The Kurdish-held, Syrian border town of Kobani has emerged as a new front in the regional struggle against IS. It has been under siege by the group calling itself the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) since mid-September. Thus far, IS’ gains in Iraq have been the focus of U.S. and international attention. IS’s rampage in Iraq this summer and capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul made clear that IS posed a threat to regional stability and international security. And the battle in Iraq continues, with IS moving closer to Baghdad.
IS has shifted significant military resources and devoted nearly a month to trying to capture Kobani. The Syrian Kurds, with assistance from their Turkish counterparts, have valiantly held off IS advances, while the United States has launched air strikes in Syria in support of Kobani’s defenders. Turkey has tried hard to remain disengaged. What, then, is the importance that each of these actors attach to Kobani? And what would be the impact of Kobani’s fall or its successful defense?
For IS, Kobani would be a huge gain, allowing the group to control an uninterrupted swath of land from its self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria to the Turkish border – a distance of more than 62 miles. For the Kurds, it is both a strategically and symbolically important city in the greater narrative of their struggle for autonomy. However, despite fervent calls from Kurdish leaders to protect Kobani, nearby Turkey has stood on the sidelines until recently. Meanwhile Secretary Kerry suggested that preventing the fall of Kobani was not America’s “strategic objective.”
“The U.S. needs to act quickly to stop the Islamic State from overrunning the Kurds in the Syrian border town of Kobani. The fall of Kobani would have a devastating impact not just on the Kurds in the region, but on the credibility of America’s anti-ISIS strategy as well,” wrote BPC Turkey Task Force members Henri Barkey and Eric Edelman, former Ambassador to Turkey. Barkey and Edelman continued their discussion of the importance of the embattled Syrian border town at a recent BPC event: ISIS, the Kurds, and Turkey: A Messy Triangle.
Consolidating the Caliphate
IS desire for Kobani is essential to the group’s strategic and spiritual vision as the leaders of a new Islamic Caliphate, uniting the Muslim world. On June 28, IS (then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) changed its name to simply the Islamic State, declaring its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph. “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” said the group’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. “Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.”
If IS were able to take Kobani, it would control three official border crossings between Turkey and Syria, and 60 miles of the Turkish border. If successful in both its front in Iraq’s Anbar province (where it now controls 80 percent of its territory) and the battle for Kobani, IS would expand its control both eastward and westward, creating a swath of territory more than 350 miles long from the perimeter of Baghdad to its Syrian capital of Raqqa to Kobani and the Turkish border.
A battle raged on film, with cameras on the Turkish side of the border capturing the daily fighting. A loss in Kobani – which IS has preemptively renamed Ayn al-Islam (meaning “Spring of Islam”) – to the outgunned and outmanned Kurdish fighters would be a massive defeat for the propaganda machine of IS and its religious mandate.
As Henri Barkey explained, “what makes Kobani interesting is one day we will look back and say that for Syrian and Turkish Kurds, Kobani is what Halabja is for Iraqi Kurds.” Halabja is a town in Iraqi Kurdistan where 5,000 people were killed by Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapon attack in 1988. Following that atrocity, Halabja became a symbol of the Kurdish struggle for rights in the Middle East.
The significance of Halabja, and other massacres of Kurds in Iraq, is also drawn from the passivity of the international community. Now, in Kobani, Kurds are warning the world that a “massacre” will take place if Kobani is allowed to fall.
While the fall of Kobani would give IS a town on the Turkish border, Turkey is not making any moves to help Kurdish fighters defend the town. Instead, Turkey has actively prevented Turkish Kurds from crossing the border into Syria to join the fighting.
Steffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ envoy to Syria, called on Turkey to allow “volunteers” to cross the border to defend Kobani, invoking memories of the Balkan War. “Do you remember Srebrenica? We do,” he said, drawing a grim parallel between the potential outcome of the Kobani conflict and the 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men and boys in a town supposed to be under UN protection.
