The Campaign for Kobani – Initial Summary

The Campaign for Kobani – Initial Summary

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Victorious Kurdish fighter
Victorious Kurdish fighter



Kobani (in Kurdish) or Ayn al-Arab (in Arabic) is a Kurdish city lying east of Jarabulus near the Syrian-Turkish border. Before the fighting began 200,000 people lived in the city and surrounding villages. Almost all of them have fled, most of them to Turkey. Since the summer of 2014 Kobani has become a symbol of the struggle waged by the Kurds and the international coalition against ISIS. It began in the wake of ISIS’s military initiative to take over the city and its rural surroundings in order to establish its rule in northern Syria and control the area to the Turkish border.


The city of Kobani was defended by a Kurdish military force of the YPG, the People’s Protection Units. The YPG is the military-militia force of Kurds who live in northern and eastern Syria, especially in the al-Hasakeh, Aleppo and al-Raqqa provinces. The Kurds, who make up approximately 10% of the Syrian population, also exploited the vacuum created by the disintegration of the Syrian regime to strengthen themselves militarily and to establish an autonomous administration for the Kurdish population. That put the Kurds on a course of direct conflict with ISIS, which is hostile to them as well as to other minorities in Syria. During the past year, ISIS enlarged and entrenched itself in the area of its self-declared “Islamic State” in northern and eastern Syria.


In July 2014 ISIS forces began attacking Kobani and the Kurdish villages in the rural area surrounding it. ISIS concentrated a force estimated at several thousand operatives in the region. The Kurdish forces were also estimated at several thousand (some of them women). During the first stage the ISIS forces, with tank and artillery support, took control of the villages surrounding Kobani and imposed a blockade. During the second stage, which began on October 7, 20 14, ISIS forces entered the city itself.


ISIS operatives took control of the Kabana’s eastern and southern suburbs and engaged in street fighting with the Kurdish forces to extend their control and expel the Kurds from the city. In street fighting which sometimes took place in harsh weather conditions the Kurdish forces halted ISIS’s attack. At the end of 2014 the Kurdish forces gradually retook the captured neighborhoods of Kobani until they had expelled the ISIS operatives at the end of January 2015.


In They used familiar combat tactics, among them artillery fire to pound regions held by the Kurdish forces, sniper fire, suicide bombing attacks and booby-trapped cars and trucks inside the city . The battle was accompanied, as usual, by an ISIS propaganda campaign. ISIS also sent a UAV over Kobani to collect intelligence.


According to media reports, ISIS announced it had retreated from dozens of the villages it had occupied in the region around Kobani. The reason, according to Lebanese TV channel Al-Mayadeen, was that without control of Kobani there was no significance to ISIS’s presence in the surrounding rural area. Another reason was ISIS’s concern that the Kurds would harm their supply lines from al-Raqqa to Kobani (Al-Mayadeen TV, Lebanon, February 5, 2015). In any event, ISIS’s retreat has not ended and the international coalition forces continue their attacks on ISIS forces in the Kobani region (as of the beginning of February 2015).

American Support


The American-led coalition forces provided air support for the Kurdish forces fighting in Kobani, diverting the effort to the city at the expense of attacks on other targets in Syria. The coalition forces carried out more than 600 airstrikes during the fighting in Kobani, out of a total of 900 airstrikes carried out in Syria during that time (i.e., 2/3 of the total number).


In addition to aerial support the coalition forces airdropped supplies for the Kurdish forces, including weapons, ammunition and medical supplies. Some of the equipment intended for the Kurds did not fall on target and wound up in the hands of ISIS. However, generally speaking, the logistic support that reached the Kurdish forces in Kobani (both from the air and overland via Turkey) contributed to their fighting capabilities.

Turkish Support


When the fighting in Kobani began the Turkish army deployed forces on both sides of the border but did not intervene. Initially Turkey also refused to permit Kurdish reinforcements to reach the city. In ITIC assessment, that was mainly the result of Turkey’s basic desire to avoid direct involvement in the events in Syria, and its fundamental concern that the strengthening of the Kurds in Syria might filter into Turkey and increase the PKK’s separatist aspirations. In addition, Turkey feared it would become a target for ISIS and global jihad terrorist attacks.

