Middle East

Kobane fighting: IS meets its match in Syrian Kurdish forces

Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) near Ras al-Ain - 9 October Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Syrian Kurdish fighters do not seem affected by the fearsome reputation of the jihadists

Several thousand Kurdish fighters are still in control of Syrian border town of Kobane despite an all-out attack by a much better-equipped and numerically superior İslamic State army since mid-September.

However, their resistance has failed to impress US military planners, whose aim is to "degrade" IS by air strikes in Syria as well as Iraq.

Echoing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's words, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, predicted two days ago that the town would fall to IS.

But as his views were aired, Kurdish fighters on the ground launched a counter-attack against IS before the jihadists were able to get reinforcements from Raqqa, Jarablus and Tal Abyad to carry out a renewed offensive.

The US military has predicted that not only Kobane, but other towns could also fall to IS.

"We don't have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm John Kirby said on Wednesday.

'Willing to help'

But Kurdish officials inside Kobane have challenged Rear Adm Kirby's claim, saying that effective airstrikes will save Kobane because there is an effective fighting force on the ground.

Asya Abdullah, a co-leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) representing Syrian Kurds, told the BBC that they were ready to work with US-led coalition forces.

"We have provided coalition forces with the coordinates of IS targets on the ground and are willing to continue providing any help they will request," she said.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The Kurds say they need more heavy weapons to defend Kobane
Image copyright AP
Image caption IS's reputation has been tarnished by the battle for Kobane

Kurdish commanders on the ground say that some of the latest air strikes have been more effective than previously and that this has helped their fighters to push back IS on several fronts.

A senior female Kurdish commander on Kobane's defence council, Meysa Abdo, told the BBC: "If the coalition is serious about degrading IS, then Kobane is where they should target IS because they have an effective partner on the ground which has successfully fought back against IS alone."

Ms Abdullah warned that thousands of remaining civilians were at risk of being massacred by IS, which is shelling the city centre with mortars, tanks and artillery.

Kobane is not like other Arab towns in the hands of IS, where there is some level of local support and sympathy towards the group.

Despite being mostly Sunni Muslims themselves, Kurds are decidedly secular. It is very unlikely that the IS would take over the city without a big massacre.

Underlining the importance it attaches to the city, Islamic State has been calling the predominantly Kurdish city Ayn al-Islam (Spring of Islam).

Guerrilla experience

Though it has driven back supposedly superior armies in Mosul and Sinjar, IS's image has been tarnished in Kobane, which it has been unable to capture despite heavily outgunning the defenders.

In contrast to the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, Syrian Kurdish fighters, both men and women, seem to have been unaffected by the fearsome reputation of the jihadist fighters.

Syrian Kurdish fighters also turned the tide in favour of the Yazidi Kurds in Sinjar, when IS took over the town and massacred hundreds of civilians in August this year.

Some of their battle-hardened commanders have had an experience of guerrilla warfare against the Turkish army, before their allies the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) declared a ceasefire against Turkey in 2013.

But their expertise in keeping discipline and coordination among military units, and the guerrilla tactics they are used to were not sufficient to stop IS in the fields around Kobane.

A guerrilla commander who was in charge of the forces which fought against IS in the Iraqi city of Makhmour last month told the BBC that their tactics include infiltrating behind the enemy lines and carrying out attacks with light weapons.

"We are better experienced than IS, but you need to have heavy weapons in order to defend a city." he said.