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Uneasy Alliance Gives Insurgents an Edge in Iraq

ERBIL, Iraq — Meeting with the American ambassador some years ago in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki detailed what he believed was the latest threat of a coup orchestrated by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

Don’t waste your time on this coup by the Baathists,” the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, chided him, dismissing his conspiracy theories as fantasy.

Now, though, with Iraq facing its gravest crisis in years, as Sunni insurgents have swept through northern and central Iraq, Mr. Maliki’s claims about Baathist plots have been at least partly vindicated.

While fighters for the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, once an offshoot of Al Qaeda, have taken on the most prominent role in the new insurgency, they have done so in alliance with a deeply rooted network of former loyalists to Saddam Hussein.

The involvement of the Baathists helps explain why just a few thousand Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters, many of them fresh off the battlefields of Syria, have been able to capture so much territory so quickly.

It sheds light on the complexity of the forces aligned against Baghdad in the conflict — not just the foreign-influenced group known as ISIS, but many homegrown groups, too.

And with the Baathists’ deep social and cultural ties to many areas now under insurgent control, it stands as a warning of how hard it might be for the government to regain territory and restore order.


Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri Credit Karim Sahib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Many of the former regime loyalists, including intelligence officers and Republican Guard soldiers — commonly referred to as the “deep state” in the Arab world — belong to a group called the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order, often referred to as J.R.T.N., the initials of its Arabic name.

The group announced its establishment in 2007, not long after the execution of Mr. Hussein, and its putative leader, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was one of Mr. Hussein’s most trusted deputies and the highest-ranking figure of the old regime who avoided capture by the Americans.

Referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s fighters, Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has researched the Naqshbandia group, said, “They couldn’t have seized a fraction of what they did without coordinated alliances with other Sunni groups.”

In some areas under militant control, including areas around Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit, he said, “there are definitely pockets where the Naqshbandias are wearing the pants.”

Graphic: In Iraq Crisis, a Tangle of Alliances and Enmities

Mr. Douri, the king of clubs in  decks of cards given to American forces in 2003 to identify the most-wanted regime leaders, is a mysterious figure, so furtive he was even declared dead in 2005.

It is believed that he is still alive today — he would be in his early 70s — although even that is uncertain.

After the American invasion he was said to have fled to Syria, where he reportedly worked with Syrian intelligence to restore the Baath Party within Iraq and led an insurgency from there that mainly targeted American interests.

“He’s a great totem of the old regime,” Mr. Knights said. “You need that kind of individual to keep the flame going.”

The role the Baathists are playing in the current uprising justifies not only Mr. Maliki’s suspicions, but also the longstanding concerns of American intelligence officers.

As American forces were winding down operations in Iraq, they frequently predicted that the Baathists were well positioned to exploit Sunni grievances and mount a violent challenge to the government.

Iraq’s Factions and Their Goals

The goals of of the three main groups in Iraq — Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish — as the country threatens to split apart along sectarian lines.

Analysts say the former regime figures, whose group combines strands of Islamic thought with notions of Arab nationalism typical of Baath ideology, are bedfellows with the Islamist extremists in one respect: Both sides are determined to restore Sunni rule to Iraq and rid the country of what they see as the pernicious influence of Iran, which like Iraq has a Shiite majority.

Like the extremists, the former regime figures have won sympathy from ordinary Sunnis who are alienated by Mr. Maliki’s sectarian policies.

“Our problem is with Maliki, and we will take him down and anyone that stands next to him,” said Abu Abid al-Rahman, a Naqshbandia leader in northern Iraq, in an interview.

He added: “We want to control the land all the way to Baghdad to take down Maliki’s government and to end the Iranian influence in Iraq. What is happening in Iraq today is a result of Maliki’s sectarian policy in Iraq.”

The Iraq-ISIS Conflict in Maps, Photos and Video

Since seizing Mosul on June 10, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been attacking towns along the main highway heading south, coming closer and closer to the capital. Related Maps and Multimedia » Related article »

Key Towns attacked Bomb attacks

Miles from

Central Baghdad

Several clashes occurred at the outskirts of Samarra, where Shiite militiamen have been sent to protect the Al-Askari Shrine.

