The Kurdish city of Kobani, straddling the Turkey-Syria border, is preparing to welcome dictator Bashar al-Assad’s troops as part of an agreement between Ankara and Damascus, Kurdish authorities confirmed Sunday.
Kobani was the scene of a game-changing battle in the Islamic State’s quest to carve a “caliphate” out of Syrian and Iraqi territory that began in 2014. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) ultimately evicted the invading Islamic State army from Kobani, or Kobane, in early 2015 after months of brutal fighting that created a wave of thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing ISIS violence.
Today, the Kurds have managed to rebuild some of what was lost in the Islamic State fight in Kobani, but the city sits squarely on the border between Kurdistan and Turkey, making it a prime target for “Operation Peace Spring,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s code name for the invasion of Syria that began last week.
The goal of “Operation Peace Spring,” according to Turkish officials, is to displace the indigenous Kurdish population of Syrian Kurdistan, or Rojava, and replace them with some of the 4 million mostly Arab Syrian refugees currently in Turkey as a result of the eight-year-old Syrian Civil War. Erdogan has teamed up with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a mostly Arab Syrian rebel coalition that includes al-Qaeda elements, to ethnically cleanse Rojava of its Kurds.
Erdogan confirmed on Monday that, for now, he had agreed not to attack Kobani as part of negotiations with the Assad regime and the Russian government. The Self-Administration of North and East Syria, the Kurdish civilian officials running Rojava, appeared to similarly confirm that Kobani was safe from a Turkish invasion but would now welcome members of the Syrian Arab Army, Assad’s official forces.
The Kurdish outlet Bas News cited Kurdish officials stating that Kobani and Manbij, another northern Syrian Kurdish city, had agreed on Sunday evening to host Assad troops.
“The deployment … is to halt the Turkish incursion into Syria against the Kurdish forces, as scores of civilians have already been killed in Turkish strikes,” Bas News added, confirming that the Russian government, which is allied with Assad, brokered the deal. Assad’s forces would replace Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) members, a coalition of YPG and non-Kurdish fighters.
Kurdish officials emphasized that they were only handing over the security of Kobani to Assad forces, not the governing of the city to Syrian Arab officials.
“To counter and prevent this [Turkish] attack, an agreement with the Syrian government, which is responsible for protecting the borders of the country and preserving Syrian sovereignty, has been reached for the Syrian army to enter and be deployed along the Syrian-Turkish border,” northern Syrian officials said in a statement.
American forces reportedly began to withdraw from the outskirts of Kobani as Assad forces rolled in on Monday. President Donald Trump announced last week that he would relocate 50 advisory troops out of Rojava, citing a lack of legal basis to have them there following the defeat of the Islamic State. Outraged Kurdish officials called the move a “betrayal” and have blamed Trump for the launch of Operation Peace Spring. Locals speaking to the Kurdish outlet Rudaw in the Kobani area lamented that the Americans withdrawing were “leaving us behind.”
The Guardian translated remarks from Ismat Sheikh Hassan, the leader of the military council in Kobani, on local news, lamenting that Kurdish troops “did everything that [they] could,” but were ultimately “abandoned.”
“We urged all Kurdish [groups] to show solidarity, but no one listened,” Hassad added.
Without Congressional authorization, it is not legal for the President of the United States to deploy the military against a new enemy.
Erdogan himself attempted to assuage concerns in Kobani on Monday, insisting there would be “no trouble” there.
“There are a lot of rumors. As of this moment, it seems like there will be no trouble in Kobani with the positive approach of Russia,” Erdogan said on his way to a flight to Azerbaijan.
Gulnur Aybet, a senior Erdogan adviser, insisted in an interview Sunday that Turkey’s objective was to remove the Kurds from their territory and replace them with the majority Arab Syrian refugees that fled to Turkey after the Islamic State invaded. The ISIS “caliphate” was largely successful for about 3 years because Turkey did not manage its border, allowing European, Asian, and other jihadi hopefuls to cross into Syria largely unchallenged.
“We are very determined [in carrying on the operation] because we have two objectives. One is to clear our border from this terrorist group – the YPG, which is equivalent to the PKK – which is a terrorist organization as recognized by the U.S. and the EU,” Aybet said. “The second objective is actually to ensure the return of about one to two million Syrian refugees. We are already hosting 4 million of them in our country.”
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist organization that operates independently of the YPG. The YPG is a pan-Kurdish group and has attempted to maintain friendly relations with all Kurds, including the PKK. The PKK was pivotal in rescuing the Yazidi population of Sinjar, Iraq, from Islamic State genocide.
CNN reported, citing reporters on the ground on the Turkish-Syrian border, that Turkish troops had begun cutting Kobani off from the rest of the region on Sunday.
In 2014, Erdogan’s government was so permissive to Islamic State recruits attempting to join the Syrian civil war that anonymous jihadists thanked him for keeping the border open to them. Turkish pro-Erdogan media favorably compared the Islamic State to the YPG. Rumors began to swirl that Turkish medical staff were being forced to treat wounded ISIS jihadists.
ISIS invaded Kobani in September 2011, amid this supportive climate in Ankara. The American military helped Kurdish fighters with air support to keep the Islamic State at bay.
The Islamic State is an offshoot of al-Qaeda. Congress gave the president authorization to attack all al-Qaeda affiliates in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Kobani invasion triggered an outpouring of thousands of Kurdish refugees into PKK hotbeds in southern Turkey, some with significant injuries that some experts said were compatible with the wounds that victims of chemical weapons would suffer. The graphic images surfacing from Kobane suggested that ISIS terrorists had acquired chemical weapons and were using them on Kurdish civilians, including women and children. Islamic State propaganda also circulated showing the beheading of Kurdish women and children, including the Kurdish female soldiers of the YPJ.
The Kurds reclaimed Kobani in January 2015, largely turned into rubble by the fighting. It took Kurdish officials about two months to set up a school in the city for the first time since the invasion, attemping to convince refugees to return home and rebuild.