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The Battle for Kobani

Over the summer Isis – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – defeated the Iraqi army, the Syrian army, the Syrian rebels and the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga; it established a state stretching from Baghdad to Aleppo and from Syria’s northern border to the deserts of Iraq in the south. Ethnic and religious groups of which the world had barely heard – including the Yazidis of Sinjar and the Chaldean Christians of Mosul – became victims of Isis cruelty and sectarian bigotry. In September, Isis turned its attention to the two and a half million Syrian Kurds who had gained de facto autonomy in three cantons just south of the Turkish border. One of these cantons, centred on the town of Kobani, became the target of a determined assault. By 6 October, Isis fighters had fought their way into the centre of the town. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan predicted that its fall was imminent; John Kerry spoke of the ‘tragedy’ of Kobani, but claimed – implausibly – that its capture wouldn’t be of great significance. A well-known Kurdish fighter, Arin Mirkan, blew herself up as the Isis fighters advanced: it looked like a sign of despair and impending defeat.

In attacking Kobani, the Isis leadership wanted to prove that it could still defeat its enemies despite the US airstrikes against it, which began in Iraq on 8 August and were extended to Syria on 23 September. As they poured into Kobani Isis fighters chanted: ‘The Islamic State remains, the Islamic State expands.’ In the past, Isis has chosen – a tactical decision – to abandon battles it didn’t think it was going to win. But the five-week battle for Kobani had gone on too long and been too well publicised for its militants to withdraw without loss of prestige. The appeal of the Islamic State to Sunnis in Syria, Iraq and across the world derives from a sense that its victories are God-given and inevitable, so any failure damages its claim to divine support.

But the inevitable Isis victory at Kobani didn’t happen. On 19 October, in a reversal of previous policy, US aircraft dropped arms, ammunition and medicine to the town’s defenders. Under American pressure, Turkey announced on the same day that it would allow Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga safe passage from northern Iraq to Kobani; Kurdish fighters have now recaptured part of the town. Washington had realised that, given Obama’s rhetoric about his plan ‘to degrade and destroy’ Isis, and with congressional elections only a month away, it couldn’t afford to allow the militants yet another victory. And this particular victory would in all likelihood have been followed by a massacre of surviving Kurds in front of the TV cameras assembled on the Turkish side of the border. When the siege began, US air support for the defenders of Kobani had been desultory; for fear of offending Turkey the US air force had avoided liaising with Kurdish fighters on the ground. By the middle of October the policy had changed, and the Kurds started giving detailed targeting information to the Americans, enabling them to destroy Isis tanks and artillery. Previously, Isis commanders had been skilful in hiding their equipment and dispersing their men. In the air campaign so far, only 632 out of 6600 missions have resulted in actual attacks. But as they sought to storm Kobani, Isis leaders had to concentrate their forces in identifiable positions and became vulnerable. In one 48-hour period there were nearly forty US airstrikes, some only fifty yards from the Kurdish front line.

It wasn’t US air support alone that made the difference. In Kobani, for the first time, Isis was fighting an enemy – the People’s Defence Units (YPG) and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – that in important respects resembled itself. The PYD is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which since 1984 has been fighting for self-rule for the 15 million Turkish Kurds. Like Isis, the PKK combines fanatical ideological commitment with military expertise and experience gained in long years of guerrilla war. Marxist-Leninist in its original ideology, the PKK is run from the top and seeks to monopolise power within the Kurdish community, whether in Turkey or Syria. The party’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the object of a powerful personality cult, issues instructions from his Turkish prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara. The PKK’s military leadership operates from a stronghold in the Qandil Mountain in northern Iraq, one of the great natural fortresses of the world. Most of its fighters, estimated to number seven thousand, withdrew from Turkey under the terms of a ceasefire in 2013, and today move from camp to camp in the deep gorges and valleys of the Qandil. They are highly disciplined and intensely dedicated to the cause of Kurdish nationalism: this has enabled them to wage a war for three decades against the enormous Turkish army, always undeterred despite the devastating losses they have suffered. The PKK, like Isis, emphasises martyrdom: fallen fighters are buried in carefully tended cemeteries full of rose bushes high in the mountains, with elaborate tombstones over the graves. Pictures of Ocalan are everywhere: six or seven years ago, I visited a hamlet in Qandil occupied by the PKK; overlooking it was an enormous picture of Ocalan picked out in coloured stones on the side of a nearby mountain. It’s one of the few guerrilla bases that can be seen from space.

Syria and Iraq are full of armies and militias that don’t fight anybody who can shoot back, but the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, the PYD and YPG, are different. Often criticised by other Kurds as Stalinist and undemocratic, they at least have the capacity to fight for their own communities. The Islamic State’s string of victories against superior forces earlier this year came about because it was fighting soldiers, such as those in the Iraqi army, who are low in morale and poorly supplied with weapons, ammunition and food, thanks to corrupt and incompetent commanders, many of whom are liable to flee. When a few thousand Isis fighters invaded Mosul in June they were in theory facing sixty thousand Iraqi soldiers and police. But the real figure was probably only a third of that: the rest were either just names on paper, with the officers pocketing the salaries; or they did exist but were handing over half their pay to their commanders in return for never going near an army barracks. Not much has improved in the four months since the fall of Mosul on 9 June. According to an Iraqi politician, a recent official inspection of an Iraqi armoured division ‘that was meant to have 120 tanks and 10,000 soldiers, revealed that it had 68 tanks and just 2000 soldiers’. The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga – literally ‘those who confront death’ – aren’t immensely effective either. They are often regarded as better soldiers than the soldiers in the Iraqi army, but their reputation was won thirty years ago when they were fighting Saddam; they have not done much fighting since, except in the Kurdish civil wars. Even before they were routed by Isis in Sinjar in August, a close observer of the peshmerga referred to them derisively as ‘pêche melba’; they were, he said, ‘only good for mountain ambushes’.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 
The use of Mr Cantlie demonstrates once again Isis' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war

The report by John Cantlie, the British journalist held captive by Isis, from the besieged Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border, is revealing about the Islamic militants’ plans.

