filkins. His article about Kurdistan and ISIS is in the current edition of the New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dexter Filkins. He's a writer for the New Yorker and he's been reporting on Iraq for many years. His new article is based on his reporting over the summer in the north of Iraq in Kurdistan. A the article is called "The Fight Of Their Lives."

So Kurdistan is made up of Kurds, but there's a lot of refugees from Iraq who've gone across the Kurdish border. So is the population, the ethnic makeup of Kurdistan changing?

FILKINS: Well, there is - there's like a million refugees now. And most of those refugees are concentrated in a couple of areas, but I think there were 750,000 of those million are Iraqis and I think 250,000, believe it or not, are from Syria, they'd come earlier. But it's - I think the short answer is no. I don't think that's a huge calculation yet because they're refugees, you know. And I think the expectation is that they're going to go home at some point. I think what is interesting, which you can really see visibly is the Christian population of - and I - you know, the Christians have been leaving Iraq, they've been leaving the Middle East, you know, in droves over the past decade, you know - Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. And they've been special targets for, you know, the really crazy Islamist like al-Qaida. And but there are still several million Christians in the Middle East and in Syria and in Iraq, and they've been really special targets of ISIS. And, you know, churches have been burned and everything else. And so they're just pouring out of the areas. Christians are just pouring out of the areas where ISIS has taken over. So, for instance, I went to a refugee camp that was really quite close to the ISIS lines and it was just filled with Iraqi Christians. And actually I'll give you another example - I was going around with this Kurdish businessman and he was this remarkable guy. He's in my story, Sarmad Fadil. And he was, you know, he was like a college dropout in 2003 and then the American invasion happened and he set up this Internet company and he got rich, you know. He's like tycoon now and he's built - he's now building these - and this is happening all over Kurdistan - it's just a big success story in that way. But he's building these high-rises, these high-rise, you know, sort of condominium towers, you know, in Erbil. And so he was showing me these really beautiful apartments that he's building and I just looked across the street and there was a Christian church and it was brand-new - not brand-new, but it was a couple of years old. And then I walked over there. I walked over to the church and I started asking around and the entire basement of the church - it was a Syrian Orthodox Church - the whole basement was filled with Christian refugees who had just arrived. And that's, like, really in a nutshell, that's what Kurdistan feels like. It feels like on one hand, you know, you're walking around, like, this gleaming new high-rise and it's beautiful and it's modern and it's amazing. And then bang, you know, a minute later you're confronted with this - with the reality of this terrible conflict, which is just a couple miles away.

GROSS: So, Dexter, having covered the region for so many years, just give us a sense of your mood right now.

FILKINS: Look, you know, I left Iraq a long time ago. You know, I left Iraq late 2006. When the war at that point was almost four years old I was exhausted by it and I thought I would never go back. And I certainly thought when the American army finally pulled out in 2011 that that was it, you know, we're done. We're done with the Middle East. We're finished. And, you know, the Iraq war was a nightmare in many ways, but at least the U.S. had kind of, after all of its disasters and defeats in the beginning, it kind of, you know, built this state at great expense and it didn't work very well and it was kind of ugly but at least it stood and we're gone forever. And here we are, we're back. And, you know, the U.S. is doing airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and we've got advisers on the ground and, you know, and two states have fallen apart completely - Syria and Iraq, two failed states. And then a new state, of course the Islamic State, straddling the two. And we're back. And so it's - when you look particularly at the war in Syria and even what's happened in western Iraq, it just looks like - it looks like it's years away from a resolution, years away and a lot of blood because I mean, look at the civil war in Lebanon - it took 15 years to sort itself out. We're just three years into the Syrian war here. And I just - I think President Obama decided to go in back into Iraq and into Syria for very good reasons, but it's hard to see an end. It's just hard to see any clear defined end anytime in the near future. And that, you know, that's a pretty sad story.

GROSS: Well, Dexter Filkins, I'm so grateful for your reporting and for your appearances on our show. Thank you so very much.

FILKINS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Dexter Filkins is a staff writer for the New Yorker. His article about Kurdistan and ISIS is in the current edition of the New Yorker.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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