Six Years later, remembering how Socialist Kurds and the US Air Force defeated the ISIS Siege of Kobani

By Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Troy Souza | –

Dartmouth, Mass. (Special to Informed Comment) – Six years ago, in October, 2014, the brutal ISIS terorist group came for the Kurds in the Syrian enclave of Kobani. It would have been a gateway for them into Turkey, on which it bordered. The US intervened from the air, helping halt what would have turned into a genocide, and the unlikely relationship forged between the US Air Force and the leftist Kurds pointed the way forward for the Obama administration in formulating a strategy to defeat ISIS in eastern Syria– an astonishingly successful strategy. In the fall of 2019, President Donald J. Trump threw these Kurds under the bus and greenlighted a Turkish incursion into northern Syria to displace them.

On the sixth anniversary of the siege of Kobani, it is time to remember the story of the beginning of the end of ISIS.

The Socialist Syrian Kurds Draw a Line in the Desert.

The Kurdish-Dominated Autonomous Region of Rojava, Northern Syria. Fall 2014.

In the spring and summer of 2014 ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, terror group burst onto the world stage by conquering northern Iraq including that country’s second largest city of Mosul. At this time the 36,000 man ISIS Jaish or war machine, that had defeated the famed Kurdish Peshmerga (Those Who Face Death) of northern Iraq, evicted five US trained Iraqi Army divisions from Mosul, and conquered one third of Syria and Iraq, was described as “an unstoppable juggernaut, sweeping Iraq and Syria in an unending, unstoppable, terrible blitzkrieg.”[1] By the fall of 2014 the terror group’s attention shifted to the three north Syrian Kurdish enclaves made up of Kobane, Afrin, and Hasakah. There, approximately 2.2 million terribly repressed and in many cases citizenshipless Kurdish inhabitants lived along northern Syria’s Turkish border (they formed roughly 15 percent of Syria’s total population).

The Syrian Kurds’ dream was to unite these three northern Kurdish provinces into one secular Socialist democratic, pro-women’s rights, pro-Christian and Arab minority rights autonomous homeland to be known as Rojava (the Land of Setting Sun). In the initial stages of the Syrian War, which broke out in 2011, Syrian government troops had pulled out of these three separate Kurdish enclaves effectively ceding control over them to the local Syrian PKK (a Kurdish autonomy seeking insurgent group in Turkey) linked socialist Kurdish volunteer militia known as the YPG (People’s Protection Units). The embattled and retreating Syrian government had not attacked these breakaway Kurdish zones and a truce prevailed.

The Kurdish enclaves of northern Syria collectively known as RojavaBut in the fall of 2014, a new threat emerged from the south that threatened to shatter the Syrian Kurds’ dream of carving out a Socialist democratic autonomy in northern Syria: the seemingly unstoppable ISIS war machine. By this time, ISIS’s hard-charging jihadists had conquered one-third of Syria and Iraq and seemed to be on an inexorable victory march toward the Kurdish-inhabited Turkish border town of Kobane. The city’s conquest would have important strategic implications as it would give ISIS control of a vital stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border, which could be used to expand clandestine re-supply routes. As hundreds of ISIS pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns mounted in their rear beds and US Humvees captured by ISIS fighters from fleeing Iraqi Army soldiers, along with mortars and frontline battle tanks, swept across the desert and converged on Kobane, the small city and its Kurdish population seemed doomed.

But Kobane’s defenders, Kurdish YPG fighters vowed to fight the fanatic invaders, who they felt “stood for everything bad in the world,” to the death.[2] Some journalists sensationalized this impending battle between the Kurds, the largest nation on the earth without their own homeland, and the seemingly unstoppable fanatic forces arrayed against them as a scene straight out of a Mad Max movie. It was to be an epic battle between a thus-far-unbeaten army of dedicated jihadists and an untested group of Kurdish Socialist fighters, which included thousands of newly mobilized women volunteers.

The YPG were socialists who dreamed of uniting the three distinct north Syrian Kurdish enclaves of Rojava into an egalitarian, “consocialist,” multi-ethnic, democratic federation that gave equal rights to women and ethnic minorities of the sort envisioned by the jailed (in Turkey) founder of the Turkey-based Kurdish PKK (the Kurdistan Worker’s Party) rebels, Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan. Foreigners often romanticized the Socialist YPG and their revolution. A Reuters account of the YPG, for example, stated:

They have repeatedly appealed to progressive democratic ideals as a way to counter the jihadists in their struggle for the hearts and minds of the region’s inhabitants. Last January, the group held elections in the territories they control. They made a point of including all ethnic and religious communities. “Everybody has to be represented,” is one of the articles in the self-proclaimed “Constitution of the Rojava,” which refers to their de-facto autonomous region in northern Syria.[3]