Isis would not be sponsoring such a high-profile report claiming that it is in control of most of Kobani unless it intends to fight on until final victory in the five-week siege. Mr Cantlie says that the mujahedin or holy warriors “are just mopping up now, street to street and building to building”. He pours scorn on the idea that there is an all-out battle, saying: “It is nearly over. As you can hear, it is very quiet, just the occasional gunfire.”

Mr Cantlie is in a general sense speaking under duress, since he has been a prisoner of Isis since 2012 and two American journalists held captive, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, have been ritually murdered by the movement. But there is no doubt that the film was taken in Kobani, where Mr Cantlie is filmed in an open space and then on top of a building. There is a rattle of machine-gun fire in the background but no explosions or evidence of heavy fighting.

The film opens with a shot from the air, apparently from an Isis drone. The streets all appear empty and most of the town is intact, though some buildings look entirely shattered, as if by a US airstrike. “Hello, I am John Cantlie,” says the reporter, who is dressed in black, “and today we are in the city of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border. That is, in fact, Turkey right behind me.”

He mocks foreign journalists for not being present in the town, though this is a bit rich given Isis’s record of beheading them. He adds that media reports of what is happening in Kobani are drawn from accounts by the Kurds and the US administration, which is largely correct. He refers to The Independent reporting that, despite US air strikes, Isis forces were continuing to fight their way into Kobani. The YouTube video has now been removed and replaced with a note saying that this has been done “because its content violated YouTube’s terms of service”.

Despite the removal of the film clip, the use of Mr Cantlie as a forcibly embedded foreign correspondent covering the actions of Isis demonstrates once again the movement’s skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war. Whatever the degree of coercion under which Mr Cantlie is reporting, the video will have been seen by millions around the world and is convincing evidence that Isis, if it has not won the battle for Kobani, has not yet lost it. Mr Cantlie would not have been standing in the open or on the top of a building if he was in range of Kurdish fighters.

“Contrary to media reports, the fighting in Kobani is nearly over,” says Mr Cantlie. “Urban warfare is about as nasty and tough as it gets, and it’s something of a specialty of the mujahedin.”

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS 
A journalist who witnessed the events of 1989 from a Soviet perspective looks back on a surreal period when attempts at...

I went to Moscow as a correspondent in 1984, just as the Brezhnev generation of leaders was beginning to die off or be replaced. There was nothing to suggest that Soviet control of Eastern Europe had only another five years to run and that the Soviet Union itself would disintegrate a few years later.

In retrospect, it might seem self-evident that by seeking to reform the centralised, militarised and authoritarian Soviet state, the General Secretary of the Communist Party (CPSU), Mikhail Gorbachev, was sawing through the branch on which he and the party were sitting. But it was not obvious at the time when the most striking feature of the Soviet Union was its political and military strength and not its sclerotic leadership. In a sense, the Soviet Union had been too successful for its own good. Lenin, Stalin and their successors had built a powerful military and industrial state machine in a beleaguered peasant country. Through a mixture of ideological fanaticism and physical coercion, they had achieved their aim, defeating the Nazis and rivalling the US as a super-power.

But the Soviet Union paid a price for creating a system that was geared for concentrating all resources for coping with emergencies, but not for providing for day-to-day needs. Victory in the Second World War left Moscow in control of Eastern Europe, but its rule could continue only through the use or threat of military force. Once this threat disappeared, it was highly probable that Communist governments would disappear, from Berlin to Bucharest. Once Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985, subsequent events such as the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later have a feeling of inevitability about them, which this is surely a misreading of what actually happened.

The Soviet Union in 1984 was not in a state of crisis, though it did have a moribund feel to it. This was symbolised by the leader of the day, Konstantin Chernenko, once an aide to Leonid Brezhnev and now white-haired and gasping for breath because of his emphysema. He spent much of his time resting in his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, though he did once make a macabre appearance on television. He was shown clutching the back of a chair to stand upright as he received a delegation. The delegation leader offered him a bunch of red flowers and twice he visibly strained as he tried to raise his right hand from the chair to take the bouquet, but the effort was too much and his hand fell back.

A few weeks later, Chernenko was dead and Gorbachev took over the leadership. For the next three years, much of my time was spent writing articles trying to persuade sceptical editors and readers that something significant and new was happening in the Soviet Union. Academic and diplomatic Kremlinologists largely discounted changes, often seeing developments in Moscow as a cunning PR ploy designed to deceive journalists like myself or, more persuasively, a doomed attempt to rescue an ossified system. In 1983, Lieutenant-General William Odom, the head of the US National Security Agency, and a leading expert on the Soviet Union, said that he “expected sound and fury about domestic reform accompanied by little actual change”.

In the first years of Gorbachev there was a certain of truth in this, but the “sound and fury” was very revealing as the reformers tried to use glasnost – openness – to stir up the political system and discredit their opponents by exposing various scandals. Revelations were sometimes trivial but always fascinating, such as a newspaper report that Soviet teeth were in such bad repair because the man in charge of dental policy, who had held his job for decades, was a specialist in gum disease and had no interest in teeth. Who were the people I could see milling about regardless of weather conditions on a little triangle of land called Smolensk Square between the Soviet foreign ministry and the Beograd Hotel? It turned out that they were black-marketeers and prostitutes who were taking advantage of the fact that the square was on the intersection of two police districts, both of which disclaimed responsibility for what went on there.

