Power Play

06.02.15 9:25 AM ET

Town the U.S. Helped Save Now Run by ‘Terrorists’

Fighting ISIS means hard choices. But the Obama administration shouldn’t kid itself about them. Kobani’s original inhabitants are becoming permanent refugees.

SURUÇ, Turkey — Just three months ago the Kurds who called Kobani home celebrated as the last Islamic State militants were flushed from their battered border town just across the Syrian border. In a hard-won four-month battle ISIS suffered its first major defeat since it declared a “caliphate” last summer. But the Kobani victory has turned bittersweet for the thousands of families now sheltering here in a tented Turkish government refugee camp on a dusty, sun-exposed plain or in apartments they are struggling to rent in the poorer districts of the nearby city of Urfa, where some are eking out a living.

Much of the center and west of Kobani has been devastated—the result of street-by-street fighting, rocket and mortar attacks and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. The town is littered with unexploded ordnance and decomposing bodies still half-buried in the rubble. Few Kobani Kurds have returned and many say they suspect they never will be able to pick up their lives there. They are planning to try to enter Europe illegally via so-called “ghost-ships” from Turkish ports, possibly, if they can, to stay in Turkey.

“Thousands have gone back to find out what has become of their homes, but when they see the scale of the devastation they sneak back into Turkey,” says Mustafa, a farmer with seven children. Exorbitant food prices, a lack of medicines and the absence of running water and electricity are deterring a mass return. Only about 15 percent of the original inhabitants are estimated to be living in the town now, although as many as 70,000 may have returned to see what remained. “Fifty families used to live in my street; there are only three or four now,” says Mustafa as he flicks forlornly through the pictures on his cellphone of the wreck that was once his home.

In the hundreds of small outlying villages even fewer residents have moved back home because of fears ISIS will decide on a rematch to avenge the costly defeat this winter.

For the 192,000 Kurds who fled either the town or the province lies with the military defenders themselves there are bureaucratic obstacles as well. Refugees require permission from Turkish authorities to cross back into Kobani and they also need the go-ahead from the Kurdish town administrators, all members of the autocratic Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian wing of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The administrators are sparing with permissions, arguing with some justification that the town is unsafe for civilians, but locals say there is favoritism in who gains permission and who is told they can’t return.

Many returnees chafe at the high-handedness of PYD bosses and the fighters of the self-defense force, the YPG, essentially the PYD’s armed wing, which they complain is on open display on the streets of the ruined town. “The fighters do what they like and no one can say anything to them—if they order you to do something or not to do something, you can’t say no or argue that it isn’t right,” says Ali, a mustached retiree with a wrinkled, tanned face, who now lives in Suruç. We speak in the shadow of a stone pomegranate, a fruit this Turkish town is famous for growing.

Kobani Kurds are careful with public criticism of the PYD, fearing retaliation. None who are critical agree to their family names being published. The party can make life very difficult for dissenters.

But there’s more, that speaks to the key question, now, of whose city it is in the first place. The PYD has decided to set aside a large chunk of old Kobani for what the party says it plans one day to develop into an open-air museum and a memorial space to honor those who lost their lives keeping the town from falling into the hands of the jihadis.

Altogether 80 hectares (almost 200 acres) in the center of Kobani, mostly consisting of private properties, are to be left in ruins to commemorate the battle. Hundreds of families who want to go back to their homes to try to repair them have been told the properties are now off-limits and that any rebuilding is strictly forbidden. A conference was organized last month in Turkey to discuss the town’s future but few locals were invited or even aware of it.

“We have not being offered any compensation, although there is some talk of us being given some rural land in exchange, but it will be worth less than our properties,” laments 45-year-old Mohammed. PYD officials say they plan to build a new town a mile or so south of the town center—but when or how that will be done is unclear.