The Iraqi army retook control of Ishaqi and Muqdadiya on June 14. In Muqdadiya, a Shiite militia assisted the government forces.

Militants took control of several neighborhoods in Baquba on June 16 but were repulsed by security officers after a three-hour gun battle. Later, 44 Sunni prisoners were killed in a government-controlled police station.

At least five bomb attacks occurred in Baghdad, mainly in Shiite areas, in the week after the rebel group took Mosul. The bodies of four young men were found shot on June 17 in a neighborhood controlled by Shiite militiamen.

Falluja and many towns in the western province of Anbar have been under ISIS control for about six months.

Having occupied crucial sections of Syria over the past year and more recently seizing vast areas of Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria controls territory greater than many countries and now rivals Al Qaeda as the world’s most powerful jihadist group. Related Maps and Multimedia » Related article »

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Sunni militant group that last week staged a stunning operation to seize Iraq’s second largest city, has been fueling sectarian violence in the region for years. Related Maps and Multimedia » Related article »

Sources: Global Terrorism Database, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (attack data); Congressional Research Service; Council on Foreign Relations; Long War Journal; Institute for the Study of War

Note: Before 2011, less information was available on who was responsible for attacks, so the number of ISIS attacks from 2004 to 2010 may be under-counted.

Sources: Global Terrorism Database, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (attack data); Congressional Research Service; Council on Foreign Relations; Long War Journal; Institute for the Study of War

 After sweeping across the porous border from Syria to overrun Mosul, insurgents aligned with the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continued to press south down the main north-south highway toward Baghdad. Related Maps and Multimedia » Related article »

 The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has vowed to establish a caliphate — a unified Islamic government ruled by a caliph, someone considered to be a successor to Muhammad’s political authority — stretching from western Syria across Iraq to the eastern border with Iran. This map shows the boundaries envisioned by the ISIS.
Related Maps and Multimedia »Many of the Iraqi cities that have been attacked and occupied by militants in recent days were also the sites of battles and other major events during the Iraq War. Related Maps and Multimedia »
Then: American forces took control of Mosul in April 2003. What followed was a period of relative peace until mid-2004 when periodic insurgent attacks flared, resulting in a large-scale battle in November. The death toll reached dozens, including a number of Iraqi soldiers who were publicly beheaded.Related Article »
Now: In perhaps the most stunning recent development, Sunni militants drove Iraqi military forces out of Mosul on June 10, forcing a half-million residents to flee the city. Iraqi soldiers reportedly dropped their weapons and donned civilian clothing to escape ISIS insurgents.
MosulMoises Saman for The New York Times
Then: Falluja played a pivotal role in the American invasion of Iraq. It was the site of a number of large-scale battles with insurgents. In April 2003, it became a hot bed for controversy when American soldiers opened fire on civilians after claiming they had been shot at.
Incessant fighting left the city decimated, leveling a majority of its infrastructure and leaving about half its original population. Related Article »
Now: Sunni militants seized Falluja’s primary municipal buildings on Jan. 3. The takeover came as an early and significant victory for the group, initiating a slew of attacks south of the city.
FallujaMax Becherer for The New York Times


Tikrit Iraq
Then: The home of Saddam Hussein, Tikrit became the target of an early American military operation during the Iraq war. Securing it proved cumbersome, however, as insurgents mounted continued attacks on the city for years afterward.
On Dec. 14, 2003, Hussein was found hiding in an eight-foot deep hole, just south of Tikrit. Related Article »
Now: Tikrit fell to ISIS insurgents on June 11, clearing a path for them to march on to Baiji, home to one of Iraq’s foremost oil-refining operations. After taking the city in less than a day, militants continued the fight just south, in Samarra.
TikritChang W. Lee/The New York Times


Samarra Iraq
Then: Samarra is home to the Askariya shrine, which was bombed in 2006, prompting an extended period of sectarian violence across the country. Related Article »
Now: After an initial attack on June 5, ISIS insurgents have now positioned themselves just miles away from Samarra. It is unclear whether they are capable of capturing the city in the coming days, but the Shiite shrine makes it a volatile target.
SamarraAyman Oghanna for The New York Times