Moral puritanism was in the air, and a notable feature of it was Gorbachev’s campaign against excessive drinking that raised the price of alcohol and made it more difficult to obtain. High above Mayakovsky Square in the centre of Moscow, I saw a flashing electric sign carrying the message: “A glass of mandarin juice a day contains all the vitamin C an adult needs.” Down below in the street, a long queue of people waited in the driving snow for a drink shop to open. Criminals took over the alcohol trade just as at the time of Prohibition in the US, making me wonder about the realism of the highly principled people trying to reform the Soviet Union.

For all the talk about greater openness, the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine in 1986 was only grudgingly admitted as a radioactive cloud spread to Scandinavia and the disaster became undeniable. The accident appeared at home and abroad as a prime example of criminal sloppiness protected by obsessive secrecy and all too typical of the Soviet system. We should, perhaps, have been more careful about seeing such disasters as validating stereotypes. Twenty-five years later, when an accident happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, following the tsunami in 2011, the supposedly super-efficient Japanese politicians and technicians proved to be almost as incompetent and secretive as their Soviet counterparts.

It was never clear to me what Gorbachev and those around him were aiming to achieve. Change was being driven by the Communist Party but with the apparent purpose of putting itself largely out of business as the institution which monopolised power. It had been an oppressive administrative apparatus for so long that it was wholly unsuited to competing with other political parties in an election. Nor was there an obvious alternative to the party, since potential rivals had long been eliminated – other than predatory gangs and networks looking for power and money.

Authoritarian governments that have ruled for decades without seeking democratic endorsement are unlikely to fare very well when they do start to take public opinion into account. Furthermore, governments which have long claimed credit for anything good happening to their people not surprisingly get blamed by them in the long run for everything bad. This was noticeable not just in Russia in the late 1980s but during the Arab Spring of 2011, when opponents of the status quo genuinely believed their own demonisation of the old regime as responsible for all of the ills of society.

Gorbachev and the reformers had great difficulty getting reform under way, but once they did so the pace and direction of change became uncontrollable. The Cold War had never really ended and the priority of the West was to see an end to the Soviet Union as a political and social rival. In later years, Russian leaders complained that the West failed to fulfil promises made in the early 1990s that there would be no expansion of Nato further east. But once the Russians had withdrawn their armies from Eastern Europe, they had little leverage left.

What is most striking about the fall of Communism, a movement that had convulsed the world and battled for power in state after state, is that so few fought for it at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

• Category: History • Tags: Berlin Wall, Soviet Union 
In many respects the situation in Saudi Arabia is getting worse rather than better, as if the government feels it must...

A Specialised Criminal Court in Saudi Arabia has sentenced a prominent Shia clergyman, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, to death on vague charges of “breaking allegiance to the ruler” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations.”

It is a sentence that is creating rage among Saudi Arabia’s two-million-strong Shia minority that has long claimed to be persecuted and discriminated against.

The Saudi authorities are nervous about how the verdict handed down on 15 October will be received; the court arrested Sheikh Nimr’s brother, Mohammed Nimr al-Nimr, after he announced the outcome of the trial on Twitter. Local activists believe this was to prevent him speaking to the media after sentencing. Harsh though the sentence is, it is less than the prosecution’s demand for execution by “crucifixion”, a punishment that in Saudi Arabia involves beheading.

Sheikh Nimr had been under arrest since 2012 when he was shot four times in the leg by police, who claimed that he resisted them with a weapon when they were trying to arrest him. His family dispute this, saying that he did not own a weapon and accusing the Saudi authorities of not providing adequate medical treatment for his wounds. Sheikh Nimr had earlier said in an interview with the BBC that he looked to “the roar of the word against the Saudi authorities rather than weapons … the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons”. At the time of his arrest there were riots in Eastern Province, the site of much of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, in which three people were killed.

News of Sheikh Nimr’s death sentence received limited coverage in the foreign media which was focused more on the outcome of the Islamic State’s siege of Kobani in northern Syria. It was a more obviously significant development and was, moreover, taking place in full view of television cameras just across the border in Turkey. But these two events in Saudi Arabia and Syria are linked because they are both part of the greatest crisis in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

Sheikh Nimr’s sentence is important because of its negative impact on the Shia in Saudi Arabia and their fraught relationship with the Saudi royal family. But it has a wider significance because it helps deepen hostility between Shia and Sunni Muslims and escalates the struggle between them everywhere in the world. Syria and Iraq are the main arena for this battle, but it now encompasses all 1.6 billion Muslims, a quarter of the world’s population.

It is a persistent error by the United States, Britain and their allies in the West to underestimate the extent to which the Sunni-Shia confrontation determines what happens in the Middle East. This is particularly so in those countries in which the Shia, or sects demonised by Sunni governments as Shia, form a significant part of the population. The blindness of the western powers is to a degree self-serving and intentional: it makes it easier for them to ally themselves with the theocratic absolute monarchies of the Gulf without having to admit they have thereby plugged into a bigoted and sectarian agenda.

The Sunni-Shia battle is growing by the day involving communities like the Alawites of Syria, the Alevi of Turkey and the Houthi of Yemen, whose Shia credentials might have been doubted a few decades ago by the Shia of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. But people’s national and religious identities are defined as much by the perceptions and actions of their enemies as by their own beliefs. Denunciations of the Houthi of Yemen, who have recently captured the capital Sanaa, by Saudis as Shia and pawns of Iran tend to be self-fulfilling. When I asked some Alevi in Istanbul last year if they saw themselves as part of the wider Shia world, they said that their problem was that many Sunni saw them as such.

