Kobane fallout

ISIS fighters appear poised to seize Kobane despite the US-led campaign against the jihadist group in Syria

Smoke rises from Kobane. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

BEIRUT – Islamic State fighters continue to inch closer to storming the besieged Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobane in an offensive that threatens ramifications far beyond the Kurdish-populated town.


ISIS fighters on Friday appear poised to enter the town, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that “violent clashes between ISIS fighters and [Kurdish fighters] were underway on the eastern and southeastern fronts of Kobane.”


As ISIS pressed their military campaign, the jihadist group fired approximately 60 mortar rounds Friday into Kobane, in what the SOHR described as the “the most violent shelling” the town has experienced since battles began in late September.


Friday’s fighting comes after Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) engaged in clashes the day before with ISIS militants approximately two kilometers from the western edge of Kobane, “prompting serious fears that ISIS could [enter] the city at any moment,” according to the SOHR.


“It is believed that the group might massacre citizens still inside the Kobane who have chosen to die defending their homes and their city rather than leave,” the monitoring group said in a stark warning.


US “support”


Despite the US-led military campaign against ISIS, Kurdish YPG fighters in Kobane have received scant aerial support in their pitched battles against advancing militants.


The US Central Command announced Friday that it conducted “one strike near Kobane,” destroying an IS checkpoint, a day after it reported that “three strikes near Kobane destroyed an ISIS armed vehicle, an IS artillery piece, and an ISIS tank.”


In the meantime, videos and media reports on Kobane have revealed that ISIS fighters have deployed artillery systems to shell the town in past days, forcing a mass civilian exodus.


“If the coalition does not proceed to bomb ISIS [outside Kobane]—and so far nobody knows what plan this coalition is trying to execute—Kobane might be taken by ISIS,” Maher Esber, a Syrian opposition political activist, warned.


“In my opinion, it is likely that Kobane will be taken by ISIS, and the coalition will not interfere,” he told NOW.


Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, said that the “the US and its allies have an air campaign planned and that is basically what they are executing and the Kobane fighting is a piece of that plan.”


The battle in Kobane “is not seen as one of the more critical aspects of the US air campaign,” he added to NOW.


Syrian-Kurdish analyst Rustom Mahmoud agreed that aiding the defense of the Kobane was not a top strategic concern for the US in its campaign against ISIS in Syria.


“The US [believes] that stopping the sweep of ISIS toward Kobane is partially one of the ways to weaken the jihadist group, but it’s not an absolute priority for the US in its fight against ISIS,” the researcher at the Dutch-based HIVOS group told NOW.  


US officials have repeatedly said their airstrike would aim not only to degrade ISIS’ military capabilities, but help moderate forces on the ground. The defense of Kobane lies in the hands of Kurdish YPG fighters, who are affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) listed as a terror organization by not only Turkey, but also the US.  


“Air strikes on the ISIS offensive against Kobane would by necessity [offer] support for Kurdish militants – something I assume would discomfort the Turks, which the US has been trying to woo and keep in its anti-ISIS coalition,” Atlantic Council Resident Fellow Faysal Itani told NOW.


Military implications


The fall of Kobane to ISIS would offer the group a windfall following its two-week blitzkrieg in the region that has seen fighters seize over 300 villages even after the US has expanded its anti-ISIS fight to Syria.


ISIS would secure “an important border area at a time when [their] lines of communication and resources are already under pressure from the US-led air campaign,” Itani said.


Kobane lies in a strategically important region north of Hasakeh between the two Kurdish areas of Efreen west of the town and Cizire to the east.


Itani added that seizing the town would also help “pre-empt Turkish ground incursions and attempts to create a buffer zone on the border, by essentially creating a buffer zone of its own that includes Kobane.”


An ISIS victory would also serve as "a demonstration of their capabilities to conduct a successful offensive even in the face of allied bombing," White said.


“ISIS will portray this as a victory over the coalition.”


According to the Washington Institute fellow, the fall of ISIS would also help the group's campaigns elsewhere by allowing it to use its fighters currently engaged in Kobane. 


Although the specter of an ISIS victory in Kobane looms large, YPG forces would not necessarily allow the Islamists to control the Kurdish territory without contest.


“On the military level, I think that [if ISIS fell to Kobane] the YPG would start a guerilla war against [the group], a field that they are expert in due to their prolonged war against past Turkish governments,” Rustoum Mahmoud said.


“The battle will not end once ISIS enters Kobani.”


Inter-Kurdish ties


The ISIS campaign against Syria’s Kurds comes months after a failed bid to advance on Kurdish regions in northern Iraq, which originally helped convince Washington to begin airstrikes against ISIS.


Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq in late September launched a three-pronged offensive against ISIS troops, taking over the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Rabia earlier in the week.


Iraqi Kurdish Rudaw news agency reported that the YPG said that the offensive was jointly coordinated, however Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government has not confirmed the claim.


Despite the threat to Syria’s Kurds, logistical and political realities curtail effective coordination between the YPG fighters in Syria and the Kurdish Regional Government’s peshmerga forces.


Kobane itself lies far from the Iraqi border, and ISIS controls large swathes of territory between Syria and Iraq’s Kurds, preventing effective lines between the two.


On the political level, the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) Party in Syria maintains affiliations with the PKK, but has significantly weaker ties with the Kurdish Regional Government and its component political parties.


Syrian opposition political activist Maher Esber told NOW: “the problem is that Kurdish Iraqis and Syrian Kurds have a lot of conflicts – each one of them wants to take the lead of the political decisions.”


“This is mainly why they were not able to reach any agreement until now, even though they are facing grave danger. If they could agree, the situation of the Kurdish resistance in general would be a lot better.”


Meanwhile, HIVOS’ Mahmoud argued that “the DYP and the YPG do not want another Kurdish partner in their political and military decision-making” in Syria.


“They consider it as their own battle and want to fight it on their own. They want to have monopoly over the honor of resistance, which, they think, will give them political and demographic privileges in the future.”


Turkey’s reaction


As ISIS approaches the Turkish border, Ankara has swung into swift political motion to begin addressing the situation, but what concrete moves it will take remains in doubt.


On Friday, Turkish Premier Ahmet Davutoglu vowed that his country “will do whatever it can” to prevent Kobane from falling to the Islamist militants. His comments came one day after the Turkish parliament authorized the country to begin military operations in Syria and allow foreign troops to use Turkey as a staging ground for military participation in the campaign against ISIS.


However, although Turkish officials have indicated they support establishing a buffer zone in northern areas of Syria to protect their border, the steps to be taken by their government remain unclear.


Even though Turkey’s future moves are in question, Ankara is set to play an important role in Syria as the military balance of the region continues to hang in suspense.


“Turkey wants to become a main player in the Syrian issue and impose its agenda and its main goal, which is to keep up the [pressure against the] Syrian regime,” Mahmoud Rustom said.

Smoke rises from Kobane. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

In my opinion, it is likely that Kobane will be taken by ISIS, and the coalition will not interfere.

  • commenter8

    Coalition forces should be killing those ISIS tanks near Kobane - they're sitting ducks for Hellfire missiles. Send in the drones!!

    October 4, 2014