A look at the goals of of the three main groups in Iraq — Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish — as the country threatens to split apart along sectarian lines. Related Maps and Multimedia »

 The insurgents, originating in Syria, moved through Iraq’s Sunni-dominated north and west, occupying cities and towns surrendered by Iraqi soldiers and police. They have largely avoided the Kurd-dominated northeast, but have threatened to march on to Baghdad and into the Shiite-dominated areas of the south.
Related Maps and Multimedia »The United Nations estimates that at least 500,000 Iraqis were displaced by the takeover of Mosul. Food supplies are low and there is limited fresh water and little electricity. An additional 430,000 people were displaced by fighting In Anbar Province, which insurgents have controlled for more than six months. Related Maps and Multimedia »

Safin Hamed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
An Iraqi family, one of thousands who have fled Mosul for the autonomous Kurdish region, walks past tents at a temporary camp.

Background on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Islamist group that appears to be in control of the second largest city in Iraq. Related Maps and Multimedia »

Rekan al-Kurwi, a tribal leader in Diyala Province, where both groups have been operating, said: “ISIS are extremists and strangers. The Naqshbandias are not strangers. We know most of them. In some areas that ISIS has taken they are killing our people, they are imposing their Islamic laws on us. We do not want that, and the Naqshbandias are not doing this. They have a good strategy in cooperating with the people.”

Last year, Iraq experienced a mini-version of the Sunni uprising it faces today. In that case, the Naqshbandias seemed to be in the lead, directing groups of fighters who briefly seized some territories after Iraqi security forces opened fire on a Sunni protest camp in Hawija, a village near Kirkuk that is a Naqshbandia stronghold, killing dozens.

In many ways that fight, after the Hawija raid, presaged what is happening now. It galvanized Sunni opposition to the government, which is being exploited by the alliance between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group and the Baathists, who are positioning themselves as secular guardians of Sunni Arab nationalism.

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While they may be allies today in the interest of fighting a common enemy — the Shiite-dominated government of Mr. Maliki — the two sides are unlikely to coexist if they should attain power in some areas. The Baathists, being more secular and more nationalist, have no interest in living under the harsh Islamic law that ISIS has already started to put in place in Mosul.

“We are fighting now with ISIS, but we are protecting Iraq from their religious ideas,” said Abu Tulayha al-Obaidi, a Naqshbandia fighter in northern Iraq, who said the group gets most of its weapons from smugglers coming from Syria, Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish region in the north. “We will not kill innocent people, or soldiers who put down their weapons. We are like the new brain of ISIS.”

Already, there have been reports that the two sides have skirmished inside Mosul, but the Naqshbandias denied that. Mr. Knights said: “For the moment they need each other. But they are going to fight each other eventually.”

Sources: Institute for the Study of War; Long War Journal

Blamed as Coup Mastermind? Fethullah Gulen

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says that a mild-mannered Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania was pulling the strings of a coup attempt last week that almost succeeded in taking over the state, and killing Mr. Erdogan himself.

Now, Mr. Erdogan says that many thousands of Turkish citizens — soldiers, policemen, bureaucrats, teachers, judges, lawyers and many more professions — are all part of the cleric’s movement and must be punished.

Tens of thousands of people have already been arrested or suspended from their jobs in the four days since the coup failed, after a night of violence that plunged the country into chaos.

Mr. Erdogan and the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, have been adversaries in recent years, and Turkey has said that Mr. Gulen must be extradited by the United States. Now, though, Mr. Erdogan appears determined to get him back, a matter that threatens to aggravate relations between the two NATO allies.

But who is Mr. Gulen? And is it possible he is behind such a vast conspiracy?

James F. Jeffrey, a former American ambassador to Turkey now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the organization a “cultlike” movement, and said no one really had solid information about its size and aims.

But many experts on Turkey, Mr. Jeffrey included, say the followers of Mr. Gulen have sought to gain power within Turkey by infiltrating state institutions, most successfully the judiciary and the police.

“They are a state within a state,” he said. “They have infiltrated many places.”

In the past, Mr. Gulen has been embraced by American officials as a moderate Islamic leader: someone who promotes interfaith dialogue, leads a worldwide network of charities and secular schools, favors good relations with Israel and opposes harder-line Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. (He is the Turkish Moslem Brotherhood leader)

In Turkey, his supporters have long filled the ranks of the police, judiciary and, to a lesser extent, the military, something Mr. Gulen has encouraged in speeches.

