Siege of Kobanî (September 27, 2014–January 26, 2015)

YPJ fighters in Kobanî’s outskirts

YPG fighters raise their flag over the town

A map showing the progression of the siege of Kobanî, from October 2014 to January 2015

The siege of Kobanî, during September 27, 2014–January 26, 2015, was a key battle in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). After having already taken much of northern Syria in the ongoing Civil War there (2011 to the present) and most of Anbar Province in Iraq in which it had displaced a half million Iraqis, in early June 2014 ISIS launched a major offensive in northern Iraq. ISIS fighters seized Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul and also captured Tikrit, displacing another half million Iraqis, then advanced south toward Baghdad. By June 22, they were only some 60 miles from the Iraqi capital city. These territorial acquisitions accompanied by widespread ISIS atrocities—including the summary execution of non-Muslims refusing to convert to Islam, the raping and enslavement of women, and the beheading of hostages—prompted the formation of a broad-based international coalition headed by the United States to defeat and indeed destroy ISIS.

Then beginning on September 17, ISIS launched a major offensive to capture the important largely Kurdish town of Kobanî (also known as Kobanê or Ayn al-Arab), located in northern Syria on the border with Turkey and a major crossing points into that country. The ISIS offensive included tanks and artillery. By the beginning of October, ISIS fighters had taken some 350 Kurdish villages and towns in the Kobanî vicinity; displaced some 150,000 Kurds, most of whom sought refuge in Turkey; and were attacking Kobanî itself.

This presented the Turkish government with a dilemma, and on September 30 Turkish soldiers and tanks took up position along the border with Syria as the government debated whether to intervene militarily. Meanwhile, on September 27, U.S. and coalition air strikes targeted ISIS positions near Kobanî for the first time.

On October 2, the Turkish parliament voted 298–98 to authorize military force against ISIS. Although Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been outspoken in his insistence that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must be removed from power and had urged the establishment of a no-fly zone over portions of Syria, he was also reluctant to intervene in Kobanî. With Turkish tanks and troops remaining in place, on October 8, ISIS fighters commenced a siege of Kobanî.

Turkey’s failure to act brought rioting by that country’s Kurdish minority, in which at least nine protests, organized in part by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, occurred across Turkey and in several foreign cities. Since 1984 some 40,000 people had been killed in clashes between Turkish government forces and its Kurdish minority, led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which sought greater rights for the Kurds. In March 2013, however, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan had called for a cease-fire, and PPK fighters had withdrawn to the Iraqi mountains and the beginnings of a peace process had emerged. The Turkish failure to intervene to aid Kobanî, and indeed its turning back of Turkish Kurds wanting to fight for the city, fueled Kurdish anger anew. Ankara feared the establishment of an independent radical Kurdish state that would seek a larger Kurdistan to include the Kurdish portions of Turkey. Nonetheless, in a statement from prison, Ocalan warned that “the reality of Kobanî and the peace process are not separable.” On October 12, however, Ankara announced it would permit the United States and other coalition forces battling militants in Syria and Iraq to use some of its bases, which would make it easier for coalition air forces to assist the Kobanî defenders. However, the next day, Turkish warplanes attacked not Kobanî but PKK positions in southeastern Turkey.

Meanwhile, the battle for Kobanî raged on and intensified as the United States and other coalition forces continued air strikes in support of the Kurds. If ISIS were to capture Kobanî, it would control three official border crossings between Turkey and Syria and some 60 miles of their common frontier.

On October 19, for the first time in the coalition campaign against ISIS, U.S. military aircraft airdropped weapons provided by the Iraqi government to the Kurdish fighters in Kobanî as well as ammunition and medical supplies. Then the next day the Turkish government announced that it would allow some Kurds to cross the Turkish border into Syria to join the fight for Kobanî, but only those from Kurdistan and not those from Turkey itself. This decision opened a corridor to Syria for the Peshmerga fighters. The semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan was one of Turkey’s major security allies and a principal exporter of oil to Turkey. Indeed, in June Turkey signed a 50-year energy pact with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Iraqi Kurdistan had also been at odds with the PKK and its affiliates in Syria.

The struggle for control of Kobanî raged on but by mid-January 2015, the national army of Syrian Kurdistan, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), supported by the Peshmerga, other Kurdish volunteers, and members of the FSA, had turned back a number of ISIS assaults.

Finally, on January 26, 2015, the YPG and its allied fighters drove the last ISIS units from the city. The Battle of Kobanî reportedly resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 ISIS fighters and 324 YPG, as well as 12 allied rebels. Reportedly hundreds of other ISIS militants died in the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on the city and surrounding countryside.

For some time thereafter, however, most of the villages in the Kobanî Canton remained under ISIS control. Kurdish forces supported by allied Arab armed groups and aided by coalition air strikes, then made rapid advances. By early February, ISIS fighters had been driven some 15 miles from the city and by the end of April almost all of the villages in the canton captured earlier by ISIS had been retaken. Although the fight against ISIS continues, the Battle of Kobanî is considered by many analysts to have been a turning point in the fight against the Islamic State.

In late June 2015, ISIS again attacked Kobanî, killing some 233 civilians.

Further Reading

Abdulrahim, Raja. “Islamic State, Rival Al Nusra Front Each Strengthen Grip on Syria.” Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2014.

Cloud, David, and Brian Bennetan. “U.S., Allies Rush Heavy Weapons to Kurds to Fight Militants in Iraq.” Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2014.

Khalilzad, Zalmay. “To Fight the Islamic State, Kurdish and Iraqi Forces Need Expedited Aid.” Washington Post, August 13, 2014.

“La France renforce son dispositif militaire en Irak avec trois Rafale.” Le Monde, October 8, 2014.

“Military Airstrikes Continue Against ISIL in Syria and Iraq Supporting Operation Inherent Resolve.” U.S. Central Command, January 14, 2015.

Rush, James. “Isis Air Strikes: US Brings in Apache Helicopters as British Jets Target Militants in Iraq.” The Independent, October 8, 2014.