Winning Kobane, Losing Syria
By: Michael Weiss/Now Lebanon
Within the space of a week, Kobane, the Syrian-Kurdish city on the lip of the Turkey that has been besieged for weeks by the Islamic State, has gone from being “not strategically vital” to “symbolically important,” to give the Wall Street Journal’s paraphrase of official U.S. government thinking on the subject. The number of airstrikes there has now far outstripped that of any other target in either Syria or Iraq. This includes Mount Sinjar, the site of ISIS’ first aspirational genocide of an ethnic minority population from which ISIS was temporarily expelled last August. Unfortunately, however, the jihadists are back there again, having completely encircled the barren mountain where tens of thousands of Yazidis were left stranded without food and water in August. Yazidi villages have been retaken, although this time US aerial interference seems far less exigent, in light of Kobane’s plight.
The about-face is extraordinary. Earlier in the month, both the Pentagon and Ankara announced that Kobane’s fall was imminent. US Secretary of State John Kerry was all torn up but coldly realistic: “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what’s happening in Kobani,” he said on October 8, “you have to step back and understand the strategic objective.” Now Kerry says this: “We cannot take our eyes off the prize here. It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting [ISIS], as hard as it is, at this particular moment.”
Except that, as other US officials continue to insist, the “prize” isn’t Syria at all; it’s Iraq. ISIS is just so stupid that it has decided to throw the bulk of its manpower and its US-purloined heavy equipment at Kobane, which has thus become flypaper for terrorists. Some 400 ISIS fighters have been killed thus far, with serious losses in armaments and vehicles. US Central Command has dropped about 24 tons of medicine and weaponry onto the Kurdish citadel-city’s defenders, principally the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia run exclusively by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). It was these fighters who fought “valiantly,” according to Kerry, not just in Kobane but around Mount Sinjar last August, rescuing the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga who couldn’t hold out against the IS onslaught.
Here things got a little tricky for Washington because the PKK is a US-designated terrorist organization. Not to worry: White House and State Department lawyers cast a quick juridical eye over the problem and decided that the PYD is a legally distinct entity and therefore not subject to the same proscriptions on gun-running and military cooperation as the PKK, a fact which must have made PYD officials wiping their damp brows and laughing simultaneously given that they don’t deny being the Syrian branch of the PKK, and they openly consider Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK commander, their ideological godfather and hero — an assessment shared by Ankara for some 30 years.
Kobane’s transformation from an unworthy sideshow to the Dunkirk of Operation Inherent Resolve was remarkably swift, easy and rather creative for a normally languorous and analytically cautious commander-in-chief. True, US officials, beginning with former State Department Syria policy coordinator Robert Ford, had been holding indirect or quiet talks with the PYD since 2013, but in reality, Obama didn’t hesitate to arm the affiliate of a US-blacklisted organization to stop another, far more brutal one. “[O]fficials were desperate for partners on the ground on the Syrian side of the border,” the Journal noted. “In recent days, the Kurdish fighters had made gains.”
First, CentCom Commander General Lloyd Austin showed the president a proposal for saving the city, which couldn’t be done without resupplying the YPG. That was Friday. Obama approved the decision there and then. By Sunday, Soviet-era weapons, such as AK-47s, procured by the United States from Albania for resupplying the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq were en route from Erbil to Kuwait, where they were stowed aboard C-130 cargo planes. The planes began dropping them to the YPG units on Monday, although one errant package filled with grenades, mortar rounds and such blew the wrong way in the wind and wound up in the hands of ISIS, which was quick to publicize the catch on YouTube. (The Pentagon has since confirmed the mishap, though it insisted that this was just one cargo of 28.)
A representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) elaborated on the supply-chain to me yesterday. “Weapons were collected by the peshmerga from Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Dohuk,” he said. This logistical workaround was what you might call both symbolically important and strategically vital. White House and State Department lawyers figured that the PYD/PKK fudge would matter less if the arms being sent to the YPG technically belonged to Kurdistan Regional Government, under the leadership of President Massoud Barzani, an open ally of the United States. Barzani’s peshmerga, according to Kurdish media reports, are now ready to deploy to Kobane to help finish ISIS off, in a rare show of pan-Kurdish unity, albeit complete with the customary intra-Kurdish disagreement over who’s really in charge of what.
