A young Kurdish YPG fighter (Photo by Henry Langston)
Since July last year, ISIS has been attacking Kurdish communities in North East Syria. The protracted and bloody conflict has gone widely ignored by the rest of the world as everyone looks on in horror at the rest of Syria and Iraq. The Kurds have been left to fight the ruthless jihadists, largely on their own under the banner of the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG).
After taking over Mosul and some other cities in Iraq in June, ISIS has launched a large offensive against Kobane ("Ain al-Arab" in Arabic) – a majority Kurdish region in northern Syria. ISIS attacks against Kobane have been supported by tanks and other armoured vehicles including US Humvees, pinched when the Iraqi army virtually collapsed and fled before the ISIS advance. The assault has largely been concentrated to the west of the city, around several villages especially against Zormixar, a strategic village overlooking Jarablus, a town currently under ISIS control.
As well as ISIS employing captured US made weapons from the Iraqi army, some YPG sources are stating that Iraqi generals from the Saddam era have joined ISIS and are coordinating the attacks against the Kurds. The main question for Syria analysts is whether or not the YPG had the military capabilities to keep control of the region.
On Friday, two days after the offensive started, the YPG withdrew from Zormixar and other villages after ISIS bombarded the region with over 3,000 mortars. Although the Kurds stated that this was a tactical move, some analysts called bullshit and interpreted this as a sign of possible defeat. But after fierce fighting, the YPG managed to take back control of most of the villages from ISIS.
YPG forces take out an ISIS tank in Kobane
According to the YPG Media Office more than 200 ISIS fighters have been killed since the begging of attacks on the 2nd of July and around 40 of their own fighters lost their lives. It also announced that YPG units destroyed several ISIS tanks and other vehicles as well as seizing a wide range of weapons and ammunition.
ISIS attacks against Kobane are significant for several reasons. First, with the recent confidence gained by taking over Mosul and other cities in Iraq, the jihadists wants to expand its control over a larger territory in Syria. After seizing two oil fields from a rival extremist group, it wants to seize Kobane, which remains in the middle of territories. ISIS currently controls Girespi ("Tall Abyad"), Jarablus and Raqqah. It desperately wants Kobane to connect the regions under its control and make it a part of its proto-Islamic state. Kobane is also a border city with Turkey, and ISIS is known to just love controlling border crossings.
Unsurprisingly given their reputation as pretty much the worst bastards on the planet right now, the ISIS campaign in Kobane has been marked by incidents of extreme brutality, with reports of kidnapping children and publicly crucifying people. Local sources are frequently reporting that ISIS is ransacking civilian homes and confiscating civilian property as well as cutting off the drinking water supply.
Video of the YPG and ISIS forces clashing in Kobane, features one of the YPG's homemade tanks
Kobane was the first city in Rojava to have been freed from the Assad regime on the 19th of July 2012. That means the city has a special significance for Kurds in the their struggle for self-determination. YPG sources and local officials expect that ISIS will be very likely to intensify its attacks as the second anniversary of the Kurdish takeover of the city approaches.
Despite ISIS’s possession of advanced weaponry from Iraq, it has been unable to gain the upper hand over the YPG, which has a lot of popular support. However, ISIS being ISIS, it's probably not going to give up any time soon.
Nor are the Kurds. Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has asked Kurds to mobilise against ISIS. This seems to have gone down pretty well, with hundreds of people crossing into Rojava from Kurdish cities in Turkey to fight for the YPG. Local officials also say hundreds of Kobane residents are returning home from neighbouring countries to defend their city. A battalion of Kurdish mothers has also been formed to help protect the city so if ISIS wants Kobane it'll have to go through a bunch of pissed off mums with AK47s. However, the jihadists are riding high following their success in Iraq and now have a bunch of impressive weapons that they stole, so the situation for the Kurds in Kobane is extremely precarious.
Watch – Rojava: Syria's Unknown War