Having fled the country in 1999 as Turkey’s old secular elite charged him with trying to overthrow the state, he landed in the United States, where a former C.I.A. official helped him get a green card.

The darker suspicions of his movement have emerged as a central plotline in the aftermath of the failed military coup in Turkey, with Mr. Erdogan accusing him of being the mastermind of the conspiracy.

Turkish officials on Tuesday, including Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, raised the pressure on the United States to hand over Mr. Gulen, promising to send dossiers of evidence of his role in the plot.

The White House said on Tuesday that it received an electronic file from Turkey on the matter, though it was unclear that it was a formal extradition request.

“The Department of Justice and the Department of State will review those materials consistent with the requirements of the extradition treaty between the United States and Turkey that’s been on the books for more than 30 years now,” Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Obama spoke by telephone, with Mr. Obama offering help to investigate the coup, but giving no indication in a statement by the White House of a willingness to promptly send Mr. Gulen back.

Mr. Yildirim said Turkey was intent on destroying the Gulen movement “by its roots.” And the government has moved quickly, raising concerns it is more interested in silencing all opposition than rooting out those behind the coup.

Nearly 35,000 members of the military, police and judiciary have either been arrested or dismissed.

On Tuesday, the government suspended more than 15,000 members of the Education Ministry, forced more than 1,500 university deans to resign and revoked the licenses of 21,000 private schoolteachers.

All of them, officials said, are suspected of having some link to Mr. Gulen.

The Turkish military, in a statement, blamed the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” for the coup plot, and said the plotters had held at gunpoint the military’s chief of staff, demanding that he sign a document supporting the coup, which he refused to do.|By Tim Arango and Ben Hubbard

Mr. Gulen, a mystic preacher of the Sufi branch of Islam who lives in a secluded compound in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania, has become a central point of tension between the United States and Turkey.

One Turkish official said he believed the United States played a role in the coup, an accusation Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed on Sunday as “irresponsible.” Still, in a front-page column on Tuesday, the editor in chief of a pro-government newspaper wrote, “The U.S. Tried to Assassinate Erdogan!”

At the very least, the prospect of a contentious extradition process is likely to complicate relations between the allies at a time when the United States is relying on Turkey as a crucial partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

Referring to the United States, Mr. Yildirim said, “we would be disappointed if our friends told us to present proof even though members of the assassin organization are trying to destroy an elected government under the directions of that person.” He added, “At this stage there could even be a questioning of our friendship.”

Mr. Kerry has said Turkey, as part of the extradition process, must provide evidence that withstands scrutiny in an American court — something analysts say Turkey does not have.

On Tuesday, Mr. Gulen again denied any involvement. “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today once again demonstrated he will go to any length necessary to solidify his power and persecute his critics,” Mr. Gulen said in a statement. “It is ridiculous, irresponsible and false to suggest I had anything to do with the horrific failed coup. I urge the U.S. government to reject any effort to abuse the extradition process to carry out political vendettas.”

Turkish officials may be certain about Mr. Gulen’s actions and motives, but the nature of his movement has long confounded analysts and diplomats in Turkey, partly because the organization is opaque and individuals do not openly declare allegiance to it.

Mr. Jeffrey said it would have been hard for Gulen followers, as Islamists, to infiltrate the armed forces, which have been a stronghold of secularism in Turkey.

In diplomatic cable written in 2009, and made public by WikiLeaks, Mr. Jeffrey detailed how Mr. Gulen came to exile in the United States.

He left Turkey in 1999 after being charged with plotting to overthrow the state. The charges, Mr. Jeffrey wrote, were based on a sermon Mr. Gulen had given in which he said, “our friends, who have positions in legislative and administrative bodies, should learn its details and be vigilant all the time so they can transform it and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to create a nationwide restoration.”

Mr. Gulen was later acquitted, in absentia, on all charges.

Jenny White, a professor at the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies who has studied the Gulen movement, said it is centered on a worldwide network of secular schools. The goal, she said, is to create a “golden generation of young people who are educated in science, but have Muslim ethics.”

