By Benjamin T. Decker
Since American air strikes began against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq last month, speculation has risen as to how a similar air campaign might play out against the militant group in Syria.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 23, the United States and several Arab nations launched airstrikes against approximately 14 militant sites in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Aleppo and Hasaka provinces.
Among the targets were training compounds, command and control facilities, weapons depots, a financial center and several armed convoys. All in all, at least 70 Syrian militants were killed in the first 24 hours.
Interestingly enough, reports indicate that a significant portion of the fatalities were from Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra, in addition to a relatively unknown yet notoriously dangerous group within al-Qaeda referred to as the Khorasan group.
At its core, it appears that the US along with several Arab regional allies including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar is intent on incapacitating the operational capabilities of IS militants in Syria, while also mitigating the threat of attacks at home.
The targeting of the Khorasan Group, a cadre of seasoned Al-Qaeda veterans allegedly planning to launch attacks against western airlines, is part of this effort to thwart attacks outside of Syria. This is further evidenced by a statement from Jordan’s military spokesman Mohammad Momani, who confirmed that on Sept. 23, the Royal Jordanian Air Force targeted IS militants allegedly planning attacks in the Hashemite Kingdom.
That said, while the US has consistently reiterated that the aerial bombardment campaign is intent on limiting the operations of IS militants in Syria, airstrikes against IS targets in Tel Abyad, a town located along the Syrian-Turkish border, and the nearby Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane, suggest that the US may have an ulterior motive: indirect support for Syrian Kurdistan, also known as Rojava.
Despite the US reluctance to support Kurdish independence in Iraq, US airstrikes began after what has been dubbed the “Sinjar Massacre” in early August when hundreds of Yezidi Kurds were slaughtered during an IS assault.
In light of the gross persecution of minority groups by IS, US President Barack Obama stated in early August that the US would use air power to assist trapped civilians and attack IS militants.
The Sept. 23 airstrikes came just five days after a large-scale IS assault on the Kurdish enclave of Kobane, the third largest autonomous Kurdish city in Syria. Since Sept. 18, IS militants have reportedly laid siege to the city by capturing over 60 surrounding villages and shutting off all water and electricity, which has forced 100,000 Syrian Kurds to flee to neighboring Turkey.
For IS, Kobane seems like an obvious choice; it is surrounded by IS enclaves in Tel Abyad to its north, Raqqa to its east, and Jarablus to its west, making it the most vulnerable area of Rojava to an IS offensive. At its crux, without capturing Kobane, IS cannot establish a bridge between its positions in Jarablus and Tel Abyad, a strategic component of its long-term strategy to establish a caliphate spanning the entirety of the Syrian-Turkish border.
Given that the United States intends to decapitate IS’ organizational infrastructure in Syria, preventing the fall of Kobane must be a vital objective. IS already controls most of the border crossings between Syria and Turkey, which it uses to transport fighters, armaments and black market oil. Thus the capture of Kobane would, in effect, help the militants operate freely throughout the region.
At the same time, more consolidated control over the border region would likely expand the group’s oil smuggling, currently estimated at $2 million to $6 million a day. This is one of the group’s principal sources of revenue, making IS the richest jihadist group in the world with an estimated net worth of $2 billion.
Among Kurds, Kobane has symbolic significance as it was the first Syrian Kurdish city to announce its de facto independence in July 2012.
Militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been fighting alongside Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) against IS militants for over a year. In fact, in July 2014, a joint YPG-PKK force successfully repelled a smaller IS assault on Kobane which included several tanks and trucks retrofitted with heavy artillery shells.
The rebel PKK group, which is outlawed in Turkey, has a long history in Kobane. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence for treason in Turkey, spent his first 40 days in exile in the Syrian city in July 1979, which has motivated thousands of youths from Kobane to join the PKK in the years since.
During a Sept. 19 press conference in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish Diyarbakir province, Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), called on young people to join Syrian Kurds in their defense of Kobane. The appeal, along with that of several other pro-Kurdish officials and PKK leaders, motivated several thousand Turkish Kurdish youths to head to Kobane over the past few days.
Additionally, in Iraq, Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani called for Kurdistan’s divided groups to set aside their differences and defend Kobane. The KRG’s Ministry of Peshmerga has further indicated its interest in assisting the YPG in Kobane. In this context, both YPG and PKK militants recently fought off several IS assaults in Sinjar (Shingal in Kurdish) and other areas in Nineveh province, helping to bolster the defense of the KRG’s borders.
Furthermore, despite longstanding conflicts between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the leading party in the KRG, and the PKK, it would not be surprising if the KRG’s Peshmerga forces join the counter-offensive to defend Kobane, especially given that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), another influential party within the KRG, enjoys warmer relations with the PKK.
Ultimately, the IS threat in Kobane will lead to increased military cooperation among the region’s Kurdish communities, a union which, combined with US air support, has already helped defend the KRG from falling into the hands of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his balaclava-clad cadres of radicalized militants. Because the Kurds have the ability to combat IS on both the eastern and western fronts of the battlefield, their strategic geographic advantage could effectively net a similar result in Syria.
Given the odds that the YPG could in turn bolster its border defenses and potentially crack down on IS’ large network of smuggling routes along the Turkish border with the help of US airstrikes, it’s clear that the US should maintain a clear focus on targeting IS militants currently involved in the battle for Kobane.
While Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim, the de facto leader of Rojava, has already applauded the airstrikes and expressed interest in coordinating with the US military, the US has yet to issue a definitive response to Muslim’s invitation.
Given that the IS assault on Kobane created a massive humanitarian crisis, all eyes will be focused on the Syrian Kurdish city over the coming days. As international concern skyrockets, the US will likely be forced to respond in kind.
Benjamin T. Decker is a Tel Aviv-based geopolitical security analyst.