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Islamic State Closing in on Kurds in Syria

Kurdish enclave in northern Syria has fought off regime forces and jihadists for two years; but against well-armed Islamic State, Kurdish fighters face possibility of disastrous defeat.

Carl Drott
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Carl Drott

KOBANI, Syria - The Kurdish town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) in northern Syria has come under serious threat from the militants of Islamic State in the past few days. For over two years, the armed group called the People’s Protection Units (YPG) has kept out both regime forces and attacking jihadists, but this time it is facing the possibility of a disastrous defeat.

The Kurdish enclave is surrounded on three sides by IS, which has cut off the water and electricity supply for several months now. Turkey had been keeping its border tightly sealed on the fourth side, but opened it on Friday and an estimated 60,000 Syrian Kurds fled into the country in the space of 24 hours.

IS militants had launched serious attacks against Kobani during the spring, and their efforts to capture the enclave intensified further in July. In the evening of Monday September 15, their latest and seemingly most determined assault began.

In a rare visit to the Kobani enclave exactly two weeks before the current clashes broke out, your correspondent could witness preparations taking place for the next round of fighting.

Standing on a dusty football pitch, a group of 150 mostly middle-aged and older men line up in a square formation, their faces expressing silent defiance and determination. They form a sort of home guard unit, which is in the first instance supposed to relieve YPG and the Asayish (local police force) from routine duties behind the lines. However, if needed, they will themselves go to the frontlines to fight.

Most of the volunteers belong to the “Unit of the Martyr Mustafa,” named after a fighter who was buried earlier that day. His beheaded corpse was found in a shallow grave when YPG retook the hill where he was killed a few weeks ago. A former political prisoner of the Syrian regime, who suffered permanent injuries from severe torture, Mustafa joined YPG last year.

A few women have formed a separate unit, called the “Unit of the Martyr Jin,” named after a young female fighter who fell during the spring. Her mother, Samira, is now serving in the unit that bears her daughter’s name. “I was a law student in Aleppo,” says a young woman standing beside her, “but IS killed my father.”

With IS advancing at a rapid pace, these volunteers are almost certainly now on the frontlines.

Reinforcements from PKK

From a hilltop overlooking the river Euphrates, a YPG fighter scans the enemy-held villages beneath through her binoculars. Her name is Sorkhun and, despite being no more than 24, she is already a veteran, having joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at the age of 14 and served in its armed wing.

Sorkhun was born here in Syria. After almost a decade “in the mountains,” she returned in June 2013 to join YPG. At first, she fought in her hometown of Serekaniye (Ras al-Ayn) and many other places in the northeastern Jazira region, before she came to Kobani in early February this year.

Not only have increasingly large numbers of PKK veterans like Sorkhun come back to fight. Previously civilian Kurdish youths from Turkey have also crossed the border in large numbers to get military training and defend the area. Place names like Serekaniye and Kobani have now become rallying cries for Kurds everywhere. “We are calling for the unity of the Kurdish people, as well as all the other communities living here,” says Sorkhun.

At a time when sectarian hatred and violence is engulfing the whole region, the secular PKK has established itself as one of the most formidable fighting forces facing the IS threat and defending threatened communities, both in Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, the PKK is still designated as a terrorist organization by the EU, United States and Turkey.

Last month, PKK fighters joined forces with YPG to rescue thousands of Yazidi Kurds from a mountain in northern Iraq. Otherwise, those trapped there would in all likelihood have died of thirst, been massacred or taken as slaves by IS. “When Shingal was attacked, we simply had to come down to help them,” says Sorkhun. “If anyone asks for our help we will come.”

Fall of Kobani?

In infantry combat, YPG has proven itself to be far superior to IS. Well disciplined, motivated and willing to risk their lives without being eager to die, YPG fighters had been holding back the suicidal mass charges of their opponents.

However, in the ongoing fighting around Kobani, IS has a couple of advantages that may prove decisive. After it looted new supplies from the Iraqi army this summer, IS now has wide access to rocket artillery, heavy mortars, 23 and 57 mm. auto-cannons, as well as tanks. YPG has makeshift armored personnel carriers, outdated assault rifles and machine guns, and suffers an acute lack of heavy and advanced weaponry. Furthermore, unlike YPG, IS can easily resupply and call in reinforcements from elsewhere.

Unlike the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, Kobani can count on neither air strikes nor weapons deliveries from the West. The provisional civilian government in the enclave, which was proclaimed in January, has repeatedly called for support from countries worldwide, mentioning in particular the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Russia – as well as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

“The outside world has to help us here,” said Idris Nassan, the deputy foreign minister of the enclave government, in a recent interview. “Because IS will ultimately threaten everyone.”

While Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, has spoken out in support of Kobani, the question is whether substantial help of the right kind can arrive in time – and who will supply it. The most obvious hindrance was Turkey’s refusal to let anyone across the border, but that has now changed.

Over 20 villages have already fallen to IS and hundreds of people are reported missing, possibly in IS hands. If something is not done very soon, it is looking increasingly likely that Kobani will fall.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Kurdish female members of the People's Protection Units stand guard at a check point near the northeastern city of Qamishli, Syria, March. 3, 2013.Credit: AP

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