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The Syrian town of Kobani has taken center stage in the media as shorthand for the fight against ISIS, but the battle raging there near Turkey's border is merely a sideshow in a wider war with far more at stake.
U.S.-led coalition jets have been pounding Kobani's outskirts for weeks, trying to stave off what the United Nations has warned will be a “massacre” if ISIS militants seize full control of the border town.
Beyond the specter of a massacre by the black-flag flying beheaders, the fall of Kobani to ISIS would be far more symbolic than strategic. It would illustrate the continued strength of the militants that the U.S. has pledged to degrade and destroy — and the overall failures of Western air power to combat them.
While more than 150,000 people have fled the area around Kobani, no more than 50,000 people lived there before recent fighting intensified. The town has assumed importance largely because, in a war in which reporters have great difficulty seeing battles first-hand, Kobani is within shooting distance of news cameras. Those cameras — positioned along the Turkish border — have captured militants hoisting their black flags and getting ever close to Kobani’s center even as the U.S.-led coalition drops bombs to stop them.
Everyone agrees this war cannot be won from 30,000 feet. Yes, airstrikes have taken out ISIS tanks, armored vehicles, checkpoints, and headquarters buildings in Syria. They have, in some places, slowed the advance of ISIS. But the battle for Mosul Dam is telling.
While more than a month ago, I witnessed the recapture of Mosul Dam from ISIS thanks to a sustained aerial bombardment by U.S. warplanes and a push by Kurdish fighters — which was touted as a success in the campaign to push back the militants. Weeks later, American jets still comb the area around the dam. ISIS hasn’t gone away, but its fighters have merely melted into the hills.
While U.S. officials already acknowledge that “air power is not going to be enough” to save Kobani, that won’t diminish the message that will come across if the town falls.
ISIS for a year has been penetrating the border area between Turkey and Syria — but the black flags they have planted on buildings around Kobani are a direct taunt to the West. If the militants seize full control of the city, it will show that the militants have flatly defied U.S. airpower and Kurdish firepower — and cannot be stopped.
Amid the focus on the “Kobani pocket,” two key fronts in Syria are being overlooked. Rebels are pushing towards Damascus from the south. While the city is not in danger of falling it is contested in a way far greater than a year ago and could prove a harbinger of the war’s outcome.
Earlier this month, Syrian warplanes were swooping over the city and bombing Damascus’ suburbs as rebel mortars fell on the city center. In Syria’s second city of Aleppo, forces loyal to Presdient Bashar Assad are trying to cut the last significant road into the city. If they succeed the rebels inside will be encircled, both by the regime and ISIS.
The battles for Aleppo and Damascus make Kobani look even more like a sideshow to the main event — and that’s not to mention what is happening in Iraq. ISIS’ advance in Iraq’s Anbar province — a stronghold of Sunni discontent with Baghdad’s power — is far more significant than Kobani in the broader war. The “Sunni Awakening” that Washington hoped would challenge ISIS hasn’t happened. Instead, U.S. airstrikes have pushed many Sunnis closer toward ISIS by fueling sentiment that America is using its power once against to bolster a Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.
ISIS has already advanced further than anyone thought possible six months ago. They’ve effectively erased the border between Syria and Iraq and seized around a quarter of Iraqi territory — including control of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. Now, the Sunni extremist militants are threatening the suburbs of Baghdad.
This week in Washington, military chiefs from more than 20 countries will meet to review the progress of the war “to degrade and destroy” ISIS. There’s plenty of evidence ISIS is being degraded — but none to suggest the militant organization will be destroyed any time soon.
The chiefs will discuss the ground troops everyone thus far has ruled out. They will point to the continuing failure of the Iraqi army to achieve even modest success against ISIS on the battlefield. And they will hear the complaints of the Kurdish Peshmerga who — months after being promised weapons by the West — have received only a trickle of light arms. As Mosul and now Kobani are showing, those troops cannot on their own defeat ISIS.