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Michael Weiss

Winning Kobane, Losing Syria

Obama has shown that he can make a difference — when he wants to.

Kobane explosion. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Within the space of a week, Kobane, the Syrian-Kurdish city on the lip of Turkey that has been besieged for weeks by the Islamic State, has gone from being “not strategically vital” to “symbolically important,” to give the Wall Street Journals paraphrase of official U.S. government thinking on the subject. The number of airstrikes there has now far outstripped that of any other target in either Syria or Iraq. This includes Mount Sinjar, the site of ISIS’ first aspirational genocide of an ethnic minority population from which ISIS was temporarily expelled last August. Unfortunately, however, the jihadists are back there again, having completely encircled the barren mountain where tens of thousands of Yazidis were left stranded without food and water in August. Yazidi villages have been retaken, although this time US aerial interference seems far less exigent, in light of Kobane’s plight.

 

The about-face is extraordinary. Earlier in the month, both the Pentagon and Ankara announced that Kobane’s fall was imminent. US Secretary of State John Kerry was all torn up but coldly realistic: “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what’s happening in Kobani,” he said on October 8, “you have to step back and understand the strategic objective.” Now Kerry says this: “We cannot take our eyes off the prize here. It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting [ISIS], as hard as it is, at this particular moment.”

 

Except that, as other US officials continue to insist, the “prize” isn’t Syria at all; it’s Iraq. ISIS is just so stupid that it has decided to throw the bulk of its manpower and its US-purloined heavy equipment at Kobane, which has thus become flypaper for terrorists. Some 400 ISIS fighters have been killed thus far, with serious losses in armaments and vehicles. US Central Command has dropped about 24 tons of medicine and weaponry onto the Kurdish citadel-city’s defenders, principally the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia run exclusively by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). It was these fighters who fought “valiantly,” according to Kerry, not just in Kobane but around Mount Sinjar last August, rescuing the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga who couldn’t hold out against the IS onslaught.

 

Here things got a little tricky for Washington because the PKK is a US-designated terrorist organization. Not to worry: White House and State Department lawyers cast a quick juridical eye over the problem and decided that the PYD is a legally distinct entity and therefore not subject to the same proscriptions on gun-running and military cooperation as the PKK, a fact which must have made PYD officials wiping their damp brows and laughing simultaneously given that they don’t deny being the Syrian branch of the PKK, and they openly consider Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK commander, their ideological godfather and hero — an assessment shared by Ankara for some 30 years.

 

Kobane’s transformation from an unworthy sideshow to the Dunkirk of Operation Inherent Resolve was remarkably swift, easy and rather creative for a normally languorous and analytically cautious commander-in-chief. True, US officials, beginning with former State Department Syria policy coordinator Robert Ford, had been holding indirect or quiet talks with the PYD since 2013, but in reality, Obama didn’t hesitate to arm the affiliate of a US-blacklisted organization to stop another, far more brutal one. “[O]fficials were desperate for partners on the ground on the Syrian side of the border,” the Journal noted. “In recent days, the Kurdish fighters had made gains.”

 

First, CentCom Commander General Lloyd Austin showed the president a proposal for saving the city, which couldn’t be done without resupplying the YPG. That was Friday. Obama approved the decision there and then. By Sunday, Soviet-era weapons, such as AK-47s, procured by the United States from Albania for resupplying the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq were en route from Erbil to Kuwait, where they were stowed aboard C-130 cargo planes. The planes began dropping them to the YPG units on Monday, although one errant package filled with grenades, mortar rounds and such blew the wrong way in the wind and wound up in the hands of ISIS, which was quick to publicize the catch on YouTube. (The Pentagon has since confirmed the mishap, though it insisted that this was just one cargo of 28.)