Another fascinating component of the YPG that won them praise from abroad was their establishment of a female fighting unit known as the YPJ (The Women’s Protection Units). These Kurdish women fighters were lionized by the media. On their website, the YPG stated that the YPJ was formed “to use armed battle as a way of liberating women from terrorism and patriarchal thinking as well as alleviating women’s grievances in general.”[4] One YPJ female fighter told stated “When we liberate a town from ISIS we first get rid of Sharia, we open a school for all the children and Jineoloji [the science of women’s rights] for women.”[5] The YPJ fought as hard as their male counterparts and had a special section in local graveyards for fighters “martyred fighting fascism (the Turks) and Daesh (ISIS).” The leadership of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) was “unabashedly feminist” and a remarkable forty percent of the YPG (the military wing of the PYD) defenders were women.[6]

The female fighting force became famous when a picture of one of its fighters went viral online. In the picture, an unveiled, smiling Kurdish woman known simply as Rehana, or the “Angel of Kobane,” was shown holding up a peace sign with one hand and toting an AK-47 assault rifle in the other while dressed for battle in the famous green guerilla uniform commonly associated with the Kurds. The photo was shared millions of times on Facebook and Twitter, along with a legend that she single-handedly killed as many as 100 ISIS fighters. Although the story was likely apocryphal, it served as inspiration for Western journalists as it flew in the face of their preconceived notions of oppressed women in the Middle East and shattered traditional expectations regarding the role of women in combat.

In the West, the photo was a point of interest. In Syria, it was something more; it was both a symbol of Kurdish resistance to ISIS and a call to action. The “Angel of Kobane” helped inspire nearly 10,000 women to join the YPJ ranks and take up arms against the ISIS misogynists known for raping and taking women as sex slaves. The female Kurdish fighters reveled in the belief that ISIS’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam denied its fighters access to paradise if killed by a woman. A 22-year-old Kurdish fighter named Haveen captured the female fighters’ spirit stating;

    “I like that when we kill them they lose their heaven. They are so scared of us! If we kill them they can’t go to heaven. It makes us laugh…. We make loud calls of happiness when we see them to let them know we are coming. That’s when they become cowards. I don’t know how many of them I’ve killed. It’s not enough. I won’t be happy until they’re all dead.”[7]

There was also Asia Ramadan Antar, known to many in the West as the “Kurdish Angelina Jolie” due to her remarkable resemblance to the Hollywood superstar. But Antar was no actress, she was a real-life frontline fighter and one of the most renowned female Kurdish fighters in the YPJ. Antar was involved in many battles with ISIS, but ultimately, like many of her sisters, she was killed by ISIS.

Journalists risked their lives to film units of brave Kurdish female volunteer fighters armed with everything from light infantry weapons to rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) in their desperate fight against the misogynistic ISIS stoners of women “sinners.” Their bold defiance was starkly contrasted with the hatred of independent women of the sort espoused by the incoming ISIS fanatics. One Middle East observer was to note of this unique role of women fighters in the male-dominated region, “Rojava is the only region in the world where women have organized themselves to ideologically and physically fight Islamist forces to protect civilians from fanatic religious rule.”[8]

As the battle of Kobane loomed in the fall of 2014, members of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe flocked back home to join the fight and soon foreigners who idealized the Syrian Kurds began to join the YPG as well. Among them were two Americans, Nicholas Alan Warden and Robert Grodt, who were subsequently killed fighting near the ISIS capital of Raqqa and in the western Kurdish province of Afrin.[9] Members of biker gangs from Holland and Germany also joined the Syria YPG fighters.[10] The YPG had an active social media presence and has a website in English at www.ypgrojava.org which appealed to Western volunteers for assistance.

With the world watching, it became clear that Kobane could become a test for both the legendary Kurdish female fighters, their male comrades, and Obama’s new UCW (Unconventional Warfare) proxy strategy of confronting ISIS by supporting local forces with arms and bombings, instead of American boots on the ground in the vanguard. Essentially, the most powerful man in the world would be depending on an outgunned and untried Kurdish force that was forty percent woman to vindicate his surrogate approach to war in the sands of the Middle East.

There was thus a larger geostrategic and political aspect of this battle that reached from the hastily dug Kurdish trenches at Kobane up all the way across the Atlantic to the White House. For, as it transpired, there was a political battle being waged in the power halls of the American capital. For months, Republicans had been lambasting Obama for having “disengaged” America from the Middle East and had described his foreign and military policy as one of “withdrawal and retrenchment.” Republicans had also been accusing Obama of “cutting and running” when he withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq in December of 2011. Overlooking the fact that ISIS was simply a rebranded version of Al Qaeda in Iraq AQI (which had arisen under insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi in 2003 and 2004 to resist the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq) Donald Trump even engaged in revisionist history and blamed Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for having “created ISIS.”

