The author is a Swedish freelance journalist focusing mainly on the Kurdish-dominated areas of the Middle East. He visited Kobani in August-September 2014, shortly before the Islamic State offensive.
It is late August in Kobani, northern Syria, and the streets around Peace Square are full of people. Some take their breakfast in the pastry shop, or stop for a coffee and chat in the convenience store. The labourers are busy with construction work; there is a pent-up need for new housing after years of strict and discriminatory building regulations. Meanwhile, the bus station stands almost deserted, since there is nowhere else to go from this besieged enclave.
People here do not know it yet, but in just a few weeks’ time they will be forced to flee across the border into Turkey and leave everything behind. Their homes and shops will be destroyed by fighting and bombardment as Islamic State fighters advance relentlessly into the town centre. Right here by Peace Square, which is really just a small roundabout, one of the attackers is going to detonate himself in a truck filled with explosives.
What developments led up to this cataclysm? And what was Kobani like before it suddenly emerged on the world stage?
Part I: Background
Border is Honour
During the almost fifty-year long reign of the Syrian Baath party, the Kurds in Kobani were subject to harsh assimilation policies and severe neglect. Renamed as Ayn al-Arab, meaning the “Arab water spring,” the town was in fact plagued by water scarcity and had an almost exclusively Kurdish population. Unlike in nearby Tel Abyad and Jarabulus, with Arab majorities, the border crossing in Kobani remained closed for decades. Kurds living to the north of it were supposed to become Turks – and to the south of it Arabs. A message from Turkish authorities is still today written in white block letters on a hillside facing Kobani: “BORDER IS HONOUR.”
A multitude of Kurdish political parties emerged over the decades of Baath party rule, and many of their activists were arrested and subjected to torture. However, the struggle for Kurdish rights was almost exclusively non-violent in character and failed to catch the world’s attention. Many Kurds also took part in the anti-government protests that spread across the country during 2011, but they were more reluctant to join the armed rebellion that followed.
The 19 July Revolution
As sporadic fighting morphed into full civil war, the government concentrated its overstretched security forces in key strategic places like Aleppo, and various rebel and jihadist groups took the opportunity to capture much of Syria’s northern and eastern countryside. Meanwhile, the Kurdish-dominated enclaves were taken over by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
On 19 July 2012, Kobani became the first town to fall entirely into the hands of PYD, but since not a shot had been fired, many suspected collusion with the Syrian regime. At the very least there was a common understanding to live and let live, and given that the government was no longer able to control the area, the least bad option was clearly to allow PYD to move in instead. Being strongly linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was fighting an insurgency against the Turkish government, PYD was unlikely to band together with the Turkish-backed rebels and jihadists. PYD announced as its policy to support neither the regime nor the rebels, but instead focus on protecting the Kurdish areas and build up a local administration there.
The Asayish police force was now founded as a complement to YPG. Both were staffed by volunteers, but while YPG’s role would be restricted to military operations, Asayish was tasked with the maintenance of law and order as well as internal security. However, its authority was not immediately recognised by local people, especially as it sometimes employed repressive measures against rival parties and anti-government activists. While some accused it of acting on behalf of the Syrian regime, a more likely rationale was to secure the position of PYD – as well as to prevent others from dragging the Kurdish areas into the increasingly sectarian civil war.
Surrounded by Lawlessness
“I visited the officers who had arrested me and they became nervous, but I did not want revenge,” recounts Ismet Hesen, who is today Minister of Defence in the Kobani administration and was a political prisoner before the war. Similar restraint was not observed by the rebels and jihadists in the surrounding areas. “In Sarrin, Ghuraba al-Sham killed a police officer named Abu Basil in front of his family,” says Hesen. “His wife went mad afterwards, I drove her to the hospital myself.”
A major advantage of PYD’s monopoly of power could now be observed: lawlessness never spread in Kobani, like it did elsewhere. “When the rebels came to Manbij they stole all the wheat from the silos,” says Hesen. “They burned books and educational centres in Tel Abyad, it was like an invasion of Mongol hordes.”
YPG maintained a tense truce with the rebel and jihadist groups, until the latter finally went on the attack against the Kurdish enclaves in the summer of 2013. Kurds residing or travelling outside of YPG-controlled zones were now subjected to a campaign of expulsions, kidnappings and killings. “First I was arrested by the Free Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor, and they took all my belongings,” says the restaurant owner Ehmed Bakhi. “Then I was arrested by Islamic State, on the way from Raqqa to Kobani. They asked if I knew how to pray and threatened to behead me.”
In early 2014, three autonomous governments were proclaimed in the Kurdish enclaves of Kobani, Efrin and Jazira, with the stated intention to formalise institutions and prepare for general elections. While previous power-sharing agreements had never been implemented in practice, other Kurdish parties were now welcomed to join the administration – but on PYD’s terms. Some eventually did, but most turned down the offer.
Around this time, competing rebel and jihadist groups turned against the increasingly unpopular Islamic State – but were in the end themselves driven out from all of eastern and most of northern Syria. After defeating its rivals, and with the regime contained in a few isolated enclaves, Islamic State turned its attention to Kobani. By completely cutting off the water and electricity supply, and attempting to block all incoming traffic of goods, Kobani was subjected to an increasingly effective siege. During intense battles in the spring and summer, YPG was forced to retreat in some places, but could mostly withstand the attacks and occasionally even reclaim some territory. Meanwhile, behind the frontlines, a new society was taking form.
To be continued in the second part which you can find here!