Kobanê is a small city in Syria with a population of about 55,000. It sits nestled against the Turkish border, about a 2 hour drive from the countries capital. Aleppo. It’s been in the news recently because of a concentration of fighting between the Islamic State, who seek to bring the city under their control, and the (mainly) Kurdish forces defending it.
As with many modern Middle Eastern conflicts, there are a long list of players involved and a whole history of relationships behind them.
Syrian Security Forces: Syria has been involved in a bloody civil war since March 2011. Government forces still loyal to Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad held Kobanê until July 19, 2012 when it was seized by the YPG, a Kurdish militia.
The YPG: The Kurds are an ethnic group from the Middle East. They inhabit a region known as Kurdistan, which is made of adjacent chunks of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Kobanê is considered to be inside Kurdish Territory, and so is defended by the YPG. They removed Syrian Government forces from Kobanê in July 2012, and have been defending it from ISIS/ISIL since July 2014.
ISIS/ISIL: The new big bad terrorist organization of the new millennium; a tweeting, social media savvy group. Originally an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, this militant group spent the spring and summer of 2014 capturing large swaths of Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extend Jordan. They’re a radical Sunni Terrorist organization known to react violently against anyone who doesn’t agree with their ideology. This includes moderates, Shi’a Muslims, Non-Muslim ethnic groups like the Kurds and the Yezidis, and westerners. Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the group declared themselves a Caliphate on 29 June, 2014. A caliphate is an Islamic state led by a religious and political leader, like the Ottoman Empire once was.
The United States: While president Obama’s administration hasn’t provided any “boots on the ground” support for those attacked by ISIS, a US-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes and equipment drops in Syria since August eighth. The US has also been putting pressure on Turkey to assist the Kurds in defending Kobanê.
Turkey: Kobanê sits just against the Turkish border. When the city and surrounding villages came under Siege from ISIS in September, around 200,000 Kurds were able to evacuate to Turkey. Despite this, Turkish/Kurdish relations sit on thin ice because of an armed struggle between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party from 1984-2013. The Kurds have long fought against cultural and political repression from Turkey. Turkey is between ten and twenty-five percent Kurdish.
ISIS began their offensive on the Kobanê region on September 17th. ISIS, who are well funded and well equipped, fired rockets and artillery into the City and its surrounding areas. Four days later, Militants had captured 64 Kurdish Villages in the Kobanê Area. Fighting was within 10km of the city. The next day, Turkish deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus stated that some 130,000 Syrian Kurds had successfully fled into Turkey. The situation looked grim for Kurdish defenders, who by September 25th only held control of central Kobanê, the town of Shera and a few villages.
Two days later, on September 27th, U.S. led airstrikes targeted ISIS positions around Kobanê. Despite this, the central city started getting shelled by ISIS the same day.
At this point, the Turkish Government finally gave way to US pressure and allowed 1500 Kurdish fighters in from Turkey to reinforce the then-falling-apart Kurdish defense. Despite these refreshments, ISIS advancements continued. By October 4th, ISIS controlled 350 of the 354 villages around Kobane. The city was a ghost town–the majority of the population had fled IS, leaving only the defenders. The last foreign Journalist left October 4th.
Since then, the two groups have been duking it out in the city, taking turns holding the upper hand. After considerable gains and almost taking the center of the city, ISIS suffered heavy bombing and has since been largely repelled from the town. While the conflict continues to play out, the winner still isn’t clear.
Why it matters
The current situation in Syria and Northern Iraq could tip the balance of power in the Middle East. If ISIS is able to control a vast swath of territory – and move towards their goal of establishing a permanent caliphate in the region – diplomacy will, at best, become even more complicated.
Most colleges represent themselves as offering something along the lines of ‘global education.’ While this can be realized in multiple ways – traveling abroad, taking classes that have a global perspective, working hard to develop an international student body – ultimately it’s up to students themselves to get a global perspective. That means following developments like what’s happening in Kobanê.
Being globally educated means not just knowing about what’s happening in the region – but actually giving a shit.