Kurdish Fighters Push Back Jihadists In Syria’s Stalingrad
Kobani could be Islamic State’s first great defeat
For weeks, it seemed that Kobani—a dense Syrian Kurdish enclave bordering Turkey—would fall to Islamic State. Well-armed, capable of fanatical violence and boasting heavy weapons, the terror group blasted its way into the city after a quick advance in early September.
During Islamic State’s surge, one Kurdish fighter—a young woman who went by the war name Arin Mirkan—lobbed grenades at the fighters, then blew herself up.
The battle has raged for weeks. The fighting grew so ferocious that Kurdish activists began calling Kobani “the Stalingrad of Syria,” a reference to the epic 1942 battle between the Germans and Soviets that arguably turned the tide of World War II.
It’s not over—far from it. But it appears the People’s Protection Units, or YPG—the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party—has held the line. The jihadists are still in control of small parts of the city, but have apparently abandoned their biggest gains.
To gain the advantage, the Kurds had to negate Islamic State’s strengths in maneuverability and firepower, which the terror group augmented with captured American weapons. This meant digging in for an extended urban battle of attrition. Hundreds of fighters have died on both sides.
The United States played an important role in Kobani’s defense—sending heavy bombers to destroy Islamic State’s long-range weapons and carrying out precision strikes just yards away from Kurdish troops.
Yet it’s a strange, out-of-the-way place for a decisive battle. A confluence of events resulted in Kobani becoming a survival struggle for Syria’s Kurds as well as a symbolic battle between the United States, Islamic State, Turkey and Kurdish communists inside Turkey who want to overthrow the Turkish government.
For Islamic State, the campaign along the Turkish border is an important test of the group’s ability to seize and hold territory. It’s also an existential battle for Syria’s northern Kurds. If they lose, they could have choice but to surrender their homeland—and Islamic State could massacre anyone left behind.
There are several reasons why the pivotal battle of this phase of the Syrian war is happening in Kobani, a poor border town of around 50,000 people. Kobani was remote enough to be poorly defended at first, but sufficiently visible to represent a possible propaganda victory.
The trick to making sense of Kobani is to grasp that Islamic State is not as powerful as it appears to be.
The group picks and chooses battles it believes it can win, in order to forestall the potentially catastrophic strategic consequences of a tactical defeat.
That’s why the militants have stayed out of Syria’s densest and deadliest urban areas in Damascus and Aleppo. Instead, the terror group is strongest in rural and underpopulated northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.
A lot’s been written about Islamic State’s origins. It formed from the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Wealthy backers from the Gulf states backed the prototype Islamic group as an alternative to more secular fighters in Syria. Islamic State gained prominence, and recruits, as it grew richer through black-market oil sales and the taxation of people under its rule.
But the group has never been huge, boasting perhaps 10,000 fighters at its autumn peak. Islamic State devised tactics to suit its relative fragility. It uses lightning speed and maneuverability to overwhelm its numerically larger enemies.
In Iraq, swift Islamic State squads shocked larger Iraqi army units already suffering from equipment, leadership and morale shortfalls. Frightened Iraqi officers changed into civilian clothes and fled. Their platoons, companies and battalions collapsed. The militants rounded up—and later executed—hundreds of fleeing soldiers.
But when Islamic State met stiff resistance, its fighters simply hopped into their trucks and drove around. This mobile fighting force captured Mosul—Iraq’s third biggest city—without much of a fight, and also scooped up loads of high-tech weaponry the Iraqis had abandoned.
For a group like Islamic State that depends heavily on ideologically-motivated wealthy donors, more victories mean more funding and more recruits eager to join the “winning” side.
But the war in Syria’s cities is a war of neighborhoods and militias. Organize an attack against an enemy and you might leave your own town or neighborhood undefended. Plus, you’re attacking unfamiliar territory—territory that is highly familiar to the defenders.
Cities are not ideal for Islamic State’s methods. Earlier this year, a coalition of Syrian rebel groups blocked the jihadists from expanding westward—uniting against the Islamists and throwing them out of Aleppo.
Now Islamic State is in a bind. Any kind of offensive push into well-defended territory could result in a defeat that sours the group’s donors and makes it less attractive to new recruits.
But not attacking is equally dangerous for Islamic State. It needs victories to maintain support. And after months of fighting, the militants are running out of obvious options for reasonably easy wins.
Sad, impoverished Kobani, within sight of southern Turkey, apparently seemed perfect.
House to house
Islamic State launched a three-prong attack on Kobani, following the common military procedure of first establishing a base of fire before physically assaulting the city.
There were at least two of these bases—one on Mistenur Hill to the south, and another on a stretch of elevated ground to the west marked by a radio tower. Islamic State propaganda videos showed fighters with tripod-mounted DShK machine guns firing into the city from the west. The jihadists also had tanks.
Worse, the Kurds didn’t have weapons to shoot back at these heavy, covering forces. They could only defend Kobani by fighting inside the city. The roughly 1,500 Kurdish fighters faced more than twice as many militants.
