In Kobane, site of key defeat of Islamic State, rebuilding is a Kurdish affair

The US saw the Kurdish victory in Kobane as a model for cooperation against the Islamic State. Now, with much of the city in ruins, the Kurds are looking to themselves to rebuild.

A Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in the Syrian city of Kobane, Jan. 30, 2015.

The convoy of bulldozers and dump trucks bearing water and sewer pipes gets a hero’s greeting of honking horns as it passes through this last Turkish town before the Syrian border. Its destination: the ruins of Kobane.

In January, that northern Syrian city saw what was at the time a rare defeat of Islamic State (IS) militants, after a 4-month battle with tenacious Kurdish defense forces supported by heavy US airstrikes.

The battle grabbed headlines as IS fighters vowed never to retreat, and American forces pummeled them with 428 airstrikes – remarkably, 76 percent of all the US firepower expended against IS in Syria in 2014. US officials portrayed the battle as proof of its model for defeating IS in Syria and Iraq: using local militias or soldiers on the ground, while the US kept its involvement at a safe altitude. The result of the fighting is that IS has been pushed back in a 25-mile ring around Kobane.

But the symbolic and high-profile win initially created high expectations for rebuilding that are far from realized in Kobane. The scale of destruction, the booby-trapped ruins, and fields sown with land mines mean that pride at the victory has been tempered by its high price, as residents return.

Despite the monumental task and the slow trickle of aid, Syrian Kurds and Kurdish officials interviewed for this story expressed gratitude for the US military focus during the fight, and little resentment for lack of a similar focus on rebuilding.

The reasons are complex: For one, there is the realization that Kobane was just one of many battles in a far wider war against the IS, and not the only city destroyed in Syria’s war. And in the eyes of many Kurds, there was no quid pro quo military agreement with the US to begin with; they were fighting for their own territory and not at the US behest. A poll conducted after Kurdish fighters broke the IS siege found that a majority had few expectations the US – or anyone else – would provide massive aid to rebuild their city.

'A ghost city'

"We won’t wait for people to come,” says Bozan Khalil, a local Kobane official currently in Suruc, about fundraising efforts. “Our project is not to wait for the war to be over. We know all of Syria is damaged, but we have to depend on ourselves." 

Of a pre-war population of perhaps 200,000 – which is believed to have doubled in size as residents of outlying towns and villages fled the advance of IS last year – an estimated 65,000 have returned, with most staying in villages and 25,000 in the city itself.

Recent drone footage shot by CNN of the frontline areas shows why: In block after block, the buildings have been destroyed by the fighting, which in scale of devastation resemble parts of Beirut in the 1980s or Grozny in the 1990s.

“It’s a ghost city, a dead city,” says Sheikh Ahmad Hamo, a Syrian Kurd with a thick mustache whose son, a volunteer fighter, was killed by a sniper early in the battle.

“I lost my house, but it doesn’t matter, compared to the loss of blood to avoid rule under the [IS] black flag,” says Mr. Hamo. “There is nothing, no fuel, no food. Every family has their own situation; we will go back eventually.”

Lowered expectations

The two mainstays of Kobane’s economy, agriculture and construction, have been devastated by the conflict.

“All the animals are dead, and all the wheat that was sown by IS was booby-trapped afterwards with homemade land mines,” says a senior international aid worker whose organization works in Kobane and across Syria, but who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of working across Syrian frontlines.

“The expectations on the ground in Kobane are quite high, but they have seen, since the conflict is finished, very little aid coming through. I think the expectations have now dropped away,” says the aid worker, adding that “creating a little utopia in one corner” by rebuilding houses is not an option, with such widespread need in Syria meaning tents anywhere else.

“We have to do this proportionately, especially with the level of funding; you don’t have the billions of dollars coming through to do reconstruction anywhere in Syria, so you need to be very sparing,” he says.

The honking-horn-heralded convoy of heavy equipment that passed through the central square of Suruc on the way to Kobane six miles away is the second construction group loaned for a month by mostly Kurdish municipalities in eastern Turkey.

Yet that Turkish Kurd generosity is dwarfed by the magnitude of the damage in Kobane. One estimate of up to half a million tons of rubble means 100 trucks would take 10 months to remove it. Now about five trucks are on the job.

Rebuilding could cost billions

“They will remove the debris, but who will help us rebuild?” asks Ramadan Ibrahim, a Kobane resident who still lives in a camp of prefab containers on the outskirts of Suruc, after the convoy passed.

His expectation of outside help would appear to be a minority view. A survey of 900 Kobane residents and returnees carried out by SREO Research, a Western analytical group based in Turkey, found that 56 percent did not believe anyone would help rebuild Kobane, and that 60 percent did not believe the US or the West would help rebuild.

Local assessment teams have calculated that at least 75 percent of the city has been seriously damaged. Local officials say the price tag for rebuilding could be $7 billion. A conference for Kurdish donors was held earlier this month in eastern Turkey, called “Reach your hand to Kobane.”

In Kobane today there are a handful of pharmacies and shops selling groceries, seeds, and fertilizers. And in the last week, running water has been restored to the two least-damaged districts out of 13, where most returnees now live.

“One of the biggest challenges is there is no water, no electricity, and no equipment that can help us start over, but we have the will and we are trying to do it,” says Moustafa Abdi, the head of local services in Kobane and joint manager of the rebuilding effort, speaking from Kobane by phone.

'We restored our dignity'

Progress has been slow, but the public reaction stoical, says Mr. Abdi. “They are understanding, they didn’t pressure us. They were okay with it because they lost so many people, there were people who gave their lives for this, so they are patient with services,” he says.

“We’re not like superman, but it’s a matter of will,” says Mr. Khalil, the Syrian Kurdish official in Suruc. IS “was a strong enemy, but we believed we were right and we had coalition airstrikes.”

Khalil says the issue of IS is about “dignity” for Kobane, and not letting others impose their rules.

“It doesn’t matter that it is completely destroyed, the ground is ours,” Abdi says. “We restored our dignity; the damage is nothing compared to the lost lives of those who tried to keep the town for us.”

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