Why Islamic State Wants to Conquer a Kurdish Border Town

Syrian Kurds fleeing Kobane via the Mursitpinar border gate with Turkey Photograph by Emin Menguarslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On Thursday morning, the shelling around the Syrian city of Ayn al-Arab could be heard from the Turkish side of the border. For a week, the forces of Islamic State, the radical fundamentalist Sunni Muslim army, had swept through the northern edge of Syria, pushing more than a hundred thousand refugees into neighboring Turkey. By late Wednesday, they were within a few miles of Ayn al-Arab, besieging it from the east, west, and south. In an attempt to relieve the city’s defenders, the U.S. and its allies have been staging airstrikes on Islamic State installations 20 miles outside the town.

Ayn al-Arab is the town’s official Arabic name. The locals, practically all of them ethnic Kurds, call it Kobane. It is defended not by the Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad in faraway Damascus, which has left the Kurds of the north to their own devices, but by the People’s Protection Units (YPG, after its Kurdish initials), a local militia. The Kurds, who number up to 30 million people living in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, are said to be the largest ethnic group without a state of its own. In almost every country, they have their own fighters, including the YPG in Syria, the Peshmerga in the autonomous Kurdish province in Iraq, and the PKK guerrillas in Turkey. They serve as additional kindling for the ongoing conflagration. These are the only forces on the ground to have held their own against Islamic State.

For the leaders of Islamic State, capturing Kobane would be a major victory. “Removing the threat they perceive from Kurdish forces in Kobane would be useful to secure the northern road from the east to Manbij, an Islamic State stronghold east of Aleppo,” says Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It would help firm up Islamic State control of an enormous section of eastern Syria that stretches toward Iraq, improving command and logistical links with the jihadists’ headquarters in Raqqa on the Euphrates River. “Seizing border crossings,” explains Lund, “controlling trade, aid shipments, and smuggling will help Islamic State control society and stabilize their rule.”

Capturing Kobane and its surroundings would also give Islamic State additional bases from which to intercept aid and ammunition intended for rival, more moderate groups opposed to the Assad regime, says Lund.

The Kurdish militias in the region have a formidable reputation. But the YPG in Kobane is on the verge of collapsing under Islamic State’s onslaught. Even if his fighters outnumber the jihadists, said Ismet Hesen, the YPG’s resident defense chief, they lack the heavy weapons needed to stave off the attack.

On Wednesday, YPG commanders, fighters, and activists in Kobane described the situation in and around the city—only a few hundred feet from the Turkish border—as increasingly desperate. After an early morning offensive, the jihadists had moved to within four to six miles of the town, Hesen said in a phone call with a reporter from  Bloomberg Businessweek and two colleagues. The most intense clashes were taking place on the southern front, he said, where the Kurds were trying to hang on to a key stronghold, a hill overlooking the city.

A series of allied airstrikes that hit targets in several areas of the Kobane region had not managed to displace Islamic State, Hesen said. He complained that the planes hit buildings in outlying areas, many of them already vacated, while doing nothing to stem the advance of the jihadists’ convoys. Islamic State forces were blitzing villages with tanks and pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, followed by fighters on foot streaming in from behind, he said. He noted that there now appears to be an increasing urgency to the attacks. “They’re trying to capture Kobane before the airstrikes start making a difference.”

As the town braced for a final, potentially decisive assault. Hesen, the defense official, seesawed between defiance and desperation. “We will turn Kobane into Islamic State’s graveyard,” he pledged. He also prepared for the worst. “They’re planning to do in Kobane what they did in Sinjar,” he said, referring to the jihadists’ massacre of hundreds of Yazidi Kurds in Iraq. “I’m ready to be executed by Islamic State, but I won’t leave my town.”

If Kobane were to fall, the United Nations has warned, the refugee wave into Turkey could reach 400,000. Since Sept. 19, more than 140,000 Kurds from the city and nearby villages have entered Turkey in the biggest mass exodus in Syria’s nearly four-year-long civil war. Turkey, already playing host to more than 1.3 million Syrians, has been unable to keep pace with the sudden influx. As the country’s relief agency hastens to raise tent cities along the border, thousands of displaced people sleep on the streets of nearby towns, in the open desert, or inside mosques.

At the border gate, some traffic still proceeded in the opposite direction: After dropping their families off in Turkey, thousands of Kurdish men were returning home to take up arms against Islamic State. “There’s enough guns here to arm all of them, but not enough to defend us against Islamic State,” said Mustafa Bahi, a writer and activist, speaking over the phone from Kobane.

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