The four-month siege of the Syrian city of Kobani by the Islamic State has settled into a bloody stalemate, with its mostly Kurdish defenders, backed by U.S. air power, maintaining control over a several-square-mile area adjacent to the Turkish border but unable to retake the estimated half of the city the extremists occupy.
That’s turned the battle for the town not just into a fight between the Kurds and the Islamic State but into a propaganda skirmish between the Turks and the Kurds – both of whom supposedly oppose the Islamic State but who are also on opposite sides of a three-decade war that pits the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known as the PKK, against the Turkish government over Kurdish cultural rights.
Kurdish fighters describe the battle against the Islamic State as a daily back and forth of urban street warfare, with mortars and artillery duels with the Islamic State, while snipers on both sides target anything they see moving between Kobani’s ruined buildings.
Daily U.S. airstrikes have made it hard for the Islamic State to bring in fresh men and equipment, and that’s stopped the group’s initial advance, which saw the city nearly swallowed up by the militants in September. But the group has proven impossible to dislodge from the city’s eastern and southern reaches.
Who’s to blame for the inability to rout the Islamic State from Kobani, which is known in Arabic as Ayn al Arab, is a topic of bitter debate: The Turkish government, which controls access to the Kurdish lines and has demanded that the Kurdish militias give up the dream of an autonomous Kurdish entity; or the Kurds, who have steadfastly refused to accept too much assistance from groups they believe are likely to do Turkey’s bidding.
“The problem is not the Turks but the refusal of the Kurds to allow fighters from the FSA into Kobani to liberate it from ISIS,” said Abu Mohammed al Arakwi, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army rebel coalition, using a common acronym to refer to the Islamic State. The FSA operates a control room in Sanliurfa, a Turkish city about 30 miles north of here. “The Kurds will not allow the FSA to contribute properly because they are afraid they will lose their autonomy.”
Baran Misko, a Kurdish journalist inside Kobani with close ties to the local YPG militia, offers the Kurdish position, which portrays the Turks as strategic allies of the Islamic State and the FSA as an extension of Turkey.
“The FSA works for Turkish intelligence and is only interested in reducing the Kurds and covering up the relationship between Turkey and ISIS,” he said. “The Turks are working with ISIS to make sure that the Kurds don’t start to establish their own state. They refuse to allow the PKK and YPG to enter to liberate Kobani because they want the FSA to do it because the FSA will control the Kurdish people.”
Accusations that the Kurdish militia cooperated with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the early days of the civil war also color the anti-Islamic State fight.
“Everyone knows the Kurds worked with the regime in the early days of the revolution,” said a one-time Syrian activist who fled Aleppo for the safety of Turkey after infighting between the rebel groups left nonviolent activists like him targeted by both Islamists and Assad sympathizers.
“There are still Syrian regime troops operating checkpoints in the Kurdish-controlled sections of Syria and nobody has fired a shot at them,” the former activist said.
But the former activist, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, also saw some reason to see Turkey’s hand in the stalemate, describing Daash, as the Islamic State is often called by its Arabic acronym, as sharing the same strategic interests as Turkey.
“Any FSA group left in northern Syria is controlled by Turkish intelligence – they have to work with them or they won’t be allowed to operate from Turkey,” the former activist said. “I don’t believe the Turks work directly with Daash, but they’re not doing anything to stop them from moving along the border because they’re fighting the (Assad) regime and the Kurds, the Turks’ two biggest enemies.”
Kurds and Turks offer conflicting versions of recent incidents along the border to show the other’s duplicity.
The first was a Kurdish claim that Turkey allowed the Islamic State to launch suicide bombs from Turkish territory on the Mursitpinar border crossing that links Kobani with its Turkish counterpart, Suruc. Such a gambit allowed the bomber to attack YPG positions from behind, the Kurds claimed.
But eyewitnesses said that version is untrue. They note that the bombers were able to drive in a straight line 100 meters from Islamic State areas to the YPG checkpoint without ever having to leave Syrian territory. Arakwi, the FSA spokesman, said FSA fighters saw the explosion. “You can see the fence from Suruc,” he said, referring to the border divider. “The bomb happened well on the other side.”
Equally untrue are Turkish claims that the YPG had invaded Turkish territory on Tuesday, the second time, the Turks said, that the Kurds had tried to provoke an incident on behalf of the PKK. What took place in fact was a headlong retreat by a dozen Kurdish fighters who, pushed from their positions by the Islamic State, had fled into Turkey.
“They were fighting and were forced to escape through the grain silos on the Turkish side of the fence to keep from being slaughtered,” said Baran Misko, the Kurdish journalist with ties to the YPG. He said Turkish soldiers later arrested five wounded YPG fighters who’d gone to Suruc’s hospital for treatment.