Following the mid-2012 withdrawal of most of the regime forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Kurds of northern Syria formed three distinct enclaves, or cantons, hugging the Turkish border.[1] The three cantons, collectively known as Rojava (meaning “west” in Kurdish), consist of Efrin, Kobani, and Jazira. They were established in January 2014[2] and are chiefly administered by the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat [PYD]). The primary security guarantors of the evolving Rojava political system are the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel [YPG]) and their female counterpart the Women’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Jinê [YPJ]), which has attracted intense attention from Western media.

The central goal of the Syrian Kurdish political model is to defend Kurdish autonomy rather than confront either the remnants of the Assad regime, with whom they have a tense détente in Jazira canton,[3] or Islamist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat al-Nusra. But as we continue to see during the current battle over Kobani, Syria’s Kurds have vowed to defend their regions with intense vigor when attacked by expansionist jihadis.

The ethno-political model of Rojava is quite different from that of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in neighboring Iraq. The three distinct regions controlled by Syrian Kurds are non-contiguous making them more vulnerable to military aggression by advancing forces of ISIL, who see the Kurds’ secular, democratic system with its lingering Marxist-Lenist attributes inherited from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê [PKK]) as flagrantly heretical from a hardline salafist perspective.[4]

Though nowhere near as dramatic as the rivalry between opposing jihadist fighting groups such as that between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL, or the conflict between jihadist groups and moderate groups in Syria, solidified Kurdish unity has been difficult to achieve in Rojava’s cantons due to differences between the PYD and a comparatively ideologically incoherent umbrella grouping called the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the latter being more desirable to Turkey and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

The Kurdish element in the conflict in Syria garnered immense international interest in mid-September 2014 when ISIL massed around the western, southern and eastern approaches to the border town of Kobani, which abuts rural districts of southern Turkey’s Sanliurfa Province. In the lead up to the siege of Kobani, ISIL had overrun dozens of Kurdish inhabited villages during mid-September, 2014, gradually shrinking the YPG-protected canton to the urban settlement, all in plain view of Turkish forces situated on the tense border.

This article examines why the struggle for a once obscure border town has come to be perceived as being of paramount importance to local, regional, and international actors who believe they have a stake in the battle’s outcome. The varied interests of these numerous stakeholders has led to a cacophony of divergent policies that have allowed the siege of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, to continue as of the time of this writing.

YPG’s Military Capabilities and International Support

YPG infantry units were clearly outmatched for much of the siege. While they employed agility and deep knowledge of local urban terrain, their dearth of heavy weapons coupled with lesser force numbers put them at a great disadvantage. ISIL had massed numerous tanks and a plethora of “technical” fighting trucks around Kobani’s perimeter to sustain the siege with overwhelming firepower, creating a battle of attrition. As international and local media congregated on the arid hills of the Turkish border village of Mürsitpınar south of Suruç, ISIL operators made sizeable efforts to hoist their infamous black banners on high points in and around Kobani to both intimidate the YPG and present a show of force to far-reaching cameras situated in the relative safety of Turkey. However, somewhat unexpectedly, ISIL was met in Kobani with a fierce opponent rather than the swift victory its jihadist bravado promised.[5] In the YPG, ISIL encountered a strong-willed if lesser-equipped competitor, in stark contrast to the disorganized and demoralized Iraqi security forces they had routed in Mosul in June 2014.[6] The YPG, like the PKK from which it inherits many of its traits, fights more for ideologically imbued Kurdish nationalism, as opposed to the debilitated Iraqi or Syrian militaries who receive meager pay and suffer an enfeebled command and control structure.[7]

The discrepancy in firepower between the dueling belligerents was clearly audible and in some instances visible through military grade binoculars being carried by Kurdish onlookers in Turkey.[8] As ISIL units bore down on western Kobani in technicals hitting YPG positions with heavy fire, hunkered-down YPG fighters could often only answer with small arms fire while economizing their finite ammunition stocks before the U.S. military air-dropped crates full of war materiel supplied by the Erbil-based KRG on October 20, 2014.[9] While not a lasting solution, the air drop helped to partially alleviate the YPG’s depleting stocks and also bolstered morale.

