ISIS last week committed one of the worst massacre of civilians since its so-called “caliphate” was established a year ago. Around 30 jihadists infiltrated the Syrian border town of Kobani, set off car bombs and waged gunfire attacks, killing at least 206 civilians, including women, children and the elderly.
Kobani, you’ll recall, was the site of one of the most intense sieges of the coalition’s war against ISIS; it lasted six months, it required American warplanes dropping thousands of pounds of ordnance, and it transformed the town into a virtually uninhabitable pile of rubble and ruin by the time ISIS was routed.
The jihadists’ return was therefore as demoralizing as it was deadly. But it had another motive, too: the old military strategy of divide and conquer. The ISIS attack was at least partially designed to exacerbate lingering sectarian tensions between the Arabs and Kurds who have lately been on an unimpeded sweep across eastern Syria, delivering defeat after defeat to the army of terror.
Abu Saif is a military commander of the Raqqa Revolutionaries, one of two Free Syrian Army factions fighting alongside the Kurdish People’s Defense Units, or YPG, militias. He was in Kobani around 5 o’clock Thursday morning when ISIS struck—dressed in the uniforms of the FSA and YPG. “They first fired shots in the air, and people were happy because they thought these were friendly forces,” Abu Saif told The Daily Beast. “But when they came out to greet them, the militants opened fire. When I went up to the rooftop [of my building], I saw that they were dressed in YPG fatigues. Then, they started killing people.”
A day later, ISIS was still inside Kobani and in control of Mishta Nur Hospital, where they’ve taken 50 civilian hostages, as well as a secondary school and other buildings. By Saturday, YPG’s Twitter account announced that there were “still search ops in [Kobani’s] northern neighborhoods where #ISIS terrorists might be hiding. The town is quiet now.”
But they did have one military target, as it happens: Abu Issa al-Raqqawi, the top commander of the Raqqa Revolutionaries, whose home was raided. “Abu Issa’s wife was injured in the attack along with two of his children,” Abu Saif said.
According to The Washington Post, the ISIS infiltrators were all Kurdish and many were from Iraq, posing as repatriating refugees. Clearly, then, Arabs in Kobani were meant to believe that their allies had turned on them.
When The Daily Beast first made contact with him, on Wednesday, it was to interview Abu Saif about a wholly different set of developments in Syria—his recent battlefield victories against ISIS. Ten days earlier, on June 15, the Raqqa Revolutionaries and YPG had jointly sacked the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad.
“What’s strange to me is that when we moved on ISIS, they didn’t put up much of a fight,” he’d said at the time,” somewhat warily. “I was amazed they collapsed this quickly.”
He also described how Syrian rebels have had to call in airstrikes by proxy, via their YPG partners: “We gave the Kurds coordinates, and the Kurds passed them along to the Americans. There was a vehicle operated by them that was in the rear of our convoy, and we would scout ISIS positions, tell the Kurds the coordinates and they’d sent them onto the coalition.”
Angrily, Abu Saif added, U.S. Central Command still won’t liaise directly with the him or his men because the Kurds alone are America’s trusted eyes and ears on the ground in northern Syria. That favored status has allowed the Kurds to recruit unlikely allies in Arab and Christian Assyrian paramilitaries from Aleppo to Raqqa to Hasakah province who are eager for even indirect international support.
The YPG and FSA had been expecting a pitched battle lasting several weeks, not the mere 48 hours it took for Tal Abyad to fall. This was, after all, the jihadists’ most prized gateway into Turkey for the smuggling of goods, weapons and foreign fighters. But ISIS quickly gave it up. Abu Saif said that he intercepted communications between ISIS fighters in Tal Abyad and their superiors in Raqqa. “We heard their commanders calling for reinforcements, which never materialized. When we moved on Tal Abyad, some of their fighters withdrew, some stayed and fought. But that was a small number.”
Not for the first time, then, ISIS had beat a tactical retreat, leaving its own combatants to flee or die. One hundred jihadists were killed, while an untold number escaped north into Akcakale, Turkey. Some were then apprehended by Turkish soldiers. Other ISIS fighters shaved off their beards and melted into the exodus of thousands of civilians marching north, U.S. officials told The Daily Beast.
One remarkable victory was followed by two more. On Tuesday, the FSA and YPG took Brigade 93, a former Assad regime installation that had been under ISIS control, with just as little resistance. Hours later, they seized Ain Issa, a town just 30 miles north of Raqqa City, and the closest any anti-ISIS ground force has come to the jihadist “capital” in three years.
The YPG’s Facebook page claimed that “dozens of [ISIS] mercenaries were killed”; however, one U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast that the Kurds “essentially walked in.” In the rare cases where ISIS did mount a defense, it was largely by leaving behind explosives to inflict casualties on the liberators, the official said.
Even in victory, however, the Arabs and Kurds were at odds. When Tal Abyad was retaken, reports aired immediately that the YPG had committed ethnic cleansing and burned down the Arab homes of suspected ISIS collaborators in retaliation. These were allegations that the Kurds’ longtime adversaries in Turkey were all to happy to promote and emphasize.
