The second battle for Kobane
The epic battle for Kobane (Ain al-Arab) left over 80% of the town in ruins. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has now launched an international campaign calling support to reconstruct the town, and its leaders are touring European cities, and the Middle East, to mobilise support.
“The resistance in Kobane was to defend our existence,” Saleh Muslim, the PYD co-chairman, himself a native of Kobane, told me; “but it was also in defence of all human values. The forces we are confronting are a threat to humanity, and if they had succeeded in their attack on Kobane, they would have gone further.” He was, of course, referring to IS (Islamic State).
IS launched its major offensive on Kobane in mid-September 2014 following its successes that June, when it overran Iraqi governmental positions and took over Mosul and Tikrit, then attacked Sinjar and massacred its majority Yazidi population. Kobane was considered the Kurdish forces in northern Syria’s weakest point, as the smallest of the three Kurdish-inhabited regions, situated in flat land and squeezed between IS positions in Syria from the east, south and west, and by Turkey to the north. By overrunning Kobane, IS could have isolated the mainly Kurdish regions (around Qamishli in the east, and the Afrin region in the west). That would have given IS territorial continuity between its strongholds in Raqqa and the regions it controls to the east of Aleppo.
Asya Abdullah — the PYD’s other co-chairman — told me she had reached Kobane a week before the IS assault for political meetings, and was forced to stay there throughout the fighting. When I asked her details of military developments, she didn’t answer directly. But people around her told me in whispers that she had stayed in Kobane for six months, Kalashnikov in hand, fighting on the front lines and commanding the defence. Her actions reflect the PYD’s guerrilla traditions: they also contrast with the Syrian opposition, whose political leadership left for foreign countries from the early days of the conflict, leaving it without any interaction with their own fighting forces.
The initial IS attack came from the east (from Raqqa and Tal Abyad). The dispersed Syrian villages could not resist this overwhelming attack, lacking both forces and heavy weapons. However, the YPG (People’s Protection Units, the fighting force of PYD) resisted the onslaught for ten days, allowing the local population to escape without being captured by IS fighters. As a result, the wave of civilian refugees to neighbouring Turkey increased to between 300,000 and 400,000 civilians. “There were few civilian casualties thanks to the organized manner of their evacuation,” said Saleh Muslim.
Abdullah added that for one month Kurdish forces fought with all available means — mainly light arms — against IS’s heavy weapons. “It was a resistance of the will,” she said. It took a month of fierce resistance before “the view of international actors changed; they understood that the city would resist” and not surrender to the jihadists. US airstrikes on IS positions in and around Kobane started on 27 September, two weeks after the start of the IS offensive.
So was it a conflict between Kurds and Arabs, between neighbours? Abdullah refutes that. She said that when they followed the conversation of IS fighters on walkie-talkies, they heard foreign languages — English, French, Chechen — and various different Arab dialects; and there were various groups of Chechens with distinct command structures. According to Abdullah, IS encouraged the inhabitants of areas under its control (such as Tal Abyad, Manbij, Jarablus, Raqqa) to come and pillage the houses of Kurdish families; “In this way they tried to get these populations to side with them in the war.”
She explained that even before the IS attack there was joint operations room with Free Syrian Army (FSA) units. “The FSA were present in Kobane even before the attack;” there were “several hundred FSA fighters from Burkan al-Furat and Shams al-Shamal, and the Raqqa rebels fought on the side of Kurdish defenders.” During the fighting, Abdul Jabbar Okaidi, former FSA military commander of Aleppo province, came to Kobane with several dozen fighters to support the defence of the town, she added.
Abdullah confirmed that IS carried out 38 suicide car bombings during the offensive. The war caused many deaths, mainly among the fighters — Kurdish deaths were over 500, IS as high as 2,600. She recalled that “after the liberation of Kobane, the municipal workers collected 600 IS corpses.”
“When the Syrian conflict started, we analysed the situation on the ground and, based on our knowledge of past history, we concluded the conflict would last for several years, so we prepared ourselves. Other groups were at that time expecting the fall of Bashar al-Assad in two or three months, and postponed self-organization,” continued Abdullah. She refutes accusations that the PYD wants to create a separate Kurdish entity on Syrian territory: “We are part of Syria, part of the democratic opposition. We are for an agreement by all sides that ends the conflict. But the Syrian conflict has now become internationalized, and there is no common view on Syria’s future.” The Kurdish political parties understand that any declaration of outright separation would cause international condemnation, and antagonism from not only Syria and Iraq, but Turkey and Iran too. So they insist on autonomy and self-rule, as in the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
Abdullah sees the IS attack on Kobane as a clash of values. “There is a revolution taking place, with the participation of women in social and political life,” she said. She sees in the resistance of Kobane the will of the entire population to “fight fascism”. But beyond the PYD’s ideological terminology, there is a clear difference of political culture between the PYD and IS, and all the other political forces in the Middle East. Unlike the various Syrian and Iraqi forces, where Arab nationalism has collapsed, replaced by a struggle between different Islamic fundamentalist ideologies (Shia or Sunni), the Kurdish PYD is now the only force in the region that has references to socialist ideology and a clearly delineated identity — Kurdish nationalism. That makes it the most progressive force in the Middle East. While IS and similar groups have enslaved women in their thousands, massacred those of different religions, like the Yazidis in Sinjar, and destroyed cultural heritage (whether of Assyro-Chaldean civilization or Christian churches), PYD has women in leading political positions, a female fighting force, and a multicultural discourse.
How does PYD qualify the Turkish role during and after the fighting? According to Saleh Muslim, Turkey took an ambiguous position during the war, though there are now promises to facilitate the reconstruction effort. He said it is now time for concrete steps from Turkey; the PYD is calling on the international community to open a “humanitarian corridor” for the task of reconstruction.
But the fight with IS is not over. The war fronts are 25-30km away from Kobane, and sporadic clashes continue. From its original 80,000 inhabitants, the town now has only 1,200 families: Empty houses were destroyed during the six months of fighting. Out of an estimated 300,000 refugees, only 70,000 have returned, according to media reports. Even peasants who return to the surrounding villages cannot stay, as all their belongings have been stolen; the water system has been damaged and there is no electricity. Many who came to check out their houses and fields have had to return to the refugee camps inside Turkey.
After Kobane’s resistance, it is now time for reconstruction.
Vicken Cheterian is a journalist based in Geneva.
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