After defeating Islamic State in Kobane, what next for Syria’s Kurds?

The Syrian Kurds' willingness to sacrifice won them allies in the battle for Kobane. But obstacles remain to rebuild the city and translate military into political gains.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
A fighter of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) walks past damaged buildings in the northern Syrian town of Kobane January 28, 2015.

The defeat of Islamic State jihadists in the Syrian border town of Kobane after a months-long siege is a major victory, first and foremost, for the Syrian Kurds’ militia, the People’s Protection Units, analysts say.

“They made it clear from the beginning that they would not back down, that they were not going to withdraw, that they were going to die if they had to, and that was one of the things that attracted the US to giving support to the Kurds,” says Aliza Marcus, author of “Blood and Belief: the PKK and the Kurdish fight for Independence.”

The fight was nothing short of existential. Islamic State (IS) fighters set sights on Kobane in September to solidify their hold on northern Syria, seizing more than half the city and hundreds of surrounding villages in a flash. More than 250,000 Syrian Kurds fled to neighboring Turkey. A small core of dedicated People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters decided to brave the odds.

To those watching events unfold, a Kurdish defeat appeared inevitable, a scenario that galvanized Kurds across the region, particularly in Turkey. Many predicted the town would have fallen if the US had not approved expanding air strikes from Iraq into Syria. While brave, the lightly armed YPG fighters and civilians who took up arms were no match for the IS forces.

“The Kurds have learned they cannot do it alone, which is good,” says Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network. “Without the United States, Kobane would have been history, a different kind of history today.”

Challenge of rebuilding Kobane

The battle may be won in Kobane, but it came at the price of the town itself, which was decimated by four months of fighting and relentless bombing. Syria’s Kurds remain surrounded by hostile forces, and they will need continued international support in order to overcome them, analysts warn.

“They have two challenges – one is that they need to somehow connect Kobane to their other territories. Two is trying to rebuild Kobane,” says Ms. Marcus.

Under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political arm of the YPG, Kurds have carved out three autonomous but separate enclaves in northern Syria: Afrin, Jazeera, and Kobane. Combined they make up what the Kurds call West Kurdistan, or Rojava.

Militarily, the priority now is to flush out IS jihadists from the Kurdish villages adjacent to Kobane. So far, the Kurds are off to a good start – meeting limited resistance and gaining new ground overnight.  Once that goal is achieved, Syrian Kurds may fan out farther.

Turkey could be an obstacle

“They are not going to move fighters around Syria, but they are willing to build on their successes and to continue pushing out. To do that successfully, they will need some sort of support from Arab forces,” says Marcus. A positive precedent was set in Kobane with units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Iraqi peshmerga forces fighting alongside the YPG.

Rebuilding Kobane will be its own challenge. The flow of goods and aid depends largely on the good will of Ankara, the Turkish capital. Although Turkey opened its doors to Syrian Kurdish refugees and allowed Iraqi Kurdish forces to cross its territory en route to Kobane, it categorically opposes the concept of a Kurdish-controlled autonomous government in northern Syria.

That, of course, is what Syria’s Kurds have been working to create de facto, mimicking their brethren in Iraq. “There are a lot of obstacles between that desire and that reality,” says Mr. Xulam. Iraqi Kurds were able to achieve their goals because they enjoyed a no fly zone, international support, and oil to win over Turkey as a trade partner.

“I don’t really see the present Turkish ruling circles looking kindly at the Kurds in Syria, partly because of their ideology,” adds Xulam.

Many, including officials in Ankara and Washington, view the PYD and YPG as offshoots of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that embraces Marxist-Leninist ideology and advocates Kurdish self-rule. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is now behind bars in Turkey.

Converting military to political gains

Syria’s Kurds will need to distance themselves from the PKK if they want their military achievements to bear fruit politically, says Cale Salih, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Kobane helped establish the YPG as a force to be reckoned with in the larger war against IS – a reputation they can build on.

“You had for the first time an American direct collaboration with the YPG, which is really quite remarkable given that the YPG is linked to the PKK,” says Ms. Salih. “In order to maintain this kind of relationship with international powers, they will need to increasingly strike out their own path and not be seen as just a sister of the PKK.”

So far, US interactions with the group have been low-key, held behind closed doors in Europe and Erbil, Iraq. A recent London gathering to discuss the fight against IS excluded both Syria’s and Iraq’s Kurds, underscoring the challenges they have in winning international acceptance.

“They are the number one force fighting ISIS. Why ignore them?” asks Marcus. “The US needs to take a more nuanced approach and recognize that you can’t just deal with the heads of states. You have to deal with the forces inside these states that are fighting IS.”

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