On September 22, 2014, just days after ISIS attacked Kurdish border town of Kobane, the leader of PKK’s armed wing Murat Karayilan came out and said with confidence that “Kobane will not fall, but Tel Abyad will”. For many analysts, Karayilan’s words sounded like empty propaganda at that time. Because the ISIS was pushing into the Kurdish land around Kobane seizing village after village, forcing outgunned and outnumbered Kurdish forces to retreat. ISIS fighters were using hundreds of US-made armored Humvees, Tanks and thousands of other sophisticated heavy weapons, which the group seized after defeating useless Iraqi army in Mosul and surrounding areas in Iraq in early June the same year.
Following four months of heavy fighting in besieged city of Kobane, Kurds, with hundreds of sacrifices and help from the US-led coalition airstrikes, managed to repel ISIS onslaught in mid-January this year and dealt one of the biggest defeats on ISIS in Syria. The four-month-long war left Kobane in ruins, however, the result of this heavy fight proved Karayilan right. Kobane fought to its death, but it didn’t fall into the hands of ISIS.
After saving Kobane from the death, Kurds started to liberate occupied Kurdish villages one by one. Regaining territory they had lost to ISIS and forcing terror group to retreat into the land it claimed from the regime and other jihadist groups. Kurdish forces ended ISIS presence on the eastern bank of Euphrates River and secured their western borders.
During the siege of Kobane Kurdish forces from Cezire canton has started an offensive from Serekaniye in order to open a corridor between two cantons along the Turkish border. Their advance was too slow due to heavy weapons at ISIS’ disposal, but they were making steady gains against ISIS. The goal of this offensive was to reach ISIS’s stronghold Gire Spi (Tel Abyad).
On May 6, a new and all-out offensive started by Kurdish forces led by commander Rubar Qamishlo. Qamishlo was one of the leading commanders in the PKK. After spending 20 years with the PKK in the Qandil Mountains, he returned to Syrian Kurdistan, where he was born, to defend his land against ISIS terrorists. Qamishlo wounded in a mine blast and lost his life on May 14, but Rubar Qamishlo named offensive has continued.
With the help of coalition airstrikes, Kurdish forces first moved toward strategically important Mount Kizwan (Evdelaziz) located west of Hasakah province. The liberation of Kizwan would enable Kurdish forces to connect Til Tamir, Serekaniye and Hasakah route. On May 20, Kurdish forces cleared Mount Kizwan of ISIS and continued their push westward and later liberated the town of Suluk north of ISIS capital Raqqa while Kurdish forces from Kobane along with the members of Euphrates Volcano group were making significant gains against ISIS eastward.
The final goal of this offensive was to cut off ISIS supply routes from Turkey into Raqqa and to liberate Tel Abyad and open the most needed corridor between isolated Kobane canton and Cezire region for good.
On June 15, Kurdish forces succeeded inflicting another blow on ISIS and liberated Tel Abyad (Gire Spi) which was considered to be ISIS’ lifeline and its open door to the outside world. All ISIS’ foreign recruits and weapons were flowing from this open door and daily trade with Turkey has never stopped until the fall of the town. The supplies seized by Kurdish forces after defeating ISIS offer a lot about their relations with Turkey and Turkey’s support for the extremist group.
Fighting ISIS in Tel Abyad means fighting Turkey
A few months ago, an influential Kurdish leader from the main Kurdish political party in Rojava told me that fighting ISIS in Tel Abyad will mean fighting Turkey and its interests in the region, adding that Turkey’s trade with ISIS controlled areas in Syria and Iraq goes through this border gate. Turkey will not be happy to see all this gone.
Turkey has never been sympathetic toward Syrian Kurds and Kurdish gains in the region at all. Therefore, it openly provided ISIS with all kind of means including weapons. Some of the weapons sent by the Turkish government to ISIS have been intercepted by the Turkish army in Adana and Hatay. Turkish Daily Cumhuriyet published footage of Syria bound trucks loaded with all kind of heavy weapons in early June.
During a recent G7 summit took place in Elmau, Germany, US president Barack Obama criticized Turkey’s government for not preventing jihadists going through its borders to join ISIS.
“We are still seeing thousands of foreign fighters flowing into, first, Syria, and then, oftentimes, ultimately into Iraq.
“And not all of that is preventable, but a lot of it is preventable”, Obama said. “If we’ve got better cooperation, better coordination, better intelligence if we are monitoring what’s happening at the Turkish-Syria border more effectively. If we can cut off some of that foreign fighter flow then we’re able to isolate and wear out ISIL forces that are already there. Because we’re taking a lot of them off the battlefield, but if they’re being replenished, then it doesn’t solve the problem over the long term”, Obama added.
Defeating ISIS means defeating Turkey’s Erdogan
Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan was expecting Kobane will fall to ISIS. While addressing to his supporters and Arab refugees at a rally in the Kurdish city of Gaziantep in September 2014, Erdogan said joyfully that Kobane is about to fall. However, Kobane survived and ISIS lost the war in Kobane. Erdogan’s dream didn’t come true. Following the fall of Tel Abyad, renowned Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar wrote in his column at Al Monitor that the liberation of Tel Abyad marks the second victory of the Kurds over Erdogan’s government. The first was the Kurdish success in the recent elections he said and the second is the defeat of ISIS in Tel Abyad. I would say the liberation of Tel Abyad from ISIS was the third victory of the Kurds against Turkish president Erdogan and his ISIS friendly government.