But Obama proved to be impervious to the calls for conventionalizing the war and launching an escalated US-led ground intervention in the vast deserts of Syria. He remained vehemently opposed to “reoccupying” Iraq via a big war like Operation Iraqi Freedom Iraq and deploying front line combat troops into the multi-sided sectarian quagmire in the region to fight a fanatical Sunni enemy that had already cost America thousands of soldiers’ lives during the indecisive 2003-2011 Iraq War. Instead, Obama went through with his plan to carry out a more cautious proxy air campaign that became known as “working by with and through” local fighters to “degrade and defeat” ISIS. By late September 2014, Obama had placed his bets on support of the Kurds in the defense of their cherished north Syrian homeland and decided to assist them with the full might of US airpower.

The defense of Kobane would, therefore, be both a test of the untried Kurds and a test of Obama’s “standoff” unconventional warfare strategy of relying on surrogate forces in the region to fight against ISIS, instead of directly putting Americans in the frontlines in the volatile Middle East. Far from “letting the Middle East burn,” as some of his critics described it, Obama meant to leverage local “firemen” to put out the ISIS desert inferno, instead of Americans. The president insisted that US forces “lead from behind” and essentially serve as “combat advisors” at the “brigade level.” Although at this point there would be no boots on the ground for US troops, officially at least.

Obama vowed to assist the Kurds with airlifted weapons, supplies, and air support to prevent the fall of their city and the region around it. From the corridors of power in Washington, where Republican congressmen and senators were attacking Obama for, as then-House Speaker John Boehner put it, for his “absence of strategy,” to the Turkish side of the border (where thousands of Kurdish refugees were able to sit on a hill and watch U.S. bombs fall on their nearby home city), to ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa, where imam prayer leaders called on the faithful to pray for divine assistance in their jihad, the world watched as Kobane’s defenders prepared to try to halt the seemingly unstoppable ISIS tide that was now surging toward them.

To compound matters, the powerful Turks to the north of Syria were opposed to Obama’s plan to unite with their mortal Kurdish allies, Socialist men and women. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted angrily to the plan stating “the PYD [the political party of the YPG], for us, is equal to the PKK; it is a terrorist organization. … [I]t would be wrong for the U.S., a NATO ally, to open talk of such support and expect us to agree.”[11] Frustratingly, the Turks who had tanks lined up on the border facing ISIS refused to attack the terror organization and merely watched as the ISIS fighters stormed Kobane. The United States, however, went ahead with planned airdrops of medical supplies and light infantry weapons for the Syrian Kurds. Secretary of State John Kerry responded to Turkish concerns saying;

Let me say very respectfully to our allies the Turks that we understand fully the fundamentals of their opposition, and ours, to any kind of terrorist group, and particularly, obviously, the challenges they face with respect to the PKK. We have undertaken a coalition effort to degrade and destroy ISIL, and ISIL is presenting itself in major numbers in this place called Kobani.” He added that while the YPG was “an offshoot group of the folks that our friends the Turks oppose — they are valiantly fighting ISIL and we cannot take our eye off the prize here.[12]

The support came just in time. By late summer 2014, ISIS had perfected the technique of piercing enemy lines with a blitz of suicide car bombers followed by advances by troops whose suicidal ferocity was legendary. But the Kurds, fueled by a history of conquest by neighboring powers, statelessness, and fierce resistance, refused to be cowed and vowed to resist at all cost. A YPG Kurd captured the bold defiance of his fellow fighters when he proclaimed, “We will resist to our last drop of blood together…If necessary we will repeat the Stalingrad resistance in Kobane.”[13]

Even as the Kurds dug in to defend Kobane, skilled and heavily armed ISIS fighters systematically surrounded the city and methodically probed the outer lines of the besieged defenders. They attacked from the west in the town of Jarabulus, to the south near Sarrin, and to the east near Tal Abyad. As the summer of 2014 gave way to fall, ISIS easily swept through the outer ring of villages that made up the larger Kobane Province like an unstoppable wave, effectively advancing on all three fronts and tightening the noose around the neck of Kobane.

There was, however, one opening in their encirclement in north, toward the nearby Turkish border, and approximately 200,000 refugees fled for their lives to this frontier to escape the ISIS assault before it was complete. But this neighboring sanctuary was closed by late September 2014, as Turkish authorities feared that many of the Kurds fleeing into their country were fighters from the YPG who they saw as a subgroup of their mortal enemies, the Turkey-based PKK Kurdish rebels. The secularist PKK Kurds had been fighting for autonomy in southeastern Turkey since the 1980s in a war that was estimated to have cost over 40,000 lives, mainly Kurdish.

