The near-complete liberation of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani this week from the forces of the Islamic State is a remarkable testimony to the tenacity and courage of the Kurdish resistance on the ground. It also showcases the awesome efficacy of U.S. air power, when given a clear mission and properly directed.
It is nevertheless necessary to qualify some of the more hyperbolic reactions to the announcement of the IS retreat. The relief of Kobani in no way constitutes a general rout for the forces of the Islamic State. Neither does it signal a ‘beginning of the end’ for the movement and its quasi-sovereign entity.
Indeed, the expulsion of the jihadis from the town does not even conclude the task facing the Kurdish fighters in the immediate vicinity of Kobani.
Nor does it offer any general lessons regarding the possible efficacy of Western support for armed groups in Syria or Iraq.
The defeat does constitute one of a series of significant setbacks that IS has suffered in recent days. All of these were at the outer reaches of its advance. Iraqi government forces and Shia militias, for example, took Diyala province. The Kurdish Peshmerga are conquering ground outside Mosul.
Still, the ‘heartland’ of the jihadi entity, in Raqqa province in Syria and the greater part of its conquests in Iraq of last June are not yet under threat.
Regarding the specific issue of Kobani, the town came close to falling in early October of last year. Indeed, the fighters of the YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) appeared to be preparing for a last stand.
Civilians were long gone from Kobani. But the YPG also sent out all personnel not essential for the fighting, and all journalists. The assumption was that IS would surround the town from the north, and the Kurds would then fight to the death, street by street, until the inevitable conclusion.
That this did not happen is attributable, in the first instance, to the commencement of U.S. and allied air attacks on the Islamic State forces massing around Kobani. These began in mid-October and have formed by far the most intense aspect of the Western air campaign against IS to date.
General John Allen, the retired U.S. officer responsible for coordinating the campaign was initially circumspect about the goal of the air strikes. Allen describe them as a ‘humanitarian’ effort intended to buy time for the defenders to reorganize on the ground.
As the weeks passed, however, it became clear that a strategic decision that Kobani should not fall had been taken. Evidently the intention was to crush the fighters of IS between the hammer of U.S. air power and the anvil of ongoing, stubborn Kurdish resistance. In so doing, a symbol of resistance would be created.
This appears to have paid off. The reinforcement of the very determined but lightly armed YPG fighters with the artillery and mortar capability of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who entered Kobane in late October certainly played a role in stiffening the resistance on the ground. But the raw courage of the YPG deserves top billing in this regard.
As a result of the Kurdish stand on the ground, the U.S. was able to take a great cull of IS fighters. The jihadis’ tactics in assault are simple (though often effective.) They involve human wave attacks. The U.S. were able to observe the jihadis massing for such attacks on Kobane, and to target them from the air. IS found no effective response to this. With regard to the IS armored capacity, the situation was the same. The tanks were visible from the air and IS has and had no effective defense for them. Hence the very heavy losses suffered by the jihadis in trying to take Kobani.
The victory, however, is only partial. It is important to remember that Kurdish controlled Kobani prior to the IS assault in September did not consist of Kobani city alone. Rather, ‘Kobani’ constituted an area stretching from Kobani city to Tel Abyad in the east, and to Jarabulus in the west, plus several tens of kilometers in a southern direction toward the Euphrates. It was this enclave which IS sought to destroy last autumn. It wished to do this because the enclave jutted into northern Syria, preventing the Islamists from rapidly moving forces from east to west. This stood in the way of any future ambition to expand the territory of the Islamic State westwards into Aleppo and Idleb Provinces. So Kobani had to be destroyed.
As of now, the Kurds and their allies have succeeded in saving the city of Kobani, very close to the border with Turkey. This area became a symbol and IS wasted over 1000 of its fighters trying unsuccessfully to capture it. But the larger task of re-conquering the 300 villages and the ground that once constituted the Kobani enclave remains before the Kurds. One may assume that this effort will be under way in the weeks ahead.
Regarding the larger ‘lessons’ of the Kobani victory, it would be mistaken to jump to the conclusion that it shows that Western support to anti-IS forces on the ground has discovered a winning formula which can now be replicated elsewhere. This would be a rash deduction because of the specific nature of the Kurdish fighting organizations – YPG and Pesh Merga.
In Syria, as in Iraq, the Kurds have developed organizations which are pro-Western in orientation, committed to the mission, and effective.
The problem with the Syrian rebels, as with the Iraqi militias and forces, is that they cannot manage all three of these. If they are committed and effective fighters (like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, or the Shia militias in Iraq) they will be anti-Western. If they are pro-Western, at least nominally, like the Iraqi armed forces or the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in northern Syria, they will tend to be corrupt or ineffective.
The reasons for this are manifold and open to debate. But it is a clearly observable empirical reality. This means that while the West should double down on its support for the reliable, secular and anti-Islamist Kurdish forces, now controlling a long belt of territory stretching from the Iraq-Iran border to deep into Syria, Western policymakers should be wary indeed of applying any general conclusions from the achievement in Kobani to forces other than the Kurds themselves.
Jerusalem Post, Jan. 30, 2015