The same is true of Syria. Whatever the popular origins of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad and his government in 2011, it swiftly took a sectarian form. This happened because sectarian divisions were always very real and because Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey channelled their support towards jihadis, thus preparing the ground for the dominance of the rebel movement by Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria.

It has been politically convenient for the US, Britain and their allies to pretend that there is a “moderate” non-jihadi rebel movement capable of fighting both IS and the Assad government. In reality, the civil war in Syria is all too real and sectarian killers are not all confined to IS. Earlier this year I was on the outskirts of Adra, a town north of Damascus, part of which had been captured by rebels from Douma who had killed many non-Sunni. One highly secular Alawite family had blown themselves up with grenades, children as well as parents, because they believed they would all be tortured to death by the rebels.

In Syria the western powers blithely pretend that the rebels, especially the famous “moderates” are less sectarian than they are. In Baghdad they do the exact opposite and pretend that the Shia-dominated government and its armed forces do not have a sectarian agenda. The reality is that the most effective military force on the government side is the Shia militias who murder and kidnap Sunni with impunity as shown by a recent Amnesty International report. If the United States and others back the government with embedded advisers calling in air strikes, it will be supporting the Shia in a war against the 5 or 6 million Sunni in Iraq. Anti-Sunni sectarian cleansing has already started in Diyala, Hilla and other provinces around Baghdad. It is self-deceiving to believe the recapture of Mosul or other Sunni cities by the government will be welcomed by the terrified local inhabitants.

These sectarian wars cannot really be won by either side. The most positive thing that outside powers can do in Syria is to arrange a ceasefire between anti-IS forces, both government and rebel. Hatred is too great for a political solution in Syria, but a truce is feasible if backed by outside powers such as the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

When it comes to the broader Sunni-Shia confrontation, the US, Britain and their allies need to end their blindness, calculated though it is, towards the Sunni sectarianism of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. Speaking of Sheikh Nimr, Yusuf al-Khoei, a prominent campaigner for Shia-Sunni dialogue, says “it makes a mockery of Saudi claims to be fighting extremism when they threaten to kill a prominent member of the Shia community in their country. It makes it impossible to have a dialogue with them.”

In many respects the situation in Saudi Arabia is getting worse rather than better with a surge in the number of executions, as if the government feels it must compete with the IS by demonstrating the rigour with which it implements Islamic law (Sharia) and deals with Shia, Christians and others who do not follow its own brand of Islam.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Saudi Arabia 
America resupplies Kurdish fighters by plane - then Ankara allows reinforcements through

Turkey is to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce the besieged Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani and US aircraft have dropped military supplies to its defenders to prevent its capture by the Islamic State.

The US resupply effort marks a radical change in American policy towards direct cooperation with Kurdish fighters on the ground, whom Turkey has denounced as terrorists. During the month-long siege of Kobani, just south of the Turkish border, the Turkish army has hitherto prevented arms, ammunition and reinforcements reaching the town.

American C-130 cargo planes dropped some 21 tons of weapons including anti-tank guns and medical supplies. Stepped-up US air strikes on Isis positions, using intelligence supplied by the Kurds, has helped repel the Islamic militants.

The rapidly intensifying US support for Kobani appears motivated by a belief that Washington could not afford to allow Isis to win another victory which would be a humiliating setback for President Barack Obama’s campaign to degrade and destroy it.

The US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “It is a crisis moment, an emergency where we clearly do not want to see Kobani become a horrible example of the unwillingness of people to help those who are fighting Isil (Isis).”

Despite the diplomatic language, Washington has lost patience with Turkey, which, though a member of the US-led coalition aimed at eliminating Isis, has repeatedly refused to authorise measures to save Kobani.

A senior White House official was quoted as saying that “there was an urgent need to resupply”, suggesting that the US had information that the Kurdish militia was getting low on ammunition and was outgunned by Isis.

Turkey announced later that it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce Kobani, thus breaking the Turkish blockade of the town which is surrounded by Isis on its other three sides.

The change in the Turkish stance came at the request of the US. Allowing Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory enables Ankara to save some face, the Turkish government having previously denounced as terrorist the political and military organisations of the Syrian Kurds, the PYD and YPG, as the Syrian branches of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he sees no difference between the PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984, and Isis. President Obama told Mr Erdogan in a phone call on Saturday about US plans to directly supply Kobani, but did not seek Turkish permission and US planes did not overfly Turkey.

It is politically easier for the Turkish government to help Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga reach Kobani than allow the PKK safe passage because it has good relations with the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG may see an advantage in playing a role in the defence of Kobani which many Kurds see as being a Kurdish Stalingrad, a symbol of heroic resistance and national identity. The Iraqi peshmerga were criticised for putting up a feeble defence when Isis launched an offensive against them in August.

Isis was reported to be making renewed attacks on Kobani on Monday night and US officials warned that the town could still fall. The US Central Command said 135 airstrikes in recent days had slowed the Isis advance, but “the security situation in Kobani remains fragile”.

Syrian Kurdish spokesmen are more optimistic about their military prospects, given that they now have strong American support, although they say that “this is not enough to decide the battle”.

Six US air strikes were conducted near Kobani on Sunday and Monday. A “stray” resupply vehicle from the US airdrop of supplies was hit, the US military said, which “prevented these supplies from falling into enemy hands”.

Isis has not given up its assault on Kobani, despite suffering significant losses, the British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights saying that 70 of its fighters have been killed in the last few four days.