As ISIS approached, the American Special Force frantically trained their indigenous allies to coordinate with them to harness the precision might of the U.S. air armada. In an effort to create UCW “battle synergy,” the Kurds were trained by American special operators to act as spotters on the ground. They were tasked with identifying ISIS targets and relaying the information to the American Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) located in Qatar. CAOC would then send bomb coordinates to aircraft such as B1-B Lancer strategic bombers from the 9th Bomb Squadron which would be on call over Kobane. The aircrews would attack the target and then await confirmation from the Kurds on the ground.[14] One Kurd fighter named Muhammad Abu Abdel was to relay how difficult it initially was for its defenders, most of whom were average civilians before the war, to learn how to work with the American advisors to channel the might of the US Air Force down on their enemies.

In the early days of American cooperation, in 2014, “our skills were so primitive we would send tracers in the sky to guide the bombers to the targets,” he said. “We didn’t know about map coordinates and GPS and all that stuff, didn’t even have internet and target maps like we have now. Before the [2011 Arab Spring] revolution, I was a businessman. I never knew anything about military science.”[15]

There were legitimate doubts that civilians like Muhammad Abu Abdel who had become citizen-soldiers overnight could repulse hardened, heavily armed ISIS fighters who were willing to martyr themselves in blitz attacks and offensive car bombings. As the debate unfolded, the bombing campaign began on September 27, 2014.

Despite criticism of Obama’s plan of action, the initial test of U.S air power working in conjunction with Kurdish spotters on the ground seemed to work. The battle rhythm of Kobane soon began to include the thunder of bomb strikes as the Kurds urgently worked to bring down U.S. bombs on their advancing enemy. While the Coalition strikes proved helpful, it would, however, take more than airstrikes to save the outgunned Kurds. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby acknowledged this reality stating “we have hit some dynamic targets, smaller, tactical targets there [in Kobane]. And we do believe that they have had an effect on ISIL [ISIS] in and around that town,” but went on to caution that “airstrikes alone are not going to do this. They’re not going to fix this. They’re not going to save the town of Kobani.”[16] Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken acknowledged “it is going to be difficult just through airpower to prevent ISIS from potentially taking over the town.”[17] Ultimately, it would be up to the Kurds to defend their city on the ground as Americans assisted them from the skies above. On October 1, over 4,000 of ISIS leader Caliph al Baghdadi’s black-clad fighters, brandishing assault rifles atop captured American M1 Abrams battle tanks and firing mortars, launched their much anticipated offensive into the heart of Kobane city deploying tanks, rockets and artillery. Their thrust proved to be irresistible and Kurdish resistance broke, much to the dismay of the Obama White House and Pentagon. Within 24 hours ISIS had captured 21 villages on the outskirts of Kobane and their advance left the city completely encircled by ISIS forces, the northern escape route was now closed. ISIS fighters then punched into the heart of Kobane after forcing the YPG to retreat southeast of the city. U.S. forces carried out numerous airstrikes against ISIS’s positions south of Kobane, but ultimately failed to halt the group’s inexorable offensive. As ISIS set Kobane’s buildings aflame to obscure the vision of U.S. fighter bombers patrolling the skies above with clouds of black smoke, the Kurds’ line of defense wavered. ISIS appeared to unstoppable. At this time, doubts began to surface both regarding the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s “standoff” surrogate strategy as well as the lightly armed Kurds’ ability to repel the relentless waves of ISIS fighters swarming them from all directions. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman captured the widespread pessimism when he stated “The fighting in the past 24 hours has been the fiercest since the IS[IS] began its offensive…There are real fears for the Kurds’ capacity to resist, as the IS are using tanks and other heavy weaponry in their attack.”[18] West Point’s Counter Terrorism Sentinel reported;

YPG infantry units were clearly outmatched for much of the siege. While they employed agility and deep knowledge of local urban terrain, their dearth of heavy weapons coupled with lesser force numbers put them at a great disadvantage. ISIL had massed numerous tanks and a plethora of “technical” fighting trucks around Kobani’s perimeter to sustain the siege with overwhelming firepower, creating a battle of attrition…As ISIL units bore down on western Kobani in technicals hitting YPG positions with heavy fire, hunkered-down YPG fighters could often only answer with small arms fire while economizing their finite ammunition stocks.[19]

An American volunteer who joined hundreds of volunteers from around the world, including Dutch and German biker gangs who were moved by the David vs Goliath Kurdish defense of their lands against the ISIS fanatics, told me “we were told not to go to Kobane as it was doomed and the fighters there were never going to survive the full brunt of a total ISIS offensive.” Air Force Magazine reported at this time “Kobani was on the verge of becoming a major failure.”[20]

