In international news, the recent liberation of the Syrian city of Kobani from the control of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters by Syrian Kurd rebels was a little reported story which popped up briefly for its 15 minutes on the mainstream media roulette wheel of fame. Then it disappeared. But the under-reported little story – a story with a huge irony – deserves retelling.
The story – which can be pieced together from a number of media reports – involves the identity of the major fighting force that kicked ISIS out of Kobani, a city of 200,000 mainly ethnic Kurds in north Syria, a stone’s throw from the Turkish border.
It turns out it was a group of Syrian Kurd leftists who kicked ISIS’ ass, if you forgive the vernacular, after 4 months of intense house-to-house fighting, at times room-to-room, and pushed them out of the city entirely. It was the People’s Protection Units, a local leftist organization, and its affiliate, the Women’s Protection Units, that have collective command structures and believe in the equality of women, and – in fact – have numerous women commanders in the fighting units. (These are new wave Sixties leftists, not from the old school like China, Russia, North Korea.)
Kobani (also spelled “Kobane”) was saved not only by the People’s Protection Units, known by their initials YPG, but also by other Syrian rebels, by Kurdish fighters from Iraq called peshmergas, and by US air support that delivered 700 strikes in and around Kobani in support of the ground forces.
The U.S.-led air assault on Kobani began September 23, with about a reported half-dozen airstrikes each day on average, and often more. And the Kurdish leftists from Kobani are the first to thank the other forces including the US bombs and drones.
The story of the leftists defeating the ISIS holy warriors was not seen as that much of a positive development. The US Central Command praised the “courageous fighters” of Kobani for their efforts and fortitude, without mentioning that they were YPG leftists or even that they were Kurds.The US military certainly doesn’t want it to be known that their best “boots on the ground” in the fight against Islamic State is a bunch of armed leftists – the kind of leftists the US military battled in Central America in the 1980s.
The mass media doesn’t want to embrace and enhance the reputations of these leftists either, as they don’t fit nicely into the global corporate narrative.
And ISIS (also known as ISIL) doesn’t want to acknowledge that their best jihadist fighters were routed by secular leftists either, and blamed their defeat in Kobani on the crusader US air strikes and their “rats”.
Yet it’s universally recognized – and again, totally under-reported – that the fight was won on the ground by these Kurdish leftists. For 134 days the YPG provided the main armed warriors who prevented ISIS units from gaining a threshold on the city and from there capturing the border region.
YPG – like most secular leftist groups with roots from the 1960s – has deep beliefs in fairness, justice, freedom, in democracy, in ethnic, racial and gender equality, in socialism. It’s just that this group also believes in armed struggle against its oppressors. The YPG secular units in Kobani, affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), have formed a self-governing organization to manage the city – and are now in the process of rebuilding it.
In general, the leaders of Syrian Kurds – who represent 10% to 15% of the Syrian population – say they are seeking greater autonomy for their people and and increased rights in their region.
Most mainstream media reports agree that the recent victory over ISIS has special significance for the regional response to the violence of the organization that swept over major sections of Syria and Iraq in a few weeks in 2014. Pundits are declaring the Kurds as the Pentagon’s needed on the ground boots.
While this could be part of the future, a good part of the actual significance is that while the ISIS onslaught was being met in Kobani, the city’s resistance became a worldwide symbol in the fight against ISIS.
The Kurdish Syrian rebels who drove ISIS out proved to be one of the only fighting forces arrayed against ISIS that has won back control of territory they had seized. The leftist Kurds are one of the few actual forces who are successfully resisting and pushing back against the black flag waving, be-heading group – a group that is seemingly quickly racking up fairly universal condemnation.
One official in Kobani at the end of January told the international press:
“Kobani has no more Daesh. It’s been totally cleansed of Daesh.”
(“Daesh” is the Arab name for Islamic State.) A spokesman for the Kurds, Polat Jan, declared on Twitter:
“Congratulations to humanity, Kurdistan, and the people of Kobane on the liberation of Kobane.”
Yet, this victory against ISIS has special significance in this region torn apart by sectarian religious beliefs. The victorious Kurds are for the most part secularists, atheists – the exact opposite of ISIS.
Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC, has this to say about the Kurdish fighters who have been facing off with ISIS:
“[The Kurds] are the absolute antithesis of ISIS. [With] ISIS you have these incredible fundamentalists that are bloodthirsty and who believe they are doing God’s work, and then you have these Marxist secularists, many of them even atheists, who are fighting for their own local rights and Kurdish rights in the region.”
Engel singled out the Kurds as the most important factor in the fight for Kobani. The over-all significance of the victory at Kobani was played down by US Secretary of State John Kerry, and this stance was criticized by Engel who explained that Kobani,
“has become an important symbol — it is highly visible. Perhaps Secretary Kerry is being a little bit tone-deaf to the importance that Kobani has taken on here in [Turkey], on social media.”
A few months earlier before ISIS attacked Kobani, fighters of the YPG had battled Islamic State to provide an escape route for tens of thousands of members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, trapped on a mountaintop by ISIS advances.
At the end of January, when the news spread about the liberation of Kobani, spontaneous celebrations broke out across the border in Turkey and in other Kurdish areas and Syria, as well as in Iraq, Iran and as far off as Europe. Only 6 miles from the border with Syria in the Turkish town of Aligor, people cheered and applauded when they heard the news. They danced into the night, with celebratory gunshots ringing out.