In addition to deficiencies in their weaponry, manpower for the Kurdish forces was also restricted. Turkish authorities refused to allow Turkish Kurds into Syria to repel the assault, nor did they allow Syrian Kurds who had previously evacuated from Syria into Turkey to return home to defend their brethren. Turkey’s refusal to allow the YPG to be aided or resupplied by nearby sympathizers led to protests by Kurds which resulted in violent suppression by Turkish police in Mürsitpınar, who used tear gas and powerful water cannons to forcibly disperse YPG supporters.[10]

While Turkish security forces focused on containing Kurdish resentment on the border while running busy patrols along the fence, the United States in turn greatly stepped up its air campaign in an attempt to halt ISIL from making further advancements into Kobani’s shattered center.[11] This was a controversial move in the eyes of Ankara which resolutely equates the PYD with the PKK. But resupplying the YPG by air was the only feasible way to stem the city from falling to ISIL, as it was locked in by Turkey from the north and surrounded by ISIL to the south.

Despite the increased U.S. air power, however, the siege went on unabated. Turkish decision makers felt immense pressure from the international community to take some form of decisive action on this highly visible, festering battle on their southern border, but they were hesitant to do anything that might embolden Kurdish nationalist aspirations in any form. Rather than allow YPG or PKK fighters access to the Mürsitpınar border gate or send in Turkish ground troops, as the siege ground on, Ankara was forced to come up with a third option. A more agreeable choice for the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was to allow a select number of members of the Free Syrian Army access to Kobani.[12] The YPG were also aided by a small Arab FSA brigade called Fajr al-Hurriyah (Dawn of Freedom) which joined them in counterattacking ISIL inside Kobani.[13]

Ultimately, Ankara became amenable to a third way solution whereby Iraqi Kurds, with whom Turkey have a strong economic relationship, would be allowed to transit Turkey.[14] This solution of sorts for Erdogan’s government was twofold: it would serve to assuage the international community, which was frustrated with Turkish inaction, while undermining the PKK by empowering the much more palatable KRG peshmerga forces with whom it has a pragmatic understanding.

Throughout its deliberation about what to do regarding the fate of Kobani, Turkish leadership insisted it sought to avoid the city’s fall to ISIL, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stating, “We are assisting peshmerga forces to cross into Kobani. We have no wish at all to see Kobani fall.”[15]

ISIL Unrelenting

Despite the international attention paid to Kobani, to include the air strikes, ISIL has proven unwilling to abandon the offensive. In fact, it is perhaps precisely this attention that drives ISIL not to withdraw. Rather than the bombing prompting a tactical retreat by ISIL units, they appear to have doubled down in their quest for Kobani. As American air strikes rapidly increased in and around Kobani, ISIL fighters ushered in reinforcements from their reservoir of recruits in ar-Raqqa and Aleppo, and ramped up their employment of vehicle-borne suicide bombers.[16] Unlike more remote battles in places such as Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah Governorates, Kobani quickly became of global interest early on in the siege in small part due to its being accessible by media outlets from around the world who descended upon Sanliurfa Province. ISIL has proven adept at using such media attention to demonstrate its capability and amplify its narrative.

In addition, ISIL’s desire to eliminate the PYD and its YPG militia from Kobani is rooted in its ideology. ISIL not only views these entities as un-Islamic, but also conflates them with the Assad regime in Damascus. As the PYD’s agenda is more concerned with communal self-preservation rather than overthrowing the government, jihadist groups view this as proof that the PYD is a tool of the Ba’athists.

Long before the emergence of the PYD as a serious Syrian Kurdish organization, the Hafez al-Assad regime used the Turkish PKK as a foreign policy wedge in its conflict with Ankara over territorial disputes, to include Hatay Province and water rights with regard to the damming of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. To this end, the Syrian government had allowed the PKK and its leader Abdullah Ocalan to base themselves inside Syria in mid-1984.[17] This both overt and tacit support ended with the Adana Agreement, reached in 1998, in which Hafez al-Assad agreed not to allow the PKK and Ocalan safe haven in Syria.[18] This history has been forgotten by neither the Turkish government nor ISIL, with the former considering both to be threats to Ankara’s interests and the latter asserting the two are colluding to hinder the spread of their virulent brand of Islamism in Syria.

An Asymmetrical Intervention

Despite ISIL’s determination, the YPG has been able to hold off their advance with a combination of American air power and bold determination as it had been cut off from the outside world. The YPG had initially said that the limited air strikes were having little impact on ISIL, but as the air strikes increased in number, approaching 150 by early November,[19] the YPG’s public tone became more enthusiastic. But a key remaining challenge appeared to be the lack of coordination in the targeting of the bombardments. With the October 20 aerial weapons resupply, lack of precise coordination appeared to continue when ISIL posted a video online of a trove of weapons and ammunition meant for the YPG that they had recovered.[20]

Coordination was also a challenge with the long-awaited arrival of a finite number of Iraqi peshmerga troops from Erbil. Before they formally arrived at Kobani’s northern entrance, YPG statements insisted their militia needed weapons and ammunition rather than more manpower, but when the far better armed peshmerga met their Syrian Kurdish counterparts and agreed to play a supporting role, the YPG became less ambivalent about their participation in the fight.[21]

One key reason for the YPG’s original skepticism of these forces was Turkey’s calculated support for them. In post-2003 Iraq, Ankara had developed a close realpolitik-based relationship with Massoud Barzani’s Erbil-based KDP,[22] a group that is more patriarchal and clan-based than the leftist PKK-influenced PYD.