Despite the hard fought defense and sacrifices of hundreds of female and male Kurdish fighters who had U.S. support, the advantage clearly laid with the ISIS attackers. Their fighters were heavier armed, battle tested, more numerous and willing to die to in combat to achieve their twin objectives of victory and martyrdom. In particular, they were willing to launch massive car suicide bombing attacks on stubborn defenses. The car bombs had a devastating impact on morale. It was not long before the infamous black ISIS flag was planted on a four-story building located near the center of Kobane, marking the terrorists’ official penetration of the symbolic and strategic border town. Asya Abdullah, a co-leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, described the grim situation on the ground;

There are still thousands of civilians in the city and IS[IS] is using heavy weapons. If they are not stopped now, there will be a big massacre…They have surrounded us almost from every side with their tanks. They have been shelling the city with heavy weapons. Kurdish fighters are resisting as much as they can with the limited weapons they have.[21]

But even as the enemy advanced, a nineteen-year-old female Kurdish teacher expressed her determination to fight to the death, boldly proclaiming “I’m not leaving here. Either I die here or we win.”[22] A Kurdish fighter named Botani similarly explained, “Our fight is not just for the Kurds, it is a fight for all of humanity. When people are getting their heads chopped off and tossed aside like animals, it is a duty to fight.”[23]

To prevent the city center from falling to ISIS fighters, the Obama administration pushed its reluctant ally, Turkey (a mortal enemy of the YPG and PKK Kurds), to let hundreds of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government armed with heavy weapons cross its territory to bolster Kobane’s beleaguered, outgunned Kurdish defenders. Ignoring the concerns of the Turks who feared arming the Syrian Kurds, the Obama administration also made the decision to air drop weapons and ammunition to the outgunned Kurdish defenders. On October 20, three USAF C-130s conducted multiple airdrops to resupply Kurdish forces, defending the city. “There was an urgent need to help,” explained a senior Obama administration official, “This was the quickest way to get the job done.”[24] In the airdrops were 24 tons of small arms and ammunition and 10 tons of medical supplies. The emergency airdrop proved to be an enormous boon to Kobane’s outgunned, outnumbered defenders who fought back furiously using the new American supplies and weapons. Fred Kaplan was to capture the drama of the events unfolding in Kobane for the beleaguered US president who doubled down on his Kurdish bet with the air supplies that infuriated the Turks but proved invaluable to the Kurds.

Suddenly, the fight for this little-known town took on vast symbolic significance. And if ISIS was telling the world that Kobani was a decisive battle along the path to the Islamic State’s victory, then Obama—who’d put American resources and credibility on the line—had little choice but to treat it as a decisive battle as well. If ISIS won, the propaganda windfall would be immense. So, Obama upped the stakes, dropping not only bombs on ISIS but also weapons and supplies to the Kurds.[25]

At this time the U.S. also stepped up precision bombing runs that killed hundreds of ISIS fighters who continued to throw their forces into the battle despite heavy loses. In all, the U.S. hit more than one thousand targets in and around Kobane. In a last-ditch effort to reverse the tide, American B1-bomber pilots ultimately went “Winchester” on the advancing ISIS fighters (military parlance for dropping all the bombs on board a fighter bomber on a mission), engulfing ISIS-held locations in a storm of explosive rain. American aircraft carried out a scale of bombing campaign not seen since the massive US invasion of Iraq in 2003 in and around this small city on the dusty plains of northern Syria.[26] While the Americans attacked the army of terror from the skies, Kurdish female and male fighters desperately attacked them on the ground and over a thousand died defending their city.

The fate of Kobane and Kurdish dreams for uniting this town and the surrounding province of Kobane to unite with the north Syrian Kurdish provinces of Afrin and Hasakah to create a state called Rojava hung in the balance as the battle swept through the city. The pivotal moment in the battle came when ISIS threw everything they had, including massive car bombs, to take Mistanhour Hill, a strategic location that would give them the ability to fire down on central Kobane. As the Kurds fought street by street in Kobane and on the hill, American bombs were directed onto ISIS positions by Kurdish ground spotters who had grown more proficient in calling down “lead into the head” of ISIS. But in the end ISIS prevailed and captured the strategic hill.

By October 9th, ISIS fighters had also advanced to within 100 meters of the city’s center of Kobane and succeeded in capturing the Kurds’ military headquarters. At this time, one Kurdish fighter predicted “It’s over” if ISIS got the city center and the border crossing to Turkey. By late October, ISIS controlled 60 percent of Kobane and the city’s fate seemed to be sealed. ISIS continued to pour reinforcements into the battle realizing this unprecedented global focus could give them a tremendous propaganda victory in defeating not only the Kurds, whose democratic, pro-women’s rights, pro-Christian minorities rights, socialist society was considered an abomination, but in defeating the American president who had bet so much on the campaign.

