Keep ‘Em Coming, Kurds Say

Besieged Kurds in Syria and Iraq see the United States' bombing campaign against the Islamic State as a good start -- but not enough.


ERBIL, Iraq — As the United States and its Arab allies began dropping bombs on the Islamic State (IS) and other extremist groups in Syria, Kurds from Iraq, Turkey, and Syria celebrated the expansion of the war on the jihadists who have been attacking Kurds for months. Still, most in the Kurdish leadership say, more needs to be done to stop IS’s rampage across Syria and Iraq — and, in particular, to defend the embattled Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

"The U.S. airstrikes are a positive development," said Anwar Muslim, head of the administration in Kobani canton, one of the three self-declared governments set up by Kurds in northern Syria since the beginning of the year. "But the attacks have not had an impact here in Kobani and the Islamic State’s attacks on us continue."

Reports emerged Wednesday morning saying that airstrikes hit IS targets near Kobani, but Kurdish officials near the town denied that any such strikes have taken place. The attacks near Kobani were reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, but the monitoring group said it did not know who was behind the airstrikes. Muslim told Foreign Policy that no such attacks had occurred around Kobani as far as he knew, but he hopes they will soon.

Along with Jazira in Hasaka province and Afrin in Aleppo province, Kobani, which is also located in Aleppo province, is one of the three cantons that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party and its allies have established in northern Syria. But the districts are separated by mostly Arab-populated areas, which are now under IS control.

U.S. officials said fighter jets, bombers, and Tomahawk cruise missiles hit dozens of targets belonging to IS, al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, and the Khorasan Group since strikes began in the early morning hours of Sept. 23. The attacks have targeted militant positions in eastern and northern Syria, in particular Raqqa, IS’s de facto capital. The closest attack to Kobani on Sept. 23 was near Tel Abyad, which is around 60 miles east of Kobani.

Kobani, an area of around half a million people in northern Syria, has been under siege since August 2013, when the Islamic State surrounded the town from the east, west, and south, seeking to seize it as a gate to neighboring Turkey.

Since late last week, IS forces have swept through some 60 villages and have closed in on Kobani. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the Syria conflict, says as many as 200,000 civilians from Kobani and surrounding villages have fled their homes in recent days, with the vast majority heading to Turkey.

But since Monday, Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militias of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls Kurdish areas in Syria, have been able to halt IS’s advance.

"We call on the United States to target IS positions around Kobani," said Muslim, speaking on the phone from the besieged Kurdish town. "It’s a heavy fight here and they are using tanks, artillery, and armored vehicles that they have seized from several Iraqi and Syrian army divisions." He added that the heaviest weapons the YPG possesses are vehicle-mounted machine guns and mortar launchers.

The current offensive by the Islamic State is the second major attempt by the militants since July to take the Kurdish stronghold. Kurdish fighters repulsed their first attack in July.

Kobani’s only outlet to the outside world is through Turkey, which has for the most part chosen to close its border on traffic to and from the city. Ankara has hostile relations with the PYD, a Kurdish political group that controls the three Kurdish-governed administrations in northern Syria. The PYD and its affiliated YPG forces are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish rebel group from Turkey based mostly in northern Iraq that has battled the Turkish state for three decades.

Estimated at around 50,000 strong, the YPG has been seen by observers as one of the most effective groups in Syria in the fight against IS. But it has suffered significant setbacks in areas around Kobani in recent days.

The response to U.S. airstrikes has been similar on the Iraqi side of the border. Hamid Darbandi, an official in charge of the Syria desk in the office of Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, described the U.S. airstrikes as "necessary."

"The attacks need to be expanded," said Darbandi. "As President Obama said, IS needs to be targeted wherever it is."

Washington began an air campaign against IS militants in Iraq in August, only after the jihadists began to close in on Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital. The airstrikes on IS targets played a major role in helping Kurdish militias push back IS and retake some Kurdish areas.

Speaking from the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, Demhat Agid, a spokesperson for the PKK, called for coordination between the United States and its Arab allies with YPG forces in Syria. "Airstrikes alone will not produce the desired results," Agid said. "There needs to be a strategic cooperation between the forces on the ground for the campaign to be successful." PKK guerillas have been battling with IS in Iraq, coordinating with the Kurdish government’s Peshmerga forces and defending Kurdish villages and refugee camps as the jihadist group has made advances there.

But because PKK is considered a terrorist organization by many Western nations and Turkey, Washington has not been willing to deal with the group or organizations that it backs in Syria such as the PYD.

Amid the ongoing crisis in Kobani, Darbandi said 12 trucks carrying humanitarian aid from Iraqi Kurdistan crossed into Turkey on Tuesday aiming to deliver food, medicine, and other humanitarian aid to refugees from Kobani and possibly to the town itself.

"Kobani is almost empty," Mustafa Abdi, a journalist with a community radio station in Kobani told me by phone from a village on the border with Turkey, where he and around 300 others have taken refuge. "Most civilians have fled. We are happy that airstrikes have started in Syria. Everyone here wants them to reach Kobani as well."

Abdi said thousands of YPG fighters and volunteers have taken up arms in and around Kobani to ward off any further attack from IS in the coming days. Muslim, the head of the Kobani government, confirmed that residents are mobilizing and ready to take up the fight.

It’s a difficult battle and it’s very dangerous. But we are not going to give up on Kobani. We will fight," said Muslim. "We want the international forces to help us in Kobani so we can defeat the common enemy."

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