This is a story about Syria at war, but it's not a war story
Updated 2:36 PM ET, Mon January 11, 2016
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Syria (CNN)Put away the adrenaline and testosterone.
In the six days and five nights we were in northeast Syria we heard not a single shot fired, nor saw a single bomb drop. The flak jackets and helmets we brought with us never left their bags.
We went to a variety of places in northeastern Syria. It involved hours in the car with our drivers, Fahd and Mustafa. Fahd talked and talked and talked and was particularly fascinated with stories about the Arab dictators I had met. He laughed when I told him the only time I had seen Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in person, at a press conference in 2000 in Cairo with then-President Hosni Mubarak, he seemed awkward, uncomfortable and inexperienced.
Fahd particularly enjoyed listening to my recollections of meeting Saddam Hussein, and interviewing his psychotic, murderous son Udai, who made my blood run cold with his blank, cold stare which said, "I could kill you as easily as I could kill a fly."
Mustafa spent a lot of time talking and singing to himself as he chain-smoked. Both he and Fahd drove with reckless abandon. But despite many close calls on the dark, potholed, bumpy roads, we survived unscathed.
On our first full day we went to the northwestern city of Al-Hassakeh and met with Lewand Rojava, a commander of the Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG). He is 35 years old and before the war traded in building materials.
Today Rojava commands what is, for all intents and purposes, the most effective force fighting ISIS. He was quick to acknowledge the help of the warplanes of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, which have been hitting ISIS targets in this part of Syria since last year.
Rojava wouldn't go into detail but told me his forces "coordinate closely at the highest levels" with the coalition -- though he did have a complaint about the material support he and his men had received from the coalition.
"The assistance we've received," he said, "has been ammunition for Kalashnikovs, for heavy machine guns, for mortars, but we haven't received any weapons."
He was coy about reports U.S. Special Forces would soon be deployed in this part of Syria. "You know more than I do," he said unconvincingly.
ISIS: A terror group, but also a bureaucracy
About an hour's drive to the south of Al-Hassakeh is the town of Al-Houl, recently retaken from ISIS by Kurdish forces. We walked through what was the ISIS "police station" -- a stark affair with a lone overstuffed chair outside. No one had taken the time to paint over the ISIS slogans.
Next to it was the ISIS courthouse, formerly a school. In it we were reminded that ISIS is not just a group of fanatics, it's also a bureaucracy. One announcement we found on the floor called on those living under ISIS rule to hand over whatever they had looted from the city of Mosul, in Iraq, and elsewhere, back to ISIS. Another detailed how much wheat and barley farmers were required to give to ISIS in taxes.
Along the street was a platform, made of rusting steel bars, where those who stepped outside the narrow confines of what was acceptable under ISIS were tied up and whipped.
From Al-Houl we drove a few kilometers south to one of the positions on the front lines. This particular position, on a hilltop overlooking the endless, bleak rolling expanse that stretches all the way to the Euphrates River, was occupied by about a dozen members of the Kurdish women's defense units, the YPK.
I've lived in the Middle East for almost four decades and always thought this part of the globe was a "man's world." This encounter disabused me of this sexist, antiquated illusion.
The women, mostly in their early twenties, were commanded by 21-year-old Telhelden (Kurdish for "revenge"), who was dismissive of the ISIS fighters she and her comrades had driven out of Al-Houl.
"They think they're fighting in the name of Islam," she said. "They believe if someone from Daesh [ISIS] is killed by a girl, a Kurdish girl, they won't go to heaven. They're afraid of girls."
Efelin, 20, giggled when I asked her if ISIS ever tried to approach their position. "If they do," she replied, "we won't leave one of them alive."
Syria: More than a parachute destination
By the way, for me Syria is not just another parachute destination in the contemporary journalist's frenetic world tour that is the war on terror.
My parents lived in Damascus from 1978 to 1981, and although I was in boarding school in Morocco and then in college in the U.S., I visited regularly and had a summer job with a French oil exploration company in the area around the then-obscure town of Al-Raqqa -- which now of course we always preface with the phrase "de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State."
Back then, Raqqa was the big city for me, where on a rare evening off I went with my colleagues -- a collection of French, Syrian, Tunisian and Algerian engineers and technicians -- to guzzle bottle after bottle of bad Syrian beer with Bedouin tribesmen in outdoor cabarets as belly dancers performed. Back then, beer and belly dancers in Raqqa were a naughty distraction, not a religious infraction meriting a flogging, or worse.
My job involved driving around the desert around Raqqa, and south as far as Tadmour -- otherwise known as Palmyra -- also now under ISIS control. Initially I was part of the survey team, which mapped the terrain where other teams later came to conduct seismic tests. We were five in my team -- four Syrians and myself. I lost touch with them but hope they're all still alive.
We were the advance team, laying the groundwork before the heavy machinery arrived. Rather than stay at the base camp (a collection of trailers, tents and workshops), we stayed with Bedouin and farmers. I was later part of one the seismic teams. My job was to rig the dynamite charge for the initial seismic tests. If the soil was rocky, the charge was small, maybe two or three sticks. If the ground was sandy or soft, I would use six or seven sticks of dynamite. I liked the soft soil.