Despite its failure to take Kobani, Isis has been advancing slowly north of Aleppo and, more dramatically, in Anbar province in Iraq where it is now almost entirely in control. Its forces are within easy reach of west Baghdad where there are large Sunni enclaves, although the majority of its seven million people are Shia. Six US-led air strikes, which also included the participation of France and Britain, hit Isis positions in Iraq on Monday.

Turkey has been insisting that the priority in Syria should be the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad and his government by imposing a no-fly zone and creating a rebel force in Turkish-held buffer zone in northern Syria. This force would then fight both Isis and the government in Damascus. Unless Mr Erdogan has received some assurances from the US about displacing Mr Assad, Turkey is the loser in the latest phase of the Syrian crisis.

The government has enraged its own Kurdish population by refusing to rescue the Syrian Kurds and being covertly complicit in the attack on them by Isis. If Mr Erdogan’s purpose was to weaken the 2.5 million Syrian Kurds who gained de facto autonomy in 2012 when the Iraqi army withdrew from Kurdish areas, then he has failed. If the US is now committed to supporting the Syrian Kurds as an effective opponents of Isis, then they emerge from the crisis stronger than before.

US officials were stressing on Monday that their policy towards the Syrian Kurds and Turkey has not changed. Mr Kerry said that he and President Obama had made “it very, very clear that this is not a shift of policy by the United States”, though by bypassing Turkey and supplying the Kurds directly, the opposite is true.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Kurds, Turkey 
Shia militias 'abducting and killing Sunni civilians in revenge for Isis attacks'

Iraq is descending into savage sectarian warfare as government-backed Shia militias kill, torture and hold for ransom any Sunni whom they detain. Isis is notorious for its mass killings of Shia, but retaliation by Shia militiamen means that Iraq is returning to the levels of sectarian slaughter last seen in the Sunni-Shia civil war of 2006-07 when tens of thousands were murdered.

The Shia militias have become the main fighting force of the Baghdad government since the Iraqi army was defeated by Isis when it took northern Iraq in June. According to a detailed Amnesty International report published today, the militias enjoy total immunity in committing war crimes against the Sunni community, often demanding large ransoms but killing their victims even when the money is paid.

The re-emergence of the Shia militias and the failure to rebuild the Iraqi army is torpedoing the US and British policy of supporting a more inclusive and less sectarian government in Baghdad. The aim was to create a government that could reach out to Iraq’s five or six million-strong Sunni community and seek to turn it against Isis. But, since the militias treat all Sunni men as Isis fighters or supporters, the Sunni are left with no choice but to stick with the jihadi militants.

The report cites a member of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of the largest militias, on duty at a checkpoint north of Baghdad, saying: “If we catch ‘those dogs’ [Sunni] coming down from the Tikrit we execute them; in those areas they are all working with Daesh [Isis]. They come to Baghdad to commit terrorist crimes. So we have to stop them.”

In addition to sectarian motives, militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Brigades, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Saraya al-Salam are thoroughly criminalised. One mother said: “I begged friends and acquaintances to lend me the ransom money to save my son, but after I paid they killed him and now I have no way to pay back the money I borrowed, as my son was the only one working in the family.”

Moving on the roads has become lethally dangerous for Sunni even before Isis launched its summer offensive. On the afternoon of 30 May two cousins, Majed, a 31-year-old ministry of education employee and father of three, and Nayef, an engineer, were abducted at a checkpoint when they went to Tikrit from Baghdad to pick up furniture.

A $90,000 (£56,000) ransom was demanded and paid but they were later found handcuffed and shot in the head. A Sunni businessman called Salem, 43, was kidnapped from his factory at al-Taji and, though a ransom was paid, his body was later found with his head smashed in either by a large calibre bullet or some form of club.

American and British ministers have lauded the new government in Baghdad under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as being less sectarian than that of his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whom he replaced in August.

But in practice, Mr Abadi’s administration is much like the old. “For now nothing is different,” says Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser. “Shia militias are way more important than the army and are running the show.” Even if it wanted to the government would have difficulty in bringing them under control. Ms Rovera says: “In terms of sectarian violence we are back to the levels of 2006-07.”

The militia gunmen frequently act in co-ordination with the police and army. Their victims are Christian as well as Sunni. One Christian family, threatened with death by three militiamen unless they paid a large sum, fled the country but without telling the police.

The report comments that the fact that the family thought it would be unsafe and unwise to tell the police “speaks volumes about the atmosphere of lawlessness in the capital, where [Shia] militias know they can act with impunity.”

One reason the Sunni community first protested and supported armed resistance against the government has been the knowledge that they could be detained and tortured by government forces at any time.

Uda Taha Kurdi, 33, a lawyer, was arrested at the Baghdad Central Court on 10 June. Two weeks later his family was told he had suffered from “a health problem” and had died, a judge alleging that he was “from a terrorist family” and was “from the IS leadership”. A forensic examination of Mr Kurdi’s body concluded that he had probably been killed by electrical torture with electrodes attached to his calf and little toe.

The overall plan of Mr Obama and his allies to find a reliable ally on the ground in Baghdad who could woo the Sunni has failed to make progress, despite the departure of Mr Maliki. Mr Abadi has still to get his choice for the defence and interior ministries accepted by parliament.

Meanwhile, Isis has seized all of Anbar province west of Baghdad, defeating the Iraqi army despite the support of US airpower. One of the last two army bases in Anbar fell on Monday as Isis began moving towards west Baghdad.

The inability of the Baghdad government to field a national army and its reliance on militias means that Iraq is in the last stages of disintegration. The few mixed Sunni-Shia areas are disappearing.