But the tenacious Kurds were not yet beaten. As ISIS took casualties pushing forward, street by street, the Kurds fought back furiously sustaining hundreds of deaths and were able to rally despite their tremendous loses. As U.S. bombs paved the way for them, the Kurds launched a counterattack that halted the ISIS advance. In late-October their forces stormed Mistanhour Hill and retook this strategic position after sustaining tremendous casualties. They then repulsed ISIS from central Kobane in street fighting supported by American precision-guided satellite laser bombs.

By this time ISIS had presented so many targets for US “dynamic strikes” that they were suffering unprecedented losses. A Pentagon spokesman said of ISIS “The more they want it, the more resources they apply to it, the more targets we have to hit. We know we’ve killed several hundred of them.”[27] The Air Force Times was to report;

The enemy was “sending troops there constantly,” said a weapons systems officer from the 9th Bomb Squadron identified for security reasons only as Scram. “They were very willing to impale themselves on that city.” That made the battle site target-rich: There were fighters out in the open and on top of buildings and bridges.[28]

This combination of American “air artillery” and Kurdish defiance on the ground ultimately proved to be decisive and ISIS began to sustain unsustainable losses. Gradually its forces began to fall back. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights would write on November 13, 2014, that ISIS fighters had been shocked and demoralized by the “fierce resistance” of the YPG fighters. On January 26, 2015, the Kurds, having sustained massive losses and the total destruction of their city, finally declared victory in the desperate battle for Kobane after five months of hellacious fighting. By March 15th, the ISIS fighters had been driven from the Kobane province, the dream of Rojava had been saved and ISIS’s dream of gaining control of the entire northeastern Syrian border with Turkey crushed. An account at the time recorded;

Islamic State militants have made fatal strategic mistakes in Kobane, allowing American and Arab warplanes to obliterate them from the air and Kurdish forces to suck them into unfamiliar ‘meat grinder’ street battles, an expert has claimed. During the four-week battle for Kobane, ISIS has used the same tried and tested ‘pincer movement’ it deployed during the rapid seizure of vast swathes of northern Syria and western Iraq earlier this year. In the majority of those lightning advances, ISIS was able to capture towns and cities with little to no resistance – as the group’s reputation for torture and brutal murder ensured local security forces either defected or abandoned their posts, rather than face certain slaughter at the hands of the fanatics. But as Kobane is located less than 200 yards south of the Turkish border fences and is surrounded largely by desert, the massively outgunned Kurdish fighters there have had nowhere to flee, encouraging them to gather in the centre of town and defend the city in furious street-to-street battles.

ISIS, which originally expected to storm into and seize Kobane within a few days and further enhance its aura of invincibility, had suffered its first major defeat. The Iraqi Kurdistan presidency would triumphantly proclaim “Today we received the news of liberation of defiant Kobane. I congratulate all people of Kurdistan. This is the victory of humanity over the barbaric terrorists.” Across the world, the Obama administration breathed a sigh of relief. The president’s UCW approach to war had had its first victory and there was hope that it could now be used in other places to go on the offensive.

In the aftermath of the battle, ISIS officially acknowledged, for the first time, that its fighters had been decisively defeated. In a video released by the pro-ISIS Aamaq News Agency, ISIS fighters cited American airstrikes as the primary reason of the defeat and downplayed the role of the Kurds, whom they referred to as “rats.” According to ISIS “The warplanes were bombarding us night and day. They bombarded everything, even motorcycles.” Another explained how the airstrikes “destroyed everything, so we had to withdraw and the rats advanced.”[29] ISIS would attribute their defeat to “the lack of knowledge about how [western] jets operated and what their capabilities were.”[30] But American pilots who worked with the Kurds to defeat ISIS gave the credit to their Kurdish allies and one said of their bravery;

There were times we were bombing across the street, and as soon as the weapons were going off, they are charging into the rubble to take out what’s left and move forward that line of troops to the next block,” Maj. Johnson said. “It’s an amazing job the [Kurdish forces] did and how they are, more so than air power, critical to victory in Kobani.” [31]

Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, summed up the success of Obama’s proxy/surrogate approach, stating, “I think the air strikes helped a lot. It helped when we had a reliable partner on the ground in there who could help us fine-tune those strikes.”[32] An embedded New York Times gave an eyewitness report of a firefight wherein an SDF fighter using a Samsung tablet with google earth called in an airstrike on a building from which his unit was receiving ISIS fire.

