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Photo Gallery: The Fate of Kobani

Foto: Lefteris Pitarakis/ AP/dpa

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.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

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."

What Turkey Wants

The United States has been waging an air war against the Islamic State militants for more than two months now, deploying cruise missiles, fighter jets and drones. So far, though, the campaign has done little to weaken IS.

"People need to understand we need a little strategic patience here," a Pentagon spokesman said last week. "This group is not going to go away tomorrow, and Kobani may fall. We can't predict whether it will or it won't. There will be other towns that they will threaten, and there will be other towns that they will take. It is going to take a little bit of time." The State Department's spokeswoman even found herself on the defensive recently when she was asked whether the air strikes had actually led to any ground gains. "Sorry … umm … well, I'll find these," she said as she unsuccessfully leafed through a stack of papers looking for examples.

The reality, though, is that sustained victories like the retaking of the Mosul dam succeeded only because they involved air strikes in coordination with troops on the ground. The Iraqi government in Baghdad flew an elite military unit to Mosul and it reportedly played a major role in the operation. But there has been little movement in other regions.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq seem more interested in digging defensive positions than in retaking lost terrain. And while PKK fighters have now established a base in the Sinjar Mountains -- into which the Yazidis fled over the summer -- Islamic State is now threatening to block their supply lines.

Indeed, the jihadists don't appear to be paying much mind to an American plan which calls first for stabilizing the situation in Iraq by attacking IS leadership, headquarters, oil refineries, training camps and arms depots. While IS freedom of movement has been reduced, they haven't been significantly hampered.

IS Had Prepared for Air Strikes

Islamic State leaders followed the extended debate over whether the US would engage in air strikes very closely. They appear to have prepared for them, too. The terrorist army, already highly flexible when it comes to shifting units and setting up temporary bases, was careful to move its leaders out of their headquarters in places like the Governor's Palace in Raqqa in northern Syria this summer. Later it did the same in the cities of Al-Bab and Manbej.

Informants in Raqqa reported at the time that IS had cleared out its headquarters and removed its heavy military equipment from the city the night before the first massive attacks by the Syrian air force in July. In the end, the bombs struck only empty buildings or civilians like the visitors at a cattle market in al-Bab in September.

IS has also taken steps to protect itself against air strikes from the US-led coalition. Refugees from Jarabulus report that IS has "purchased homes from civilians at a good price so that no one will betray their whereabouts. They then take their things to those homes, right in the middle of residential areas. If a house full of munitions is hit, the neighbors will also get blown up, so everyone is afraid." In Mosul, by contrast, the jihadists are said to have planted their black flags on homes where residents have refused to pledge allegiance to Islamic State.

Lacking coordination with allies on the ground, air strikes are only moderately helpful. Which is why calls are growing in the United States for the deployment of ground troops. That, though, is the last thing President Barack Obama wants.

Still, when it comes to the fate of Kobani, the most important decisions are being made in Ankara.

Erdogan's Double Strategy

During a visit to Gaziantep last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "For us, PKK is the same as ISIS. It is wrong to consider them as different from each other." Such a statement reveals a lot about Erdogan's worldview. In the eyes of the Turkish government and army, the Kurdish PKK guerilla group remains enemy No. 1. The sides had actually made some process toward reconciliation in recent years, a process that can be credited to a large degree to Erdogan, who pushed it forward during his many years as prime minister against resistance from the military.

But then Syrian Kurds took advantage of the civil war to build the quasi-state Rojava, comprised of three zones along the Turkish border including the "Canton of Kobani". Their aim is to establish a cohesive autonomous area, precisely the scenario the Turks would like to avoid.

In response, both government authorities and the Turkish military have spent the last three years providing support to all rebel groups in Syria. By doing so, Ankara hopes to both topple Assad on the one hand and keep the Kurds in check on the other.

Many observers have suggested that Erdogan could now curry favor with the Kurds were he to provide help for Kobani. There would appear to be at least two reasons for such an approach: He needs Kurdish votes in next summer's parliamentary elections; and it would allow him to maintain a peace process that is economically and socially important for Turkey. But Erdogan is doing exactly the opposite. He's using the situation in Kobani to blackmail the Kurds and the rest of the world.

Erdogan has stipulated that help for Kobani would only come were the Syrian Kurds to join forces with the anti-Assad opposition, dissolve their local administrations and agree to allow the Turkish army to march into the border areas to create a security zone. The Kurds, though, find such conditions onerous and view an advance into northern Syria by the Turkish military being akin to an invasion.