The Erdogan government, like its more secular nationalist predecessors, sees the PKK as the paramount threat to Turkish security, more so than that posed by an enlarging ISIL and a resurgent Jabhat al-Nusra along its southern border with Idlib Governorate.[23] Ankara seems to believe both the ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra threats can be mitigated in the near term with these jihadist groups busy conveniently offsetting the empowerment of Kurdish nationalism and militancy while simultaneously keeping the Assad regime at bay in northern Syria.[24]

Turkey’s leadership sees itself in perennial conflict with the PKK, while it also openly advocates for the toppling of the Assad regime in Damascus. But if ISIL solidifies its hold on the northern reaches of Aleppo and Raqqa Governorates and turns out to no longer remain the rational actor that released the Turkish consulate hostages it had captured in Mosul in June, Turkey may in fact be facing a far more ferocious third threat from the jihadists like ISIL to which it has turned a blind eye to their transiting its territory since 2012.[25] As Turkey’s approach to Kobani has pragmatically, if slowly, adapted, it allowed a second unit of 150 Iraqi peshmerga to transit its territory to replace the exhausted deployment sent to defend the city in early November, indicating that Ankara was thus far satisfied with its strategic choice.[26]

The Multilayered Significance of Kobani

Kurds. The longer Kobani festers the more it may act as a centripetal force in the fissiparous Kurdish political sphere between regional parties and militant groups alike. Kurdish politics are highly fragmented across the boundaries of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, but the plight of Kobani is fostering a new level of transnational interaction among competing movements. Barzani’s KDP has historically been at odds with the PYD and supportive of the less powerful KNC, which is also considered a far more suitable alternative in Ankara.

A significant constituent within KNC is the KDP-S, the Syrian branch of the KDP. The KDP-S has far more amicable relations with Turkey while its interactions with the PYD are often acrimonious. It has asserted that the PYD seeks to monopolize power in Rojava and is aligned with the Assad regime.[27] In late October 2014, Barzani acted as an arbiter between the PYD and the KNC in negotiations aimed at uniting the Syrian Kurdish factions, partly in hope that a deal between them would dilute the notion that the Kurds chiefly administering Rojava were deeply synonymous with the PKK.[28] It is hoped this may garner more support from the West if the agreement reached in Dohuk[29] can hold.

The political realm in Iraqi Kurdistan has been traditionally divided between the tribal-oriented KDP in its west and the leftist-oriented Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the east, which has generally been more supportive of the PKK over the long term.[30] The Qandil range in Iraq’s Suleimaniyah Governorate on the KRG’s eastern frontier with Iran has been primarily ruld by the PUK[31] and acts as a refuge for PKK guerillas. Additionally, Qandeel serves as a rear base for the Iranian Kurdish movement the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (PJAK),[32] which confronts the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in cross-border raids.

The KRG, headquartered in Erbil and led by President Barzani, with its recent history of mostly cordial economic relations with Turkey, is thus fundamentally divided on its stance toward the PKK and therefore the PYD.

Though dominated by the KDP, the KRG today is in fact a tripartite body that includes the more PKK-friendly Gorran Movement and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s PUK.

The onslaught by ISIL in both Iraq and Syria has disrupted the divided status quo by creating a common foe among often competing Kurdish groups. Thus Kobani could potentially lead to a near-term paradigm shift with regard to Kurdish unity irrespective of existing schisms stemming from deeply entrenched ideologies, clan affliation and rivalry, and linguistic difference.[33] However, though its brief presence in transit brought adulation from otherwise irate Turkish Kurds,[34] the deployment of a small contingent of peshmerga from its KDP allies in Erbil has not been an immediate game changer.

Turkey. Despite Turkey’s recent shift away from coup-prone militaristic nationalism toward political Islamism under the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) government of former Prime Minister-cum-President Erdogan, the stance toward the PKK remains largely unchanged. Hence Erdogan refused to distinguish between the PKK and PYD-YPG in his public statements. Rather he continues to unequivocally term Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters a “terrorist organization.”[35] From Turkey’s perspective, the Rojava cantons of northern Syria are not merely a laboratory for the PKK to spread Ocalan thought but also provide a geography from which the PKK itself can operate against the Turkish state.[36] In a recent television interview, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu did not acknowledge the PYD or YPG by name, stating only that Turkey sought to avoid a security vacuum in northern Syria that would be taken up by “PKK terrorists,” while advocating that Washington take responsibility for training and equipping the Free Syrian Army.[37]


The siege of Kobani, now well into its third month at the time of the writing, carries on unabated despite the aerial assistance from Operation Inherent Resolve and the additional yet finite non-YPG forces who have joined the fight.