In places where the army and militias have retaken towns such as Amerli, north of Baghdad, the inhabitants of nearby Sunni villages have fled. The final break-up of Iraq has become a fact.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Shias and Sunnis 
Fighter jets bombed PKK positions in the first major air raid since a ceasefire was declared in March 2013

Turkish aircraft have attacked Kurdish rebel positions inside Turkey for the first time in two years as relations between the Turkish government and the Kurds deteriorate because of Turkey’s failure to help the Kurdish defenders of Kobani under attack by Isis.

F-16 jets struck at a target they claimed was held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984, but has had a ceasefire since 2013. The Turkish military said it was responding “in the strongest possible way” to the shelling of an outpost by PKK forces. The PKK say they were responding to a military strike.

The Turkish government appears to calculate that the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan does not want the faltering peace process to end and that the PKK cannot fight in both Syria and Turkey. Mr Ocalan says, however, that if Kobani falls then it will be the end of the peace process.

Today, US-led forces said they had conducted 21 airstrikes focused on halting Isis advances at Kobani in the last two days. That came as Barack Obama held talks with military leaders from some 20 countries, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia. “It is part of ongoing efforts to build the coalition and integrate the capabilities of each country into the broader strategy,” said a White House spokesman.

Representatives of countries including Australia, Canada, France and Germany were expected to attend.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Kurds, Turkey 
American-led air attacks are failing. Jihadis are close to taking Kobani, in Syria – and in Iraq western Baghdad is...

America’s plans to fight Islamic State are in ruins as the militant group’s fighters come close to capturing Kobani and have inflicted a heavy defeat on the Iraqi army west of Baghdad.

The US-led air attacks launched against Islamic State (also known as Isis) on 8 August in Iraq and 23 September in Syria have not worked. President Obama’s plan to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State has not even begun to achieve success. In both Syria and Iraq, Isis is expanding its control rather than contracting.

Isis reinforcements have been rushing towards Kobani in the past few days to ensure that they win a decisive victory over the Syrian Kurdish town’s remaining defenders. The group is willing to take heavy casualties in street fighting and from air attacks in order to add to the string of victories it has won in the four months since its forces captured Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, on 10 June. Part of the strength of the fundamentalist movement is a sense that there is something inevitable and divinely inspired about its victories, whether it is against superior numbers in Mosul or US airpower at Kobani.

In the face of a likely Isis victory at Kobani, senior US officials have been trying to explain away the failure to save the Syrian Kurds in the town, probably Isis’s toughest opponents in Syria. “Our focus in Syria is in degrading the capacity of [Isis] at its core to project power, to command itself, to sustain itself, to resource itself,” said US Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, in a typical piece of waffle designed to mask defeat. “The tragic reality is that in the course of doing that there are going to be places like Kobani where we may or may not be able to fight effectively.”

Unfortunately for the US, Kobani isn’t the only place air strikes are failing to stop Isis. In an offensive in Iraq launched on 2 October but little reported in the outside world, Isis has captured almost all the cities and towns it did not already hold in Anbar province, a vast area in western Iraq that makes up a quarter of the country. It has captured Hit, Kubaisa and Ramadi, the provincial capital, which it had long fought for. Other cities, towns and bases on or close to the Euphrates River west of Baghdad fell in a few days, often after little resistance by the Iraqi Army which showed itself to be as dysfunctional as in the past, even when backed by US air strikes.

Today, only the city of Haditha and two bases, Al-Assad military base near Hit, and Camp Mazrah outside Fallujah, are still in Iraqi government hands. Joel Wing, in his study –”Iraq’s Security Forces Collapse as The Islamic State Takes Control of Most of Anbar Province” – concludes: “This was a huge victory as it gives the insurgents virtual control over Anbar and poses a serious threat to western Baghdad”.

The battle for Anbar, which was at the heart of the Sunni rebellion against the US occupation after 2003, is almost over and has ended with a decisive victory for Isis. It took large parts of Anbar in January and government counter-attacks failed dismally with some 5,000 casualties in the first six months of the year. About half the province’s 1.5 million population has fled and become refugees. The next Isis target may be the Sunni enclaves in western Baghdad, starting with Abu Ghraib on the outskirts but leading right to the centre of the capital.

The Iraqi government and its foreign allies are drawing comfort, there having been some advances against Isis in the centre and north of the country. But north and north-east of Baghdad the successes have not been won by the Iraqi army but by highly sectarian Shia militias which do not distinguish between Isis and the rest of the Sunni population. They speak openly of getting rid of Sunni in mixed provinces such as Diyala where they have advanced. The result is that Sunni in Iraq have no alternative but to stick with Isis or flee, if they want to survive. The same is true north-west of Mosul on the border with Syria, where Iraqi Kurdish forces, aided by US air attacks, have retaken the important border crossing of Rabia, but only one Sunni Arab remained in the town. Ethnic and sectarian cleansing has become the norm in the war in both Iraq and Syria.

The US’s failure to save Kobani, if it falls, will be a political as well as military disaster. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the loss of the beleaguered town are even more significant than the inability so far of air strikes to stop Isis taking 40 per cent of it. At the start of the bombing in Syria, President Obama boasted of putting together a coalition of Sunni powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to oppose Isis, but these all have different agendas to the US in which destroying IS is not the first priority. The Sunni Arab monarchies may not like Isis, which threatens the political status quo, but, as one Iraqi observer put it, “they like the fact that Isis creates more problems for the Shia than it does for them”.

Of the countries supposedly uniting against Isis, by the far most important is Turkey because it shares a 510-mile border with Syria across which rebels of all sorts, including Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, have previously passed with ease. This year the Turks have tightened border security, but since its successes in the summer Isis no longer needs sanctuary, supplies and volunteers from outside to the degree it once did.

