Saving Kobane

A Syrian town caught between what’s right and what’s political.

Saving Kobane is about preventing ISIL from gaining a major victory, writes Abdulla [Getty]

On August 7, US President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes to stop the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional capital, Erbil.

For many Kurds, the airstrikes underscored what they felt has been a genuine US commitment to protect the region’s ethnic Kurds. In this particular instance, it was to save the Yazidi Kurds trapped on Mount Sinjar.

Kurds still remember the words of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell when he visited the graveyard of 5,000 victims of the chemical gas attack on the northern Iraqi town of Halabja, and declared: “What happened here in 1988 is never going to happen again.”

With his August declaration “America is coming to help”, Obama seemed to be reaffirming the pledge his country made – albeit, under a previous administration.

The airstrikes succeeded in halting ISIL’s advance. In a matter of days, the group retreated and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters retook most of the villages they had lost near Erbil. The US not only carried out airstrikes, it also sent requests to several European countries, such as Germany, to provide advanced weapons and training to the Kurdish fighters.

Kurds as target

After facing such a strong Western-backed resistance, ISIL realised that capturing Erbil was no longer a realistic objective. The group then shifted its focus to Syria. Their target, however, has remained the same: the Kurds.

US sends mix signal on ‘buffer zone’ inside Syria

If Iraqi Kurds were able to secure invaluable assistance from the West, Syrian Kurds have not received anything of the kind. The northern Syrian town of Kobane, part of the semi-autonomous zone unilaterally declared by Kurds in January, does not possess the same strategic significance as Erbil does for the United States.

Unlike Erbil, Kobane is not rich in oil and natural gas and it is not as vital to the unity of one of the world’s biggest oil-producing nations.

With Bashar al-Assad’s persistence to remain in power, the future of Syria is far less certain than that of Iraq. Unlike their Iraqi brethren, Syrian Kurds have a marginal role in holding their war-torn country together.

Moreover, as Obama has highlighted, several US diplomats and US citizens are based in Erbil. Most western nationals living in Iraqi Kurdistan happen to work for giant oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and Total, which have billions of dollars worth of investment in northern Iraq. Kobane is unlucky in that it lacks both oil and US diplomats.

More significantly, perhaps, Turkey has made no secret of its suspicions of Syria’s Kurds, of its disdain for their alleged links to Turkey’s banned autonomy-seeking Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and its desire to quash the measure of self-rule Syrian Kurds have achieved.

For more than three weeks, Turkey, a key US and Nato ally, has been widely criticised for standing by and watching as ISIL fighters slaughter Kobane residents. Even though the US has carried out surgical airstrikes around Kobane, they have not halted the group’s advance as they did for Erbil in a matter of days.

“Every fight is different. There are different forces on the ground,” Jen Psaki, State Department Spokesperson, told me at a press conference on October 8.

Psaki is right in saying that the forces in Kobane are different from the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga but the failure to stop ISIL’s advance on Kobane does not mean that the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) fighters are any less organised or less determined than their Iraqi brethren.

In fact, YPG fighters have proven to be a much stronger defense force since they have held out for three weeks. ISIL was successful in taking several villages and towns from the Peshmerga in northern Iraq in a matter of days.

So why did the US feel compelled to save Erbil but not Kobane? Kerry put forward another reason that makes more sense.

“As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobane,” said Kerry “you have to step back and understand the strategic objective.”

In other words, saving Kobane may be morally right but not strategically so.

Turkey’s role

What cannot be underestimated is the role Turkey plays in the region and the ongoing conflict. Even though Ankara did not intervene to save Erbil from ISIL, it had no problem with the US extending support to the Iraqi Kurds, who are Turkey’s economic and political partners.

However, when it comes to Syrian Kurdish rebels protecting Kobane, Turkey bills them as terrorists – in the words of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “the same” as ISIL.

Turkey may be correct in its assessment that the YPG rebels are an offshoot of the PKK, a group designated as terrorist both by the US and Turkey. But the US categorisation of the PKK has more to do with pleasing its Nato ally than the threat PKK actually poses to Turkish civilians.

So when Kerry says saving Kobane is not a “strategic objective” for the US, he really means it’s not a strategic objective for Turkey. Obviously, the US places far more of a premium on its partnership with Turkey than on saving the little town of Kobane – and its people.

But Kerry, just like the Turkish leaders, might well be miscalculating what is truly at stake with the fall of Kobane. Morality aside, saving Kobane is about preventing ISIL from gaining a major victory, an achievement that directly puts into question the effectiveness of Obama’s “degrade and ultimately destroy” strategy.

Capturing this border town can also serve as a recruiting tool for extremists and a safe haven for foreign fighters after they arrive in Turkey. More importantly, the fall of Kobane could well mean the derailment of a hard-won peace process between Turkey and the PKK rebels.

Namo Abdulla is Washington bureau chief for Rudaw, a 24-hour news channel in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He hosts an English-language show on Rudaw called Inside America, which discusses US foreign policy in the Middle East.