Turkey’s priority appears to remain maintaining its policy of containment of Kurdish autonomy movements rather than stemming the growth of jihadism in Syria. The fate of Kobani speaks not only to the fate of Syrian Kurds’ democratic experiment, but also to Turkey’s difficult relations with its own massive Kurdish minority, with which the Kobani issue has exacerbated tensions and incited street protests.[38]

Despite an ongoing peace process between Ankara and the PKK that began in March 2013, and as global criticism of Turkish inaction on the siege of Kobani grew, Turkish warplanes pounded PKK sites in Hakkari Province near the Iraq border on October 14, 2014, an act that could potentially derail the peace initiative.[39] Ocalan declared from his prison cell that if Kobani were to fall to the jihadists, he would resolutely call off the peace talks, thereby linking the security of the Turkish state with the threatened future of Syrian Kurdistan.[40]

Though the PKK has not been delisted as a terrorist organization by the United States or the European Union, the group’s rush to aid Kurdish communities under assault from ISIL in Syria and Iraq has improved its image internationally.[41] Though the PYD and PKK are undeniably affiliated organizations, the Kobani crisis begs for nuanced differentiations on a granular level by state actors concerning themselves with the crisis if the siege is to come to a timely conclusion leading to the defeat and expulsion of ISIL forces.

As the YPG and YPJ fight on, with limited assistance on the ground by Iraqi peshmerga and a small number of FSA fighters, Turkey may be forced to prioritize among its enemies. Kobani has had a debilitating effect on Turkey’s international standing and puts it at risk of further decline.[42] Kobani being attacked on a daily basis by a dogged ISIL has infuriated Turkey’s own Kurdish minority at a delicate juncture in the Ankara-PKK peace process. Finally, there are no firm indicators that ISIL will not set its sights on Turkey itself—if it has not already[43]—if it can solidify its control over the central sector of northern Syria’s borderlands.

Derek Henry Flood is an independent security analyst with an emphasis on MENA, Central Asia and South Asia. Mr. Flood is a contributor to IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, Terrorism and Security Monitor and Islamic Affairs Analyst. He has been a guest commentator for BBC Arabic, BBC Newshour, France 24, and al-Arabiya.

[1] The exception to the total withdrawal of the Syrian state is in the ethnically-mixed Jazira canton where parts of urban al-Hasakah City and Qamishli still have remnants of a regime presence. This sometimes tenuous coexistence in Jazira is part of the charge by Islamist fighters that the Kurds are in league with pro-Assad forces on some level.

[2] ‘Efrin Canton in Syrian Kurdistan Officially Declared Autonomy,” Firat News, January 29, 2014.

[3] Jamie Dettmer , “VOA Reporter Involved in Standoff Between Syrian Troops and Kurds,” Voice of America, November 22, 2013.

[4] The PKK, and thus the PYD, have moved away from their original focus on hardline separatism and a centralized, command economy and towards the idea of a more decentralized “confederation.” Carl Drott, “The Syrian Experiment with ‘Apoism’,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 20, 2014.

[5] Roy Gutman, “Kobanê Kurds say Turkey Hasn’t Responded to Appeal for Help Against Islamic State,” McClatchy DC, October 3, 2014.

[6] Patrick Cockburn, “Whose Side is Turkey on?” London Review of Books, November 6, 2014.

[7] Ziad al-Sinjary, “Insurgents in Iraq overrun Mosul provincial government headquarters,” Reuters, June 9, 2014; “US stresses refusal to arm Syrian rebels,” al-Akhbar, August 3, 2012.

[8] Author observations, Mürsitpınar, Turkey, October 10-15, 2014.

[9] Fulya Ozerkan with Sara Hussein, “US Air Drops, Turkey Boost Kurd Battle Against Jihadists,” Agence France-Presse, October 20, 2014.

[10] Constanze Letsch and Ian Traynor, “Kobani: Anger Grows as Turkey Stops Kurds from Aiding Militias in Syria,” Guardian, October 8, 2014.

[11] Author observations; and “Islamic State Crisis: US Intensifies Air Strikes in Kobanê,” BBC News, October 14, 2014.