In the course of the past week it has become clear that Turkey considers the Syrian Kurd political and military organisations, the PYD and YPG, as posing a greater threat to it than the Islamic fundamentalists. Moreover, the PYD is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

Ever since Syrian government forces withdrew from the Syrian Kurdish enclaves or cantons on the border with Turkey in July 2012, Ankara has feared the impact of self-governing Syrian Kurds on its own 15 million-strong Kurdish population.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would prefer Isis to control Kobani, not the PYD. When five PYD members, who had been fighting Isis at Kobani, were picked up by the Turkish army as they crossed the border last week they were denounced as “separatist terrorists”.

Turkey is demanding a high price from the US for its co-operation in attacking Isis, such as a Turkish-controlled buffer zone inside Syria where Syrian refugees are to live and anti-Assad rebels are to be trained. Mr Erdogan would like a no-fly zone which will also be directed against the government in Damascus since Isis has no air force. If implemented the plan would mean Turkey, backed by the US, would enter the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels, though the anti-Assad forces are dominated by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate.

It is worth keeping in mind that Turkey’s actions in Syria since 2011 have been a self-defeating blend of hubris and miscalculation. At the start of the uprising, it could have held the balance between the government and its opponents. Instead, it supported the militarisation of the crisis, backed the jihadis and assumed Assad would soon be defeated. This did not happen and what had been a popular uprising became dominated by sectarian warlords who flourished in conditions created by Turkey. Mr Erdogan is assuming he can disregard the rage of the Turkish Kurds at what they see as his complicity with Isis against the Syrian Kurds. This fury is already deep, with 33 dead, and is likely to get a great deal worse if Kobani falls.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Syria, Turkey 
President Erdogan sees the jihadists as an opportunity to target Assad rather than a threat

If Kobani falls to the fighters of Isis there will be a surge of violence across Turkey. The 15 million Turkish Kurds will blame the Turkish government for enabling Isis to capture the Kurdish enclave by denying its defenders reinforcements, weapons and ammunition.

The faltering peace process between the Turkish Kurd militants and Ankara may finally collapse. A Kurdish politician was quoted as saying that “you can’t expect to break the backs of the Kurds in Syria and win their hearts in Turkey”.

All this week there have been protests and riots in every Turkish city where there are a significant number of Kurds. Twenty-two people have been killed in the fiercest street clashes that Turkey has seen for years.

Smoke rises from bonfires in the streets with the police generally relying on pepper spray and water cannon while angry Kurds hurl stones and Molotov cocktails.

The month-long siege of Kobani has become part of the Kurdish national legend like the killing of 5,000 Kurds with poison gas at Halabja by Saddam Hussein in 1988.

Six provinces in south-east Turkey have been placed under curfew. There are signs of an anti-Kurdish and pro-Islamist backlash with Turkish police shouting Isis slogans as they charge Kurdish demonstrators. Antagonisms have spread beyond Turkey into Europe with a pro-Isis crowd in Hamburg attacking Kurdish protesters with knives.

The Turkish general staff stirred nationalist passions by claiming that Kurds have burnt Turkish flags. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said openly that Isis and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish movement that has fought for Kurdish self-rule since 1984, are much the same. He said: “It is wrong to deal with them differently, we need to deal with them jointly.”

The Turkish authorities have been as good as his word. The US is launching air strikes to save the Syrian Kurdish militants holding Kobani from Isis attack, but when five of these crossed the border into Turkey they were seized by the Turkish army which described them as “separatist terrorists”.

This is a return to demonisation of the PKK and all Kurdish dissidents at the height of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey in 1990s. The PYD, the political representative of the Syrian Kurds and a branch of the PKK, was denounced in a tweet by a senior member of the ruling AKP party, Emrullah Isler, saying it is worse than Isis because, while the latter killed, they did not torture.

The Turkish government has so far been outwardly uncaring over the turmoil in the streets unleashed by its role in allowing Isis to come close to capturing Kobani. It may be that Mr Erdogan has had sufficient success in muzzling the Turkish media that the authorities themselves may underestimate the gravity of what is going on and its potential for getting a great deal worse.

As the death toll climbed on 7 October, prominence was given in news bulletins to the award of a medal by Croatia to a Turkish businessman. CNN Turk, which had attracted much derisive criticism for showing a documentary about penguins during the Gezi Park protests, which convulsed Turkey in 2013, this time showed a film about honeybees as violent rioting convulsed the country.

Mr Erdogan’s unconcern about Kurdish fury is curious since progress in de-escalating Turkish-Kurd violence has been one of the achievements of his AKP party’s years in office. Mr Erdogan had looked to Kurdish support to increase the powers of his office. Writing in al-Monitor Amberin Zaman says that the reason why the authorities are so unconcerned is because “Erdogan and his AKP disciples view Kobani as an opportunity rather than a threat”. This opportunity is not to win popularity among the Kurds by rescuing Kobani, but to exploit a moment of maximum Kurdish weakness when they are under threat from Isis.

When Salih Muslim, a leader of the PYD, met Turkish officials in Ankara last week he reportedly asked for Turkey to allow anti-tank weapons to be delivered to Kobani to stop the tanks captured by Isis from the Iraqi and Syrian armies. The Turks said they would only allow this if the PYD denounced President Bashar al-Assad, joined the anti-Assad rebels, dissolved their local administrations running the Syrian Kurdish cantons and gave power to other Kurdish parties.

A Syrian Kurdish observer said that “they were also asked to break their connection with the PKK which is impossible because they are a branch of the PKK. The Turks must have known they would be turned down.” Turkey’s priority is evidently to abolish the Syrian Kurd statelet as a bad example of self-determination which might strengthen the Kurds in Turkey.