The group is socially conservative, but religious texts do not play a large role for the movement. While women are active in the movement, they are not included in decision making.

Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen were once Islamist allies, at war with Turkey’s old secular elite.

After Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party came to power more than a decade ago, they teamed up to tame the military, which overthrew four elected governments last century.

A series of sensational trials, which were overseen by Gulen-affiliated judges and prosecutors and were later determined to have relied, in part, on fabricated evidence, sent hundreds of officers to prison and seemed to have secured civilian control over the military.

But three years ago, the two men had a bitter falling out as Mr. Gulen opposed the leader’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. Mr. Erdogan accused Mr. Gulen of orchestrating a corruption inquiry of top officials close to Mr. Erdogan, using the same prosecutors who had targeted the military.

Ever since, they have been enemies, and this week the government accelerated its efforts to purge the state of anyone it believes is affiliated with Mr. Gulen, or directly involved in the coup.

Ibrahim Kalin, Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman, said on Tuesday that the United States should turn him over to Turkey.

“Why hold him?” he said. “Send him to Turkey to let him go through the judicial process here and if he can prove that he is not guilty, then he can go back.”

Turks have long suspected that Mr. Gulen was an American agent, and inflaming the conspiracy theories is the fact that Graham E. Fuller, a former C.I.A. official who was once stationed in Istanbul, wrote a letter to support Mr. Gulen’s application for a green card.

Mr. Fuller, in an interview with The New York Times in 2014, said he did so on his own, not on behalf of the American government. (Funny)

In the letter, he said he wrote, to the effect, “of all the movements I’ve studied, this one is probably least likely to be a security threat.”


Syrian Family’s Tragedy Goes Beyond Iconic Image of Boy on Beach


Hivrun Kurdi, an aunt of Alan’s, with her children in a refugee shelter in Bramsche, Germany, this month. 
Weeks after Alan drowned, Hivrun and her children made the same perilous sea journey from Turkey to Greece.
Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

ISTANBUL — When Alan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a beach in Turkey, forcing the world to grasp the pain of Syria’s refugees, the 2-year-old boy was just one member of a family on the run, scattered by nearly five years of upheaval.

As a Turkish officer lifted the boy from the shallow waves at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, one of Alan’s teenage cousins was alone on a bus in Hungary, fleeing the fighting back home in Damascus.

An aunt was stuck in Istanbul, nursing a baby, as her son and daughter worked 18-hour shifts in a sweatshop so the family could eat. Dozens of other relatives — aunts, uncles and cousins — had fled the war in Syria or were making plans to flee.

And just weeks after Alan’s image shocked the world in September, another aunt prepared to do what she had promised herself to avoid: set sail with four of her children on the same perilous journey.

“We die together, or we live together and make a future,” her 15-year-old daughter said, concluding, as have hundreds of thousands of other Syrians, that there was no going back, and that the way to security led through great risk.

Alan, whose mother and brother drowned with him, belonged to a sprawling clan from Syria’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority. But for most of his closest relatives, that identity was secondary to the cosmopolitan ethos of the Syrian capital, Damascus, where they grew up. They barely spoke Kurdish, identified mainly as Syrian and joined no faction.

So when war broke out, and political ties, sect and ethnicity became life-or-death matters, they were on their own

Interviews with 20 relatives, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Istanbul, in five German towns and by phone in Syria, tell a story of a family chewed up by one party to the Syrian conflict after another: the Syrian government, the Islamic State, neighboring countries, the West.

Since Alan’s death, at least 100 more children have drowned in the Mediterranean.

A million refugees and migrants entered Europe this year, half of them Syrians, part of the biblical dispersion of a country where half the population has fled.

Alan’s father, Abdullah, who is 39, sometimes blames himself, wishing he could turn back time and not get on the boat. He was trying to steer it in the chaos when it foundered in the waves.

But even for Abdullah’s sister Hivrun, grieving her nephew, the calculus remained in favor of risking her children to save them. Weeks after Alan died, she tried again to start for Germany. Once again, she and her children clambered onto a rubber raft.

