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Saving Kobanê: the town that the world can’t afford to lose to ISIS

A Syrian boy sleeps on a blanket on the stony ground at a Turkish refugee camp. EPA/SEDAT SUNA

Few people had heard of the Syrian town of Kobanê until recently. But since coming under sustained attack in the last fortnight by Islamic State (ISIS) militants, the town has attracted international attention as at least 160,000 people have fled across the border to Turkey. Kobanê now stands as a barometer of the success – or possible failure – of the campaign to counter ISIS.

Ayn al-Arab, known by its predominantly Kurdish residents as Kobanê, is a district on the Syrian and Turkish border. European Commission DG ECHO/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Pressed hard against the Turkish border, Kobanê (also known as Ayn al-Arab) is one of several autonomous Kurdish territories within Syria. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia of Kobanê have been defending their homeland doggedly, but, significantly outnumbered and outgunned, they have steadily conceded territory.

ISIS gangs are within kilometres of the town centre and thousands of Kobanê Kurds have fled into Turkey.

Kobanê, valiantly resisting ISIS thuggery, has become a rallying point for Kurds across the Middle East, Europe, the US and Australia. Many Turkish Kurds have attempted to cross the border to join to the fight against ISIS. Others maintain a vigil from the uplands around the Turkish border town of Suruç.

Turkish armed forces have not taken part in the hostilities, but after several stray ISIS shells landed in Turkish territory, tanks were brought into position at a vantage point overlooking Kobanê.

In the meantime, in a call for international help for the besieged Kurdish forces, activists have initiated a social media campaign and sit-ins in European capitals.

Saleh Muslim, leader of Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party, has appealed for military aid, warning that if it is not forthcoming genocide is at hand.

The US has undertaken some air strikes in defence of Kobanê, but these have not stopped ISIS’s advance.

Despite being significantly outgunned, the Kurdish YPG militia have proven highly effective in their fight against ISIS, a struggle they have carried on for almost two years without outside support. It was YPG brigades that crossed the Iraq border in August to come to the aid of the Yazidis stranded and at the mercy of ISIS on Mt Sinjar.

In fact, the YPG appear to be tailor-made to be part of the military counterbalance to ISIS that President Barack Obama speaks of: indigenous, secular and non-sectarian.

While most Syrian Kurds are Sunni Muslims, amongst their ranks the YPG count local Syriac Christian units. They also include significant numbers of female fighters, some of whom have attracted the attention of Western media.

That the US-led coalition is not making a concerted effort to relieve Kobanê is puzzling to say the least. It appears that the PYD, which represents Syrian Kurds, has little direct contact with Western powers, so its appeals are not reaching appropriate ears.

The International Crisis Group also notes that there are concerns that the PYD was, at least initially, in a de-facto alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. PYD representatives strongly deny this.

Concerns are also raised about the PYD’s links with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK initiated a terror campaign to establish a Kurdish state in Turkey in the 1980s. The Turkish government has been in negotiations with the PKK since late 2012, but still classifies the group as terrorist. The US, EU and Australia also list the PKK as a terrorist organisation, largely at the behest of Turkey.

However, the PKK has played a significant role in the fight against ISIS in northern Iraq, coming to the aid of the Kurdistan regional government, which is regarded as a staunch ally of the US and other Western powers. The military advances of PKK units against ISIS and the important role they played in the rescue of Yazidi refugees has cast them in a much more positive light.

Meanwhile, in a region prone to conspiracy theories, Kurdish activists see Turkey as being behind the failure of the US-led coalition to come to the aid of Kobanê. They accuse Turkey of wanting the PYD to be defeated due to its links with the PKK. In turn, PKK officials remark that if Kobanê falls, negotiations with Ankara will cease.

In fact, Turkey has only recently agreed to participate in the coalition against ISIS, previously demurring on the basis that ISIS held as hostage 49 Turkish diplomatic staff from Mosul. With the hostages released, Turkey is now debating what role it will play.

All the while, the ISIS noose tightens around Kobanê. If it falls it is hardly an auspicious start for Obama’s campaign to encourage local forces to confront the barbarity of ISIS. It is likely to result in a massacre of the local Kurdish population or, at best, a mass exodus of refugees across the Turkish border.

Kurdish populations across the Middle East have been sold out by Western powers before, and many a horror has befallen them – but never before in such plain sight.

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