 

A representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) elaborated on the supply-chain to me yesterday. “Weapons were collected by the peshmerga from Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Dohuk,” he said. This logistical workaround was what you might call both symbolically important and strategically vital. White House and State Department lawyers figured that the PYD/PKK fudge would matter less if the arms being sent to the YPG technically belonged to Kurdistan Regional Government, under the leadership of President Massoud Barzani, an open ally of the United States. Barzani’s peshmerga, according to Kurdish media reports, are now ready to deploy to Kobane to help finish ISIS off, in a rare show of pan-Kurdish unity, albeit complete with the customary intra-Kurdish disagreement over who’s really in charge of what.

 

The peshmerga’s mobilization is also likely a salve to Turkey, which was unimpressed by Washington’s ingenuity; Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on October 20 that Turkey had already been letting Kurdish fighters from Iraq into Kobane; now there is talk of a formal “corridor” for peshmerga convoys. Multilateral talks between and among the KRG, PYD, other Kurdish parties, Turkey and the US have taken place in Ankara and Dohuk. As ever, everyone came away with different interpretations as to what was agreed.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in remarks published on Sunday, after he returned from a one-day trip to Afghanistan: “There has been talk about forming a front against ISIL by giving the PYD arms. But the PYD, for us, is equal to the PKK; it is a terrorist organization.” But then Obama rang and told him arming the PYD was a fait accompli. (Hurriyet columnist Murat Yetkin parsed which came first: Erdogan’s denunciation or Obama’s call, based on the DC/Ankara time difference, and decides it was likely the former). What Erdogan does next is anyone’s guess, although I hope that, whatever it is, it’s broadcast on live television.

 

Perhaps not wanting to feel left out, the Assad regime, too, has also announced that it will “continue” to send “military aid… at the highest level” to Kobane, according to Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi, who may be lying just to rub it in further or distract from the fact that the Syrian Air Force has taken the coalition’s preoccupation with one city as license to pursue its own objectives of late. It has escalated its aerial assaults — especially with barrel bombs — on the Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front positions in Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, Damascus, Deraa and Quneitra. Under other circumstances, or in another news cycle, some of these pummeled forces might be considered “partners on the ground on the Syrian side of the border.”  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has claimed that the regime has conducted over 210 airstrikes in the last 36 hours alone, whereas its daily average is around 12 to 20. Kobane, then, matters to Assad, too: so long as the coalition is preternaturally fixated there, he can annihilate the rebels he hates most with impunity and very little media attention.

 

                                                ***

 

America’s fickle favoritism with its proxies has not gone unnoticed by the majority of aspirational ones. Just as the first airdrops were being conducted over Kobane, Jad Bantha, an Oxford-educated activist from Damascus, tweeted a series of observations and complaints on October 20 which, judging from my recent conversations with other erstwhile pro-American rebels, reflect growing sentiment among Syria’s majority population. “Obama sent 1 tonne of medical supplies & loads of military supplies to PYD kurds only, neglecting thousands of Syrians who have fought ISIS” ran one. “Obama & his admin lied to us so many times, I would rather trust ISIS than Obama & his jokers! The US admin again prove they are our enemies” ran another.

 

And on the same day Bantha’s tweets were published, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly explained to the world the victims not so fortune enough to be considered of strategic or symbolic value to the Obama administration. For three days in early August, Sly writes, IS psychopaths “shelled, beheaded, crucified and shot hundreds of members of the Shaitat tribe after they dared to rise up” against them in Abu Hamam, a village in Deir Ezzor. “By the time the killing stopped, 700 people were dead, activists and survivors say, making this the bloodiest single atrocity committed by the Islamic State in Syria since it declared its existence 18 months ago.” Men and boys older than 15 were summarily killed once IS took Abu Hamam. Then IS boasted of its savagery online:

 

A photo essay on an Islamic State blog boasted of the different ways tribesmen were killed, including beheadings, mass shootings and a crucifixion. A video shows how the militants lined up scores of captives on a road, their hands bound, then set about clumsily decapitating them, one by one. The executioners, speaking in Tunisian, Egyptian and Saudi accents, taunted those not yet dead by swinging severed heads in front of their faces and telling them, “It’s your turn next.”