One 28-year-old Kurd from Turkey told the press:
“This is a celebration for the Kurds. Kobani is a victory for all Kurds. We have been divided for so long. Now the whole world knows that the Kurds are one.”
According to news accounts, Islamic State warriors entered Kobani in September last year in their initial blitzkrieg-like sweep. In just days, ISIS had swept through Kobani’s countryside, and captured almost 300 villages. They quickly moved to take control of the center of the small city, with plans, apparently, to take control of much of the lengthy border between Syria and Turkey.
At one point they had captured most of Kobani itself, except for a couple of square kilometers. They appeared to be on the verge on taking over the entire city. And everybody believed they would, especially the US, Turkey and the media.
But the local Kurds didn’t believe it as they hadn’t given up. They fought back. Their organizational integrity, morale and communal views helped keep their fight against ISIS going. Kobani became a major cause among Kurds in the region and in the Kurdish diaspora. Their fight in this previously-unknown town in a corner of Syria became a world-wide symbol of fighting against ISIS.
Plus ISIS made it their symbol – a symbol of their victorious march for a new caliphate, and poured in fighters and resources, even making a video by a British journalist extolling the virtues of ISIS rule in Kobani.
After 4 months of snipers, bombings and explosions, the city was largely in ruins. The vast majority of the people – by far mostly ethnic Kurds – had fled mainly into Turkey and now live in refugee camps. About 12,000 residents remained in the pock-marked and bullet-ridden city.
According to the the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the fighting left at least 1,600 people dead, with nearly 1200 ISIS warriors among that total. The YPG claim that ISIS lost over 3,700 fighters, from a total of 27 countries.
Initially, the US was reluctant to help the Kurds in Kobani and played down its significance. In reality, the US was probably more concerned with its relations with Turkey, a US and NATO-ally. The US concern was that Turkey would get upset if Americans helped the Kobani Kurds because Turkey – which has a sizable population of ethnic Kurds – has outlawed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and has fought against them for 30 years. The Kurdish party has been leading an insurgency for Kurdish rights and territory. So, Turkey did not favor the Kurd fighters and opposed any victory for them in Kobani. Turkey considers the YPG and the PKK as “terrorists”.
The complexities are intense. Turkey has officially come out against its neighbor, the Syrian government of Assad, and are in favor of the rebellion against him. ISIS was fighting Assad – and there is some evidence that Turkey has funneled arms and money to ISIS. So, Turkey viewed anyone fighting ISIS as enemies in this convoluted, overly-nationalistic stance.
The US air campaign – bombers, fighter jets and drones – definitely helped defeat ISIS in Kobani – the Kurdish leftists readily acknowledge this. Since October of 2014, it’s estimated that 70% of the 1000 US coalition’s air strikes were on the Kobani-area ISIS targets.
And the Kurds were thankful. Mahmud Berxwedan, the top commander of the People’s Protection Units, acknowledged – in a victory speech where he declared that Kobani had “became a graveyard” for ISIS militants – that the win against ISIS was a joint effort, and thanked the US-led coalition for the air support. Gelo Isa, a senior official of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Kobane, said:
“Americans have played an important role in the liberation of Kobane city, and we truly appreciate it. They just want to be on the safe side by speaking with a cautious tone.”
But no one wanted to give the Kurd leftists the credit for the victory. Not ISIS and not the US military command.
Anwar Muslim, the president of the self-declared Syrian Kurdish canton of Kobani, stated that the help of the international community is needed to rebuild the city:
“Unfortunately about 70 percentage of our city is destroyed, and we will need the help of everybody to rebuild our city better than before. Kobane is not only ours any more; it is the city of the entire world, it is the symbol of their hope as people around the globe stood with us against ISIL’s terror.”
Moslem said that their focus will be on reconstruction efforts, even while YPG and their allies begin the liberation of villages surrounding Kobani:
“Our focus right now is to start rebuilding efforts as many people are anxious to return to their homes. As the canton administration, we have formed a special reconstruction committee to oversee these efforts.”
A campaign has been launched by Kurds on social media websites calling for the city of Kobani to be turned into an open-air museum with a brand new city be built in its vicinity.
One reporter for an international media investigated the tactics these men and women “lions” employed to defeat ISIS. He found that the quick withdrawal of fighters from the surrounding villages and positioning them inside the city was the main strategy of YPG during the battle for Kobani. This move was seen by some – even perhaps by ISIS – as defeatist, and the media spread the news that the city had fallen.
Yet actually, the Kurds believed that drawing ISIS into an urban war zone that they were unfamiliar with and up against local fighters who knew every street was very smart. Plus, unlike in some other cities, the people of the city supported YPG and assisted them in their campaign against the intruders.
In addition, the Kurd leftists were hardened fighters, largely politically motivated individuals, prepared to defend their city at any cost. One woman commander, rather than fall into ISIS hands, killed herself, taking a few ISIS fighters with her. The YPG is very proud of its women warriors and has publicly memorialized their actions in the city’s battle.
In an even smaller story, there are some Americans who have joined the Kurdish leftists in fighting ISIS. Usually the media reports on how European and some Americans have crossed through Turkey to join ISIS in Syria.
An American, Jordan Matson of Wisconsin, joined the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. He and three other Americans and an Australian national talked to an Associated Press reporter. They spoke of joining Kurdish forces through a Facebook page run by YPG. They described how they crossed from Turkey into Syria before later joining a Kurdish offensive sweeping into Iraq to challenge the Islamic State group.
SAN DIEGO FREE PRESS