Kobani, or Ayn-al-Arab in Arabic, is a small town right on the Syrian-Turkish border. The vast majority of its population is of Kurdish ethnicity, with some Turks, Arabs, and Armenian peoples also living there.
Up to three weeks ago, the town was unknown to the world. Today, what once was a mere stopover on the Konya-Baghdad railway, the town finds itself playing silent witness to a titanic tug-of-war between opposing warring factions.
Islamic State (IS) forces have been besieging Kobani for nearly three weeks. Kurdish fighters are fighting a bitter urban warfare in a desperate attempt to stop them. Coalition warplanes striking from the air are pounding IS targets on a daily basis, though close-quarter fighting around the town’s streets greatly diminish the effectiveness of air support.
Yet, the relentless and determined advance of IS seems unstoppable. Last week, IS’s black flag ominously flew from atop a bombed-out Kobani building. Today, the message has filtered out that the fall of the city is ‘inevitable.’ Unless Turkey opens its nearby border and allows weaponry and troops to pour into the place (something that Ankara has so far flatly refused to do), the old railway town seems doomed.
But what makes Kobani such valuable objective for IS? Why are they so doggedly determined to overrun the city? And why are Kurdish troops so desperate to prevent this?
Kobani straddles the Syrian-Turkish border. If the city falls to IS, its forces will be able to operate a safe staging area from which to strike into Turkey. The passage to the city’s north side (towards the border) is the only way that remains open to the Kurds. IS forces control the other three. If that last means of exit is closed, Kurdish troops will become encircled and trapped inside their own town. Defeat to IS will mean almost certain death, so they must fight to the bitter end to keep Kobani from falling.
The stage is set to make a stand. The next few hours and days will determine the outcome of the battle, and that of IS’s next move.