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More Than a Battle, Kobani Is a Publicity War

SURUC, Turkey — Two months after the United States began bombing militants attacking Kobani in northern Syria, the fate of the obscure border town has become the defining battle of the broader contest with the Islamic State — to solidify, or roll back, its borders and ambitions.

For Washington, Kobani is a crucial public test of President Obama’s strategy of combining American air power with local ground forces. For the Islamic State, it is a test of its image of inevitability and invincibility, and a tool for recruiting jihadists.

But of all those with an interest in Kobani, there is arguably no party as invested as the fractious Kurdish diaspora, which has pulled together in the hope of creating a homeland among the rolling farms and pistachio orchards that are still technically part of Syria.

Photo

Fighters of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit held position early last month in Kobani. CreditAhmed Deeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At this point, “the strategic significance is because of the psychological and the publicity importance,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a military historian at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and an official in the administration of President George W. Bush.

Kobani, a quiet Kurdish community whose population had swelled from 60,000 to nearly 400,000 with refugees from Syria’s civil war, has become a focus of the many competing interests enmeshed in the regional turmoil. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, and Turkey — all heavily involved in the fight against the Islamic State — each have some stake in the outcome. The focus on Kobani has angered key Syrian rebel groups whom Mr. Obama is trying to recruit to fight the Islamic State. They are frustrated with the lack of action against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Kobani is for Kurds a fulcrum for a new sense of nationalism that has set in sharp relief the longstanding divisions with Turkey, which has withstood international pressure to intervene directly. So compelling is the battle, it has united three Kurdish factions — the local Syrian Kurdish militia; militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., from Turkey; and pesh merga fighters from Iraq.

Muhydin Salih, a Syrian Kurd from Kobani, spends his days on a hilltop in Turkey watching the battle for his hometown, separated from here by cotton fields and a border fence. He can even see his house. Atop a nearby hill, another Syrian pointed west, where Turkish tanks were sitting on a ridgeline, idle. He then pointed south toward Kobani, under siege for nearly two months, where smoke was rising.

“Look at the Turks, they are standing by,” he said. “And the Americans are bombing.”

The battle began in September as fighters with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, stormed through dozens of villages and appeared, in short order, on the verge of taking Kobani. Initially, United States officials said the town was of little strategic value and that the militants were likely to win.

But as the United States and its allies began bombing, and Islamic State fighters kept rushing reinforcements to the front, it suddenly became the main battlefield of the broader conflict. Turkey ultimately allowed Iraqi Kurdish fighters to transit its territory, and the Americans dropped weapons and ammunition to the Kurds, stalling the advance of the Islamic State fighters. Today, the fight has become a grinding war of attrition, a grueling house-by-house battle.

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of the United States Central Command, said last month that the Islamic State had made a decision that Kobani would be its main effort. Referring to the Islamic State, he said, “as long as he pours, you know, legions of forces there into that area, we’ll stay focused on taking him out.”

In a recent video, the Islamic State called Kobani “a haven for every enemy of the caliphate.” In the propaganda war that Kobani has become, the militant group tested a new form: It used a British hostage, John Cantlie, in the role of news correspondent, broadcasting a report from the top of a building in Kobani claiming — falsely — that it controlled 90 percent of the city and was on the verge of victory.

The battle is complicated by Turkey’s role, which sees some of the Kurdish factions as terrorists determined ultimately to destabilize Turkey to create a Kurdish state. Turkey, some analysts said, has been content to sit back and see two of its enemies — Kurdish separatists and Islamist militants — killing each other.

Turkey has insisted that a group of non-Islamist rebels, with the Free Syrian Army, or F.S.A., also join the fight for Kobani. These rebel fighters have gone reluctantly, because they see their primary enemy as the Assad government.

Abu Mohammad al-Raqqawi, an activist from Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, who is affiliated with the F.S.A. in Kobani, said the fighters were there only because the Turks saw them as a proxy to prevent the Kurds from establishing independence within Syria. “No one is winning,” he said. “It is stationary. Why is Kobani, in the eyes of the Americans, more important than Raqqa?”

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GRAPHIC

Areas Under ISIS Control

A visual guide to the crisis in Iraq and Syria.

 

 

In Suruc and its surrounding villages in southern Turkey, normally a place of rural tranquillity and pastoral charms, life moves to the rhythm of the war next door. In the city center, United Nations trucks and Turkish armored vehicles clog the streets, and Syrian men congregate in the town square.

The story here is a chapter of the broader drama playing out across the Middle East, as the Islamic State seeks to redraw the map crafted by the West nearly a century ago. This region was once under the Ottoman Empire until Syria and Turkey were created after World War I, with the border dividing families and challenging identities.

Kobani was built up around a railroad station in the early 20th century, as the Germans, under Ottoman supervision, built a rail line connecting Berlin to Baghdad. The name Kobani was a butchered version of the German word for company — “kompanie.” The French later ruled Syria, and in Kobani residents still say “pardon” with a French accent and use French numbers.

Salih Issa, a Kurd from Syria, stood on a mosque rooftop at a border village inside Turkey on a recent morning, watching the fighting. Decades ago, his great-grandfather was buried in the graveyard next to the mosque. “Before the fence, we were all the same,” he said. “The border divided the families.”

A 1999 Turkish film, a comedy called “Propaganda,” told the story of a customs officer charged with building a border through his hometown, dividing it between Syria and Turkey, and destroying friendships and families. “Borders have caused people trouble ever since nation states were conceptualized,” said Sinan Cetin, the filmmaker.

The Kurds have called the battle for Kobani their Stalingrad, and the fight has already taken its place alongside Halabja, the Iraqi Kurdish city where Saddam Hussein killed thousands of civilians in the 1980s with mustard gas, as a symbol of oppression.

“Kobani has emerged as an icon for Kurdish resistance and affirmation that we are here, and we are here to stay,” said Barham Salih, the former prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. “It has become a unifying symbol for Kurds across the Middle East. In some ways it has also changed the narrative about the Kurdish people from tragedy to that of resistance.”

The Americans, Mr. Cohen said, can look to the Vietnam War and the battle of Khe Sanh, in which the Americans poured an enormous amount of resources into a fight with little strategic value and which history has now largely forgotten. Then, the Americans saw in Khe Sanh echoes of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which unfolded more than a decade earlier and pushed the French out of Vietnam.

“Whenever you go to war, you are haunted by ghosts,” Mr. Cohen said. “And you are haunted by previous conflicts.”

For the United States, the battle for Kobani has also underscored another reality: Kurds are reliably, and demonstrably, pro-American.

Around midday recently, in a tiny village on the Turkish side with a clear line of sight to the fighting across the border, a baby was napping. His father, a Kobani exile named Ahmet Miso, sat outside on a plastic chair.

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“In the Middle East, our brothers the Arabs are not helping, and the Americans decided to help the Kurds of Kobani because they care,” he said.

Just then, several large explosions were heard, and Mr. Miso rushed up to the roof to watch the latest American airstrikes.

Downstairs, the baby was waking up. His name: Barack Obama Ahmet.

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This entry was posted on 2014-11-20 by in News Articles.
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