The Administration Goes All in on Kobani

Only days ago the Pentagon was saying that this small Syrian city might fall to the Islamic State. Now it's pulling out all the stops to save Kobani. 

Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images
Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s rapidly intensifying efforts to prevent Kobani from falling into the hands of the Islamic State have backed the United States into a corner. While Pentagon officials maintain that the town isn’t strategically significant, the United States has invested so much in saving Kobani that its fall would hand the Islamic State a publicity win and deal a symbolic blow to the U.S.-led war effort.

After weeks of saying that Kobani could fall to the Islamic State (which is also known as ISIS or ISIL), and that the United States couldn’t wage a battle for every town the group controls in Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration has been devoting more and more military and diplomatic resources towards its defense. Since Oct. 1, the U.S. military has launched more than 135 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in and around the town, more than in any other location in Iraq or Syria. On Sunday, it began direct airdrops of weapons and supplies to Kurdish fighters inside Kobani. Away from the battlefield, meanwhile, Washington has risked straining its relationship with Turkey by pushing Ankara to come to the aid of the Kurdish fighters.   

"I think the U.S. was caught between trying to discount the significance of Kobani and then realizing that it had no choice but to be drawn in, because Kobani has become a token for the campaign’s ability to succeed with airpower alone," said Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "I think against their better judgment the U.S. found itself compelled to provide greater and greater airpower, even when that came at the expense of more consequential areas like Anbar province."

The United States is taking bold steps to aid the Syrian Kurds fighting to save the town, some of which have strained its relationship with Turkey, a key ally and NATO member. It has held talks with Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD, which Ankara considers an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting to create a separate Kurdish state. The United States also has begun increased coordination with Syrian Kurds on the ground in Kobani about which Islamic State targets to bomb.

After weeks of American frustration with Ankara for not aiding Kurdish rebels in Kobani, Turkey has dramatically changed course in recent days to allow U.S. resupplies to the rebel groups and to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters, or Peshmerga, to cross the Turkish border to aid their fellow Kurds in Kobani.

Responding to Turkish concerns, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Jakarta Monday, "Let me say very respectfully to our allies, the Turks, that we understand fully the fundamentals of their opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group and particularly obviously the challenges they face with respect to the PKK."

On Sunday, American C-130 military transport planes dropped 27 loads of weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies for the Kurdish rebels who are fighting the Islamic State on the ground. Thanks to these actions, Pentagon officials have new confidence that Kurdish fighters will be able to hold their ground, though they won’t rule out the possibility that the town could still fall.

With the increasing tempo of airstrikes and resupplying rebels, "we have certainly stunted, we have certainly slowed down their momentum in and around Kobani, there’s no question about that," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said at a news conference on Tuesday. As a result, the Kurdish forces now control most of the town, he said.  

While the Islamic State’s momentum in Kobani is being slowed, American officials say they are prepared for the publicity win the group would gain if the coalition lost the town.  

The U.S. goal is "not to deny them a propaganda victory," a senior U.S. defense official said. The aim is to "deny them safe havens and sanctuary," while adding that airstrikes alone couldn’t accomplish that goal.

Still, the propaganda potential of Kobani is amplified by the crowds of journalists who watch the battle from just over the border in Turkey.

"Ultimately, that has given it the oxygen of coverage that meant that both ISIS and America suddenly realized that this was a real test of the coalition’s resolve," said Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute’s office in Doha. Kobani is "strategically important, in the sense that it’s about showing who is qualitatively on top," he said.

The media attention paid to Kobani has baffled U.S. defense officials at times, and they’ve pointed to towns in Iraq — like Hit — that have recently fallen into the Islamic State’s hands with little notice.

It turns out the bloodiest single atrocity committed by the Islamic State in Syria took place in early August in a town called Abu Hamam in eastern Syria. There, 700 people were killed over the course of three days, a slaughter that was ignored by the international community and the media, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

According to senior U.S. officials, including Kerry, Washington is investing so heavily in the fight to save Kobani because the Islamic State has made it a top priority.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, who runs the military’s Central Command, said Friday that "the enemy has made a decision to make Kobani his main effort," giving the United States and its coalition partners more targets to bomb.

"As long as he pours legions of forces there into that area, we’ll stay focused on taking him out," Austin said.

Still, Kobani is not a "militarily significant town to either side," another U.S. defense official said. The militant group doesn’t "need that crossing but for whatever reason they’ve decided it’s of importance to them and are resupplying troops and moving equipment and as they continue to present targets, we hit them," the official said.

The destruction of the Islamic State’s tanks and artillery pieces and the deaths of hundreds of its fighters could mean that the group would be unable to reconstitute its fighting force to take on other towns either in Syria or Iraq, the official said.

This rationale makes sense, but it raises questions about whether the United States is setting its own priorities or letting the Islamic State decide where to fight, Joshi said. "It is a reasonable rationale, but it’s a bit of a post-hoc rationale rather than a carefully thought-out strategic concept…. These decisions have to be taken in a more apolitical, neutral basis rather than being driven by media attention."

Despite the stepped-up effort to save Kobani, top military officials including Austin and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have continued to warn that the town may fall.

A U.S. military official told FP last week that if the Kurdish fighters on the ground weren’t resupplied, the town was all but certain to fall. After Sunday’s airdrops, that likelihood has diminished but Kobani’s fate is still far from certain.

On Sunday, meanwhile, a senior U.S. administration official offered a new rationale for stepped-up American efforts.

"We want to help prevent the humanitarian catastrophe that could result from the complete fall of that city into ISIL’s control and the massacre of civilians and Kurdish fighters that could follow that event," the official told reporters Sunday.

It has been difficult to ascertain the number of civilians still left in the city. U.S. military officials have said most of the residents have fled, with hundreds of thousands seeking refuge in Turkey, leaving only a few hundred behind.

Still, the hundreds who remain and the Kurdish fighters defending the town all face being massacred should the Islamic State be successful, the official said Sunday.

While the world continues to watch to see what will happen in Kobani, the U.S. military says the biggest battles still to come are in Iraq.

"Mosul will likely be the decisive battle in the ground campaign at some point in the future," Dempsey said Oct. 12.

Preparing for that fight will take time, Austin told reporters Friday. The push to retake the northern Iraqi city could be a year away because the Iraqi security forces aren’t yet ready to mount what could be a complex and bloody battle.

"We’re going to need to regenerate a bit more combat power and do some more things to shape the environment a bit before we go after Mosul," Austin said. Referring to Dempsey’s comment that Mosul will be a decisive battle, Austin said, "It will be an important fight and a difficult fight."

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen
 Twitter: @g_ratnam

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