Middle East

Islamic State crisis: Syrian Kurds battle to keep hold of strategic Kobane

A Kurdish YPG fighter in Kobani on 30 September 2014 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Syrian town of Kobane lies strategically close to the Turkish border

The Syrian town of Kobane, near the border with Turkey, was the first city from which Kurdish troops expelled Syrian government forces and established self-rule in July 2012.

Now the city risks falling to the hands of Islamic State (IS), which launched an offensive to capture the town on 15 September.

Kurdish forces are heavily outgunned by IS, which has tanks and other heavy weapons. They have managed to slow down IS's advance, but militant fighters have now reached the south-west corner of the town.

Kurdish fighters who have been defending the hills around the city have pulled back to the streets of Kobane, and their commanders say the fight to control the town is entering a new phase.

"Our forces have been preparing for a street battle," says Salih Muslim, the co-leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish party in Syria.

"They will defend the city to the very end. Kobane will never fall to IS," he says.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption In the past week more than 150,000 Syrians have fled IS, according to the Turkish government
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kobane is the Kurdish name for the town, called Ain al Arab by the Syrians

Kurdish commanders believe that IS may not be able to use its heavy weaponry, such as artillery and tanks, as effectively when the fighting turns into a street battle. They hope this will mean Kurdish fighters can put up a strong fight.

Soft target

In picking its battles, IS seems to be selecting soft targets, usually taking over towns that don't put up much of a fight.

Kobane is surrounded by two IS-controlled towns to the east and west, faces the Turkish border to the north and lies some 140km north of Raqqa - the heart of IS-controlled territory - so it is easy to understand why jihadist fighters might choose to stage an all-out attack there.

But fighters in Kobane have been resisting takeovers by Islamist militants for over two years.

Locals say this is because of the town's symbolic importance.

"Kobane might be our soft spot, if you look at it from a geopolitical point of view. But Kobane is where the will of our people and Kurdish cause is strongest," says Polat Can, spokesperson for the Kurdish People's Protection Unit (YPG).

"They are of the same tribe of Kurds that produced leaders and fighters like Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and top PKK leader Murat Karayilan," he adds.

However, fighting a heavily armed IS without any sophisticated weapons is proving to be difficult for fighters in Kobane - IS is moving closer, and coalition air strikes have done very little to stop the jihadist advance.

According to Salih Muslim, the coalition has yet to effectively bomb IS positions near Kobane. "That is why the IS thinks it is safer to deploy most of its forces near Kobane in order to protect them from air strikes," he says.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Both Washington and Turkey are wary of empowering Syrian Kurds, allied to the PKK in Turkey

Most coalition air strikes have targeted areas near Mosul and Irbil in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria.

While co-operating closely with the Kurds in Iraq, who are allied to Turkey, Washington is wary of empowering and encouraging Kurds in Syria, who are allied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought against the Turkish army for three decades, although it has observed a ceasefire since 2013.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu says his country will do what it can to prevent Kobane from falling to IS, but stopped short of committing to military intervention.

His words followed a statement by the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who said the peace process between Ankara and the Kurdish rebels would collapse if IS militants seized Kobane.

Kurdish officials in Syria have repeatedly said that they don't want Turkey to intervene in the conflict, but have called for an easing of border controls to allow in other Kurds to supply arms to the fighters in Kobane.

They also believe that Turkey is in league with IS in a bid to prevent the Syrian Kurds from becoming more powerful - a claim strongly denied by Turkey.