As Kobane comes under ISIL attack, Kurds Encircle, cut off “caliphate”

By Amy Austin Holmes | (Informed Comment) | – –

(Kobane, Syria) The liberation of Kobane in late January led to jubilant celebrations almost everywhere. It was both a turning point in the war against Islamic State militants and the beginning of an emancipatory grassroots democratic experiment known as the Rojava Revolution. Now, IS militants have attacked Kobane again for the first time in five months, underlining the fragility of the Kurdish enclave. Furthermore, the liberation was followed by a life-threatening stranglehold.  The Kurds of Kobane remained surrounded on all sides by adversaries:  ISIS to the east, south, and west, and Turkey to the north.  From both a humanitarian and a military perspective, the encirclement of Kobane was perilous. Supply routes into Kobane were scarce to non-existent, attacks were possible from all sides, and there were few options for retreat.

Photo credit: Amy Austin Holmes

Last week, the grip was loosened.  Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) liberated Tel Abyad, known in Kurdish as Gire Spi. In a double pincer movement, military units moving from Cezira in the east and Kobane in the west forced out IS fighters. In doing so they created a corridor connecting Kobane and Cezira cantons.  This means that for the first time, two of the three previously geographically isolated cantons are now united. Kobane, the symbolic heartland of the Rojava revolution in Syria, is now linked to Iraqi Kurdistan.  The eastern front is in the process of being cleared of IS militants. However, another border remains closed and cannot be opened through force of arms: the northern border to Turkey.

The four-month-long battle to liberate Kobane was a watershed event.  The local conflict was turned into an international one involving Kurdish YPJ and YPG militias, Iraqi Peshmerga, Free Syrian Army brigades, and coalition-led airstrikes. However, the current military operations may be even more decisive. This is primarily for three reasons. First, the geographical area under Kurdish control has expanded.  Second, it is now possible to transfer vital resources from Cezira to Kobane such as petrol, which has become a scarce and expensive commodity in Kobane. The corridor will also allow people to travel more easily from one canton to the next, thereby increasing the viability of the Rojava project more generally. And third, by liberating Tel Abyad, the Kurds have cut a vital supply route to Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State.  In short, the victory of Tel Abyad ended the encirclement of Kobane, drove out ISIS, and made the Rojava revolution more viable. This decisive military victory was at least in part due to the leadership of women. According to YPJ Commander Rengin, there were five female commanders in the eastern front around Tel Abyad, and only two male commanders.

I spent the last week visiting Kobane, after witnessing the battle to liberate the city from the Turkish side of the border in January.  The situation here is sobering.  Over 70% of the city was destroyed, both by the ISIS assault and US-led airstrikes.  The city is filled with crumbled buildings and craters more than five meters in diameter. The landscape is filled with mines.  The day after I arrived, I attended the funeral of Keith Broomfield, the first US citizen who was confirmed to have been killed while fighting for the YPG. A few days later, I attended another funeral for two medical workers, Zozan Mahmoud and Manal Chobagy, who were killed by a suicide attack.  While still standing in the martryrs’ graveyard, it was announced that Tel Abyad had been liberated.  The somber funeral procession morphed into a joyful canton-wide celebration.  During the celebrations I met Idleh, a 45-year-old Syrian Kurdish woman who said that she personally met Abdullah Ocalan a number of times while living in Damascus.  I asked her what this battle meant to her.  She said she felt like she had “won the whole world.” 

Clearly, the local people are ecstatic and filled with energy to rebuild their homeland.  How much political will exists within the international community remains to be seen.  A litmus test would be whether diplomatic pressure could be brought to bear on the Turkish government, which seems intent on keeping the border to Kobane closed.  At present, only Turkish or Syrian citizens are allowed to cross the border at regulated intervals. However, in a new variation on the Berlin Wall, other nationalities are prevented from leaving Turkey.  This policy of not allowing people to cross the border from Turkey into Kobane means that many aid workers, journalists, and academics like myself have to sneak across the border at night like fugitives.  Such people may report about what’s happening, conduct research, or bring in aid to the embattled Kurds, and President Erdoğan doesn’t really want that to happen.

The victory of Tel Abyad was, like the liberation of Kobane, the result of international cooperation. But that same cooperation is needed in order to rebuild Kobane.  For this to happen, the border to Turkey needs to be open.  Aid needs to be allowed to come in. Mines left behind by ISIS need to be removed. Craters caused by US-led airstrikes need to be filled.

An upcoming conference in Brussels will coordinate these efforts. On July 1, the European Parliament will host the “International Mobilization to Rebuild Kobane” conference. The recent victory of the Kurdish-based HDP party in the parliamentary elections in Turkey will also add momentum to the reconstruction efforts. But if the Rojava project is going to succeed – and it is one of the few truly democratic, gender-egalitarian, grassroots experiments in the Middle East – then more is needed than airstrikes and empty promises.  

Amy Austin Holmes is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo and the author of Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945, published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. Website: and Twitter: @AmyAustinHolmes

Related posting:

See also Juan Cole, “Are Leftist, Feminist Kurds About to Deliver the Coup de Grâce to ISIL in Syria?” in The Nation.

4 Responses

  1. The free world owes the Kurds so much for standing up to daesh and revealing its weakness.

    The linguistic bloat attending many media reports of the recent desperate daesh raids is telling.

    Somehow, 30 or so guys and a few exploding trucks is puffed up to an ‘offensive’ as if we’re talking about El Alamain.

    It is obviously a sign of daesh panic and desperation. A true offensive would involve larger field formations but these would be bombed to splinters out of the gate.

    The quiet low key courage of these women has to be one of the most moving stories of my 60 year life time.

    And if it should become a kind of fulcrum that leads women in this region to question and refute the moth eaten patriarchy that stifles it, we could see watershed changes.

  2. Free Syria

    Rojava democratic? Is the #PYD democratic? I have gained the impression that it is infected by a rather prickly authoritarianism.

  3. The Kurds brave stance against the Daesh slime has got to be the defining moment of this awful conflict. Civilized and free people of the world need to hitch their wagons to the Kurds, back them big time, and insist they get a state of their own. It’s seems our only chance. Thank you Kurds and an even bigger salute.

    • There’s no way to grant the Kurds their ambitions without screwing non-Kurdish communities that are in the way in four countries. Those communities will not recognize the world’s right to reward the Kurds, and will fight. If we punish them, they will find covert allies in the governments whose land we are redistributing. You will get a larger war that will drag in the state sponsors. But then, that’s already happening between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and those wars will become entangled like the disputes that preceded World War One. See how that works?

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