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The Situation in Kobani Might Be Too Dire For Airdrops to Make a Difference

Barbaros Kayan

Seventeen-year-old Emran Ali’s face was swollen with cuts and bruises when he arrived at the hospital in the Turkish town of Suruc last week, about 15 km from the besieged town of Kobani. A few hours later, he took his last breath. “He bled too much,” his doctor, Mehmet Amen, said. With his clothes soaked in his son’s blood, Emran’s father, Ashraf Ali, had tears in his eyes as he spoke of his son: “I’m proud of my son to be a martyr in this war. He died saving Kobani.” Ashraf is a commander with YPG, the Kurdish group that has been fighting to prevent Kobani from falling to ISIS for weeks. He has watched scores of his colleagues die. 

Emran was buried the next day with about a dozen other fighters whose bodies arrived from Kobani that day. According to several Kurds I spoke with near the border, hundreds of Turkish and Syrian Kurds—including Kurdish parliamentarians in Turkey—gathered for the burial in Suruc. The traditional Islamic prayer for the dead (Namaz-e-Janaza) was followed by a more rousing chant: “Long live YPG Long live Kobani!” “Daesh [ISIL] is evil, we will save Kobani from the evil!”

The funeral in Suruc. Photograph by Barbaros Kayan.
Barbaros Kayan

For weeks, fighters like Ashraf and Emran have tried to prevent their town from falling to ISIS. Over the weekend, the U.S. increased its aid to the Kurdish fighters, dropping ammunition, small arms, and medical supplies. But will this make a difference in a situation that is already very dire?

Inside Kobani, according to the Kurds with whom I spoke, there has been mass destruction: Collapsed buildings, streets scattered with destroyed and burnt cars, power cuts, and emptied markets have paralyzed the town. Fighters and the small civilian population that has stayed in the town are running out of food, medicine, and basic amenities. Because Turkey has closed the borders in many areas, thousands of refugees are trapped near the Yumurtalik border crossing.  

Photograph by Barbaros Kayan
Barbaros Kayan

As winter approaches, conditions are expected to worsen. YPG fighters coming into Suruc have described streets heaped with burnt material and a vile smell of decaying bodies. “Many dead bodies of Islamic States fighters are strewn across street corners, and this is creating a hygiene issue for the children and pregnant women still living inside,” says Ashraf Ali. 

The fight for Kobani is not just a fight to save the homes of many Syrian Kurds, but an existential battle. Kobani directly connects Kurdish towns in Turkey and Syria, and losing Kobani would mean losing that connection. If Kobani is lost to ISIS, the Kurds across Turkey and Syria will be cut off from each other. This, say many analysts, is exactly what Turkey wants. Turkey has been both locally and internationally criticized for standing by and watching Kobani fall.

For three decades, Turkish Kurds have been engaged in a civil war. They complain they're not being treated equally in Turkey. “We can’t teach our children our own language, the names of our Kurdish towns have officially been changed on the maps, and we are not given equal opportunities along with the Turks,” says Yilmaz Ahmed, 34, who left his job in a bank in Ankara to join the YPG fighters in Suruc. “Turkey did not budge to help us save our Syrian Kurdish brothers in Kobani.” 

Until very recently, Turkish military and police had gone so far as to prevent Kurdish fighters from reaching Kobani, sometimes with tear gas or police tank barricades. YPG fighters say they got around this by smuggling groups of young boys in with the help of agents who have expertise and experience in cross-border smuggling. 

On Monday, however, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, announced that the country would let Iraqi Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, cross the border into Syria to help fight ISIS. The government asserted, though, that it would not directly assist the YPG. (It should be noted that Turkey has provided a generous humanitarian corridor for Syrian refugees. According to U.N. estimate, 1.6 million Syrian refugees are currently in Turkey.) 

Firas Kharaba, the leader of a Kurdish group, has been coordinating and managing the return of many wounded fighters from Kobani into Turkey. With the help of spies that, he says, infiltrated ISIS, “we found the power hub. … After the U.S. hit that building, they [ISIS] suffered a full blow.” More than 30 top fighters and commanders were killed, he said. Recently the Islamic State has been bringing in new fighters, but many of them—according to Firas’s sources—are not professionally trained fighters, but mere managers, organizers, and account keepers, with little experience in the battle field. 

The main concern for YPG fighters now, is their on-the-ground force. What they need even more than manpower, says Kobani government official Idris Nassan, are “weapons on the ground.” U.S. intelligence has assisted them, says Nassan, but it is not a substitute for weaponry and ammunition. 

Despite this weekend’s air drop, "the coalition is not ready to send weapons on the ground,” says Tarek Doglu, a foreign affairs analyst based in Ankara. “No one wants to intervene the matters between Turkey and PKK. That is the basic complexity."