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Liberation of Kobani: A turning point in the war against ISIS

Kurdish fighters liberated the Syrian city of Kobani after over four months of intense combat with Islamic State fighters (Daesh). The battle for Kobani represents a turning point in the war against Daesh. Shifting alliances have made the Kurds indispensable to America's fight against Islamic extremists.


A Kurdish man holds up a weapon as he tours with others the streets of Ras al-Ain in celebration, after it was reported that Kurdish forces took control of the Syrian town of Kobani, January 26, 2015.
Rodi Said | Reuters
A Kurdish man holds up a weapon as he tours with others the streets of Ras al-Ain in celebration, after it was reported that Kurdish forces took control of the Syrian town of Kobani, January 26, 2015.

Daesh occupied scores of Kurdish villages outside Kobani in September. It slaughtered civilians and drove hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their homes during its merciless advance on the city, which straddles the border between Turkey and Syria.

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In October, Daesh raised its black flag over Kobani's outskirts. It seemed Kobani would fall. Daesh rained mortars and heavy weapons on Kobani's defenseless victims. Daesh threatened genocide against the Kurds, apostates for supporting the West. Kurdish prisoners, including women, were beheaded.

The brutal battle unfolded before the eyes of the world. International media watched from the hills above Kobani on the Turkish side of the border. Islamic State fighters flocked from across Syria and Iraq to Kobani. The Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, vowed to make an example of the Kurds and kill them all.

Outgunned and outmanned, The Kurdish People's Protection Units fought heroically to defend Kobani. Kurds from Turkey, including fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party, joined the battle. So did Iranian Kurds and peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan. About 40 percent of Kobani's defenders were women.

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The Obama administration first turned a blind eye to Kobani's suffering, but finally intervened with air strikes and air-drops to resupply the Kurds.

Today, Kurdish flags fly over recaptured territory. Daesh has finally been vanquished. Kurdish militia are undertaking mopping up operations, ridding Kobani of land mine booby traps.

While nearly 1,000 Daesh combatants were killed, Kobani's liberation took a heavy toll on its defenders. More than 300 Kurds were killed. Many civilians also perished.

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The battle for Kobani is significant for several reasons:

  • It's a major setback for Daesh's propaganda campaign. Daesh uses its aura of invincibility to gain recruits. In Kobani, Daesh was bloodied and beaten.
  • It has brought global attention to the Kurds of Syria and their social revolution, which is based on grass-roots democracy, women's empowerment, and environmental sustainability.
  • It was a public-relations disaster for Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey sealed its border to cut off Kobani's defenders. Erdogan demanded that the U.S. impose a no-fly-zone and a security buffer in exchange for Turkey's cooperation with the U.S.-led multinational coalition fighting Daesh. Many observers (including this author) allege Turkey is providing military, logistical, financial and medical support for Daesh and other jihadists.
  • It did what no Kurdish leader could do: Kurds from Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran found common cause in forming a united front against terrorism and the Islamic State's fascist nihilism.

The Islamic State's defeat in Syria followed a victory for the Peshmerga in Sinjar, where they defeated Daesh and saved thousands of Yazidis. The Iraqi armed forces is also rolling up Daesh in Iraq's Diyala province.

Despite these battlefield gains, challenges remain. Thousands of displaced persons need assistance resettling to their ruined homes in Kobani. Villages around Kobani are still under control of Daesh. Cooperation between Washington and the Democratic Union Party, which represents Syrian Kurds, is shallow and should expand.

Today Kurds rejoice. The world applauds their heroism — and joins their celebration.

When Daesh's obituary is written, Kobani will be enshrined as the turning point in the struggle to destroy the Islamic State.

Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign- affairs experts to the State Department. His new book is "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East."