Kurdish Roots

Alan’s grandfather was born in Kobani, a mostly Kurdish enclave near the Turkish border in the north. After compulsory army service, he moved to Damascus looking for work and settled in the mostly Kurdish neighborhood of Rukineddine, on the slopes of Mount Qasioun. He opened a barbershop and married a Kurdish woman who considered herself above all Damascene.

Rukineddine grew fast, with jumbled, unplanned housing and steep, narrow alleys cramming in poor rural workers, the kind of place where rebellion would later flare.

They had six children. They remember living modest lives not much affected by tensions between the government and Kurds. They spent the summers harvesting olives in Kobani, but saw themselves as city kids. Most left school after ninth grade to learn the family’s barbering trade.

Fatima, the oldest daughter, was the first to emigrate. In 1992, she moved to Canada to marry an Iraqi Kurd. They soon divorced, and she raised their son. Working nights in a printing plant, she caught the attention of a kindly boss.

“She said, ‘Every night I’ll teach you 10 English words,’” Fatima, known as Tima, recalled recently. “The rest I got from watching ‘Barney’ with my son.”

English led to a hairstyling license, jobs at high-end salons and citizenship — successes that made the family’s later journeys possible.

A commanding presence, Fatima became her siblings’ source of advice, information and emergency cash.

When war broke out, she became their fiercest advocate, supplying the plans and means to seek asylum in the West and, later, the political savvy to make Alan’s death a force for change.

But before the war, the rest of the Kurdis were not thinking of leaving Syria. They were putting down roots in the patchwork of communities that gave Syria its richness.

They acquired in-laws and property in the Damascus suburbs, in Kobani and in the bustling Palestinian district of the Yarmouk refugee camp — all places soon to be shattered by violence.

Driven From Damascus

The ripples of conflict reached the capital in the spring of 2011, just as Abdullah Kurdi was starting a family with his wife, Rihanna, a cousin from Kobani.

As the protests, inspired by other Arab uprisings, began to spread against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Rihanna headed back to Kobani to give birth to Ghalib, Alan’s older brother. Abdullah went back and forth, working in the family’s Damascus barbershop.

Some of the Kurdis sympathized with the initially peaceful demonstrations, but most avoided involvement. They feared going into details, since some relatives are still in Damascus. Abdullah said only, “I participated.”

The government cracked down across Syria, and the neighborhood quickly came under pressure. Security forces, always able to detain people at will, became jumpier, quicker to scapegoat Kurds or anyone without political connections.

“After the revolution started, I saw the differences between me and others, the racism,” Abdullah recalled. “Any simple policeman can accuse you. If someone writes a fake report against me, saying this Kurd did this or that, I will never come back.” (Only a victory in a civil war can change behaviour)

One day, officers burst into the family home of some of the Kurdis’ in-laws and dragged away two brothers, who had no known political involvement. They have not been heard from since.

Next, Alan’s cousin Shergo, 13, saw a friend die, shot through the neck by the police while protesting outside school.

Government artillery began shelling the restive suburbs of Damascus — where an armed insurgency was taking shape — from bases atop Mount Qasioun, up the slope from Rukineddine. The army guns were so close that the pressure of outgoing blasts cracked the wall of a family house.

The flight to Kobani came after Shergo and another teenage cousin witnessed a suicide bombing in the street. Flesh stuck to a wall, and shrapnel lodged in one boy’s leg.

At the hospital, security officials questioned the boys, who were afraid to say what they had seen. The secret police started asking to talk to the Kurdi men.

“So I said: ‘Let’s go. Let’s leave,’” Shergo’s mother, Ghousoun recalled. “It’s better than if they take us.”

Kobani seemed like a refuge then, as Kurds there tried to establish a safe semiautonomous zone. But, Abdullah lamented, “It didn’t work out that way.”

Life on the Run

At first, the problems were strictly economic. Kobani offered few jobs.

Abdullah went to Istanbul to work, while his wife raised Ghalib, and later gave birth to Alan, sometimes spelled the Turkish way, Aylan. (Previous reports put his age at 3.) Ghousoun and her family lived for a time in a sheep stable; she made money by bringing clothes from Damascus to sell.

“I suffered a lot, because I’m a very neat person,” Ghousoun recalled later, in her small and spotless Istanbul apartment.

