Why the conflict-torn city of Kobane matters so much

Twitter | Explosion in the heart of Kobane, October 8, 2014
4 min

A battle for control of the Syrian town of Kobane is raging between Kurdish forces and militants of the Islamic State group. Located on the Turkish border, the city is of great symbolic importance to both sides.


The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has partially occupied the city, even after days of coalition air strikes aimed at dislodging them from the area.

On Wednesday, Washington confirmed what Kurdish fighters defending the urban centre already knew: the air assault alone will not be enough to prevent it from falling to Islamists.

But observers say that control of Kobane would do little to change the balance of power in the region, since the IS group already controls parts of the Turkish-Syrian border and several border crossing points between the two countries.

Furthermore, Kurdish firepower would not be weakened in any profound way if they lost the city.

So why has Kobane become such a critical battleground?

Long before the Syrian civil war or the advance of jihadist militants in Iraq and Syria this year, the city was a bone of contention between ethnic Kurds on one side and Arabs and Turks on the other.

Kurdish clans in the region surrounding Kobane, also known as Aïn el-Arab to many Arab speakers, have long sought to unify their forces to exert their influence there.

Kobane is the birthplace of many of the leaders and fighters of the secular Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK is its Kurdish acronym), which has been at the forefront of the Kurdish separatist movement against Ankara for decades.

A blow to Kurdish secularism

After three-and-a-half years of war in Syria, Kobane is at the heart of Kurdish aspirations for greater autonomy.

While forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have concentrated their military and political resources against the armed rebellion elsewhere in Syria, Kurds have consolidated their power over Kobane.

Indeed, in and around Kobane, Kurds have developed a taste for the autonomy they have longed for from the governments of Syria and Turkey.

It is no surprise that they are now doggedly defending one of the cities they hope will be one day be a bedrock of their independence.

The IS group, with its own avowed plans for an Islamic theocracy in the region, understands the significance of defeating the Kurds in Kobane.

Beyond the desire to prevent rival political aspirations in the region and to expand the territory under their control, the jihadists view the battle for Kobane as a struggle against Kurdish “secular nationalism.”

Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the IS group’s spokesman, recently stated that his fighters were not engaged in an “ethnic conflict” against Kurdish militias but a “religious and ideological” one.

As if trying to prove his point, the IS group in recent days has made a concerned effort to draw attention to the few ethnic Kurds fighting among its ranks.

Through the lens of the religious extremists, the battle for Kobane is not against Kurds, but against dangerous secularism.

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