 

Abu Salem, a Shaitat tribesman who survived this massacre, and who spoke to Sly in Turkey’s Reyhanli, said: “We saw what the Americans did to help the Yazidis and the Kurds. But they have done nothing to help the Sunnis against the Islamic State.”

 

At this point, Sunni Arabs in Syria might consider shopping for a new faith or ethnicity if they want America’s attention. Barrel bombs, Scud missiles, gang-rapes, electrocutions, genital mutilations, chlorine and sarin gas attacks, all Holocaust-invoking revelations of systematic torture in Assad’s dungeons — sorry, but this is all quite boring. Where’s the symbolic importance? The strategic vitality? Yes, we know Syrian rebels fought and routed ISIS as well as the Kurds have, but that was in January and ISIS came back. And while it may be true that rebels have a better track record with keeping American-made weaponry out of the hands of ISIS than the US or Iraqi militaries have, we’re still not impressed. What have you done for us lately? 

 

Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss

An explosion rips through Kobane. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

ISIS is just so stupid that it has decided to throw the bulk of its manpower and its US-purloined heavy equipment at Kobane, which has thus become flypaper for terrorists.

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Weiss loves Assad, just as any Zionist would. The reason Weiss supports the so-called "secular Sunni rebellion" is because these are the people who most closely resemble the Assad regime in their ideological outlook (pseudo-secularism, pseudo-democracy, etc.) and therefore are the more likely ones to clinch a deal with Assad in the end, thus guaranteeing stability for Israel on the Golan, as Assad has done for 40 years, and giving the Israelis all the time they need to swallow and dismantle what remains of Palestine. Imagine instead if ISIS or Al-Nusra were to take power in Syria.... It will be sayonara to tranquility on the Golan and a huge mess for Assad's friends, the Zionists.

    October 27, 2014

  • Jack Kalpakian

    Syria is not America's to win or lose. Had the advise Mr. Weiss gave three years ago been followed, we would have Daesh in Damascus, a Genocide of Alawis, Christians, the Druze and the Ismailis as well as the Shiia in Syria. Yet he persists in trying to whip up support for his Genocidal favorites in Mosul and Ruqaa. He is obviously detached from reality. In his world, there is a "moderate Syrian Sunni" opposition, obviously his world includes the tooth fairy as well. Mr. Weiss you are an accessory to Genocide.

    October 25, 2014

  • commenter8

    Another 5 or 6 aircraft carriers would be very useful right now in both Iraq & Syria. They could hammer IS everywhere at once, 24/7. But America doesn't have them - because Obama thought world peace was at hand and the defense budget could be eviscerated to give Americans a peace dividend. The need to project American power is instead greater than ever - that need is growing quickly while the availability of projectable American power continues to shrink. And let's not forget the Republican scumbags either - they will cut anything and everything in order to reduce the taxes of selfish rich people who can and should pay much, much more.

    October 25, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Can you please stop repeating like a parrot these idiotic formulas of "projecting American power"? What the heck does it mean? What historical data can we use to judge whether such "projecting" in the past has done any good to America and to those upon whom this "projecting" lamentably falls? The last I heard, when George Bush projected American power in Iraq, it was a disaster whose mess we have yet to finish cleaning. Yes, the Republicans are scumbags. And the caution exercised by the Democrats under Obama's leadership is courageous and bold. It is ushering the final end of colonialism. ISIS is not the danger that hysterical imbeciles like Weiss and others keep portraying it to be. There are other powers in the region - including those that are actually fanning the flames of ISIS, like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni bastards - that can put an end to the mayhem: They have been buying weapons for decades; why don;t they use them? Why must they beg their own enemy, the US, to salvage their decaying monarchies?

    October 25, 2014

  • commenter8

    Here's what it means: * Queuing up Stalinist mass murderer Saddam Hussein for execution * Executing Osama Bil Laden * Preventing IS genocide against the Yazidi population * Endorsing the bravery of Arin Mirkan against genocidal terrorists: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2782092/Mystery-surrounds-fate-Kurdish-female-fighter-poster-girl-reports-emerge-killed-bullet-avoid-taken-hostage-ISIS.html IS is committing mass murder and genocide. We did not stand by and watch while Adolf Hitler committed genocide. In fact, we pledged "Never again" - we pledged permanent armed opposition to genocide. Genocide is back, and I want my taxes raised so that many more American missiles can slam into IS forces.