Then a new threat arose. The extremist Islamic State group split from others fighting Mr. Assad, declared a state, and preyed on Kurds and other minorities.

Ghousoun’s travels grew perilous. Her accentless Arabic and conservative dress hid her Kurdishness at Islamic State checkpoints, but made her suspect at Kurdish roadblocks.

By September 2014, the Islamic State was shelling Kobani. Word came that the militants would invade. Families fled toward Turkey, and some were caught between Islamic State fighters and the border fence.

There, fighters grabbed Ghousoun’s husband, Mohammad, Abdullah’s brother. They spoke Arabic, but their accent was not Syrian.

“They beat and beat and beat him with a gun, my husband,” Ghousoun said later, sobbing. “In front of me.” Next, she said, they handed her son Shergo, by then 15, a gun.

“Shoot your father,” they told him.

“They kept saying we were infidels,” Ghousoun said. “But we are not.”

She collapsed on the ground, calling on God, begging the fighters, and somehow, she said, “they took mercy.”

The family spent days looking for a crossing, with hundreds of other Kurds. Finally, the group tried to breach the border. The Turkish police beat most of them back, but a Kurdish woman on the Turkish side hid Ghousoun’s family in her cowshed.

Back in Kobani, the Kurdi clan’s olive groves were burned, houses destroyed, and 18 relatives slaughtered.

Many of the survivors made it to Istanbul, and a new round of ordeals.

A Way Station in Turkey

Abdullah had managed to send money from Istanbul by working, and sleeping, in a clothing workshop. But when his wife and children finally joined him, he said, the burden overwhelmed him, “like a chain on my hands.”

The only apartments he could afford were so far from his work that he had to quit his job, instead lifting 200-pound bags of cement, making $9 per 12-hour day.

Ghalib and Alan jumped into his bed each morning to snuggle before he slathered them with ointment for their eczema, a ritual that he relished, even as he fretted over the cost of the balm.

“They sat in the house all day,” he said, choking with tears. “The only thing they were waiting for was me.”

Other Kurdis fared no better in Turkey.

Syrians there were often invited to bring their children to factory job interviews, but found, instead of day care, children packing goods in boxes.

Jobs disappeared when new Syrians arrived, willing to work for less, and employers sometimes withheld pay. Abdullah’s sister Hivrun cleaned hotel rooms, dozens a day. Ghousoun washed dishes in a restaurant; her son Shergo worked in a clothing sweatshop.

The promise of emigrating to the West seemed distant.

In Canada, Alan’s aunt Fatima raised $20,000 to sponsor Mohammad for asylum, with his wife, Ghousoun, and their five children. But Canada required proof of refugee status. Turkey granted Syrians only guest status, which Canada did not accept.

Hivrun applied for resettlement in Germany. Last summer, she received a date for her first interview: Sept. 27, 2016.

Options dwindling, Abdullah, Mohammad and Shergo traveled west and crossed a river to Greece. The police beat them with sticks, then sent them back in a rubber raft.

In June, Mohammad took a smugglers’ boat to Greece and made it to Germany.

Alan’s cousin Yasser, 16, fled Damascus to avoid the draft. He, too, boarded a smuggler’s boat out of Turkey.

Disasters at Sea

Hivrun and her husband were the first to take children to sea. They took four children and an adult nephew south to Izmir, the epicenter of the smuggling trade in Turkey.

Smugglers packed them in windowless vans, left them alone in a wooded area to dodge the police, then put them on a raft aimed at a Greek island a few miles off, but the raft had a broken engine. Only when Hivrun objected was the trip aborted.

On the next try, they were out to sea when water started rushing in. Hivrun saw a Turkish coast guard boat and shouted for help, not stopping even when other passengers, who preferred to risk it, angrily shushed her.

Hivrun’s husband and the older children wanted to try again. Hivrun refused. She took the children back to Istanbul, and her husband and nephew sailed off to Greece.

Soon afterward, Abdullah tried the voyage with his family. “We had decided to go to paradise,” Abdullah explained, a better life, whether in Europe — or the hereafter.

Hours after Alan’s drowning, Abdullah told the story in anguish: The small boat foundered and flipped a few minutes into the journey. He tried to hold on to Ghalib and Alan, calling to his wife, “Just keep his head above water!” But all three drowned, one by one.

