Fighters from ISIS used tanks and heavy artillery to enter Kobani, a strategic Syrian town on the border with Turkey. ISIS raised its flag on a hill overlooking Kobani, then engaged in heavy street battles against Kurdish defenders of the town.
The town of Kobani has been under heavy attack since mid-September, with ISIS capturing quickly dozens of villages, prompting around 160,000 Syrians to flee. Capturing Kobani would give ISIS access to its positions in the Syrian province of Aleppo and stronghold of Raqqa to the east, allowing it to consolidate its sweep across northern Iraq and Syria.
While the U.S. led airstrikes have targeted ISIS positions in Kobani, Kurdish officials say that without access to the same sophisticated weapons ISIS has, they will not be able to withstand and eradicate the ISIS threat.
Mutlu Civiroglu, an analyst specializing in Syria and Turkey, weighs in on what should be done to avoid a potential civilian massacre. He argues that the fall of Kobani would be a devastating blow to stability along the border, one that would have grave consequences for the entire region.
Syria Deeply: What is the current situation on the ground in Kobani?
Civiroglu: Sources inside Kobani confirmed that ISIS has arrived in the city. They penetrated through the eastern front, and there are currently very severe urban clashes under way. This was predictable. Kurds were expecting this, so they were preparing for urban clashes with ISIS, but there are now severe concerns about 12,000 civilians trapped inside the city.
A YPG spokesman [the YPG is the predominant Kurdish military force] told me there are also civilians caught in a no-man’s land between Syria and Turkey who face severe danger. There are casualties on both sides, but ISIS is fighting with very sophisticated weapons unlike the Kurds. The Kurdish calls for weapons were unanswered by the international community.
It is getting harder and harder to get in touch with people inside Kobani. The YPG told journalists to evacuate the city. At the moment, the fight is getting more intense.
Syria Deeply: How are Kurds being received on the Turkish border that are fleeing the fight in Kobani against ISIS?
Civiroglu: According to the YPG spokesman Polat Can, there are thousands of people stuck in a no man’s land who aren’t allowed to enter Turkey.
Kobani was being attacked from three sides – east, west and south –but unconfirmed reports say that ISIS penetrated Kobani from the north, from villages that the Turkish army forcibly evacuated yesterday, due to the ISIS shelling that happened a couple days ago.
These reports have been interpreted as a plan by the Turkish government to evacuate villages so that ISIS can easily penetrate Kobani from the northern front. The situation is even worse now that Kobani is being attacked from four sides.
Syria Deeply: How are the Kurds resisting an ISIS advance? Have the U.S. airstrikes helped stop the advancement of ISIS?
Civiroglu: The YPG, YPJ [the female military force of YPG] and civilian volunteers are defending Kobani. [On Sunday] there was a suicide attack by a YPJ fighter against ISIS fighters, the third or fourth attack of its kind. Fighters are resorting to blowing themselves up because they do not have the ammunition and weapons to protect themselves against ISIS.
There were several airstrikes against ISIS positions near Kobani, but local sources – journalists, YPG officials, activists, local Kurdish officials – more or less agree that they either had no or very limited impact on ISIS. The attacks aren’t frequent and they happen around the same time at night. According to the Kobani Local Council, ISIS goes into hiding in anticipation of the attacks and transports its weapons to different locations at night, so when the strikes hit there is no damage [to ISIS]. In response Kurds on the ground have demanded that the strikes take place in the daytime.
Additionally, Kobani officials say they need weapons to defend themselves, but so far haven’t received any from the coalition partners who are fighting ISIS. The leader of the PYD, Salih Muslim, made an urgent appeal to the international community, saying that the time was running out to do something against ISIS and that a massacre was imminent.
Syria Deeply: What would be a game-changer? What are the consequences of inaction?
Civiroglu: A game-changer will come if the international community steps in with effective airstrikes that aim to degrade and destroy ISIS. The second would be providing Kurds heavy arms, such as anti-tank missiles that can neutralize ISIS, Humvees, tanks and heavy weapons. If this doesn’t happen, heavy massacres will follow. ISIS has already beheaded a couple people the past few days. There are alarming reports that women are being beheaded. Kurdish officials have warned that these types of attacks could occur on a large scale.
Syria Deeply: Where does Turkey stand on getting involved in the fight against ISIS in Kobani?
Civiroglu: Syrian Kurds are convinced that Turkey is in a fight against them. Turkey is watching these heavy clashes from tanks on the border and doing nothing as people are killed and clashes continue, even though the Turkish prime minister said he wouldn’t allow Kobani to fall. This is an alarming situation that further supports the claim that Turkey sides with ISIS against the Kurds. Both Syrian Kurds and Turkish Kurds are unhappy.
There are now calls by the pro-Kurdish HDP party to take to the streets, and jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan made a statement saying that Kurds should take to the street to fight ISIS
The Kurds of Turkey are also very upset about Kurds on the other side of the border facing large-scale massacre. The peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK is about to crack. If Kobani falls to ISIS and a massacre is carried out, it will have huge consequences not only in Syria, but also in Turkey and all countries that have a Kurdish population.
Syria Deeply: What is the significance if Kobani were to fall to ISIS?
Civiroglu: Kobani has been resisting attacks by ISIS for over a year now. ISIS is not new, even though the international community is just focusing on it now.
Kobani is like an island trapped among ISIS-controlled territory. To the west of Kobani is Jarabulus and Southwest is Manbij, to the south is Raqqa, to the east is Tal Abyad, all areas controlled by ISIS. They are trying to seize the area to connect the areas under its control.
After Mosul, ISIS feels very strong, and this will make them even stronger. It will give them access to a border, which would give ISIS a huge advantage, and allow fighters to flow in and out, to sell oil more easily. Right now ISIS and Turkey are on good terms, but the capture of Kobani would give ISIS control of a border with direct access to Turkey.