Turkey, the United States and Kobani
Turkey’s inaction became a flashpoint for its domestic Kurdish population, sparking violent protests across the country that have resulted in over 30 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Outraged Kurdish leaders have threatened to end the settlement process with the Turkish government if Kobani falls.
Despite domestic unrest, Turkey may be happier to see Kobani fall. Turkish President Erdoğan declared, “for us, the the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] is the same as ISIL. It is wrong to consider them as different from each other.” Turkey, who has recently conducted airstrikes against PKK targets within its own territory, is wary of allowing PKK fighters a victory in Syria. Kobani is also strategically located for Syria Kurds in between uninterrupted Kurdish-controlled territories to the east and the southwest. The Kurds hope to push IS and other rebels out from between the three areas, creating a vast stretch of Kurdish-controlled territory right on Turkey’s border – a prospect the Turkish government would like to avoid.
However, Turkey’s calculation may have opposite effects than intended: strengthening Kobani’s symbolic message and Kurdish solidarity. “The paradox is,” Barkey said, “the longer the siege lasts, the more important Kobani becomes,” no matter what the eventual outcome of the conflict. “Every day that goes by, the resistance in Kobani actually strengthens the Syrian Kurds. In the end, Turkey faces a more powerful Syrian Kurdish movement. … That’s a very important strategic problem for Turkey.”
The United States has stepped up its airstrikes against IS targets, in an operation now known as “Inherent Resolve.” However, U.S. Central Command warns that “the security situation on the ground there remains fluid,” with reports stating that IS still controls approximately one-third of the town.
To bolster the capability of Kurds fighting IS, the United States air-dropped arms and medical supplies to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) on October 19. Informed of the United States’ plans, Turkey opposed the airdrop, with Erdoğan stating “the PYD, for us, is equal to the PKK; it is a terrorist organization. … [I]t would be wrong for the U.S., a NATO ally, to open talk of such support and expect us to agree.” The United States, however, went ahead with the planned airdrops, basing the operation out of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory.
“Let me say very respectfully to our allies the Turks that we understand fully the fundamentals of their opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group, and particularly, obviously, the challenges they face with respect to the PKK,” said Secretary Kerry. “We have undertaken a coalition effort to degrade and destroy ISIL, and ISIL is presenting itself in major numbers in this place called Kobani,” he said, adding that while the PYD is “an offshoot group of the folks that our friends the Turks oppose — they are valiantly fighting ISIL and we cannot take our eye off the prize here.”
While both the United States and Turkey list the PKK as a terrorist organization, they diverge on the PYD. “The Democratic Union Party is a different group than the Kurdistan Workers’ Party legally, under United States law,” said State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf. Airstrikes and airdrops of supplies mean continued coordination between the United States and the PYD, which could have larger consequences for the regional political landscape after the conflict ends: strengthening U.S.-Kurdish relations and bolstering the international reputation of Kurdish groups.
Though Turkey is reluctant to aid the PKK or the PYD, which is considered a Syrian Kurdish offshoot of the PKK, Turkey has found an alternative Kurdish ally in the fight against IS: the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga. “We never wanted Kobani to fall,” said Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on October 20, announcing that Turkey would help peshmerga fighters to cross into Kobani to fight IS. Çavuşoğlu went on to add that Washington convinced Ankara that the aid provided to the PYD was limited “until peshmerga arrives.”
While Edelman noted that, for the United States “there is nothing particular about Kobani in this larger fight,” he added that “things can take on a symbolic importance beyond the intrinsic military significance of a particular place and in this case, I think it is significant … having elevated ISIS to the level we have by presidential decision, to allow them to succeed here would be a very, very big setback, I think, in Syria and in Iraq.”
For the United States, having increased its investment in the fight in Kobani, a defeat would be a blow to the Obama administration’s wider anti-IS strategy. While for IS, a forced retreat would be its first major defeat.