Politics & Policy

ISIS Is About to Overrun Syria’s Kurds

An old man on the border looks at the city he left behind as the Islamic State invades. Photo provided to NRO by a source near Kobani
In Kobani, the Kurds are backed up against the Turkish border.

Sherin Sheihk Othman’s 74-year-old father did not want to give up on Kobani, the Syrian city on the Turkish border currently under heavy assault by the Islamic State. Worrying his family, Uztas Osman vowed to stay “until ISIS comes next to my door,” guarding his hometown with an aged Kalashnikov. (He’s pictured below.)

But he finally left Monday, sadly making his way toward the Turkish border. “The authorities in Kobani told him to leave because of his age,” Sherin tells me by Facebook.


Kobani matters strategically because of its location along the border: The Islamic State views it as the last hold-out in the area, as well as a place to potentially smuggle through new fighters and supplies.

“What went wrong is basically that nobody paid attention over the past year to the Syrian Kurdish fight against ISIS,” says Aliza Marcus, an expert on the Kurds and author of the book Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. Kobani, she says, is “psychologically important [because] it’s an area where the Kurds have had autonomy. After Iraq, Syria was a place where they had been able to set up some kind of independence. . . . [But today], there’s an imminent threat of a massacre.”

The United States is finally pushing back to protect the city. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both reported numerous U.S. air strikes conducted near Kobani on Tuesday, which reportedly took out three armed vehicles and anti-aircraft guns, also damaging a tank and inflicting some casualties on the Islamic State fighters.

But Ebdi says the Islamic State has also quickly adjusted to air strikes, changing its strategy.

“The U.S. airstrikes are not sufficient to stop these savages,” Ebdi tells me. “I have heard from many sources that ISIS knows about the airstrike strategy. They hide their tanks and artilleries when being attacked.”

#page#The battle at Kobani may also illustrate some of the limits of American diplomacy in the region. Ankara’s support against the Islamic State in the area, which lies just south of the Turkish border, has been reluctant and meager.

For 30 years, Kurdish insurgents squared off against the Turkish government, costing more than 40,000 lives. Despite fragile peace talks currently underway, the Turkish government finds itself in “a very dicey situation,” says Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.

“They don’t want to unbalance their relations with the Kurds, but they also don’t want the instability to enter their territory,” Berman says. “They want to fight ISIS abroad and not at home, but in a way that still gives them the political upper hand over the Kurds.”

“The simple fact,” Rubin says, “is that while Turkey is willing to tell American diplomats it won’t help or support radical Islamists, its policy suggests a very different policy. Simply put, Turkey is more concerned about Kurdish empowerment than it is al-Qaeda.”

Turkey has given reluctant shelter to around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, including an estimated 180,000 from the area around Kobani. Meanwhile, Ebdi tells me, hundreds more refugees remain trapped, waiting to pass through the Turkish border on the west side of Kobani.

Kobani refugees wait near the Syria-Turkey border. Photo provided to NRO by Hussain Hajj.

Syrian Kurdish refugee kids from Kobani wait for food in Turkey. Photo provided to NRO by Hussain Hajj.

Even for those families who make it into Turkey, conditions have proven difficult, says Hussain Hajj, a Kurd from Kobani who has lived in Turkey for several years.

“People stay in mosques, tents, parks,” Hajj tells me by Facebook. “Turkish people don’t give homes for rent, [and if they do], they ask for twelve months renting contracts, which is very difficult financially. [In] most rented houses, four to six families stay in the same flat. You know, there is a very big number of children. . . . There’s not enough [international] help. . . . Most help comes from [the] people of Kobani who work abroad, but it can’t be enough.”

“If it is temporary,” he says, “there is no big problem, but if it lasts months, it will be catastrophic . . . especially [because] winter is coming.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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