Kurds defeated ISIS in Kobane, prevented AKP and Erdogan to realize their dictatorial dreams in the June 7 elections in Turkey by beating the ten percent national threshold and kicked ISIS out of Tel Abyad connecting Kurdish regions of Kobane and Cezire.
For the Kurds, Tel Abyad is not only important for its strategic location but also for its history too. It was one of the Kurdish regions that have been fallen victim to Arabization policies during Hafiz Assad’s rule when he forced the Kurds out of Tel Abyad and surrounding areas and brought in Arabs from the south. In an attempt to break the contiguity of the Kurdish region along Turkey and Iraq borders. The remaining Kurds of the town, who were numbered around 12 thousand according to Kurdish sources, were forced to leave following the jihadist groups’ seizure of the town in late 2013.
The fall of Tel Abyad to Kurdish forces seemed to be hurting the managers of the jihadist highway in Turkey. Witnessing the historic resistance of the Kurds in Kobane while waiting for it to fall and watching ISIS’ being destroyed in Tel Abyad just across its borders, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused the West of bombing Arabs and Turkmens in Syria while supporting Kurdish “terrorist” groups which he said were taking their place.
Turkish government issued a statement on June 21 warning the US and the UN about Kurdish advances in northern Syria and blaming the Kurds of committing ethnic cleansing against Arabs and Turkmens. However, the reports by international media outlets and interviews with Arab and Turkmen citizens of the town have proven such accusations wrong. Kurdish military and political leaders also denied the accusations first hand.
The Kurds proved to be an able and reliable force on the ground against ISIS. So far they have managed to take back some hundreds of villages and dozens of towns from the barbaric Islamic jihadists. The US defense secretary Ashton Carter also recently praised the Kurds fighting the extremist group in Syria. “They are effective and protecting their own region, but also in the larger campaign to defeat ISIS. We are supporting them from the air, and we are supporting them with equipment to get to your point,” Carter said.
What is next?
In February 2014, two western diplomats asked me “what is next for the Kurds in Syria?.” It was a time when the Kurds were declaring their autonomous cantons and electing their representatives in Rojava. Based on my observations of the developments in the Kurdish region and my meetings with Kurdish leaders, I told them that the Kurds will soon try to connect these geographically separate regions. At that time, the ISIS hadn’t raided Mosul and Syrian Tabka army base and had not seized most developed weapons and armored vehicles yet. The Kurds were then in a better position. Nevertheless, the following months of 2014 changed the course of events. ISIS moved into Iraq, defeated the Iraqi army in Mosul and captured huge amounts of weapons left by American forces. It was the power of these weapons that delayed Kurdish plans of 2014 and reduced one of the Kurdish cantons to rubbles at the end of 2014.
After liberating Tel Abyad and linking Kobane and Cezire cantons an area stretching from the Iraqi Kurdistan’s border to the eastern bank of Euphrates River, Now the Kurds eye Jarablus, an ethnically mixed town located between Kobane and Afrin cantons and still controlled by ISIS. Although Kurdish forces are now busy with pushing deeper into ISIS’s capital of Raqqa gaining more ground day by day and squeezing terror group in its heartland. It is a matter of time whether they will take the fight into Raqqa but what is clear is that they will first secure their southern borders and take the control of another functioning bridge connecting Sarrin with Manbij west of Raqqa province and cut off ISIS lines from Aleppo to Raqqa before they move westward into Jarablus.
“In order to cross the Euphrates, there are four conditions that must be met for Kurdish forces” said Idris Nassan, Kobani’s deputy minister of foreign relations in an interview with Fehim Tastekin at daily Radikal. According to Nassan, these are Cooperation with opposition forces in the area, the request of the local people, a viable threat against Afrin and the continuation of the support by the international coalition.
Afrin is surrounded by Turkey from the west and the north, by the Islamic Front from the south and the east. For the time being it has no borders with ISIS controlled Jarablus but it does not mean ISIS will not take on Islamic Front around Afrin to attack the Kurdish land again.
However, the developments in the region suggest a near showdown on the western bank of the Euphrates is coming closer while ISIS is on the back foot across the Kurdish region and keeps collapsing in its strongholds in northeast Syria.
Fearing a possible Kurdish move into Jarablus, ISIS blew up the bridge that connects Kobane with Jarablus while fleeing the war-torn town in January 2015. Kurdish advance along the eastern bank of the river gives some clues about their future intentions. Next to coalition airstrikes, a new road is needed to transfer heavy weapons and this road will most probably be the road linking Aleppo with Raqqa and the bridge connecting Sarrin with Manbij.
The time will show whether the Kurds will be able to expel ISIS from Jarablus and open the last part of the corridor needed to connect Kobane with Afrin. In other words, whether they win another victory over Turkey’s Erdogan and his ISIS friendly government.
Karayilan’s famous saying, “Kobane will not fall, but Tel Abyad will” was definitely not an empty propaganda. Karayilan is an experienced Kurdish General and a politician. He has spent decades in the PKK and has led its military operations. Without coalition efforts, the Kurds by no means would have been able to save Kobane from the ISIS onslaught. It is highly possible that the 21st-century Kurdish allies have promised Karayilan and his people that they would not let Kobane fall and would help them to defeat ISIS in Tel Abyad.
*Rodi Hevian is a Kurdish journalist based in Europe. He holds a B.A. in International Economics and an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Haifa International School. He specializes in Kurdish and Middle East Politics.