But the Kurds had some help. The Free Syrian Army’s Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigades deployed around 300 fighters inside Kobani. There were also a few Western foreign fighters on the Kurds’ side, including two former U.S. Marines.
Still, the militants had the advantage. “When Daesh [Islamic State] pushed against Kobani, the situation became even worse,” Abu Saif, the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigades commander, told Lebanese newspaper NOW. “We asked for assistance, but no one gave us anything. There were no anti-tank weapons.”
By Oct. 5, Islamic State had breached the Kurds’ defenses.
The battle of Kobani devolved into house-to-house fighting. The fighting was some of the heaviest of the Syrian war. The Kurds booby-trapped roads and houses before pulling back. Once Islamic State moved in, the Kurds detonated the explosives.
The Kurds also used misdirection. At one point, they occupied an abandoned hospital and pulled out, with the building rigged to explode. When the jihadists occupied the building, the Kurds destroyed it.
“Our fighters will defend Kobani to the last gasp, the last bullet and the last fighter,” Khaled Barkal, the deputy president of the Kobani government, told The Telegraph.
If it was the dense battlefield and the Kurds’ tenacity that slowed Islamic State’s advance, it was the American air strikes that helped halt it.
It didn’t start that way. U.S. air strikes began on Sept. 27, before the jihadists had entered the city proper. But the early strikes had mixed success, with some of the bombs striking empty positions, according to one wounded rebel fighter who spoke to War Is Boring.
This appears to have changed as U.S. and Kurdish forces began working closely together—something which the White House has been keen to downplay in order to not upset Turkey.
American and Kurdish forces coordinated the strikes from a command center in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. In an unprecedented move, the Syrian Kurds sent a general to transmit targeting requests from Kurdish fighters on the ground to U.S. commanders in Erbil, according to the Wall Street Journal.
That kind of direct collaboration between Kurdish factions is highly unusual—and speaks to Kobani’s desperate state.
As of Oct. 22, the U.S. had carried out 141 air strikes in Kobani, some involving B-1 heavy bombers lobbing laser-guided bombs. American warplanes struck targets within the city itself as well as Islamic State tanks and outposts in the surrounding area.
Kurdish fighters have a joking term for the American support—they describe it as a visit from “Sheikh Obama,” using the honorific for a powerful local leader.
Air drops of supplies also helped keep the Kurds in the fight. Flying at night for protection, U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo planes parachuted in no fewer than 28 bundles of weapons, ammo and medicine beginning on Oct. 19. “Air relief was determined to the best, most efficient way to deliver supplies in this case,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
To make sure the gear didn’t fall into Islamic State territory, the pallets came equipped with GPS guidance. But at least one air drop still missed its target and fell into the jihadists’ hands. The Air Force later bombed one errant drop, but it’s unclear if the one bombed was the same one the militants seized.
The firepower and supplies blunted Islamic State’s attack. At the height of the battle, the jihadists had captured one-third of Kobani, mostly in the south and east. Now they’re withdrawing—and burning the city as they retreat. But there’s still active fighting across the city.
Air strikes and urban warfare tactics aside, what the Kurdish troops really need is reinforcements. Turkish troops closed the border until Oct. 20, when Ankara announced it would allow Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga troops to cross Turkish territory into Kobani.
The Turkish government is extremely wary of aiding the YPG, an affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, also known as the PKK. The PKK espouses a Marxist-Leninist ideology and has waged a guerrilla war against the Turkish government since 1984, killing thousands. Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s leader, is in a Turkish prison.
The U.S. also considers the PKK to be a terrorist group. But the Iraqi Kurds have good relations with both America and Turkey. The Kurdistan Democratic Party—which governs Iraqi Kurdistan—has different politics and a different history than the PKK, and the two parties don’t always get along.
This is a problem. While Turkey has moved beyond the worst years of its war with the PKK, there are worrying signs the situation could explode again.
At least 25 people have died in Turkey during protests in October. The protesters are angry at the Turkish government for refusing—until this week—to allow Kurdish reinforcements to enter Kobani.
But the protests also have a lot to do with the PKK’s socialist ideology, which casts the U.S. and Turkey as enemies of the Kurds.
“It’s a struggle against the system and its supporters,” one demonstrator told the Globe and Mail’s Adnan Khan. “Including the Turkish state as well as a mix of others—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, England, France, the USA.”
Turkey really doesn’t want these activists—and the PKK—to become even more radical. To relieve some of the tension, Turkey is allowing wounded Kurdish fighters to seek treatment in Turkish hospitals.
But if Turkey were to join the war against Islamic State, it could risk activating Islamist sleeper cells within the country. At least one is already active. Gangsters hired by Islamic State tried to kidnap a rebel fighter in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa on Oct. 17.
But the Kurds of Kobani have even graver problems. Like saving themselves by defeating a desperate Islamic State in their version of Stalingrad.