The Kurds, Ankara fears, are blazing through the borderland of northern Syria and expelling ISIS not to assist a broader revolution against Bashar al-Assad regime, but in order to establish their own mini-state.
The Democratic Union of Kurdistan, or PYD—the party that runs the YPG militias—is meanwhile accusing Turkey of underwriting every variety of Syrian Arab Islamist and jihadist, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda to ISIS. “Without support of a regional country, ISIS could not [have infiltrated Kobani],” the PYD’s Sheruan Hassan darkly told The Daily Beast, added that the terrorists entered the town from Turkey—with the connivance of the Turkish government. The paranoia goes both ways. Salih Muslim, the co-chairman of PYD, added in a separate interview with The Beast that the FSA inside Kobani “might” have cooperated with ISIS to allow them to sneak in.
Conspiracy theories and recriminations have now started, compounding what was already an extremely tenuous, enemy-of-my-enemy alliance between Arab and Kurd.
Christopher Harmer, with the Institute for the Study of War, says ISIS is keenly aware of how hodgepodge and internally parlous the coalition’s proxies are in this war. The terror army looks for every opportunity for divide-and-rule tactics.
“You can say that the FSA and YPG are both fighting ISIS. You cannot say that they have the same interests. Because ISIS is geographically in the center of the fight, they sense these gaps in the opposition very easily and exploit them.”
The greatest asset any guerrilla insurgency has on the battlefield is misdirection: Draw the enemy’s fire and manpower to one location, then plot and perpetrate opportunistic attacks elsewhere, where his forces are less concentrated and may not be paying attention. Kobani, in fact, proved such a case when it was liberated in February.
Over a thousand jihadists were killed in the space of half a year, most of them foreign recruits from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, or Tunisia, who had been deployed as suicide bombers by their veteran Iraqi and Syrian ISIS field commanders. Yet while international media and Western military focus was fixed on this largely “symbolic” battle (as the Pentagon itself characterized Kobani), ISIS had all the while been cultivating local populations, dispatching its notorious sleeper cells, and executing attritional attacks on Deir Ezzor, Homs, Damascus, not to mention western and central Iraq. It turned a tactical defeat into a strategic advantage, having learned how through nearly a decade of bleeding the American military in Iraq under the guise of its earlier incarnation, al-Qaeda.
ISIS replayed the same script again during the month-long battle for Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, with an estimated 30,000 pro-Iraqi government forces—the overwhelming majority Iran-backed Shia militias—anticipating a cakewalk that would take days. Instead, it took them three weeks before they ground to a halt by a mere 400 to 750 dug-in ISIS militants. Baghdad was then forced to meekly ask for U.S. airpower to bail its forces out and finish the job. As Tikrit was falling, being scuttled, ISIS was already well into its final phases of sacking the far more important city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of al-Anbar province, and prepping its incursion into the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which it took from Assad’s army just days later.
Indeed, the one constant in any victories in Operation Inherent Resolve, as the coalition’s war is known, has been American airpower. The sorties drive ISIS out. But when the sorties stop, ISIS comes back. (The last U.S. airstrikes around Kobani, it bears noting, were on June 16. Since Thursday's attack, the coalition has again begun bombing Kobani.)
So where does ISIS go from here?
Abu Saif said that it’s now busy laying land mines around Raqqa City and constructing blast walls in preparation for what any impending invasion by combined FSA and YPG forces. Rami Abdurahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told CNN on Wednesday that ISIS had already moved about 100 military vehicles filled with fighters, weapons and ammunition into the city from the east.
Are the jihadists hunkering down for a long, bloody fight on their own turf and terms? The odds of FSA and YPG columns advancing on Raqqa behind screaming F-18s are long. “There’s no possibility that American airpower can be employed in Raqqa the way it was in Kobani,” Harmer said. “For all practical purposes, Kobani was depopulated before the battle started. There’s no way we’re going to incur mass casualties in Raqqa in order to get a few ISIS fighters.”
And look what’s just transpired in the space of 24 hours: a horrifying pogrom in Kobani that further alienated Arab and Kurd; the immolation of a Shia mosque in Kuwait; a machine-gun murder spree against seaside holiday-makers in Tunisia; the beheading of a gas factory worker in northern France. ISIS has so far claimed credit for the Kuwait and Tunisia attacks; it may have also “inspired” the head-lopper in Lyon, who was captured alive by French police. ISIS’s spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani recently exhorted his followers to celebrate Ramadan by making it “a month of fire for the kuffar.” Three takfiri operations on three continents within hours from each other seems a terrible coincidence. All told, taken with the butcher’s bill in Kobani, 266 people were just murdered globally.
And, as ever, ISIS has manipulated the international news cycle into occluding its battlefield losses with chatter about its omnipresent danger. The taking of Tal Abyad now feels like ancient history.
—With additional reporting by Nancy A. Youssef and Wladimir van Wilgenburg