The peshmerga’s mobilization is also likely a salve to Turkey, which was unimpressed by Washington’s ingenuity; Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on October 20 that Turkey had already been letting Kurdish fighters from Iraq into Kobane; now there is talk of a formal “corridor” for peshmerga convoys. Multilateral talks between and among the KRG, PYD, other Kurdish parties, Turkey and the US have taken place in Ankara and Dohuk. As ever, everyone came away with different interpretations as to what was agreed.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in remarks published on Sunday, after he returned from a one-day trip to Afghanistan: “There has been talk about forming a front against ISIL by giving the PYD arms. But the PYD, for us, is equal to the PKK; it is a terrorist organization.” But then Obama rang and told him arming the PYD was a fait accompli. (Hurriyet columnist Murat Yetkin parsed which came first: Erdogan’s denunciation or Obama’s call, based on the DC/Ankara time difference, and decides it was likely the former). What Erdogan does next is anyone’s guess, although I hope that, whatever it is, it’s broadcast on live television.
Perhaps not wanting to feel left out, the Assad regime, too, has also announced that it will “continue” to send “military aid… at the highest level” to Kobane, according to Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi, who may be lying just to rub it in further or distract from the fact that the Syrian Air Force has taken the coalition’s preoccupation with one city as license to pursue its own objectives of late. It has escalated its aerial assaults — especially with barrel bombs — on the Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front positions in Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, Damascus, Deraa and Quneitra. Under other circumstances, or in another news cycle, some of these pummeled forces might be considered “partners on the ground on the Syrian side of the border.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has claimed that the regime has conducted over 210 airstrikes in the last 36 hours alone, whereas its daily average is around 12 to 20. Kobane, then, matters to Assad, too: so long as the coalition is preternaturally fixated there, he can annihilate the rebels he hates most with impunity and very little media attention.
America’s fickle favoritism with its proxies has not gone unnoticed by the majority of aspirational ones. Just as the first airdrops were being conducted over Kobane, Jad Bantha, an Oxford-educated activist in Damascus, tweeted a series of observations and complaints on October 20 which, judging from my recent conversations with other erstwhile pro-American rebels, reflect growing sentiment among Syria’s majority population. “Obama sent 1 tonne of medical supplies & loads of military supplies to PYD kurds only, neglecting thousands of Syrians who have fought ISIS” ran one. “Obama & his admin lied to us so many times, I would rather trust ISIS than Obama & his jokers! The US admin again prove they are our enemies” ran another.
And on the same day Bantha’s tweets were published, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly explained to the world the victims not so fortune enough to be considered of strategic or symbolic value to the Obama administration. For three days in early August, Sly writes, IS psychopaths “shelled, beheaded, crucified and shot hundreds of members of the Shaitat tribe after they dared to rise up” against them in Abu Hamam, a village in Deir Ezzor. “By the time the killing stopped, 700 people were dead, activists and survivors say, making this the bloodiest single atrocity committed by the Islamic State in Syria since it declared its existence 18 months ago.” Men and boys older than 15 were summarily killed once IS took Abu Hamam. Then IS boasted of its savagery online:
A photo essay on an Islamic State blog boasted of the different ways tribesmen were killed, including beheadings, mass shootings and a crucifixion. A video shows how the militants lined up scores of captives on a road, their hands bound, then set about clumsily decapitating them, one by one. The executioners, speaking in Tunisian, Egyptian and Saudi accents, taunted those not yet dead by swinging severed heads in front of their faces and telling them, “It’s your turn next.”
Abu Salem, a Shaitat tribesman who survived this massacre, and who spoke to Sly in Turkey’s Reyhanli, said: “We saw what the Americans did to help the Yazidis and the Kurds. But they have done nothing to help the Sunnis against the Islamic State.”
At this point, Sunni Arabs in Syria might consider shopping for a new faith or ethnicity if they want America’s attention. Barrel bombs, Scud missiles, gang-rapes, electrocutions, genital mutilations, chlorine and sarin gas attacks, all Holocaust-invoking revelations of systematic torture in Assad’s dungeons — sorry, but this is all quite boring. Where’s the symbolic importance? The strategic vitality? Yes, we know Syrian rebels fought and routed ISIS as well as the Kurds have, but that was in January and ISIS came back. And while it may be true that rebels have a better track record with keeping American-made weaponry out of the hands of ISIS than the US or Iraqi militaries have, we’re still not impressed. What have you done for us lately?
**Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss