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You Can’t Understand How Beleaguered Kobani Is Until You See These Maps

Turkey is warning that the city of Kobani, which sits on the Syria-Turkey border, could at any moment fall to fighters affiliated with the Islamic State. That development would represent a huge setback for the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria and could portend a humanitarian catastrophe. Kurdish forces are warning of a possible massacre if ...

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey is warning that the city of Kobani, which sits on the Syria-Turkey border, could at any moment fall to fighters affiliated with the Islamic State. That development would represent a huge setback for the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria and could portend a humanitarian catastrophe. Kurdish forces are warning of a possible massacre if Kobani falls to the Islamic State, which would solidify the group’s control of a large chunk of territory along Syria’s border with Turkey.

Kobani is now the sole remaining Kurdish-controlled town along a huge stretch of the Syrian border. To understand how isolated it is from the rest of the country, consider the map below. Syrian Kurds have in recent weeks been battling with Islamic State militants elsewhere in Syria, but it is in Kobani where that fighting has entered a key phase, as the militant group attempts to consolidate its rule in the north. Kobani is the small blot of yellow due east from where the Euphrates crosses into Syria.

   

For the last two years or so, Kobani it has been surrounded on three sides by Islamist militants but has staunchly held out against the Islamic State. The town, which before the Syrian civil war erupted had a mostly Kurdish population of 400,000, has now seen Islamic State fighters breach its outer defenses. If it falls, the Islamic State would consolidate its control of a broad swath of Syria’s border with Turkey.

The Islamic State’s recent advances are a testament to its military gains elsewhere. For years, Kurdish fighters have maintained Kobani and the villages surrounding it as an enclave within territory mostly controlled by the Islamic State. But that group’s acquisition of heavy weaponry from caches of American-provided armaments that it has captured in Iraq has enabled it knock the Kurdish fighters onto their heels.

During the course of the three-year Syrian civil war, Kobani has seen an exodus of its population, and according to one Kurdish intelligence officer, 50,000 people now remain in the city. The Islamic State’s gains in Kobani have occurred quite quickly, with the group’s forces moving to the town’s outskirts in the span of about three weeks.

Fighting has now moved inside Kobani, where according to a statement released by Kurdish forces Tuesday, some 67 Islamic State militants have been killed. This map, produced by the Times of London, indicates the degree to which the city has been breached by Islamic State fighters.

The video below shows fighting from both sides — just inside Turkey’s border and from ISIS-controlled territory. In footage from Turkey, smoke from presumably American airstrikes can be seen rising over the city. In the ISIS footage, the group’s fighters can be seen firing with machine guns from captured high ground and moving behind tanks in a fighting formation.

Early in the American-led air campaign in Syria, strikes have not focused on Kobani and its environs, but now the focus appears to be shifting, and American officials have said that its planes have carried out roughly 14 strikes there recently.

The question now is whether Turkish forces will move across the border to reinforce the Kurds. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday that the town will soon fall to the Islamic State, and it is unclear what will happen if it does. If it is true that there are some 50,000 people still in Kobani, Islamic State fighters may unleash a bloodbath when they arrive. In previous cities taken by the Islamic State, the group has mercilessly executed non-Sunni Muslims. (While Kurds are Sunni Muslims, the ethnic group has emerged as a key military opponent to the Islamic State. Moreover, there exists a measure of ethnic tension between the the mostly Arab Islamic State and the Kurds.)

And with Turkey having closed the border, there is nowhere for those people to go.     

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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