The Last Days of Kobani Loom as ISIL Closes in on Syrian Kurds with Murder on its Mind

By Juan Cole

ISIL fighters have advanced into the Kurdish Syrian city of Kobane (`Ayn al-`Arab), with fighting in the streets as Kurds resist, according to the pan-Arab daily, al-Hayat [Life]. Kobane, a city ordinarily of about 50,000, is the third biggest town in the Kurdish part of Syria (the far northeast). ISIL has taken dozens of nearby Kurdish villages, provoking an exodus of perhaps 300,000 refugees, with about 180,000 going to Turkey. Turkey now has over a million Syrian refugees.

Iran is complaining about the West hanging the Kurds out to dry.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned a Kurdish audience that Kobane could soon fall.

Erdogan says he is seeking authorization for a ground operation at Kobane. Erdogan doesn’t typically seek authorization for his actions, however, so that this is his story is suspicious and many Kurds think he does not want to intervene lest he inadvertently help the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas and their allies. Turkey fought a three-decade dirty war against the PKK from the 1970s to the 1990s, and the organization revived a bit after Washington overthrew Saddam Hussein and so allowed 5,000 of them to take refuge in Iraq (which borders eastern Turkey). Most Turkish Kurds are not separatists, but a small fringe is and Ankara fears any development that might strengthen the fringe and lead to a breakup of Turkey.

On Tuesday, thousands of Kurds demonstrated in cities all over Turkey against Erdogan’s lack of action, with some clashing with police. Ten Kurds were killed and dozens injured. For its part, Turkey called for more coalition airstrikes on ISIL.

Turkey’s secular centrist opposition party, the CHP, demands that its troops stay out of Syria.

CENTCOM (the US military command for the Middle East) announced that US, Saudi and United Arab Emirates war planes had conducted 5 bombing raids on the outskirts of Kobane on Tuesday. Kurds are complaining that they don’t seem to be effective in stopping ISIL’s advance.

My guess is that the US is hampered in precision strikes on ISIL positions and tanks by the lack of personnel on the ground who could paint lasers on them. The US military typically will not allow other forces to undertake this task for fear of their manipulating the US Air Force into attacking their enemies. Hitting a tank from 30,000 feet is almost impossible without smart munitions, and flying low is dangerous because ISIL might be able to shoot a plane down. One officer who had served in WW II once told me that if you bomb a tank and miss, you just get a scratched tank. You can’t do carpet bombing, either, in the vicinity of a city you are trying to save. The UAE and Saudi Arabia likely don’t have the technology to deploy precision-guided bombs or trained laser spotters. I hasten to say that I am not advocating putting spotters on the ground, simply analyzing why air raids are ineffective against a guerrilla group with a small armored unit (likely 25 tanks around Kobane, which is 25 more than the Kurds have).

Bottom line, Erdogan may be right, that these are the last days of Kobane before a deadly darkness falls.

Related video:

RT: “Turkish teargas, water cannon unleashed as ISIS takes border town”

30 Responses

  1. Utterly shameful. Iran unfortunately calls it and has every reason to rub it in. What a deplorable collective failure.

  2. If you rely on others it’s important that not only your objectives but your priorities coincide. Were I Obama I would forget about Turkey, make nice with Assad, get his help to push back the IS then throw him under a bus and make nice with Erdogan again. Running empires is not a job for moralists.

    • Make nice with Assad? Where does that lead? Do you really think that the Alawite sect can rule the Sunni majority of Syria indefinitely? That way lies endless internal war, cruelty and suffering. The Sunni uprising is not going away even if Assad gets more nominal control.

      What is needed is some sort of balance of power among Syrian factions that leads to negotiated resolution. Very tricky. “Hellish” might be better word. Challenge is not as simple as overthrowing Assad, or allowing Assad to regain control of whole country.

      • It should be pretty apparent by now, after more than two years of civil war, that the Syrian government can draw upon support from more than just Alawites.

        The hypothesis that Assad represents only an Alawite elite has been put to a severe test, and disproven by events.