    October 25, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    1- Why didn't you queue up Stalinist mass murderer Assad for execution instead of supporting him for 40 years and sending your pathetic presidents and secretaries of state to meet with him every year in Geneva? 2- The last I heard, it was Obama who executed Bin Laden. So what's your point? 3- About preventing genocide, you seem to focus on only those "genocides" that you are fed by your media. Selective vigilantism, uh? Typical American Hollywoodian crap. 4- Just like you do everywhere and in every war, you wait until the last minute before becoming engaged. You did wait until Hitler exterminated millions and, of course, until the Japs kicked your butt in Pearl Harbor. Until then, you stood by and watched Hitler commit genocide. And 5- Colonialism is over. Don't waste your volunteered tax dollars on the Arab world, they'll come back (your tax dollars and the Arabs) to bite you. Let people suffer and sacrifice for their freedoms; we don't need another Vietnam, another Iraq, another Somalia, another Beirut, and all the failures of American interventionism. Just let us be and stop sermonizing us from your wasteland and from behind your computer monitor. We don;t need you.

    October 26, 2014

  • Jack Kalpakian

    As for his press concerning Sunni Arabs somehow not being favored by the US, what exactly is the identity of the vast majority of the US' clients in the Middle East? Jacobite Syriac? Kurdish? Armenian? At present, there is no credible "moderate" Sunni Arab Syrian political movement with arms on the ground, we had open endorsement for the ethnic cleansing of Kessab by the likes of Fawaz Tello -- a supposed moderate and former USIP affiliate.

    October 27, 2014

  • commenter8

    The first priority is Islamic State. Assad should also be executed, but IS is even worse than Assad so they get bombed first. The United States has many very well-designed missiles, and killing the purveyors of genocide is their highest and best use. There is no interest in colonialism, only interest is in a peaceful world that is free of crimes against humanity.

    October 30, 2014

  • commenter8

    Jihadists want martyrdom, and American missiles do a great job of killing jihadists. Killing jihadists - each and every one - is the perfect way to make both sides completely happy!!

    October 30, 2014

  • markcampbell15

    You seem to be angry ISIS are being resisted. Is it not Kobane that ISIS have concentrated all their efforts at the moment? You continue to be very odd with a very strange and suspect anti Kurdish agenda.

    October 24, 2014

  • helin.bedirhanoglu

    Winning Kobane = winning Syria.. Because ISIS have sent most of their men to Kobane. Still they can't capture the city. This means the end of ISIS.

    October 24, 2014

  • Jack Kalpakian

    He is simply to bigoted to see that.

    October 26, 2014

  • frieda.arpoika

    I don't think you are fair to the YPG. FSA has received American supplies and training for years now, and it is increasing. The YPG has fought Islamists for 2 years now and this is the FIRST aid they receive and there is jelousy. Sad.

    October 24, 2014

  • Coyote

    As usual, western short sited perspective makes an intersting hash of the facts because they don't really point towards a 'winnining' strategy. If you want to change history, you have to know history. The larger context involves the Kurds being one of the most nationalistic factions in the whole mess. The only way there is going to be any kind of regional change is if the evolution from tribal and religious factionalism to a nationalist identity creating nations under law within the regions takes place. To the administrations credit, they have identified a strategic positioning for support that appears at this time to have become a meeting place and hopefully a foundation for alliance between the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian Kurds, and the Free Syrian Army. This kernel can grow if the US empowers it. All the facts you represent as a disjointed strategic mess are forming the context this is happening in. History will give credit where credit is due.

    October 24, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Of course, "when he wants to". Obama never said that he wanted to help with the Syrian quagmire. Why hold him to a standard he never agreed to to begin with?

    October 23, 2014