The Battle for Kobane: 63 days later


After more than two months of a joint Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish military effort to break a siege by the al-Qaeda splinter group, Islamic State (ISIS), on the key Syrian border town of Kobane, there has not been real progress. While the Kurds are handling most of the ground fighting, they are receiving air support form a US-led coalition.

On Tuesday, the US-led coalition airstrikes hit ISIS targets south and east of Kobane in response to ISIS artillery shelling. 

There was intense fighting between Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and ISIS militants in the south of the city, on Monday evening which continued until Tuesday morning, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory reported that the YPG had advanced in several areas, and that the Iraqi Kurdish army – the Peshmerga, had assisted them in certain fronts south of the city. 

Following the battles, Peshmerga officials said that four fighters from the western-backed rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, had been killed and that one had been injured.

Approximately 200 lightly-armed Free Syrian Army forces had arrived in Kobane to reinforce YPG fighters in late October, followed days later by Peshmerga forces bringing heavy weapons and artillery.

The Peshmerga also said the bodies of 11 ISIS militants had been discovered after the clashes.

The Observatory estimates over 1 000 people have been killed in the Kobane area since the siege began in mid-September, with the majority killed from ISIS. No Peshmerga deaths have been reported thus far. 

Salih Muslim, head of the political wing of the YPG, told reporters in Paris that he was confident “they would recapture the town in a very short time,” and YPG fighters are in good spirits after 56 days of fighting. He also appealed to western governments to provide more military support the Syrian Kurds. 

ISIS frustrated and looking elsewhere

The Observatory cited sources saying that ISIS was planning to launch offensives in the Syrian towns of Homs and Hama to boost the morale of its fighters who are now frustrated after failing to take Kobane.

ISIS’ spectacular and swift campaign that saw it overrun large swatches of territory in Iraq and Syria earlier this year may have met its waterloo in Kobane if the reports of Kurdish progress in retaking the town are credible.

The stakes are high for the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces as well as the US-led coalition as Kobane has been transformed from a small desert town to a symbol of resistance against the seemingly unstoppable Islamic jihadists who have become notorious for their brutal abuses against rivals and local populations.

An ever-changing conflict

Meanwhile, a Syrian Islamic rebel leader branded Kobane’s Kurdish defenders as enemies on Tuesday. The leader of Syria’s Islamic Front rebels said he intended to “liberate” Kobane from its occupiers, including the Syrian Kurdish fighters currently defending it.

In a videoed press conference, Zahran Alloush, who heads an alliance of rebel forces reported to number 45 000, accused the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) of being loyal to the Damascus regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Sunni Arab rebel groups have made similar accusations before, but Alloush’s comments may signal frustration that Kobane – and the heroism of its defenders, was taking is taking away attention from the broader struggle against the Assad regime.

According to the London-based Middle East Eye (MEE); “Forty two-year-old Alloush is little known in the West but with the gradual weakening of Syria’s moderate opposition, the Free Syrian Army, his group, the Islamic Front, have emerged as one of the more effective fighting forces on the ground.”

MEE said the Islamic Front was also a key player among rebel groups holding off Assad’s forces that are trying to recapture the strategic northern city of Aleppo.

The Islamic Front is a Salafist coalition wants the establishment of a Caliphate in Syria, but opposes the Islamic State.

The PYD, which declared autonomy is Kobane and other districts in the past two years, tried to keep Syria’s Kurds out of the fighting with Assad’s regime and filled a power vacuum after the Syrian government forces withdrew from the region.

Mainstream Arab opposition leaders had insisted that the Kurds should shelve their aspirations for autonomy for the sake of the wider rebel struggle against the Assad government.

Turkey’s reluctance to join the fight against ISIS and realpolitik

Despite efforts by the US to have Turkey, which is a NATO ally, join the fight against ISIS in Kobane, Ankara has stood on the sidelines.

The YPG has up to this point been able to hold off ISIS in Kobane but they lack the resources to bring the battle to a quick and successful conclusion. They need extra manpower and weapons – which until late October on came via US-led airstrikes and ammunition airdrops.

But Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is unwilling to get involved despite his country’s proximity to the conflict.

According to the Western media and the opposition, Erdogan’s AKP actually supports ISIS. Claudia Roth, leader of the German Greens, went as far as to claim that there are ISIS training facilities and recruitment centres across Turkey.

Some observers have pointed out what they say is evidence of a working relationship between ISIS and Turkey. For example, despite ISIS’ fanatical iconoclasm, the jihadists have not tempered with or destroyed the tomb of Suleiman Shah, the ancestor in Syria of Turkey’s Ottoman dynasty. ISIS’ release of 46 Turkish hostages in September also raised eyebrows.