  3. So basically the Americans don’t trust the Kurds enough to give them a laser pointer – even though a Kurdish city is about to be massacred. Their Nato ally the Turks are sitting a kilometer away from the same city and watching developments because they don’t want to help Kurdish separatism. The Iraqi army has yet to make progress because much of their equipment has been stolen by their corrupt officers and sold – probably to ISIS. Iraqi politicians are too busy bickering to unite in responding to the threat and Shi’ite militias are killing Sunni civilians with more enthusiasm than confronting ISIS. Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s Syria have effective fighters and hate ISIS but can’t be in the same fight. A force of only a few thousand fighters have conquered half of Iraq and Syria and hold several million inhabitants under their control, and are pushing back Kurdish peshmerga while absorbing Western airstrikes. The Free Syrian Army appears to be totally missing but if we put in 1% of the billions spent on the Iraqi army , they will sort this whole mess out.
    What has Bush/Obama dragged the US into?

  4. Didn’t Turkey call for “humanitarian corridors” in Syria quite some time ago? That would have required military action of some sort, presumably by NATO, since Russia presumably would have vetoed such an action in the Security Council. I wonder if Turkey was sincere then? If so, was it the U.S. that failed to okay it then? Of course, Turkey may not have been sincere then in calling for action. Still, I’m left wondering whether the U.S. and Turkey have changed their positions.

  5. What’s all the fuss about Kobani? This dusty town on the Turkish border has no strategic significance. It is NOT Dien Bien Phu, though the media seems to like to treat it as such.

    The “international community” needs to back off and get some perspective on the relative significance of events in Iraq. IMO this is just NOT all that important…

    • It appears John Kerry agrees with you which should be a matter of concern:

      “Isis in Kobani: Still no sign of Turkey reacting to threat on its border as John Kerry says preventing the fall of the town is not a ‘strategic objective’: As the fighting continues, the lack of assistance for those living in Kobani sparked more violent demonstrations across Turkey” by Isabel Hunter – link to independent.co.uk

  6. I’ve been tormented by this Kobane situation, with the Turks watching a city needlessly fall to ISIS. But it has caused me to study the Turkish position and understand their point of view.

    How can the world call the Turks inhumane for not intervening on the ground, when so few have lifted a finger to stop Assad’s slaughter of so many Sunni Arabs? The PKK Kurds in Syria are unwilling to fight Assad, in fact may have cut deals with him. Why should Turkey bail them out?

    I think the U.S. will grudgingly come around to accepting Turkey’s terms: a safe zone in northern Syria, which will put pressure on Assad among other outcomes. There may be movement on that front, at least as reported by Turkish press:
    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    I am a passionate advocate for Kurdish cause. But the more you learn about the Kurds, the more you see them as tragically divided and disfunctional. They need to get their own house in order.

    Turkey watching Kobane fall reminds me of the old story about the scorpion and the frog in the Middle East. I don’t see Kobane’s fall to ISIS working in Turkey’s interests given the blowback internationally and domestically.

    • A frog and scorpion scenario might be worth it to Turkey if they get a no-fly zone in northern Syria. That would allow increased military action against ISIS but also limit Assad. Kobani falling is also a defeat to the PKK. Turkey could be looking at ISIS and Kobani as part of the long game.

      What happens if there is another Kobani and Obama is pressured into sending the marines to save the day? American troops in Syria is VERY bad news for Assad.

      Turkey stands much more to gain than lose when Kobani falls to ISIS.

      • I got news for you, Jack — American troops in Syria is very bad news for AMERICAN TROOPS, and us mopes at home who have to pay to fill up the entire enormous long supply chain and logistics train and fund the comfortable idiotic lives of the general officers who live so fat off the rest of us, so insulated from the consequences of their idiocies along with the Beltway Bubbleheads who support their parasitism. “American Troops” have zero chance of “prevailing,” except by decreeing victory and advancing rearward, or maybe counting another piece of Perpetual War as a “victory,” or maybe we can finally get some use out of those nukular weapons we have paid so much to get so little use out of…

        • I’m just trying to read the tea leaves. I think the end game is regime changing Assad, not defeating ISIS. To me, Obama NEVER would have started the air war against ISIS in Syria without also having a plan to end their civil war. That means Assad has to go which probably means American troops in Syria. All the Republicans are in favor.

