After a fierce struggle lasting 134 days, mainly Kurdish fighters belonging to the Peoples Defence Units (YPG) and Womens Defence Units (YPJ) finally freed the town of Kobane on January 26 from attackers belonging to the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS). Kobane remains intact — although, only just.
Moreover, there are various forces that have shown hostility over the past four months to the YPG, YPJ and other Kurdish revolutionary forces. This will prove a challenge for the ongoing Kurdish struggle for autonomy. In fact, there are some elements who claim to support the Kurdish fighters but do so for opportunistic reasons and are proving a hindrance to the cause.
The Western media has reported the defeat of the IS in Kobane as a victory for US-led airstrikes, creating an air of legitimacy around the US’ military tactics.
“We congratulate its [Kobane’s] brave defenders,” the US State Department’s Jen Psaki said in a January 28 briefing. “We’ll continue to support them as we look to the coming weeks ahead. This is an important step in the direction of a long-term campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL because of the strategic value ISIL places on Kobane.”
Of course, the Kurdish resistance was helped along by Western aerial bombing in Kobane. However, they did not choose to help them until the last minute, despite continual pleas for assistance.
Since July 2012, when the local, grassroots-based forces of the YPG and YPJ liberated Kobane and two other cantons in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), they have been fending off attacks from forces aligned with both the government and opposition in Syria’s civil war.
The IS began their siege of Kobane in mid-September last year, the same time that the US-led coalition extended their air war in Iraq into Syria. However, for more than three weeks they did not strike the massive concentration of IS heavy weaponry surrounding Kobane. Even when they finally did so, it was another week before they began coordinating their attacks with the Kurdish forces defending the town.
This is the first large scale success since the US declared war on IS and that’s no coincidence. The strength of the defenders of Kobane was that they were defending not only their homes, but an ideal.
The autonomous cantons of Rojava are a unique social experiment based on the ideology of “Democratic Confederalism” that was developed by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the late 1990s. Under this model, power is held by local communities, equality between and representation of all ethno-linguistic groups is guaranteed and religion is separated from the state.
Women’s liberation is emphasised, with a minimum of 40% female participation in all decision-making bodies and independent women’s organisation in all spheres, including the military. Cooperative ecologically sustainable development, not neoliberal capitalism, is the economic model.
While these ideals strengthened the morale of Kobane’s defenders, they were also a factor in Western reluctance to assist. Initially the West seemed prepared to let Kobane fall and use the atrocities that inevitably would have followed as the pretext for increased Western military intervention in the region.
However, after the tenacity of the town’s resistance and protests by the global Kurdish diaspora had focussed the world’s attention on Kobane, allowing the heroic town to be massacred would have undermined the US-led intervention by exposing the stated goal of fighting the IS as being merely a pretext.
Moreover, the revolutionary forces in Rojava are affiliated to the Kurdistan Union of Communities (KCK), the largest component of which, the PKK, has been engaged in armed resistance against Turkey since 1984. Turkey is a NATO member and a key US ally in the region.
Kobane lies on the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blockaded Kurdish forces in Kobane while allowing IS free access across the border, including for the resupply of heavy weapons.
The US decision to coordinate its airstrikes with the YPG and YPJ created a rift between the US and Turkish governments. However, US policy remains hostile to the aspirations of the KCK-affiliated forces and the PKK and some other KCK affiliates remain on the US (and Australian) lists of terrorist organisations.
The Turkish government has claimed to be housing 200,000 refugees from Kobane. It has used this claim both to offset criticism of its actual support for the IS attack on Kobane and to bolster the argument it has unsuccessfully made to Washington that there are no civilians left in Kobane, and therefore the city does not need saving.
In reality, not only are there civilians remaining in Kobane, but most of those who fled across the border have been housed by the local Kurdish population.
Amed Dicle wrote in Kurdishquestion.com on January 27: “Of the 116,000 people that fled Kobane, only about 10,000 are living in camps built by the Turkish state. The AKP government’s constant reminder that they are ‘looking after 200,000 people from Kobane’ is rubbish.”
The US-led air war against IS began in response to the June-August offensive in which IS forces swept out of Syria into Northern Iraq, threatening the existence of the fragile US-backed Iraqi state and providing the West with the pretext for a new Middle East intervention by filming their own atrocities and promoting them on social media.
The most stable component of the Iraqi state is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has been a de facto US protectorate since 1991. Arming the KRG forces was the initial cornerstone of the Western intervention.
In August the IS attacked the Sinjar region, whose Kurdish population mainly belongs to the Yezidi religious minority and were therefore targeted for genocide. KRG forces fled, after refusing to arm the population. Hundreds were massacred and hundreds more were enslaved. The survivors were rescued by the intervention of the PKK, YPG and YPJ, who helped the local population to create their own armed forces to fend off further IS attacks.
IS then attacked the KRG capital, Irbil, whose defence was assisted by the KCK-affiliated forces. The KRG has historically been hostile to the KCK, but following the defence of Irbil relations improved.
In Kobane, the main military problem faced by the Kurdish forces was the IS having overwhelming superiority in heavy weapons. While the US-led airstrikes countered this to some degree, the YPG demanded that the US pressure Turkey to end its blockade and allow better armed YPG and YPJ fighters from other parts of Rojava to reach the town.
A compromise was reached whereby Turkey allowed a small contingent of KRG-aligned fighters with heavy weapons to go to Kobane in early November. While the US was hoping that the KRG-aligned forces would politically dilute the revolution in Rojava, the YPG and YPJ made sure the KRG fighters were under local command.
Continuing tensions between the KCK-aligned and KRG-aligned Kurdish forces reignited on January 14 when the Yazidi communities of Sinjar declared the establishment of local autonomy and participatory democratic institutions along the principles of the “Democratic Confederalism” practiced in Rojava.
Rojavareport.wordpress.com reported on January 20 that this was condemned by the KRG, who view the locality as their territory — despite having abandoned it to IS — and condemned the autonomy declaration as PKK interference.
Dancing in the Streets
As the Kurdish fighters united in celebration of their achievements and danced under the moonlight, one of the things they understand is just how much they have already gutted the IS’ military morale.
The IS used up countless fighters on a strategic advance to take Kobane. By the end of their battle they had run out of fighters to the point that, according to the accounts of Kurdish fighters, they were sending in children, Associated Press reported on January 26.
More than 1000 IS fighters have been killed according the Syrian Observatory for human rights.
Further hope is created by the fact that previously IS-sympathising militant groups such as the Chechen Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar have turned against IS and even lauded the Kurds’ victory.
Yet on the ground, bombings have destroyed half of Kobane and the city remains to be put back together in order to house the large numbers of refugees. The Kurds’ success against IS in this case was not an example of how the US could potentially win against IS — it was an example of how those who fight on principled political grounds are able to be effective.