Erdogan had presented the fate of the hostages as the reason behind Turkey’s reluctance to get involved, but even after their release, he remains wary of the US-led coalition. In October, he said that the US had not yet clarified what role it expected Turkey to play.

However, Tolga Tanis, an investigative journalist based in Istanbul, reported via Pentagon sources that the US had specifically requested access to two airbases, one in Incirlik for airstrikes against ISIS, as well as the naval base in Iskenderun – hence, it is unlikely Erdogan does not know what role Turkey needs to play.

The US-led coalition desperately needs Turkey’s involvement in the fight against ISIS. Turkey has the second largest army in NATO and has already deployed tanks to the border with Syria - and could easily tip the balance against ISIS.

While Turkey has signalled that it is part of the anti-ISIS coalition, it has set several preconditions for its participation - including that the US commits itself to removing Assad’s regime. So while, the US is after ISIS in Kobane, Turkey’s main goal is regime change in Damascus.

According to the Turkish government, the fighting in Kobane is directly connected to the broader war against Assad. It claims that the disenfranchisement of the Sunni majority in Syria will continue to generate Islamic militancy after ISIS has been defeated. So to Turkey, defeating ISIS will only provide temporary relief, a permanent resolution can only result from removing the Syrian regime.

Still, observers are quick to point out that while these concerns about the Assad regime carry weight, Erdogan’s reluctance to have Turkey involved has more to do with the question of Kurdish autonomy.

Kobane’s defence is being led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which shares the ideology of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been fighting for the Turkish for the Kurdish-dominated south-east for over three decades.

In essence, if Turkey helps the PYD to win against ISIS, it is then emboldening the PKK to seek greater autonomy in Turkey.

Erdogan has reportedly taken precautions against just such a scenario – at a secret meeting on 5 October with Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD, his ministers specified that Turkish support would be contingent on several factors including that PYD forces would become part of Turkey’s Sunni coalition against the Syrian government and relinquish control in several regions.

So in essence, either surrender to Turkey and join it in the struggle against Assad or face defeat at the hands of ISIS.

However, Turkey’s position changed in relation to Kurdish dynamics. While previously refusing passage to Iraqi Kurds en-route to the defence of Kobane by blocking their only land channel, on 20 October, Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, announced that his country would open up its territory for the Peshmerga to reach Kobane.

While some have welcomed it as a signal to Turkey’s willingness to join the ISIS fight, some see it as a strategy by Erdo?an to relieve himself of the criticism his country has received to date.

The leader of the PYD has already expressed scepticism. Continued Turkish refusal to get involved might ruin a peace process initiated roughly two years ago between the PKK and the Erdo?an government.

The PKK’s operational commander, Cemal Bayik, as well as its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, have made it clear that the negotiations would be automatically terminated if Kobane falls.

Observers are quick to point out realpolitik regarding Turkey’s reluctance to join the fight against ISIS. Kobane is the hub of the Kurdish region and lies between a swathe of Kurdish-controlled towns, collectively known as the canton of Jazeera, and the town and district of Afrin.

If ISIS is defeated in Kobane, these two regions would be linked in a chain making the Kurdish call for an autonomous state more possible – or at least, emboldening Kurds in Turkey to demand the part-independence that the Syrian Kurds gained from the Assad regime in northern Syria in 2012. If the Kurds win in Kobane, The Turkish government would find it hard to disarm the PKK.

However, the fall of Kobane to ISIS could be followed by the successive collapse of other Kurdish strongholds. By some extent, the Kobane fight has weakened the Kurdish rebels and, if weakened further, they will be less able to resist Turkey’s political demands at the negotiating table.

The Turkish government, then hopes for a situation where the Kurds would relinquish their aspirations for more autonomy.  

Erdogan also faces an upcoming election and the electorate would not support a president supporting a group which is linked too closely with the PKK.

Still, Turkey finds the US approach to the regional crisis devoid of any operational logic. After ISIS has been defeated, the US has said that NATO would work with the moderate Syrian opposition, which is composed of 1 500 groups, providing arms and funds to 14 militias in southern Syria and 60 groups in the north.

However, the moderate Free Syrian Army is experiencing a power struggle with three military commanders claiming to be the “rightful supreme leader”. For Turkey, the fact that none of these opposition forces is secular or democratic creates a problem for the post-ISIS world.

Another instance, might be Assad regaining control over the northern territories – which would see him following an aggressive policy against Turkey, especially having secured the backing of Russia and Iran.

So Turkey wants a clear guarantee that the border will be safe, Assad toppled and the Kurds disarmed if it is to join the ISIS fight. It might then be criticised for ignoring the humanitarian crisis brought about by ISIS but its concerns about the future and its Kurdish problem cannot be dismissed wholesale.

Photo: A US-led airstrike against ISIS positions in Kobane.