Between 1989 and 1993 I worked at an international agricultural research center in Aleppo. My wife and I, together with our newborn daughter, lived in that beautiful, ancient, complicated, welcoming city. Now, large expanses of Aleppo are a smoldering wasteland of rubble and human bone meal. A city turned into a cemetery.
Kobani: Destroying a city in order to save it
The day after I realized the Middle East was no longer a man's world, we made the long drive to Kobani, the city that had been a battlefield between ISIS and Kurdish fighters for five long months from September 2014 to January 2015.
The battle there began after a lightning onslaught by ISIS across northeast Syria. With its armory bloated with advanced U.S.-supplied weaponry and ammunition abandoned by the Iraqi army in Mosul in June 2014, ISIS had taken dozens of Kurdish villages and was rampaging headlong toward Kobani. The Kurdish irregulars' AK-47 assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades were no match for the American-made tanks and armored personnel carriers and steel-plated VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) that ISIS had aplenty.
Rather than try to stop them in the open plains and tiny hamlets of northeast Syria, Kurdish commanders told us their strategy was to draw ISIS into Kobani, where they would be able take advantage of their familiarity with the terrain to stop and slaughter ISIS.
Their strategy worked, thanks in large part to the intense airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. In the process, the coalition ended up having to destroy much of Kobani to save it, to borrow a well-used phrase from the U.S. debacle in Vietnam.
More than 70% of the buildings in Kobani were either damaged or destroyed, and from the destruction it appears much of it was inflicted by the airstrikes.
We got a bird's eye view of that destruction from a high roof top, where we met 17-year old Hamouda, who was engaged in a pastime forbidden under ISIS rule: raising pigeons. Hamouda keeps a small flock of pigeons, which he has marked with red paint to distinguish them from other flocks.
ISIS has banned pigeon raising because it's a waste of time. Hamouda told us he had been on the front lines during the battle for Kobani, and that he was twice wounded.
Our fixer, Mustafa, whispered to me that Hamouda was engaging in a form of deception, or self-deception, now common in Kobani. Those who had fled across the nearby border to Turkey, says Mustafa, now claim they never abandoned the town, that they had fought and shed blood to defend it.
Block after block in Kobani was reduced to rubble. Many of the buildings are beyond repair, like the three-floor home of Mustafa Ismail. When I met him he was smoking cigarette after cigarette, watching silently with his young children as a bulldozer hauled away the chunks of concrete and plaster that was, not long ago, his family home.
Rebuilding won't be easy. Turkey, wary of rising Kurdish aspirations for statehood in Syria and Turkey (and Iraq and Iran), has closed the border. Little if any of the desperately needed construction materials are getting to Kobani, leaving Abdul Rahman Hamo, the general coordinator for Kobani reconstruction, frustrated.
He took me to what he proudly calls "New Kobani," a barren, abandoned construction site at the edge of town.
They've managed to lay the concrete foundations for new apartment blocks. And that's it. An optimist, he told me, "hopefully after your report, the United States and others will help us rebuild Kobani, not just destroy ISIS." Amen.
A relative harmony in one Syrian town
Our last destination was Al-Qamishli, east of Kobani, in Syria's extreme northeast. It's an odd city, partially controlled by the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, partially controlled by the YPG, and with a variety of Christian militias operating as well. The Syrian regime's flag flies high, roundabouts feature statues of Al-Assad and his late father and former President, Hafez.
An uneasy truce is in place, with regime officers, and no doubt intelligence agents, moving easily around the city. Not having Syrian visas, we maintained a low profile when passing government positions, filming surreptitiously and not stopping as we drove by. We weren't stopped or questioned. There was no drama.
Al-Qamishli is one of the few places in Syria where different groups -- Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen -- seem to live together in relative harmony. And in this era of whipped up hysteria about Syrian refugees, Al-Qamishli has an interesting past. One hundred years ago Armenian Christians found refuge here, fleeing genocide in Turkey. Assyrian Christians also found refuge there after similar persecution in Turkey and Iraq. Kurds came here fleeing crackdowns in Turkey and Iraq.
At the Friday market, however, the main concern was the skyrocketing cost of living. Turkey has closed the borders, while the transport costs of food coming from Aleppo and elsewhere to the west has skyrocketed, since ISIS is taxing it.
Despite their understandable laments, Al-Qamishli reminded me of the Syria I once lived in. People were relaxed and friendly, including two young men who watched as we were filming one of the city's main streets.
I explain we're doing a report on Al-Qamishli. "You should come to Dair Al-Zour," one of them told me, referring to a city to the south, on the Euphrates River, now mostly under ISIS control.
"If I did that, I'd lose my head," I replied.
"We came from there today," one said.
"From ISIS?" I asked.
"No, we're with the army, the Syrian army, under siege there," he said. He told me they had been flown by helicopter to Al-Qamishli for 10 days' leave. Even though it was cold, they were sipping from cans of Pepsi and had an air of enjoyment and perhaps relief to be in a safe place.
The following day we made the long drive with chain-smoking Mustafa and chatterbox Fahd along the bumpy road to the Iraqi-Syrian border. They kissed us on our cheeks. We took a group photo.
"Come back soon," Fahd said.
Au revoir, Syria.