'If the City Falls, a Massacre Will Take Place'

Salih Muslim, the head of PYD, the Syrian Kurdish party, has spent weeks negotiating with Turkish government representatives. But he held his last meeting with them on Oct. 4. "They promised help -- at the very least a corridor our fighters could use to reach Kobani, but nothing happened. And I haven't heard anything from them since," he says, sounding weary. "We don't know how long Kobani can continue to defend itself. If the city falls, a massacre will take place that will be witnessed by the whole world." Muslim's wife too fought there until the end of last week.

"If the international coalition is unable to stop IS, then who will still be capable of defending themselves against the jihadists?" Muslim continues. "Will they attack Erbil in Iraq next or Kurdish cities in Turkey? The Islamic State is the enemy of all of humanity, but the Turkish government doesn't seem to grasp that."

Ankara's Dangerous Game

Erdogan is demanding that the West, especially the Americans, support his calls for a buffer zone. It's a proposal that US Secretary of State Kerry said his country would look at "very, very closely." But it sounded more like a polite brush off given that the buffer zone would have to be defended with troops on the ground fighting against IS and would also require the destruction of Assad's air defenses in order for it to function. Many view the buffer zone as a tactic used by Erdogan in an attempt to drag the Americans into a real war -- one whose scope would swiftly shift from fighting focused on IS to a battle against the regime in Damascus.

To achieve that goal, Erdogan seems even prepared to accept a massacre in Kobani. One senior Turkish official told the BBC: "There is no tragedy in Kobani as cried out by the terrorist PKK. There is a war between two terrorist groups." It appears that Ankara is betting that the fight for Kobani will weaken the Kurds to such a degree that, in the end, they will be left with no option but to keep quiet. It's a cynical position and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to see it as nothing less than that. On Wednesday, she remarked critically that one should be able to expect a NATO member to set the right priorities.

More importantly, though, it's a dangerous game, as evidenced by the violent protests last week in Turkey that resulted in the deaths of 30 people and the injury of another 360. A massacre in Kobani could bring an end to the peace process and drive the PKK back into guerilla warfare.

At the same time, Halil Karaveli of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute warns of the "Pakistanization" of Turkey. He notes that a number of Islamic State fighters are of Turkish origin and will turn against their home country at some point or other. "These groups will unleash a disaster that the government will be unable to control," he warns.

But Ankara isn't acting as if it views IS as a true threat. Of course the opposite could also be true. The government's own security agencies have been warning about the possibility of IS attacks in Turkey for months now, and some fear that providing aid to defend Kobani might actually provoke IS to take retaliatory measures.

'We Were Ready to Go, But the Turks Refused'

Indeed, it is likely this cocktail mixing fear with pride, stubbornness with ignorance, that is driving Turkey to block any assistance for Kobani. Kurds from all over Turkey who have tried to travel to Kobani to support the fighters are being beaten back at the border. So too are hundreds of fighters with the very Syrian rebel coalitions that both Turkey and the United States have backed in the past. Their plan had been to march into Kobani directly across the border, with the backing of the Turkish army. "We were ready to go, but then the Turks refused," reports one Syrian commander.

It has also been reported that Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, offered to send in his Peshmerga forces. But they would also require a green light from Turkey that Ankara has thus far refused to give. In addition, the Turkish secret service has detained around 200 of more than 1,000 civilians who left Kobani a week ago. They're being held in a gymnasium in the village of Aligör. Among them is Perwer Ali, one of the two spokesmen for the local government of Kobani.

"They told us we would be tried before a military court because, they claimed, we were PKK terrorists," Ali explains on a mobile phone that was smuggled in to him. "It is grotesque -- the people who were sent out (of Kobani) are those who can't even fight." By the end of last week, 158 refugees were still being detained in the gymnasium, including nine children and 33 women.

Meanwhile, IS continues to have a surprising degree of freedom of movement on Turkish soil. On Oct. 4, a plane operated by Turkish discount airline Pegasus landed at Hatay airport in the southern Turkish province of the same name. Among the passengers on board Flight PC 4180 were nine men, likely Uzbeks and a Saudi, all wearing the dark-green outdoor jackets, sandals and ankle-length pants favored by the radicals. No one stopped the group and not a single official at airport security asked any questions. They were able to leave the airport unchecked before climbing into a minibus and disappearing.

