The struggle for Kobani

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An As-Safir correspondent reports from the front lines of Ayn al-Arab (Kobani), where female and male Kurds of all ages are mobilizing to fight the Islamic State.

Ismail, who hails from the village of Ali Shar in Aleppo’s countryside, looked through the binoculars and pointed to a house about 200 meters [0.12 miles] away. “That is my house and this is the tree that I planted before building my home,” the Syrian Kurd told us, after fleeing with his wife and children to the village of Alizar, in the Kurdish areas of Turkey and from whence he planned to return and fight in his homeland.

Near Ismail’s house, he could see through the same binoculars Islamic State (IS) militants milling around after having overrun the village last Friday [Sept. 26]. Dejectedly, Ismail looked on and said, “They are resting under my tree.”

Ali Shar is located in the eastern area of Ayn al-Arab, which the Kurds call Kobani, adjacent to the Turkish border. It fell after violent clashes between the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and IS, to become one of the 120 villages and towns controlled by the latter in the Ayn al-Arab land strip that adjoins Efrin and Hassaka province, according to statements given to As-Safir by the YPG spokesman Redor Khalil.

Ayn al-Arab includes around 380 villages and towns, smaller in size than the villages and towns of Hasakah, and with a total land area of 3,850 square kilometers [1,486 square miles]. They are all threatened by IS forces concentrated between Efrin and Ayn al-Arab on one end, and Ayn al-Arab and Hasakah on the other.

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The Turkish-Syrian border has dramatically changed in the last 15 days, when IS attacked this part of Aleppo and Hasakah’s countryside, and succeeded in isolating parts thereof after gaining control of the areas once occupied by the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Khalil also indicated that violent clashes took place yesterday [Sept. 30] in the vicinity of Kobani, particularly on the southern front toward Sarrin, adjacent to the Qarqozat bridge that links Hasakah with Aleppo province.

As the clashes intensified, the Turkish-Syrian border area seemed beyond the control of Turkey, as the latter sought to receive parliamentary approval allowing it to “conduct military operations in Iraq and Syria against all potential threats and dangers,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said.

Khalil thought it unlikely that Turkey would receive said approval and that, at the very least, “the world would stand against such an eventuality because it constituted an occupation of Syria.” Furthermore, Khalil said the border itself changed dramatically as a result of Turkish restrictions imposed on the movement of people displaced from Ayn al-Arab and its environs, leading to tens of thousands of remaining stranded in the open, after having successfully fled the IS hell.

Despite this, Kurdish regions in Turkey were teeming with thousands of Syrian and Kurdish refugees who entered Turkey illegally from Syria or through the Iraqi border. As a result, the whole border area was boiling over with male and female Kurdish volunteers who came to join the ranks of the YPG. Their memories were still fresh with stories of Kurds and Yazidis being massacred and violated, to the point where their women were sold into slavery and raped, while ethnic cleansing was perpetrated against their men in some villages; as well as stories told by escapees who fled to camps erected in the cities of Diyarbakir, Mardin and others.

As such, according to Ismail, the Kurds rose up in Syria “as one; for the issue is an existential one of life and death, and we will not allow the fall of Rojava.”

Rojava, as the Kurds call the Syrian area in which they form a majority, means “western Kurdistan.” From east to west, it includes Maabada, Jawadiyah, Qahtaniyah, Ras al-Ayn, Tell Abyad, Ayn al-Arab and Efrin. It is a region where IS managed to isolate some areas and occupy many villages.

Ismail added that the villages overrun by IS split Efrin from Ayn al-Arab, while some others led to the isolation of Hasakah’s villages from Ayn al-Arab, which is under attack on three fronts. Meanwhile, IS seeks to control one of the strategic mountains in the region, which would give it effective control of the surrounding areas.

Three days ago, Ismail stood with many other Kurds on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border to clap and cheer a warplane circling above, which Ismail said was “less than 500 meters away.” The men thought that the aircraft belonged to the international-Arab alliance that had declared war on IS, and which, they hoped, would contribute in weakening their enemy. But, minutes later, the cheering turned into angry jeering and condemnation, as the men, gathered the day before last in Turkish Alizar — which is separated from Ali Shar by a Turkish army border control point — saw the plane “bombing a group of YPG forces while staying clear of IS forces in the east of the country.” But Khalil denied to As-Safir that “any YPG forces were bombed by warplanes.”