“Our comrades can see the enemy moving at the GPS address I just sent you,” he wrote in Arabic to a handler hundreds of miles away in a United States military operations room. Then he waited for the American warplanes to scream in. The strike that ensued soon after blasted a crater at exactly the coordinates provided by the Kurdish fighter. It left a circle of bodies, including one of an Islamic State fighter who died slumped over his AK-47.[33]

Clearly the Kurds and Americans had perfected deadly battlefield “synergy” and the first test of Obama’s and Central Command’s proxy approach to war had been passed with glowing colors. While ISIS downplayed the defeat and vowed to return to Kobane, this was clearly a decisive turning point and sent a loud message to all the constellation of anti-ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria; ISIS could be defeated.

As the previously undefeated ISIS militants retreated, Kurdish refugees, who had been watching the battle from less than a mile away from the hills of Turkey, joyously poured into the city to celebrate its liberation. A senior U.S. State Department official triumphantly proclaimed of the hard-fought victory “The entire notion of this organization that is on the march and the inevitable expansion and inevitable momentum has been halted at Kobane.”[34] After three and half months of fighting for a rubbleized largely evacuated city that at one time had fallen 80 percent to ISIS, Central Command’s “air artillery” (precision guided bombs) proved to be a decisive factor in enabling the Kurds to defeat ISIS’s increasingly costly offensive by January 2015. The untried Kurds had succeeded where the massive US-trained Iraqi Army, other jihadi groups, and Syrian Arab Army had failed and had defeated a full-scale ISIS offensive.

The victory at Kobane signaled the beginning of a more ambitious Pentagon campaign to work “by, with, and through” the Kurds to move elsewhere against ISIS without conventionalizing the war by putting the large numbers of troops in harms way in a repeat of the Iraq War quagmire which cost 2 trillion dollars and almost 4,500 lives (Trump recommended deploying 30,000 troopw). Obama was criticized by Republicans as “leading from behind,” but that was exactly what the Green Beret Special Forces specialized in. Their mission was to act as “force multipliers” or “enablers” to assist local proxy forces in doing the actual fighting, and dying, to achieve US interests.

With the help of US Special Forces and state-of-the-art, precision guided air-munitions such as JDAMs (Joint Direct Terminal Munitions or satellite guided bombs), the tide of ISIS’s proclaimed “ever expanding Caliphate” was turned in this decisive battle. The Kurds of northern Syria, who had been unknown to much of the world prior to this much reported victory, went with their momentum and went on the offensive. U.S. Central Command now saw in the PKK-linked socialist YPG Kurds of the three northern Kurdish dominated provinces of Syria – Afrin, Kobane, and Hasakah – its greatest ally in the country and proclaimed they were the “only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa [the ISIS capital] in the near future.”[35] The Kurds, whose motto was that they had “no friends but the mountains,” now proudly proclaimed “we have no friends but the Americans.”[36]

Clearly the Kurds’ fierce belief in their Rojava Revolution and its egalitarian ideology had equaled the jihadi beliefs of the ISIS fanatics. Combined with their ability to call in “air artillery” this proved to be the deciding factor in their resistance. But would the YPG/YPJ Syrian Kurdish men and women volunteers be able to pivot from defending Kobane and their villages and towns in the north to assist the Pentagon and Obama administration in going on the offensive against the Caliphate in the vastness of the Arab-dominated Syrian desert? That was a question no one seemed to know the answer to in 2015 for this would mean sacrificing their lives to become proxies for a foreign power. An untrustworthy power that had abandoned the Kurds when they requested a homeland after World War I and again when it encouraged them to rise up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, then left them to be slaughtered by his vengeful forces.

History would show that the answer was a resounding yes. The Obama administration deployed 500 US Special Forces to work as “aid and assist accelerants” and, together with their Kurdish hevals (comrades) in arms, the Kurds pivoted to the offensive in 2015. In 2016 they took ISIS’s main terror exporting center of Manbij, in the fall of 2017 they captured ISIS’s capital of Raqqa and by March 2019 they captured ISIS’s last bastion at Baghouz. In the process of liberating the lands of the northeast they gave their American allies de facto control of one third of Syria, denied Iran a land bridge to Damascus, provided the Pentagon with 22 bases in this strategic region, tracked down ISIS’s messianic leader Caliph al Baghdadi and lost 11,000 of their fighters (the US lost just six in combat). It was the most effective proxy campaign in history and it cost America a fraction of the price of the almost two trillion dollar 2003-11 Iraq War.