In the area near Kobani as well as other sections of the Turkish-Syrian border, there are currently several posts where Kurds are on the lookout for IS fighters. At the end of September, they picked up two Belgians and one Frenchman of Arab origin near Kobani who wanted to enter Syria to join forces with the jihadists there. After their arrest, the three explained how they had traveled by plane via Istanbul without having been asked why they wanted to fly to Sanliurfa, a city located near Kobani.

Is Turkey Aiding Radical Islamists?

As early as the beginning of September, a discovery in Iraq triggered tensions between Ankara and Washington. IS munitions found there were manufactured by MKE, a Turkish state-owned defense company. The revelation fueled suspicions that Turkish authorities may be providing direct support to IS -- with or without the government's approval.

Other incidents also suggest a close relationship between Turkish government authorities and radical Islamists. For example, an official with the Turkish relief organization IHH, considered to be close to the government, died on Sept. 22 during the first US air strikes in Syria, targeting accommodations belonging to the Nusra Front. The same organization had repeatedly helped jihadists make their way to Syria via "humanitarian border crossings."

With its silent aid for the radicals, the Turkish government has damaged its own Kurdish policies given that Erdogan did more for the Kurds in Turkey during his time in office as prime minister than any other leader of Turkey. He was the first leading Turkish politician to seek a solution to the conflict, and his government has been conducting peace talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan for the past two years. Now the drama surrounding Kobani poses a threat to those negotiations. If a massacre occurs, Öcalan has signalized, it will mean the end of the process.

Last week, thousands of Kurds in Turkey took to the streets to demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Kobani and to register their protest against the government in Ankara. For the first time in many years, six Turkish provinces issued curfew orders and soldiers patrolled the streets. The scenes evoked the period during the early 1990s when the conflict between the military and the PKK devastated the entire region.

At the same time, PKK has also made little effort to deescalate the situation. Radical Kurds view the current developments as an opportunity to stray from the moderate course of recent years and to instead push forward the idea of establishing their own Kurdish state. "The AKP (Erdogan's Justice and Development Party) is now at a crossroads," warns Mustafa Karasu, a high-ranking PKK member. He says the party will have to enter into an alliance with the Kurds or else the war with the Kurds will become worse than it has ever been. The tenor of the PKK-aligned media is already growing shriller. "The Jews may have had to experience Hitler's genocide," wrote the daily Yeni Özgür Politika, but in the end their own state arose out of the ashes.

Nazmi Gür, a member of the Turkish national parliament and foreign policy spokesman for the Kurdish HDP party, says: "An end to the negotiations would be a catastrophe, a nightmare that could threaten to become a regional conflagration."

"Fear? What Do We Have to Fear?"

Back on the pistachio farm-lined road to Suruç, with the Syrian civil defense force. A man who calls himself Mehmet jumps into his dented Fiat and speeds over the fields straight towards Syria. "Fear?" he asks, "What do we have to fear? We're as good as dead anyway." And those who are as good as dead, can challenge death. Young men on Honda motorcycles with torn jeans and pleather jackets drive next to Mehmet. They say they had to flee to Turkey to take care of their families but that their brothers and sisters are fighting in Kobani. They come to a stop less than 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the border. They want to see what's happening.

Mehmet's friend Kerim, 25, pulls a mobile phone out of his jacket and dials his brother's number in Kobani. His brother answers and Kerim begins shouting impatiently into the phone, wanting to know what his brother is seeing. "Tell me, now!" Kerim orders in Kurdish. The young men listen and then begin to hoot and holler and pat each other's shoulders. Kerim's brother told him about the drama that unfolded a few minutes earlier near a market square in Kobani. It's a story that can't be confirmed. He claims a young female Kurdish fighter cut the head off a captured IS fighter with a knife.

Years ago, many women joined up with Syrian Kurdish militias fighting in Kobani. They received military training and provide the ultimate culture shock for the jihadists. At least one of the women has been decapitated by IS. Another, the mother of two small children, blew herself up in the middle of a crowd of IS attackers last week. Well prior to the attack, one of her female comrades had announced, "We will defend our city, even if we have to die."

By Fiona Ehlers, Katrin Elger, Juliane von Mittelstaedt, Maximillian Popp and Christoph Reuter