Image by John Beck
Every day brings more news of the Islamic State's advance on Kobane. More villages seized, more injured, more dead. The northern Syrian city — also known by its Arabic name Ayn al-Arab — and its predominantly Kurdish population has been surrounded by IS militants for well over a year, but the extremist group launched a major offensive in the area last week, and now, the situation is grave. Local officials and activists told VICE News that IS has pushed forward to less than five miles from Kobane's outskirts and warn that if it falls, its remaining residents could be massacred.
The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) forces defending the city remain defiant and determined to thwart IS. But the fighting has been desperate. One young YPG member originally from Afrine, Syria, who spoke with VICE News and two other journalists in Turkey on Wednesday after being injured close to Kobane the previous day, described how during a last-ditch attempt to halt an assault on the village of Tall Ghazal, a friend had mounted an IS tank then thrown explosives into its hatch, killing himself in the resultant explosion.The fighter, who only agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity, was wounded in the same engagement. Lying in bed with his yellow, swollen left leg held together by pins, wrapped with blood-caked bandages and elevated slightly on a similarly blood-covered pillow, he described how IS had completely outgunned his unit, attacking with more than 10 vehicles.The jihadists have modern weapons and armor, much of it looted from the Iraqi army during a shock advance in June. As a result they are hard to stop, especially for the YPG, which is mainly armed with elderly Soviet guns and RPGs and unable to access heavier ordnance.
In Tall Ghazal, the YPG feigned a retreat and laid an ambush which destroyed two IS cars, the fighter said, but added that the extremists only stopped after his comrade sacrificed himself to destroy the tank. "We were in a bad situation, and when he did that, he scared the IS fighters…. he had seen how the tanks shelled the village and killed a lot of his friends."
During the battle, a sniper round smashed into the fighter's left shin and he was carried to safety. IS, meanwhile, retreated and consoled themselves with firing heavy weapons from a distance. It was later reported that they were in control of the village, despite the frantic Kurdish efforts.It was one of many similar engagements. Some YPG fighters said on Wednesday that IS had launched attacked within a mile or two of Kobane. The city's defence minister, Ismet Shêkh Hesen said via phone on Wednesday that the group was a little over four miles away from its southern edge and six to seven miles away to the east and west. He added that IS was now concentrating on the southern front and attempting to seize high ground overlooking the city.Kobane would be a major prize for IS as it would allow them to connect territories they hold and to control the border crossing, helping them bring fighters in and oil out into neighbouring Turkey.Reports from other fronts were not positive either. Mohammed Ahmed, 23, a fighter stationed to Kobane's west, said by phone on Wednesday that he was among around 3,000 YPG fighters there, but that IS were still overwhelming the Kurdish forces numerically. "There are too many of them, you kill 200 and 400 take their place," he said.He too complained of the disparity in arms. "They have heavy weapons, we do not, it is all we can do to even stop them." This situation is unlikely to change, despite appeals for help from Kurdish leaders, and may even get worse. Hesen said that the YPG could not access fresh ammunition and was relying on previously amassed stockpiles.
US-led airstrikes launched on IS targets this week have apparently done little to even the balance. Mustafa Bahin, a writer and media activist in Kobane said that the bombings had actually been counterproductive from the YPG's perspective; doing little to weaken IS and driving its fighters away from strongholds in Raqqa and elsewhere and towards the Kurdish city instead. "The effects were negative as they didn't hit supplies… most IS fighters left and went to the front to fight," he said, speaking via phone on Wednesday. Hesen echoed his remarks, saying the aerial attacks only seemed to have given nearby IS forces an increased sense of urgency. "They're trying to take Kobane before the strikes intensify," he said.So far, the fighting has sent as many as 130,000 residents from Kobane and the surrounding area fleeing into Turkey. Many passed at a large humanitarian crossing slightly west of the city where teams from international NGOs and aid organizations attempted to register the new arrivals.It is hard to get close to the border itself here. Guards leveled their weapons at journalists who tried, but even from a distance a mass of people, cars and livestock can be seen on the Syrian side waiting to enter Turkey.
Some of those that had made it through told VICE News that they had been at the gate for as long as five days, few reported less than three. Many described gruelling journeys from their home villages by foot with whatever they could carry. And the refugees have become increasingly desperate. Turkish police have even fired tear gas at those getting too close to the fence. On Monday, two young children, seemingly suffering from the effects of tear gas inhalation were being treated in a medical tent shortly after canisters were fired and the acrid smoke mixed with a mounting dust storm. One desperately rubbed at his stinging eyes and another lay on a fold-out bed almost unconscious with an oxygen mask over her face. Two young boys were admitted around the same time with shrapnel injuries, apparently from a landmine which detonated as they attempted to sneak into Turkey.
However, the flow of people is now going both ways. Bahin said that many of the residents who fled after hearing reports of IS's advance had begun to return. Hundreds of Turkish Kurds are arriving too, sneaking or bribing their way across the border to fight alongside the YPG after officials appealed for help.Less than a mile from the main humanitarian border gate is a customs crossing by the train tracks. There, hundreds of Kurds have gathered each day this week to get back into Kobane. Most were men who said that they had left their families in Turkey and were now returning, but there were women and children present too. One man told VICE News that after a wait of several days to get his wife and children into Turkey he was heading to his home after just one hour on that side of the border. On Monday, the numbers had been so large that after a day of waiting, they had pushed their way through.Many said they were going to fight. Even with no military training, they saw it as a duty to help where they felt that neither the West, nor anyone else, would. "The US doesn't care about Muslims," one man, Mahmoud Halil, said. "In Iraq and Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan], Muslims are killed and the international community does nothing."
Others pledged to provide support in any way the could. One man, a teacher, said he had never even fired a weapon before but would help with logistics and supplies, like bringing water to the fighters. Some simply refused to live as refugees. After sleeping in a house with 10 other families, a middle-aged woman told VICE News she was returning whatever the risk. "If I die, at least I die in my own home," she said.Those waiting to cross were in defiant mood on Wednesday, chanting "Kobane! Kobane!". One man, who did not give his name, was confident IS could still be prevented from taking the city. "We can still save it, is still strong," he told VICE News, adding that an expansion of the US airstrike campaign would also held the Kurds hold on.Propped up in bed a few miles away, the injured fighter was confident too. Doctors said he should recover in two months. "Then I will go and defend Kobane," he said with a smile, pointing out of the window at the border and preparing to light up a Gauloises cigarette.Only the Kurds, both fighters and civilians told VICE News, are capable of standing up to IS, where many other forces in Iraq and Syria have been routed. But if the YPG cannot hold Kobane, there is nowhere to fall back. And outgunned and unsupported as they are, even the city's leaders are at least acknowledging the possibility of defeat, though not surrender. "We will not retreat [to Turkey]," Hesen said. "We will die in Kobane. I'm ready to be executed by IS, but I'm not ready to leave my town."Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck