Why is the battle for Kobane so important?

The Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobane is important for the Kurds, ISIS, and the US for different reasons. 

Murad Sezer/Reuters
Turkish Kurds gather near the Mursitpinar border gate in solidarity with Syrian Kurds in Kobane, in Suruc, Turkey, on June 27, 2015.

Kurdish fighters say they once again took control of Kobane, two days after the Islamic State militants entered the Syrian border town.

Redu Xeil, spokesman for the Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, told Reuters that Kurdish forces are still searching the neighborhoods for possible militants hiding in town. Smoke could still be seen rising over Kobane, BBC reported Saturday.

On Thursday, Islamic State militants entered Kobane and according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organization that tracks the war, carried out the “second-largest massacre” of civilians since it declared a caliphate last June.

The border town Kobane, also known as Ayn al-Arab, has been a battleground between the Islamic State militants and Kurdish fighters since last year.

For the Kurds, the defense of Kobane symbolizes Kurdish resistance to ISIS.

“The city has gained strategic importance now, partly because it is the first Syrian town to stand against ISIL for such a long time. Other Syrian towns and cities fell into ISIL hands without any resistance,” Sirwan Kajjo, a Syrian-Kurdish analyst based in the US told Al-Jazeera in October 2014.

Mostafa Minawi, director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative at Cornell University, says that Kobane's importance goes beyond the current battle. He says it lies “at the heart of a Kurdish dream. He told Al Jazeera that the town is connected with the Kurds’ “future ambition” of a “wider local-rule model” for Kurds in Syria and Turkey.

For the US, the Syrian border city has emerged as important for geopolitical and symbolic reasons.  

The New York Times wrote in October 2014:

The town, once dismissed as inconsequential by American commanders, has become not only a focus of the American operation against the Islamic State, known as ISIS, but also a test of the administration’s strategy, which is based on airstrikes on ISIS-controlled areas in Syria and reliance on local ground forces to defeat the militants.

A setback in Kobane would show the fragility of the American plan and hand the Islamic State an important victory. Given Kobani’s location next to Turkey, the town’s fall would put the Islamic State in a position to cross the border and directly threaten a NATO ally, a move that could force the alliance to come to Turkey’s defense.

On Jan. 26, Kurdish forces, backed by several days of heavy US-led airstrikes, broke the ISIS siege on Kobane.  In mid-September, ISIS fighters surrounded the the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobane, and on Sept. 27, US-led air strikes targeted ISIS forces in Kobane.

The city has been in control of the Kurds until Thursday when the Islamic State fighters pushed them back.

As for the Islamic State, The Wall Street Journal explains that Kobane has a strategic value. It is the access route into Turkey which makes it an important gateway. 

But Kobane's value is greater than giving ISIS just another border crossing for weapons and supplies, argues Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish political analyst and senior scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center.

"Kobane and the other cantons that are part of the Kurdish autonomy experiment are entirely flat. If Kobane falls, the two other cantons will fall easily because they are impossible to defend. And they are integral to securing the 1,200km border with Turkey. If ISIL takes control of the Kurdish enclave, they will have taken full control of the Turkish border."

But BBC correspondent Quentin Sommerville suggests that the city is not strategically important to ISIS. He sees the jihadists' Thursday attack on Kobane as simply an act of revenge:

This latest attack shows that its loss, after five months of heavy street-to-street fighting and coalition aerial bombardment, still hurts IS.

In its two-day assault, ISIS killed more than 200 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director told AFP on Saturday.

Mustafa Bali, an activist in Kobane, told the Associated Press that Kobane is now "completely cleared". There are unconfirmed reports that civilians began returning to the town from Turkey.

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