Other survivors added new details: Alan cried as water sprayed his eyes; an older woman took him on her lap; the smuggler leapt out, and Abdullah took the tiller. Nervous and inexperienced, he swerved over the waves, telling his children, “I’m with you; don’t worry,” just before the boat capsized. One woman remembered Abdullah, in the water, kissing one of his boys.

In the news media blitz that followed, some reports, quoting an Iraqi couple who lost two children in the disaster, said Abdullah was a smuggler. But it is a standard smugglers’ practice to have an ordinary refugee steer, often in exchange for a discount, and in a later interview, the Iraqis said they believed Abdullah was merely the designated refugee pilot.

Abdullah says that he got no discount, and that he and others tried to take control of the boat because “someone had to.”

Regardless, one thing is clear: Abdullah lost his family.

Little Solace

Within hours, Alan’s aunt in Canada, Fatima, leapt into action.

From her home near Vancouver, she took calls from the news media, blaming Canada’s red tape and the world’s indifference. Soon she was touring Europe to advocate on behalf of refugees.

“Those kids were born when the war was on,” she recalled telling António Guterres, the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees. “And they die with the war still on.”

Her raw message helped spur Western countries — briefly, at least — to open their doors to Syrians.

But none of that changed the calculus for the Kurdis.

In the remote German town of Villingen, on the edge of the Black Forest, Ghousoun’s husband, Mohammad, worried for his family in Istanbul. He emerged one night from a barracks-like refugee shelter ringed with concertina wire and confided his dilemma: It could take a year or more to bring his family legally, so his decision to keep them off the dangerous boats meant indefinite separation.

“The most important thing,” he said, “is to be together.”

For the same reason, Hivrun broke her vow never to set sail again, determined to rendezvous with her husband. This time, she and her children made it.

In Meppen, Germany, a few weeks later, her children recounted the wet, terrifying moments on the boat — “a horror film!” one said — but now they were eating ice cream with a view of yellow autumn leaves.

Their father was stuck in a separate camp, three hours away. But after several weeks of haranguing the authorities, they got their wish: They could move, all together, to an apartment.

To the south, near Heidelberg, Yasser, the teenager who fled alone, was even more bullish on Germany, pinning the colors of its flag over a bed with a heart-shaped plush pillow. As an unaccompanied minor, he receives benefits like carpentry classes and excursions.

He misses his mother, but he already speaks passable German, knows the city and even has a German girlfriend. Wearing his hair in an Elvis-like pompadour, he plans to open a barbershop and study acting.

“I don’t want to lie to you and tell you that I am not happy,” he said. “I am!”

Ghousoun and Mohammad expect to be reunited in Canada on Monday, among 10,000 Syrians admitted by a new Liberal government. Fatima has a job for Mohammad in her new salon, where the sign over the door reads “Kurdi.”

“People always need a haircut,” she said.

A Father’s Heartache

A few weeks after the tragedy, Abdullah sat, angular and stiff and out of place, on a leather sofa in the piano bar of a gilt-trimmed hotel in Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The sea had sheared him of all trappings of identity: his documents, his sisters’ phone numbers, even his dentures

I have become a shadow,” Abdullah said.

After he buried his family in Kobani, in three graves on a treeless plain, he was whisked to Erbil by the powerful Barzani clan. He had resolved to use the spotlight on his grief to aid other Syrians, and the Barzanis were promising help.

Barely understanding Kurdish, he went gamely to meetings with the rich and powerful, and delivered aid to refugee camps, happiest when playing with children.

But he often seemed dazed. He wore a single plain, khaki-colored outfit every day, refusing to let his benefactors buy more. He had never been in a place like this, with a $99 Sunday brunch, and could not stop thinking: “Where was all this when my children were alive?”

He called his Canadian sister, Fatima, who was collecting his family’s things in Istanbul. She was coming to see him, and the thought of it brightened him. He asked her for his sons’ favorite stuffed dog, the one with the tongue sticking out, or maybe the Teletubby doll with the missing eye that he had promised to fix.

“I want something,” he said, “with their smell.”







February 2023

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