[12] Alexander Whitcomb, “Joint Anti-ISIS Force Pushes West of Kobanê,” Rudaw, November 3, 2014.

[13] See: The Free Syrian Army’s Eastern Front Leadership YouTube channel:

[14] Humeyra Pamuk and Raheem Salman, “Air strikes hit Kobani as Kurdish peshmerga prepare to enter,” Reuters, October 31, 2014.

[15] Stuart Williams, “Turkey shifts strategy to help Iraqi Kurdish fighters into Kobanê,” Agence France-Presse, October 20, 2014.

[16] Author observation, Mürsitpınar, Turkey, October 15, 2014.

[17] Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, (New York: New York University Press, 2007), p.308.

[18] Bente Scheller, The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads, (London: C. Hurst & Co,.2013), p.113.

[19] Elena Becatoros and Bassem Mroue, “Peshmerga Fighters Bring Weapons To Kobani, Prepare To Battle ISIS,” Associated Press, November 1, 2014.

[20] Dan Lamothe, “U.S. Accidentally Delivered Weapons to the Islamic State by Airdrop, Militants say,” Washington Post, October 21, 2014.

[21] YPG Media Center press statement, November 2, 2014.

[22] Jim Muir, “Islamic State Crisis: Syria Rebel Forces Boost Kobanê Defence,” BBC News, October 29, 2014.

[23] “Jabhat al-Nusra Expands in Idlib as it Gains Control on New Areas,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 2, 2014.

[24] Ramzy Mardini, “The Islamic State Threat is Overstated,” Washington Post, September 12, 2014 ; Author interactions with Turkish officers in Mürsitpınar, Turkey, October 11 and 15, 2014.

[25] Katherine Wilkens, “A Kurdish Alamo: Five Reasons the Battle for Kobanê Matters,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 10, 2014.

[26] Ugur Ergan, “New Peshmerga Group to Replace Troops in Kobane: Turkish Army,” Hurriyet Daily News, December 2, 2014; “Second Peshmerga Group reaches Kobane,” Dicle News Agency, December 3, 2014.

[27] Deniz Serinci, “Mustafa Juma: Syrian Opposition Accepts Kurdish Rights,” Rudaw, July 22, 2014.

[28] Isabel Coles, “Syrian Kurds Sign Power-Sharing Deal to Draw More Support,” Reuters, October 23, 2014.

[29] “Divided Syrian Kurds Reach Deal in Face of ISIS Threat,” Rudaw, October 22, 2014.

[30] Charles Recknagel, “Iraq: Fighting In North Spells No End To PKK,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 17, 2001.

[31] The PUK’s dominance in Suleimaniyah Governorate has been diluted with the rise of the Gorran Movement—a splinter group from the PUK led by Neshirwan Mustafa. See: “KRG Elections: KDP Wins but Gorran Becomes the Second Force,” The Kurdistan Tribune, September 21, 2013.

[32] Author observations at joint PKK-PJAK camp, Qandeel Mountains, Suleimaniyah Governorate, Iraq, October 13, 2009; Michelle Moghtader, “Iran Guards Killed in Armed Clashes near Iraq Border-Media,” Reuters, June 25, 2014.

[33] “Peshmerga Deployment a Move for Kurdish Unity and Kobanê’s Defenders,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, October 30, 2014.

[34] Fulya Ozerkan with Mohamad Ali Harissi, “Kurds Cheer Reinforcements for Syria’s Kobanê,” Agence France-Presse, October 29, 2014.

[35] “Erdogan Opposes Arming PYD, Says it’s a Terrorist Group like PKK,” Today’s Zaman, October 19, 2014.

[36] Robert Lowe, Conflict, Democratization, and the Kurds in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.239.

[37] “Turkey PM Ahmet Davutoglu: ‘We Will Help Coalition Forces’,” BBC News, October 28, 2014.

[38] “Thousands Protest in Turkey to Show Solidarity with Kobane Kurds,” Agence France-Presse, November 2, 2014.

[39] Dorian Jones, “Turkish Airstrikes on PKK Threaten Peace Process,” Voice of America, October 14, 2014.

[40] “PKK Leader Threatens to End Peace Talks with Turkey if ISIS Massacres Kurds,” al-Akhbar, October 2, 2014.

[41] “Turkey’s Syria Role Risks Instability at Home, Isolation Abroad,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, October 2014.

[42] Barcin Yinanc, “France Tells Turkey that Inaction in Kobane will be Costly for its Image,” Hurriyet Daily News, October 14, 2014.

[43] Fevzi Kızılkoyun, “Suicide Vests, Bombs Seized in Turkey Amid ISIL Terror Alarm,” Hurriyet Daily News, October 23, 2014.

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