One of the few locals to go public in criticism is Mustafa al-Abdi, the director of an FM radio station in Kobani, who told Syria Deeply, a regional news website: “Loyalty to the Kobani resistance and the martyrs means for us to rebuild their homes…. The coalition turned Kobani into rubble to liberate it, not for it to be turned into a museum.”

“It would be a very great loss, there are hundreds of properties and shops and homes within the boundaries of the museum, and though the local government says that it would compensate those who suffer damages, and would construct properties outside the city, it would not make up for these great losses,” says al-Abdi.

Adding insult to injury, the decision to declare the center off-limits was communicated by a commander who doesn’t come from Kobani, or even Syria, but is a Turkish Kurd. Many of the fighters in Kobani weren’t Syrian Kurds but members of the PKK, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union.

Western leaders played down the major role the PKK took in the stalwart and desperate defense of the town in the autumn and winter. Western officials subscribed to the fiction that the fighters battling the Islamic extremists were all members of the PKK’s (non-terrorist) Syrian PYD offshoot. The heroic resistance mounted by outgunned Kurdish units in full view of TV cameras caught the West’s imagination and Washington desperately wanted a win for its international coalition against ISIS.

With Turkish tanks standing idly by a few hundred meters away from the border, the U.S. airdropped light weapons to the hard-pressed Kurdish defenders with Secretary of State John Kerry saying not to do so would have been “irresponsible” and morally dubious. U.S. officials tip-toed around the issue of, in effect, supporting a designated terrorist organization, arguing that the PYD and PKK, though linked, are also separate, and pointing as well to the rather dilatory peace talks between Ankara and the PKK.

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For Turkish and Syrian Kurds there is no real difference between the PKK and PYD—the cadres and leaderships are interchangeable. So, too, according to Kurdish critics, is a dictatorial mindset that brooks little dissent and bends and manipulates the libertarian-themed canton democracy the PYD claims to be developing in northeast Syria to its own purposes. The commanders calling the shots now in Kobani are not the local municipal leaders trotted out for Western media interviews to highlight the role of women fighters during the siege. They are instead what locals call Qandil Kurds, a reference to the PKK’s mountain-range sanctuary in northern Iraq that extends 30 kilometers into Turkey and contains the separatist movement’s military training camps.

“Five of the top commanders during the siege were from Kobani and 15 were Qandil commanders,” admits a YPG fighter, who declined to be named.

For their liberation from the jihadis, many Kurds are thankful to the PKK/PYD, the largest and best-organized of 17 major Syrian Kurdish political factions. But while others are ready to praise the bravery of the fighters at Kobani they criticize what they see as a PKK/PYD bid to establish a firm political monopoly in northeast Syria, one that marginalizes other factions and rides roughshod over dissent.

When challenges surface the PYD can be heavy-handed in response—as can the PKK, which has been implicated in the past in assassinations of Kurdish opponents. In June 2013, the YPG suppressed a street protest against the PYD in the Syrian town of Amuda. Seven civilians were killed.

Critics also say the PYD is skillful in exploiting the strong sense of common purpose Kurds share in the midst of the war tearing Syria apart, and are adept at mixing what is good for the party with what supposedly is good for the common good. But for all of its apparent efficiency, projected by Western-attuned party propagandists, Kobani locals says there is an impracticality about its behavior in Kobani. The party expects the international coalition to fund the open-air museum—unlikely while the war is being waged and ISIS could return. In the meantime nothing is being done with the buildings, or even the bodies beneath them, leaving the corpses as a major health risk.

“We have asked for help in getting rid of unexploded bombs and bodies in our street but no one has come,” bemoans Mohammed. “Some of the bombs are not ISIS ones but bombs the YPG fighters made themselves. They are controlling everything but not doing or organizing anything.”

Another Kobani Kurd and father of five says that when he returned to the town, the YPG fighters asked him what was he doing there. “‘You have nothing,’ they told me. They told me to go away.” He adds: “They want my property. I know the journey to Europe will be dangerous but what was Kobani has gone and Europe is my best hope to try to secure a better life for my family.”