          Have you read Glenn Greenwald’s latest article?

          “Key Democrats, Led By Hillary Clinton, Leave NO DOUBT that Endless War is Official U.S. Doctrine.”

          “The last thing the Washington political class and the economic elites who control it want is for this war to end.” Glenn Greenwald

          G.G. is pretty good at reading the tea leaves.

          p.s. Don’t miss Greenwald’s WAR STOCKS updates. Like Greenwald says, all the fat cats in D.C. plan on making lots of money.

        • Greenwald has also written about the “KHORASAN GROUP” and how the administration cooked up a fake terror plot to justify bombing Syria.

          Why did they do this?

          Why did the media make the Khorasan Group such a big story instead of questioning a terror threat from a group no one had heard about?

  7. There is something about this evolving situation in the Middle East that echoes Europe in August 1914 when nobody except a few generals prancing on their horses really wanted a war involving all of Europe. Presumably, no one except perhaps the Caliph, Senators McCain and Graham and their supporters really wants a war involving all of the Middle East, but the potential for one appears to be more ominous each day.

  8. I don’t know when if ever the world powers will recognize that it is no longer simply whether ‘our guy’ wins, but what is left standing when the win is declared. The BBC phrase ‘fighting is raging” in Kobane tells of the destruction occuring. No government can function without buildings or functional infrastructure. I suppose Putin has some reason to spend some of his slowly acquired personal capital (Putin with a bear, Putin in a race car, Putin bare-chested) innationalistic obstructionism; the US has provided many examples of how that is acceptable for a world leader, no matter the cost. But there will be no winner if a nation’s cellular struicture dissolves. No King Putin, Bush, or Obama can put Humpty back together again, Humpties now in the plural in the mid Eat and Africa. All that comes of it is runaway social gangrene. Enough of that and the infection becomes a world war just because no one can remain outside the effects. One of the hardest things about being an American is watching this all progress as Congress shouts and gambles on nits and Obama attempts to negotiate between the gamblers.

  9. Here is an interesting take on aspirations of Kurdish Syria (Rojava):
    link to theguardian.com

    “The PKK has declared that it no longer even seeks to create a Kurdish state. Instead, inspired in part by the vision of social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, it has adopted the vision of “libertarian municipalism”, calling for Kurds to create free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, that would then come together across national borders – that it is hoped would over time become increasingly meaningless. ”

    The author sees a direct parallel with the Spanish Civil War, where leftists were largely abandoned by the world in their struggle with the fascists of their era.

    • City states, in other words? Strong-man feudalism being the net result of current international policies?

  10. The only way that any of this makes since is as follows:one ISIL equals 100 finely honed warriors. So if ISIL has 1000 warriors at Kobane/Kobani, then that is equal to the ferocity of a force of 100,000.
    This definitely poses a problem. Having said this, can’t the Kurds muster a force of 100,000 or more? Remember that the Kurds are not abashed about using women in their military. Morever, a Kurd is surely equal to a well-honed combatant. I have read in the past how fierce they are. Of course, if the Kurds put 100,000 up in Kobane/Kobani, they can’t keep doing that to confront ISIL in the many other “threatres” in the region.
    The only answer is for the US to either forget about doing anything, or commit to an all-out half million or more warriors, including many boots on the ground.
    Got a question though, if the sneaker-clad ISIL fighters don boots, how much tougher will they be?

  11. The lack of a significant ground force means not only that we can’t “paint” targets, but that we also can’t conduct accurate battle damage assessment to figure out if what we hit had the desired effect. Also, once the initial targets are “crossed off” the list, who is going to figure out what to hit next? Satellite imagery and drone feeds only go so far…you need to confirm that the building where ISIS vehicles were parked yesterday isn’t full of kids today.

