Not Giving Up

Kobani Still Stands Against ISIS and All Odds. But for How Long?

In a stunning show of bravery, the Kurdish men and women holding Kobani are still holding out—and an ISIS poster boy has reportedly been killed.

10.12.14 12:42 PM ET

SURUÇ, Turkey—He gazes at the photograph of his daughter Evan on his cellphone as he offers to let me look. She is 18 years old with long dark wavy hair. It isn’t a snapshot but a more formally posed picture. The girl has lively eyes, a pleasant smile. It was taken shortly before she left a note for her parents telling them she was crossing the border into Syria to join the Kurdish defense militia, the YPG. That was six months ago and last week she contacted him and explained she was fighting the militants of the Islamic State in the besieged town of Kobani.

There is both sadness and pride in her father’s eyes. Ali, a 47-year-old shepherd and father of ten from a nearby village, says, “She is greater than me. I can’t be like her. I have not reached her level of commitment.”

We are standing close to the Turkish-Syrian border—Turkish soldiers are meters away patrolling the fence, more to stop Turkish Kurds from joining the fight that to protect the country from Islamic militants besieging the Syrian border town. In the distance, black smoke is swirling from the western and northern sides of Kobani, the last redoubts of the few hundred YPG fighters who are there fighting for their lives. They control only about a third of the town now, YPG sources inside tell me, and the question remains how long they can defy the odds and prolong their last stand in a battle that resonates every bit as powerfully for Kurds as the Alamo once did for Americans.

The battle is taking a heavy toll on ISIS fighters as well. A high profile American jihadist who defected from Al Qaeda earlier this year to join ISIS was reported by YPG sources to have been killed Sunday in fierce fighting in Kobani. Abu Mohammad al Amriki was first featured in an ISIS recruitment video in February. Speaking in English with what seemed a heavy North African accent, he said he had lived in the US for ten years or so before traveling to Syria. He joined the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra first, but then shifted allegiance and became a poster boy for "Jihad Cool" foreign fighters. Pictures of him were featured heavily in ISIS propaganda tailored for foreign audiences.

It isn't clear whether he was a US citizen but it seems unlikely he was native born. FBI officials earlier this year said they were seeking to identify him. Where and how he was killed wasn't disclosed by the YPG, nor could the information be confirmed independently.

On Friday night the intensity of the combat carried over into Turkey—the crackle of non-stop semi-automatic gunfire, regular thumps from DShK heavy machine guns, known as doshkas, and big explosions from U.S. missiles and precision-guided bombs impacting their targets. The cacophony and acrid smoke—added to the news that Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, had made major advances—prompted predictions of Kobani’s imminent downfall. The shudder of the fighting could be felt 16 kilometers away. “The house shook and the windows rattled—it woke me up,” says Naimas, a Kobani refugee.

But on Saturday and Sunday the Kurdish defenses were still holding and from the border both days appeared quieter. U.S. warplanes attacked just five times on Saturday morning—a sandstorm obscuring much of the town may have contributed to the decrease in American air operations—and they started up again in the evening. 

For Kobani refugees and Turkish Kurds gathered in the villages along the border and on the hills to the west of Kobani to watch the month-long battle, the fact that the fight is still going on is inspiring dreams that somehow the town won’t succumb to the jihadists.  They dismiss the apparent hopelessness of the military plight of the YPG in Kobani—the Kurdish defenders are outgunned and heavily outnumbered and are being attacked from three sides, having lost all the high ground around the town. “We won’t lose Kobani, “ insists a bank manager from the town who is now a refugee. “I trust the YPG fighters, they will hold and win,” he adds. 

A Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament concurs. Ibrahim Binici says, “Kobani will not fall. The situation in the town is good and they killed 70 IS fighters on Friday night.” But he admits the defenders need more weapons and says he and other local parliamentarians are doing all they can to persuade the Turkish government to allow a corridor for YPG fighters from the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli and Turkish Kurdish volunteers to cross the border and join the battle. 

The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has urged Turkey to let Kurdish volunteers reinforce Kurdish militias defending Kobani. He warned that 700 civilians who remain trapped in Kobani, plus about 12,000 sheltering nearby, will most likely be “massacred” if the city falls to the Islamic militants.

The Turkish authorities don’t seem to expect any large inflow of more refugees now. The AFD, Turkey’s agency for emergencies, has packed up its large tents for processing refugees at the two main border entry points near Kobani. 

But there are no signs that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is about to have a change of heart and to allow reinforcements to enter—or even to order his tanks near Kobani to join the fray. He is caught in his juggling. If the Kurds can hold Kobani, then it will advance the objective of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) the Syrian offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to forge an autonomous state of its own, changing overall Turkish-Kurdish dynamics. But if Kobani falls it could well end up re-igniting the 30-year long Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey. 

As if to emphasize there will be no belated volte-face on Kobani, late on Friday Turkish soldiers fired on Kurds from Qamishli who were protesting Turkey’s passive stance toward the battle and its refusal to intervene or allow them to reinforce Kobani. The Kurds entered a buffer zone on the Turkish border and in the melee at least four protestor were wounded. Turkish officials say the soldiers were fired on first. 

And the Turkish tanks on the border—no more than 50—are not equipped to engage in battle. They could bombard Kobani from their positions, but they cannot move into Syria: there are no armored infantry units here to support them and there are no refueling trucks.

Turkish intelligence has been screening those slipping across the border into Turkey more carefully in recent days and is detaining 240 Kurds in a basketball court in Suruç, say Kurdish parliamentarians. Twenty-one of them are Kurdish activist journalists and 30 are women and children. They are being interrogated about their political affiliations. On Saturday night in Diyarbakir, anti-terrorist police arrested three Western journalists while they were covering Kurdish protests.

The hope of eventual victory nurtured by many of the Kurds observing the battle from the border isn’t shared entirely by Ali, the father of the 18-year-old girl fighting in the town. His eyes betray his fear for his daughter and so does his voice. In a phone call to her father on Saturday, Evan told him: “We killed almost 70 jihadists but they are a lot and they become more and more. They scream ‘Allahu Akbar’ but why are they doing that? We are from the same religion.” She told him she and her comrades are in dire need of reinforcements and if they had equal numbers they could beat them.

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“It won’t fall, God willing,” says Ali. But then trails off saying, “maybe it will.”

I don’t have the heart to ask him what his thoughts were when he heard last week’s news of a Kurdish woman fighter acting as a suicide bomber. 

Nearby us are hordes of young Kurdish men ready to cross the border to fight. Some are from Syria but the vast majority are Turkish Kurds and most are PKK activists. Some are cautious about speaking. Others are full-throated. “Kobani is freedom. There are freedom people there,” says a 31-year-old PKK member, who served three years in jail for political activism. “If Kobani is finished, if the YPG fighters are all killed, there will be a big problem here. There will be war in Turkey.”