Understanding KobaneOctober 23, 2014 in Iraq, Syria, Terrorism, Turkey
The battle in Kobane (also spelled ‘Kobani’) is being called “the most decisive battle” in the campaign against ISIS, yet help has been slow to arrive. For weeks the town’s residents have been under siege as ISIS has battles to take control of the region, causing thousands of Syrian refugees to flee into Turkey.
Despite the increasing humanitarian crisis and the consequence of letting Kobanefall into ISIS hands, the town has been omitted from US and coalition strategy. Fighting began in the town on 16 September, and while the US has conducted air-strikes around the town, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Mid October that “Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to [ISIL].” It was only on Sunday that the US began to air-drop weapons and supplies to Kurdish fighters. Earlier today, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had been informed that agreement was reached for 200 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga reinforcements to pass through Turkey to help defend Kobane. It is expected that ISIS will take heavy losses numbering into several hundreds, yet they are prepared to do so.
Kobane’s Importance to ISIS
The fall of Kobane would result in a major strategic win for ISIS for a number of reasons. First, it is a heavily agricultural region. A large percentage of the residents are farmers, and there is significant grain and wheat production. Access to this agricultural resource would be a boon for ISIS, in terms of supporting the population within its own territory and providing another avenue of income.
Second, Kobane sits on the Turkish border with Syria. If ISIS were to capture the town, they would gain a significant and strategic expansion of their territory along the Turkish border. Capture of the region would give ISIS control over a main road that connects Raqqa, the city which headquarters ISIS operations, with Aleppo. Further, it would add an additional border crossing for weapons, supplies, and radicalised fighters to enter into ISIS controlled territory.
Finally, the predominant strategic value of Kobane is that is a majority Kurdish town. An ISIS win at Kobane would weaken the Kurdish resistance. Kobane is one of three administrative cantons of the Syrian Kurds. If it Kobane falls, it will weaken the other cantons which secure Syria’s 1,200 kilometre border with Syria. Effectively, a win in Kobane could potentially allow ISIS to capture full control of the Turkish Border.
Kobane’s Importance to the Kurds
Kobane has become a symbol of Kurdish aspirations for an autonomous state. One analyst states, “Kobane symbolises the Kurdish resistance, not only in Syria but in other parts of the Middle East. Its loss would translate into a defeat for the entire Kurdish nation.”
The Turkish and Syrian Kurdish community remains close in culture, language and proximity. In the early 1900s, Kobane stretched across both Turkey and Syria. In 1921, a border was put in place by Mustafa Kemal, dividing the Kurdish village in two. The demarcation is a railroad that has served as the border between the two nations. Since the siege on the town, over 100,000 refugees from Kobane and other nearby towns have fled to the Turkish side, now called Mursitpinar.
This closeness of Syrian and Turkish Kurds has remained in place. The current crisis has gelled efforts to keep Kobane standing. Over several weeks of fighting, Kobane has resisted falling to ISIS occupation, creating a symbol of resilience against ISIS and hope in the face of others who have denied Kurdish autonomy. Mostafa Minawi, director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative at Cornell University.”Kobane [now] lies at the heart of a Kurdish dream. It is less connected with history and more connected with future ambitions. Kobane was phase one of the implementation of a wider local-rule model [for both Syria’s and Turkey’s Kurds].”
Kobane’s Importance to Turkey
Despite the threat of an ISIS capture of Kobane and the imminent threat on his border, President Erdogan has appeared slow and reluctant to provide aid to Kurdish fighters. “For Turkey,” one analyst says, “Kobane is essentially a PKK issue.” Erdogan has long opposed the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan, and Ankara has deemed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a terrorist organization.
Earlier this week, the US delivered air-dropped weapons and medical supplies in Kobane, which were provided by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Erdogan criticized the move. In a statement today, Erdogan criticised the move. In a phone call between Erdogan and US President Barack Obama, Erdogan said, “America did this in spite of Turkey, and I told him Kobani is not currently a strategic place for you. If anything it is strategic for us.”
Several analysts, as well as the Kurdish population have become critical of Erdogan’s intentions. They believe that the Turkish government has purposefully delayed the allowance assistance to Kurdish fighters, allowing ISIS to ‘do the dirty work’ of reducing the gains that Syrian Kurds have made in the power vacuum of the Syrian war. Critics use as evidence Erdogan’s call for the establishment of a buffer zone in Syria, citing it as an attempt to occupy the region.
In fact, Erdogan has used Kobane as a negotiating chip with the PKK. In order for Iraqi Kurds to supply Syrian Kurds with weapons or fighters, their options are to cross through ISIS controlled territory, or go through Turkey. The former is unrealistic; the latter requires permission from the Turkish government, which has been slow coming as Turkey has sought to bolster their position against a Kurdish nation. To this end, peace talks between Kurdish leaders and Turkey have been jeopardised as Kurdish leaders interpret Erdogan’s stance as tacit support for ISIS. Leaders in Ankara deny supporting ISIS but it has become apparent to some analysts that they are using the situation as an opportunity to gain an upper hand with the Kurds.
As a result, Turkey finds itself pressured by the coalition and forced to work in tandem with a group that it opposes. The outcome in Kobane will not only be significant to ISIS, but will have longstanding ramifications for the Kurds in the diaspora and their relationship with Turkey.