Kurdish forces’ apparent near victory of the northern Syrian city of Kobani marked the first major defeat for ISIS at the hands of local ground troops and the U.S. air war.
But the four-month campaign to reclaim the city also exposed the fragility of the U.S. and coalition effort, as well as ISIS’s ability to hold onto territory, observers, analysts and military officials concluded. In what has been an opaque war, the battle of Kobani is the most illustrative of the tactics of both sides.
For the U.S. and coalition forces, the lesson of Kobani is that without a strong, aggressive local force on the ground willing to fight for months, airstrikes alone cannot win back territory from ISIS. Syrian Kurdish fighters, known as YPG, backed by Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga launched a sustained campaign against ISIS. During that effort, the U.S. and coalition became the air force for those fighters.
The U.S. paid particular attention to Kobani, striking it more than any other city in Iraq and Syria. Of the 1,800-plus airstrikes the coalition has conducted since August 8, 35 percent targeted Kobani, according to U.S. Central Command press releases. Between Sunday and Monday, the U.S. and coalition conducted 17 airstrikes in Kobani, the Pentagon announced Monday.
ISIS’s fight for Kobani suggested that the terror group could take territory quickly and hold onto it through an ongoing campaign of terror and intimidation. But it couldn’t win a war of attrition. In this case, ISIS was outmatched by thousands more Kurdish forces and an almost daily airstrike campaign.
ISIS “got caught in an unwinnable situation,” said Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War.
Even as Kurdish fighters Monday joyfully tore down the ISIS flags that flew over government buildings, U.S. military officials stopped short of declaring that ISIS had lost Kobani. As of Friday, the Pentagon declared that 70 percent of Kobani was in rebel control.
On Monday, U.S. CENTCOM officials said they now believed 90 percent was under Kurdish control.
“U.S. Central Command congratulates these courageous fighters and thanks them for their efforts,” the command said in a statement.
It appeared ISIS still controlled at least two eastern neighborhoods. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “YPG fighters are still combing some houses in the eastern suburbs of the city, dismantling and detonating IEDs.”
Moreover, it appeared that ISIS troops were just outside the city borders.
That ISIS fighters appeared to have been pushed back in Kobani also could explain the increased coalition airstrike campaign in places like Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and where ISIS first expanded its grip on that country, Harmer said. Since Thursday, the coalition has conducted at least 30 strikes in that city.
With ISIS forces pushed out of one city, all other nearby ISIS-controlled cities are vulnerable to increased movement and adjustments, Harmer explained to The Daily Beast.
Until the apparent retaking of Kobani, the U.S. military had said it had reclaimed 700 square kilometers, or 1 percent of total ISIS territory in Iraq, all in the north, in areas with Kurdish forces on the ground. So far it has refused to release statistics on Syrian territory, where it appears ISIS has gained some ground.
According to the Syrian Observatory, ISIS first flew its flag over Kobani on October 6. Amid the Kurds’ celebratory cheers, the scars of the battle were all over the city Monday, the observatory found. “Large parts of the city have become uninhabitable due to U.S. and Arab allies’ air raids, detonation of booby-trapped vehicles, and mutual shelling,” the opposition group concluded.