In using the Isis threat to extract concessions from the Kurds and the Americans, Mr Erdogan may be overplaying his hand. He has made clear that his price for acting against Isis is a buffer zone inside Syria run by Turkey to be used as a sanctuary by refugees and anti-Assad rebels; a no-fly zone; and a commitment by the US to overthrow the government in Damascus.

All Mr Erdogan’s demands show that his target is Mr Assad as the source of all evil in Syria who ruthlessly kills his own people. He evidently sees no hypocrisy in accusing the Syrian government of such crimes while protesters are being shot down in cities across Turkey in numbers that may increase tragically if Kobani falls.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Kurds, Turkey 

A man died and dozens of people were wounded in demonstrations across Turkey today as Kurds vented their fury at the Turkish government for standing by as Isis fighters looked poised to take the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in view of the Turkish border and the watching Turkish army.

Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters who burnt cars and tyres as they took to the streets mainly in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish eastern and southeastern provinces, although clashes erupted in the nation’s biggest city, Istanbul, and the capital Ankara as well.

The likely fall of Kobani may mark an irrevocable breach between Turks and Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Many of the 30 million Kurds in the region believe that, if Kobani falls, it will be because Turkey refused to help its defenders as they faced repeated Isis assaults and cut them off from reinforcements and fresh supplies of weapons and ammunition. “We are besieged by Turkey, it is not something new,” said Ismet Sheikh Hassan, the Kurdish Defence Chief for the Kobani region.

The already faltering peace process between the Turkish government and its Kurdish minority could be a long-term casualty of Kobani, particularly if its capture is accompanied by ritual massacres of surviving defenders by Isis.

The capture of Kobani by Isis may be a turning point in the present crisis in Iraq and Syria because it marks the failure of the US plan to contain Isis using air power alone. President Obama promised less than a month ago “to degrade and destroy” the fundamentalists with air power, but Isis is still expanding and winning victories.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made very clear where he stood during a visit to a refugee camp at Gazantep, saying “Kobani is about to fall”. He explained that the Turkish price for rescuing Kobani and acting against Isis would have been three measures aimed, not at Isis, but at displacing President Bashar al-Assad. Mr Erdogan said: “We asked for three things: one, for a no-fly zone to be created; two for a secure zone parallel to the region to be declared; and for the moderate opposition in Syria and Iraq to be trained and equipped.” In effect, he was saying that given a choice between Isis and Assad, he would chose the former.

In a further sign of the Turkish government’s lack of sympathy for the Syrian Kurds, some 200 of whom fled from Kobani into Turkey this week and were detained and questioned about their links with the YPG, the Kurdish militia defending the town. Turkey is deeply suspicious of the YPG and its political counterpart the PYD because they are the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

The refusal by the Turkish government to help the Syrian Kurds in their hour of need immediately provoked demonstrations by Kurds across Turkey. There have been protests, often violent, in the Kurdish south-east and wherever there are Kurdish minorities, such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa. In Varto, a man was killed and in Istanbul a prominent human rights lawyer, Tamer Dogan, was shot in the head. His friends say he may have been targeted. Smoke was rising over many towns where demonstrators had lit fires in the streets and police used tear gas and water cannon.

Turks may react angrily to reports that a bust of Ataturk was burned by a crowd in Van province. The General Staff in Ankara put out a report that the Turkish flag had also been set alight. An office of the Kurdish political party, the HDP, was surrounded in one Istanbul district by a crowd shouting ‘Allahu Akhbar’.

One observer in Turkey writes: “These events could turn what began as a general humanitarian protest at the abandonment of the besieged in Kobani into a headlong collision between the Kurds and the Turks.”

The fall of Kobani will give Isis control of a large part of the 510-mile Syrian frontier with Turkey. This will be a further incentive for Turkey to establish a buffer or ‘safe’ zone on the Syrian side of the border, though this would shift Turkey towards becoming a military participant in the civil war. It plans to use a Turkish-controlled zone to train anti-government fighters and to house Syrian refugees.

The Turks were not alone in abandoning Kobani to the Islamic militants. The US was careful not have any direct liaison with Kurdish fighters on the ground though local intelligence should have made their air strikes more effective and might have stopped the Isis advance. Over the past 24 hours, these strikes have increased in number but may come too late as Isis militants fight street to street.

The US campaign against Isis is weakened not so much by lack ‘boots on the ground’, but by seeking to hold at arm’s-length those who are actually fighting Isis while embracing those such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey who are not. There is a similar situation in Iraq, where most of the fighting against Isis is by the Shia militias from which the US keeps its distance.

As Isis closes in on Kobani, the city’s defenders have been abandoned. They may have hoped for assistance from the Syrian government, with whom they have a truce, but there are no reports of Syrian aircraft in action at Kobani though bombing Isis there would have been keeping with Mr Assad’s claim to be defending Syrians from Isis.

Kobani: A brief history

Kobani started out in 1912 as a stop on the Konya-Baghdad railway and was populated by Armenian refugees fleeing the forces of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. The name “Kobani” may be a corruption of the word “company”, although in Arabic the town is called Ayn al-Arab or “the spring of the Arabs”.

Kurds and other groups also moved into the town, which was developed under French rule in Syria after the end of the Ottoman Empire. Most of the population was Kurdish but also included Turkmen, Arabs and Armenians. The 2004 census gave Kobani’s population as 45,000, but the outlying districts were home to hundreds of thousands of people in villages. In 2012, Kurdish People’s Protection Units took over control of the own and other Kurdish areas from the Damascus government, in what was seen as a deal between Kurds and the Assad regime. As the war continued, Kobani became a haven for those escaping the fighting. Some reports say 160,000 people have left Kobani for Turkey recently.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Kurds, Turkey 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

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