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During the second half of October 2014, the Turkish policy changed, apparently the result of American pressure. At the end of October 2014, for the first time since the beginning of the campaign for Kobani, Turkey permitted Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq and Free Syrian Army forces from various locations in Syria to pass through its territory to reinforce the YPG Kurdish forces.


On October 28, 2014, 150 Peshmerga reinforcements left Erbil, the autonomous Kurdish capital in Iraq. Some of them flew to Turkey and from there made their way to Kobani. Others went in an overland convoy, br inging artillery and anti-tank weapons. In addition, the Turks permitted about 150 Free Syrian Army fighters to go to Kobani from Turkey. The Free Syrian Army figh ters crossed the border on October 29, 2014, and joined the Kurdish forces fight ing in the city. In ITIC assessment the reinforcements contributed both practically and to the morale of the Kurdish fighters in Kobani.

What Were the Reasons for ISIS’s Defeat in Kobani?


In ITIC assessment, there were several reasons for the ISIS defeat:


As opposed to the past, in Kobani ISIS was faced with well-trained, highly- motivated Kurdish fighters who were fighting for their homes and were prepared to fight fiercely to defend their city and the surroun ding region. The Kurdish forces were intimately familiar with the terrain and were prepared for street fighting after almost all the city’s inhabitants had fled. The air and logistic support from the American-led coalition forces and the reinforcements that arrived from Iraq and Syria through Turkey also supported the Kurdish forces practically and raised their morale. On the other hand, the coalition airstrikes made it difficult for ISIS operatives to concentrate their efforts on Kobani and bring reinforcements into the city from other areas.


It was the first time ISIS operatives were forced to carry out an extended campaign in an urban setting (after its fast, easy victories in Mosul and other locations in Iraq and Syria). Under such conditions, in addition to the ongoing airstrikes, ISIS found it difficult to achieve victory using the methods it had used previously. Those mainly involved concentrating its efforts on short, massive battles exploiting the elements of surprise and mobility. The tactics of suicide bombing attacks and the detonation of car bombs also could not bring them victory in a large city like Kobani. In Kobani ISIS was forced to fight according to the enemy’s rules under the enemy’s conditions, leading to defeat.


As opposed to the Syrian Kurds, who concentrated the bulk of their military effort in Kobani and its surroundings, at the same time ISIS wa s fighting other battles in other locations in Syria and Iraq. Therefore ISIS was obliged to divert its forces and allocate weapons and manpower there. In I TIC assessment, in Kobani there was evidence of the imbalance between ISIS’s limited order of combat (tens of thousands of operatives) and the vast areas in Iraq and Syria where it had to invest its forces, both in ongoing fighting and in establishing civilian governance.

The Results of the Fighting – Updated to the Beginning of February 2015)


On January 26, 2015, the Kurds announced they had liberated Kobani from ISIS. On January 30, 2015, ISIS issued a video admitting that its forces had retreated from the city because of the coalition airstrikes. The fighting in Kobani itself has ended, at this stage at least, although there are still ISIS operatives in the surrounding areas. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, praised the great achievement and thanked the coalition forces and Turkey for their joint effort in the struggle against ISIS. He said that the news of the liberation of Kobani was gratifying to all Kurds and all those fighting for freedom (Shafaq News, Iraq, January 27, 2015).


In ITIC assessment, many hundreds of ISIS operatives were killed in the fighting in Kobani, as were several hundred Kurdish fighters. Al-Marsad Al- Souri, a London-based Syrian human rights organization, reported that 310 Kurdish fighters and 491 ISIS operatives were killed in Kobani during the last 40 days of the fighting (which was particularly fierce) (Al-Hura, February 5, 2015). Hoshyar Abdallah, a member of the Security and Defense Committee of the Kurdish government in Iraq, reported that ISIS lost more than 800 operatives in the battles in Kobani (Akhbar al-Iraq, January 27, 2015). The city itself was almost completely destroyed in the fighting.


ISIS has kept a low media profile regarding its defeat in Kobani, diametrically opposed to its usual post-victory media campaigns. Because of propaganda considerations, it represented the retreat of its forces as the result of the American and coalition airstrikes and minimized the main role played by the Kurdish forces in the battles. The execution of the two Japanese hostages and the immolation of the Jordanian pilot also contributed, as far as ISIS was concerned, to diverting Arab and international attention from its defeat in Kobani to its daily activities.

Written by: The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center