October 19, 2014

Kobani struggling to survive as ISIS attacks another Syrian Kurdish border town

ISIS controlled areas in gray - advances into Kurdish-controlled areas in red

Kobani, also known as 'Ayn al-'Arab in Arabic, is a Kurdish city in northern Syria on the border with Turkey. It has been the focus of media coverage over the last few weeks as the fighters of the Islamic State (also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) have besieged the town and moved to take it and make it part of their territory.

The ISIS assault on the city has followed the same pattern the group has used elsewhere in both Syria and Iraq - they encircle and lay siege to the city, use artillery to weaken the defenses and demoralize the inhabitants, send in a series of suicide car-bombers or simple vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and finally attack the city with mobile and foot assaults.

This time has been a bit different, however. The media has made an issue of the town, calling it at times either a "key" or "strategic" city in northern Syria. That media attention, coming soon after the beginning of U.S. and coalition airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria, called into question the coalition's commitment to the people in the towns of northern Syria, particularly the Kurds of northern Syria, as well the efficacy of the airstrikes themselves.

Although the city of Kobani is on the border with Turkey and its fall would represent another victory for the seemingly unstoppable ISIS militants, it is not exactly "key" nor "strategic." Unfortunately, what makes it most important (read: key and strategic) in the eyes of the media is the fact that the battle can be captured on camera from the Turkish side of the border and broadcast live to the world.

As you can see from the photo above, and by way of disclosure, I am part of that media, although I have made known my assessment of the city as less than critical.

Kobani is a border crossing, but not a major border crossing. ISIS already controls major border crossings on the Turkish border to both the east and west of Kobani. The crossing at Tal Abyad (Kurdish: Girê Sipî) to the east is on the main route from the self-proclaimed ISIS capital in al-Raqqah and the Turkish city of Urfa; that route follows the al-Balikh river.

To the west of Kobani is the border crossing at Kilis, on the route from Aleppo to the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Both crossings are under ISIS control. Kobani is merely a remaining pocket of resistance on the border, but not a strategic venue.

There were relentless claims by the media, echoing complaints from the Kurds from Turkey and Syria, that the airstrikes were ineffective in stopping ISIS, that there was no effort to save Kobani from falling to ISIS. I believe in reaction to those complaints, we have seen an obvious effort to use airpower to support the Kurdish People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, or YPG) in their defense of Kobani.

The coalition airstrikes have halted the ISIS advance and pushed the lead elements back. The accuracy of the recent strikes and proximity of the weapons placements to YPG forces indicate to me that there is someone on the ground either spotting targets for coalition aircraft or coordinating the air operations. While not American "boots on the ground," it does provide that ground component critical for effective close air support.

Kobani was on the verge of falling to ISIS - it may still, but at least the coalition will have made them pay a price for it, and it will have demonstrated coalition resolve to defend the population of Syria. That said, ISIS continues to press the attack on Kobani. In addition, they are expanding their attacks to the east, pushing out their area of control to the next border city, this one called R'as al-'Ayn (Kurdish: Serêkanîye).

This move to the east is consistent with what we have seen in other ISIS operations. They have used the areas they control along the border to mount attacks on other border cities - their goal is to completely control the Syrian-Turkish frontier, which in their view is the border of their caliphate, albeit temporary.

Interestingly, the Turks seem content to merely observe these ISIS advances on the Syrian border. They have refused to allow American arms shipments to transit the border into Syria to aid the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS. It is well known that there is great animosity between the Turks and the Kurds in that border area. It will be refreshing when the Turks realize what side they are on.

Although Kobani in and of itself is neither key nor strategic, it has become symbolically both. If ISIS can be stopped from taking the city through the combination of U.S.-led coalition airpower and Kurdish ground forces, it may be a turning point in containing the ISIS expansion. It is important that the coalition treat R'as al-'Ayn/Serêkanîye the same as Kobani.

While the coalition is conducting a large number of airstrikes in support of YPG efforts to stop ISIS in Kobani, ISIS units to the west of Baghdad airport continue to move slowly toward the facility and the capital. Surely the coalition can deal with two fronts at one time - ISIS is.