    If we’ve decided, as a nation, that we’re going to destroy (rather than just contain) ISIS, then we need to stop telling ourselves that this can be done without a sizable ground force.
    And while I think containment is the better option (and ultimately the one we are bound to fall back to), it’s just not very sexy and doesn’t placate the talking heads in the media.

  12. A news item on BBC seems to partly address the question I posed earlier on this thread. Turkey’s position as stated seems reasonable enough, i.e., they don’t want to go into Syria on the ground by themselves. There may well be more to it than that, but it makes sense:
    link to bbc.co.uk

  13. Turkish refusal to invade Syria to protect Kobani is not unreasonable.

    Turkey would be committing an act of war against Syria (and not in self-defense, making it illegal under international law), unless it received permission from Assad (not going to happen), and would be in combat against Islamic State as well, which has the ability to commit bombings and retaliation in Turkish cities. Unlike the US, Turkey can’t attack other countries for free.

    And what would happen afterwards? Would it keep forces in Syria to protect Kobani or fight inside Syria? Would it become an occupying army? Would it fight with Syrian army forces who are likely to fight back against invaders? How does NATO respond to an ally at war — a war of choice here? (hint: not well)

    The Turkish position is really untenable, they simply can’t intervene here, even if they wanted to.

  14. Here is Erdogan’s Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King moment all rolled into one. He should help out the Kurds, at least start funneling them weapons so they can protect themselves. It looks like Daash(Islamic Hate) is throwing everything at this dusty border town, Kobane. So why not at least get them bogged down in a slog lasting months?

    Doesn’t anyone remember Corregidor in the Philippines in 1942? The Japanese thought they would take the island in five days. Instead it took them 5 months. Yes, the Japanese eventually took Corregidor, and sent hundreds of American and Filipinos to slave labor camps in Formosa and Japan. But the Japanese expended so much blood and treasure trying to capture Corregidor that it stalled their advance to Australia and, some say, was the reason they eventually lost the war three years later.

    Come on Erdogan! Rise above your petty prejudices and be a real statesman. Help the Kurds bog down the Daash goons. Perhaps the Kurds will be so grateful for your help that they and your fellow Turks can finally make peace and get on with living. And we’ll all stand up and salute you pal.

    • The Japanese “lost the war” before they attacked Pearl Harbor, their own generals knew that. Corregidor was a gnat on the backside of the empire-vs-much-smaller-resource-limited-empire activity in the Asian sphere. Khe Sanh and many other “linchpins” were supposed to be the keys to this or that war or at least major battle, and what result? “We” assign that kind of significance to Kobane? And how interesting that you should compare this “moment” to the moments of Mandela and King, who were all about something very other than more Great Game lunacy and killing.

      • I referring to King and Mandela in terms of being able to rise above petty partisanship and to be a statesman, to be bigger than your opponent, to go for win-win solutions, not win-lose solutions which is what most politicians prefer. You didn’t quite get that did you?

        Have you ever been to Corregidor? It may be a gnat land-wise, but the stalling of the Japanese for 5 months on this gnat had them bogged down, pouring resources into which they thought they could use elsewhere. I would say that’s pretty helpful.

        Ultimately, the point I’m trying to make is…Daash is fighting like a regular army so if you find allies that are willing to fight them back for control of clearly exposed cities like Kobane, why not supply these allies…the Kurds.. with weapons and bog the goons down in a long drawn out slog? If Erdogan could only rise above his petty parochial politics and allow this, he’d be a statesman of note.

  15. I think it is a lot easier for coalition aircraft to take out ISIS tanks, without spotters, than you have been led to believe. Heck, just look at this report from Sept.26 or so when the campaign first started — 4 tanks taken out that day alone, without spotters. link to cbsnews.com The problems is that they were not trying at all around Kobane until Tuesday, when they realized it would not look good to have another ISIS major victory and another massacre of people fighting ISIS who didn’t get help from other people who say they want to fight ISIS.

    • you’re right. a fighter pilot set me right on this. But did admit we might be low on predators and also that it is much easier with spotters.

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