Sadly, in October 2019 Trump betrayed the Pentagon’s stalwart allies by impulsively ordering the “small footprint” of 2,000 US force multipliers operating with the Kurds to immediately abandon their bases and allies and retreat to Iraq. Then he green lit a Turkish jihadist invasion of the fragile pro-Christian minority, pro-US democracy of Rojava. This massive Turkish jihadist invasion displaced 100,000 civilians, caused hundreds of deaths, led to widespread destruction of America’s allies’ democratic lands, and was seen as a boon by regrouping ISIS, Russia (which triumphantly seized abandoned America’s bases), Iran, Hezbollah and the murderous Syrian dictator Basher al Assad. America lost not only the one third of Syria it controlled, but the trust of the region’s 30 million Kurds who, having idealized America and its democracy, realized they truly had no friends but the mountains.

For more on the Kurds and the Pentagon’s war on ISIS see: Brian Glyn Williams. Counter Jihad. The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. U Penn. 2018. For articles on ISIS and the US war see: brianglynwilliams.com Brian Glyn Williams is Full Professor of Islamic History at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and formerly worked for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center and US Army’s Information Operations in Afghanistan. Robert Troy Souza is a member of the Center for Targeted Killing.

NOTES


[2] “Meet America’s Allies who Helped Defeat ISIS.” New York Times. February 17, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “When Female Fighters Lead the Charge.” Ypgrojava.com. https://www.ypgrojava.org/When-Female-Fighters-Lead-the-Charge

[5] “Women vs. the Islamic State,” Reuters, February 8, 2015.

[6] “Syrian Kurds Have Tripled Their Territory Fighting the Islamic State in 2015.” Vice.com. December 22, 2015.

[7] “Isis in Iraq: The female fighters that strike fear into jihadis – because they’ll rob them of paradise,” The Independent, April 10, 2016.

[8] “Kurdish Female Fighters of Rojava,” Yourmideast.com June 15, 2015. http://www.yourmiddleeast.com.

[9] “Foreign Fighters Back Kurdish Militia in Syria in Fight Against Turkey.” New York Times. January 27, 2018.

[10] “Dutch biker gang members join the fight against the Islamic State.” The Washington Post. October 16, 2014.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “The Kurdish Stalingrad,” The Economist, November 1, 2014.

[14] “B-1 Pilots Describe Bombing Campaign Against ISIS in Kobani,” Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2015.

[15] “Meet America’s Allies who Helped Defeat ISIS.” New York Times. February 17, 2018.

[16] U.S. Department of Defense, press briefing by Rear Admiral Kirby. October 8, 2014. http://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/606942/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-rear-admiral-kirby-in-the-pentagon-brie

[17] “Fight for Syrian Town of Kobani at Standstill After US Airstrikes.” NBC News. October 9, 2014.

[18] “Islamic State: Kurdish fighters retreat as IS militants advance towards Syrian town of Ain al-Arab,” ABC News, October 1, 2014.

[19] “The Battle of Kobani Comes to the Fore.” West Point Counter-Terrorism Center Sentinel. Volume 7 Issue 11. November December 2014.

[20] “The Siege of Kobani.” Air Force Magazine. August 29, 2018.

[21] “Kobane: Civilians flee IS street-to-street fighting,” BBC, October 7, 2014.

[22] See for example footage of the Kurdish woman describing her willingness to die for Kobane here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jWVTjUVecI

[23] “Turkish lawmakers OK military action against ISIS,” CNN, October 2, 2014

[24] “U.S. Airdrops Weapons and Supplies to Kurds Fighting in Kobani,” New York Times, October 20, 2014.

[25] “Obama’s Quagmire.” Slate. October 31, 2014.

[26] “In battle for Kobane, US crews recount heavy bombing,” MSN, February 14, 2015.

[27] “Islamic State Retreating in Key Syrian Town of Kobane.” BBC. October 2014.

[28] “Inside the B-1 crew that pounded ISIS with 1,800 bombs.” Air Force Times. August 23, 2015.

[29] “Isis finally admits defeat in Kobani after air strikes force its fighters to retreat,” Guardian, January 31, 2015.

[30] “New document sheds light on the changing nature of ISIL’s combat tactics.” The National. September 20, 2017.

[31] “Inside the B-1 crew that pounded ISIS with 1,800 bombs.” Air Force Times. August 23, 2015.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Kurds Roll Back ISIS, but Alliances are Strained.” New York Times. August 10, 2015.

[34] “Too Soon to Say Mission Accomplished in Kobane: US Official,” Reuters, January 27, 2015.

[35] “Pentagon to Arm Syrian Kurds for Raqqa Fight.” Stars and Stripes. May 9, 2017. https://www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/pentagon-to-arm-syrian-kurds-for-raqqa-fight-1.467532

[36] “For the Kurds, No Friends but the Americans.” Huffington Post. November 3, 2014.

Robert Troy Souza has published in CTC Sentinel, Middle East Policy, Real Clear Defense and The Huffington Post.

Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Journeyman Pictures: “Kurdistan: The Battle For Kobani”

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