In contrast, Ismail affirmed that he and some other men saw the planes, the identity of which they could not determine. “Maybe they were Turkish, coalition or Syrian planes”; although he added that no Syrian plane flew in the area since regime forces withdrew from there.

Some postulate that the aircraft was Turkish; an opinion reinforced by the Turkish position toward their popular resistance force, which “they will not allow to cross the border and fight IS.” In addition, the Turks not only prevented militants and gunmen from crossing the border to Ayn al-Arab and its surroundings but also targeted many of them, leading to casualties, as confirmed to As-Safir by a commander of the female corps in the Sourouj area.

A young woman in her 30s, who refused to be identified for security reasons, had just returned from what she and other Kurds of the region call Kobani: Ayn al-Arab on official Syrian maps — which they will “never allow to fall in IS’ hands. The fate of the Kurds there will not be similar to that of the Yazidis,” as she excitedly said amid a great gathering of women in the town of Sourouj.

Sourouj, the largest Kurdish town in Turkey adjacent to the Syrian border, teemed with thousands of Kurdish men and women who came from various adjoining Kurdish areas to join the ranks of the YPG as volunteer fighters, or simply to seek refuge. IS’ crimes had their effect on the inhabitants of Ayn al-Arab, where the men made sure that all women and children vacated the villages besieged by IS.

Sourouj’s mayor, Zouhal Ikmaz told As-Safir that the town was hosting approximately 70,000 refugees from adjoining Syrian areas; as is clearly evident in its streets teeming with the young and old alike. Some of them sleep in the middle of roads or on street corners, because schools, public institutions, mosques and event halls were unable to accommodate more. Even Sourouj’s homes welcomed hundreds of refugees, at a time when the Turkish government refrained from helping them, leaving the burden of that responsibility on the Kurdish community.

The Kurds from Diyarbakir to Mardin, Sourouj and the environs along the Turkish-Syrian border sounded the “general call to arms.” In this regard, the same female combatant said that leftist Turks even came to volunteer in Sourouj, and entered Ayn al-Arab to train alongside Kurdish men and women living in other countries. “The battle is international and no longer an insignificant sidenote,” she said.

There are no training camps in Sourouj or any other Turkish territories, where the Turkish army prevents fighters from crossing the border. Making the sign of victory with other women around her, the same Kurdish militant said, “We do not recognize all these regimes and their interests. We will not allow our areas to fall, and will pay any price to prevent that from happening. We shall prevail.”

It seems clear that the Kurds view what is occurring, despite the great effect and sadness that it has caused, from the standpoint of trying to make gains toward achieving their ultimate goal of establishing a Kurdish homeland. Kurds coming from Syria came carrying the new legal system upon which they have agreed to rule their lands and govern their lives, in total equality between men and women, among other tenets.

It is an equality currently being translated by Kurdish women on the battleground, “where their numbers account for half the number of all Kurdish fighting troops,” according to Ismail, who was himself getting ready to return to Ayn al-Arab. He added, "Lightly armed YPG forces were confronting IS fighters bearing the most sophisticated of weaponry received from the major powers that backed and empowered them from the very start."

Ismail also confirmed the predominance of US weapons in the hands of IS, “from tanks to cannons and heavy weapons, some of which may be weapons captured from the Iraqi army.” Despite the great disparity in capabilities, the inhabitants of Ayn al-Arab, and all Kurds of the region, have taken a solemn decision “not to let our areas fall under the control of IS, which we will resist.” Accordingly, the female combatant affirmed that only women, children and senior citizens were fleeing besieged areas. “Every woman and man between 15 and 60 years of age has a duty to fight,” with the exception of the sick and mothers who have children to tend to. “We do not want any mother to leave her children, for raising them is, in itself, an act of resistance.” The role of mothers in Sourouj and Alizar is not confined to raising children though, as “they also help refugees, secure their needs and collect all kinds of donations from the Kurdish community.” In addition, many of them have sold their jewelry, while numerous families have opened up their homes and businesses to shelter countless refugees fleeing the ravages of war.

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Found in: turkey, syria, kurds, islamic state
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