Posted by Joshua on Thursday, October 9th, 2014
What’s at Stake in Kobani: Islamic State and Kurdish Calculations
By Carl Drott (freelance journalist, visited Kobani in August-September)
for Syria Comment – October 9, 2014
The situation currently looks grim for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and others defending Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) from the Islamic State (IS). Still, it is conceivable that air strikes together with reinforcements and armaments could enable YPG to not only prevail, but go on the offensive again. While both IS and YPG would ideally want to see the other side utterly defeated, there are also more local goals. In the wider area around Kobani, the conflict dynamics and prospects for successful rule are also affected by the role of Arab civilians and anti-IS rebels.
Why Did IS Attack Kobani?
IS’ decision to attack Kobani in mid-September appears rational in the light of its somewhat crippled capabilities in Iraq and recent defeats against YPG in the Jazira area. Not only was Kobani the low hanging fruit, but it could be plucked quickly. IS understood that time was short before the coalition air campaign was extended into Syria.
Local Kurdish volunteers in Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) gather in a ceremony to form new units. They will assist in the defence of the town against Islamic State (IS) attacks. (Taken by the author)
The Strategic Prize
Before the attack started, YPG controlled some territory between Shiukh bridge and Qara Quzak bridge along the eastern shore of the Euphrates. Even more importantly, YPG controlled a stretch of the main motorway east of Qara Quzak bridge. This territory has now been captured, which means significantly improved communications within the northern parts of the “caliphate.” Kobani town itself is relatively insignificant, but the survival of a YPG-controlled enclave would tie up military resources and constitute a security problem for IS in the longer term.
If the tables are turned at some point in the future, YPG will certainly look east towards Tel Abyad. The capture of this town would enable the isolated Kobani enclave to be connected with the much larger Jazira area that also borders the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (a successful attack would most likely come from this side). For IS, on the other hand, getting expelled from this area would mean losing all access to Turkey east of Jarabulus.
Another goal for YPG would be to capture the eastern shore of the Euphrates. Not only would this mean a huge security improvement, but it would also give much-needed access to water. A station near Shiukh used to pump water to Kobani, but IS cut the supply completely when it took over the area early this year. The Kurdish administration then connected deep new-dug wells to the water treatment plant in Qaraqoy. These facilities have now also been captured by IS, which means that Kobani’s only water supply comes from smaller wells inside the town itself.
Electricity from the Tishrin dam used to reach Kobani through a sub-station near Sarrin, which also supplies IS-controlled towns like Shiukh and Jarabulus. IS cut the supply to Kobani when the sub-station was captured in March, forcing the town’s population to rely solely on generators. Recapturing the sub-station might be a worthwhile objective for YPG, unless IS is prepared to cut off electricity to its own towns as well.
The Ethnic Map
With regards to the human geography, Kobani town and its environs are nearly completely Kurdish, and staunchly pro-YPG. Kurdish civilians fled their villages in anticipation of IS’ advance – and so will the remaining inhabitants of Kobani town if defeat appears imminent. IS will then be in control of substantial resources in the form of houses, businesses and farm lands, which can be distributed as “war spoils” to fighters and local collaborators.
There used to be a large Kurdish minority in Tel Abyad, but as a result of the ethnic cleansing campaign that was initiated last summer and lasted until the spring, the town is now entirely Arab-populated. The main Baggara tribe as well as smaller tribes like Assafah and Naem all support IS, according to a Kurdish former resident.
Between Tel Abyad and Kobani as well as along the eastern shore of the Euphrates sit a number of Arab villages, interspersed among Kurdish and mixed ones. According to an Arab source within the Kurdish administration, there are no clear political divisions between the tribes along the Euphrates, although there are some general tendencies. Jawader, Jubanat and Awn are largely on YPG’s side; meanwhile Degarat, Jeth and Serezat tend to support IS. An official from the Asayish police force stated that the largest of these are Awn and Serezat.
According to a group of Awn tribesmen in Jadah, located by the Euphrates, the tribal leaders have little influence over the political allegiance of their members. As frontlines have moved back and forth and various groups have come and gone, local Arabs appear to have turned to “fence-sitting” (supporting no one), “hedging” (supporting both sides) and “coat-turning” (supporting the group currently in power). More substantial support will probably only emerge when either IS or YPG proves its ability to hold onto territory.
According to several commanders, YPG never capture Arab villages unless requested by a local delegation. While there are also military needs and ambitions for territorial contiguity to take into account, YPG obviously holds no desire to rule over a wary or even hostile Arab population. There are some Arabs in YPG and the Asayish police force, but probably too few to successfully rule larger Arab population centres.
Ismet Hesen, the Defence Minister of the Kobani canton government, stated in late August that YPG forces were about to go on the offensive – and he appeared confident that local Arabs would welcome them. Two weeks later, the establishment of a joint YPG-rebel command centre was declared in an on-line video. Some of these rebels had previously fought against YPG, and only switched sides after they were driven out from nearby towns by IS. Despite such concerns, the new alliance probably raised the perceived legitimacy of YPG among local Arabs, and concerns about this might even have urged IS to strike first.
To conclude: If IS forces capture Kobani, their victory will be definite and irrevocable. If YPG manages to hold IS at bay, its forces will eventually have to take back enough territory to create sustainable living conditions. The scale of their ambitions will depend on what is feasible. In their very different ways, IS and YPG both have the capacity to govern these areas over time.
* Carl Drott’s previous work can be found on his homepage: http://carldrott.wordpress.com