The Last Days of Kobani A Decisive Battle in the Fight against Islamic State
Turkey stands by doing nothing while US bombs have been unable to slow down Islamic State fighters: The battle for Kobani has revealed the West's helplessness in the face of radical jihad. Worries of a massacre are growing.
It's an eerie quiet that descends when the guns periodically go silent. Even the swallows can be heard.
Two dozen men in baggy trousers stand silently on the rooftop of the mosque in Yatiretepe, a Turkish farming village on the Syrian border. They peer through ancient binoculars in an effort to see what's happening just across the border in their hometown of Kobani, a city under siege. They carefully follow every exchange of fire and every street battle, full of concern for their relatives still in the city.
Every few minutes the Syrians look up to the sky but the approaching fighter jets remain invisible. Suddenly, the roar becomes deafening and the mosque's rooftop begins to shake for the ninth time on this Friday morning. A boom can be heard in the distance and then, very close by, a deafening explosion. The men cheer as a black column of smoke billows over Kobani.
Below, in the mosque's courtyard, women sit and clap approvingly between newly dug graves and slumbering children. They've turned the mosque into a soup kitchen and several hundred Syrians have taken refuge here. Nasar, 28, claps the loudest. The thin, anxious mother of four fled Kobani 24 days ago. She has almost given up hope of one day being able to return to her home. She wipes tears from her eyes and says she takes pleasure from every detonation, but admits that they also make her afraid. Nasar's husband and brother are still in Kobani and she hasn't heard anything from either in days. Less than a kilometer away, the men continue fighting to defend the city. It is the decisive battle.
It all began with the refugees, tens of thousands who fled across the border into Turkey within just a few days. Now Kobani is a full-fledged battlefield. A few thousand people are still there -- fighters and civilians -- surrounded by the Islamic State's (IS) terrorist army, a force which often beheads its prisoners. It's a war that can be watched from just a few kilometers away and is being broadcast live around the world. It is so close, yet so far away.
The Next Srebrenica?
The fate of the Kurds in Kobani is thus more than just a further chapter in an eternal Syrian civil war whose death toll will soon reach 200,000. The town is of crucial symbolic importance in the battle against the Islamic State and could become emblematic of its failure -- a new Srebrenica, a place where the world looks on as a massacre takes shape that is not only foreseeable, but also preventable. At stake is no less than the credibility of what has become an international battle against the Islamic State.
As Nasar's husband and brother continue to fight in Kobani, Turkish tanks stand in position on hills just across the border from the city, like oversized elephants perched on a ridge. They have been motionless for days now. The Turkish army has spent weeks watching as IS jihadists seize one neighborhood after the other in the besieged city just across the border.
"As horrific as it is to watch in real time what's happening in Kobani, it's also important to remember that you have to step back and understand the strategic objective," United States Secretary of State John Kerry said last Wednesday.
It seemed like an expression of helplessness in the face of the IS advance. But what else could he have said? Could he have said that Turkey, the decisive partner in the coalition against IS, doesn't want to actively participate? And that it instead wants to use the jihadists to keep the Kurds, potential allies in the US-led coalition, at bay? That, at least, would have been truthful.
The situation in Kobani reveals the fundamental problem in the battle against IS: Each participant seems intent on waging its own war. It is rarely the case that interests clash as clearly and openly as they have between the West, Turkey and the Arab allies in this conflict. The Turkish government wants, on the one hand, to topple Syrian leader Bashar Assad -- but on the other is at pains to prevent a Kurdish autonomous region from taking shape in Syria. The Turkish government's primary opponent remains the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), and it would prefer to allow IS to overrun Kobani than to provide aid to its nemesis.
Meanwhile, the sole aim of the US and its allies is to fight IS without being drawn into a ground war -- and are prepared to accept the possibility that Kobani might fall to the jihadists.
A Threat to Turkey's Stability
Victory in Kobani would be a triumph for the Islamic State because it would deliver proof that the terrorist militia can't even be stopped by an alliance led by a superpower like the United States. It's even possible that developments in Kobani will determine whether the US-led coalition remains intact and prevails in the battle against IS.
If the city falls into the hands of the jihadists, Kobani would also become a disaster for Turkey, for the peace process between Ankara and the PKK and for the entire country's stability.
"IS fighters are coming by the thousands, with tanks, but mainly on foot from the south, from the east, there are more and more," the man calling himself the "foreign minister" of Kobani shouts into the telephone. "It's like in the 'Lord of the Rings' and we can't stop them," he says. "They run, shoot, run, shoot -- they don't even care if they die." Just one day earlier, the foreign minister had been more optimistic, expressing his satisfaction over the air strikes. On Thursday alone, 14 had taken place, with fighter jets circling over the city, bombing vehicles, buildings and IS positions.
But last Friday, despair had gained the upper hand. IS has buttressed its campaign by dispatching troops to Kobani from every corner of its self-declared "caliphate" -- from Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, al-Bab and even from Iraq -- to capture the city and demonstrate that they are prevailing against the rest of the world. Around 9,000 jihadists, and possibly more, are matched up against an estimated 3,000 Kurdish fighters in the city. The IS forces are also better armed. Whereas the Kurds must get by with Kalashnikovs and a few vintage bazookas, IS is equipped with tanks, modern machine guns, mortars and what appear to be endless supplies of weapons and fanatic fighters.
A Trial Run of an Independent State?
As a former importer of canned tropical fruits from Indonesia, Ibrahim Kurdu, in his mid-50s, has a modicum of international experience -- enough to become foreign minister of the "Canton of Kobani". That's the name given to this virtually autonomous zone on the Turkish border. It has become a kind of trial run for statehood, with a police force and tax authority in addition to ministers for youth, sport, culture and tourism.
But IS appears to be dead set on doing everything in its power to destroy this dwarf-sized state in the middle of its "caliphate." At the same time, given that Kobani fuels Turkish fears of a trans-national Kurdistan, the government in Ankara would also like to see it founder.
Most residents have already left Kobani and the Islamic State has since surrounded the city, even threatening to attack the border crossing, closing the last remaining escape route for those trying to flee the city. By the end of last week, the eastern and southern parts of Kobani had already fallen into the hands of its IS attackers, who have also seized the police headquarters and city administration building. A black IS flag flies above the southern part of the city atop Mishtanur hill -- which also provides a perfect vantage point for snipers.
But foreign minister Kurdu is still holding out in Kobani. "I've lost my home three times during the past two years," he says. "First I fled from Assad's army in Aleppo. Then Daesh conquered my village outside Kobani. Now they have seized my apartment in the south part of the city." "Daesh" is the Arabic acronym for IS, but the word is also used disparagingly because of its similarity to the Arab word for "trampling on" or "crushing". Kurdu's rapid-fire speaking style is punctuated by the sound of gunfire in the background. He says he doesn't know how long Kurdish fighters can continue to hold out against IS forces.
'If Turkey Doesn't Do Anything, We Will Fall'
"We lack everything -- munitions, medicine, bandages, food and water," he says. "Soon we won't have anything left. Please tell the world that we don't have much time. They should be attacking -- precisely and, more importantly, more often!" Kurdu shouts. He says that, at most, 150 fighters with the brigade created when the Free Syrian Army and Kurds joined forces remain in the city. Many have fled because they have nothing left with which to defend themselves.
"So far the Turks have blocked any help," he says. "Yesterday they even left our wounded lying on the border for hours until four of them died. If Turkey doesn't do anything, we will fall."
Kurdu has no illusions about what happens if the jihadists overrun the entire city. "They've been laying siege against Kobani for 25 days and if they succeed, they will exact terrible revenge," he says. A few hundred civilians are still holding out in their homes -- some out of fear, others out of spite because they don't want to flee the jihadists without at least putting up a fight. "They will massacre all of us," Kurdu says.
A few hundred Syrians are standing on the road to Suruç, the Turkish border town, gesticulating wildly. Moustaches dyed red and scarves wrapped around their heads, they say they are a form of civil defense, looking after the families living in tents, taking care of the injured and burying the dead. For a month now, they've been coming here every day, squatting in the dust, munching on sunflower seeds and rubbing their prayer beads. A portable TV sits on the roof of a car. The men say they have two questions and a plea. First: "When will the European Union finally intervene?" Second: "Who do you Europeans want to deal with in the future -- the IS terrorist militia or us Kurds?" Finally, the appeal: "We Kurds are modern Muslims, not from the Middle Ages like the ones over there. We have built up an autonomous, self-administering government and, yes, we even hold elections."
- Part 1: A Decisive Battle in the Fight against Islamic State
- Part 2: What Turkey Wants