There is a big fight under way in the once sleepy Syrian border town of Kobane. It’s a place few outsiders had probably ever heard of until fairly recently.
But now, ISIS extremists are going for broke to take control of Kobane. The US military is dropping more bombs on militants in and around the town than anywhere else in Syria or Iraq. And for the Kurdish fighters in the area, defending Kobane against ISIS has taken on a sense of historic urgency.
The ISIS blitzkrieg through parts of northern Syria earlier this year “was sort of this onslaught that quickly burnished [the radical group’s] image of inevitability and invincibility,” says Tim Arango of the New York Times.
“Then the US started bombing, and two months on, we’ve settled into this war of attrition,” he adds. The American military has dropped arms and supplies to Kurdish fighters. It is also coordinating its military actions with those friendly forces on the ground.
“It’s a real test of Obama’s broad strategy,” Arango says.
American airstrikes succeeded in stalling the ISIS advance. Kurdish fighters now control about half of Kobane, Arango says, and ISIS holds the other half. Nearly all of the civilians have fled the town.
“It’s hard, at this stage, given the efforts of the American-led coalition, [to imagine] that ISIS will take the whole city,” Arango says. “It seems that the Kurds have the upper hand.”
Kobane has become a potent symbol of Kurdish resistance. The battle is ongoing, but the town has “almost taken on this mythic place in Kurdish history, uniting Kurds around the region. It’s their homeland. It’s really furthered this sense of Kurdish nationalism,” says Arango.
Still, ISIS does not want to give up the fight for Kobane, partly for reasons of publicity. The group has used Kobane as a propaganda tool in its videos, such as the one featuring kidnapped British journalist John Cantlie.
“They’ve done other videos using Kobane as a recruiting pitch, saying ‘Hey, you can come here!’ to would-be jihadists. ‘You can fight the West. You can fight the Zionists. You can fight the atheist Kurds.’ It’s sort of a place where, you know, ‘choose your enemy’ for these guys,” Arango explains.
ISIS appears to be prepared to grind out the fight for Kobane, even if it drags on, says Arango. But as the US-led bombing campaign continues, “it’s going to be very, very difficult to keep reinforcing their troops there, because they don’t have a lot of routes to get to the city now,” he says.
“They’re going to have to figure out a way to play it publicly when it ends,” Arango says.
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.