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Why Islamic State Wants to Conquer a Kurdish Border Town

Syrian Kurds fleeing Kobane via the Mursitpinar border gate with Turkey
Syrian Kurds fleeing Kobane via the Mursitpinar border gate with TurkeyPhotograph 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.