Rivalries in Kobani Play Into Hands of ISIS

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An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter walks at a staging area on the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border, across from the Syrian town of Kobani, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. Credit: AFP

“The U.S. is too focused on Kobani and isn’t paying enough attention to other places,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Monday. He also disclosed that some of the weapons provided to the rebels in the Kurdish town had fallen to Islamic State while others had been seized by fighters of the Kurdish Union Party, which is working with the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which is listed internationally as a terror group.

Erdogan fears an Islamic State takeover of the Syrian city of Aleppo, and he's pushing to have Syrian territory declared a no-fly zone to prevent the Syrian army from providing air cover to Islamic State forces operating in the Aleppo region. The Turkish concerns are real. If Islamic State, which has started to join forces with Jabhat al-Nusra, gains control of Aleppo, only 60 kilometers (36 miles) from the Turkish border, another 1.5 million refugees are liable to flee to Turkey, doubling the refugee population there.

Turkey is not the only country that views the battle for Kobani as secondary to the larger campaign in Syria. The Free Syrian Army command, which was asked to send reinforcements to Kobani, made clear that it would not send any more troops there because it needs its soldiers to fight the Islamic State and the Syrian regime in Aleppo. That’s not the only reason for the FSA’s reluctance. Two days ago it emerged that 20 of the 50 FSA fighters who were operating in Kobani had left the city and crossed into Turkey. That's because the Kurdish forces that had arrived from Kurdistan to aid the fighters in Kobani refused to share the weapons and ammunition that had been airdropped to them by the U.S.-led coalition forces.

The arrival of some 150 Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters in Kobani is considered a diplomatic success for the Americans, who had pressured Erdogan to allow them to transit via Turkey. But their involvement has caused serious disputes in the field. The Kurdish Union Party, whose forces have been fighting for weeks against Islamic State, fears that the Iraqi forces are liable to seize control of the city and its environs and force them out.

Turkish security officials say that at first it was agreed that 2,000 peshmerga fighters would enter Kobani, but the local Kurdish leadership insisted on reducing the number to 1,500, then 1,350, until only 150 fighters were allowed in. This number won't change the course of the fighting, even though securing their participation might look like a coordinated international effort.

The tugs of war being conducted in Kobani between Turkey and the FSA on the one hand, and the Kurdish forces, which are themselves feuding and divided, attest to the enormous difficulty facing the campaign against Islamic State. Now that most of Kobani’s 150,000 residents have fled to Turkey, the battle for the city is no longer a campaign to save lives but a war of prestige for control of a city whose strategic importance is doubtful. The battle for Kobani seems to have become a test of the coalition forces’ determination – albeit not of their efficacy – in dealing with Islamic State.

The internal rivalries and disagreements among the forces helping the fighters in Kobani not only highlight the failures of the air strategy led by the U.S., they are playing into the hands of the Islamic State forces, who are entrenching themselves in the territories they’ve conquered so far. The hundreds of air strikes carried out by the air forces of the U.S., Canada, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cannot replace a needed large-scale ground war. But that would require cooperation among the Iraqi military, either the Syrian rebel forces or the Syrian army, the Sunni tribes in Iraq (some of which are already fighting against Islamic State), and the Kurdish forces. Right now, there is no political or military power that could enable cooperation among these forces, which are all at each other’s throats. It might not be long before it emerges that in Iraq and Syria, they will have to adjust to Islamic State being there to stay.

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