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Kurdish Stalingrad: The Origins of the US-YPG Battle Synergy

Back in September 2014, an invasion by ISIS and subsequent months of battle reduced the Syrian city of Kobane – once thriving with bustling markets where civilians would gather to buy vegetables and exchange gossip – to a desolate wasteland. For months thereafter the empty, bomb-blackened streets, lined with the wreckage of pockmarked buildings and burned-out cars, served as a poignant reminder of the heavy toll the Kurds of Kobane had paid in their resistance to the jihadi invaders. But little by little the city came back to life as many of Kobane’s proud residents returned home, cleaned the streets, reopened shops, and did all they could to prompt a return to normalcy. By January 2017, from the ruins of Kobane emerged a new falafel shop with a curious name – Trump Restaurant. 

A Syrian Kurd named Walid Shekhi decided to open Trump Restaurant in central Kobane because he wanted to show his appreciation for the United States’ role in rescuing his cherished hometown from ISIS’s barbaric atavism. It did not matter to Mr. Shekhi that Kobane was liberated under the Obama administration’s watch; Trump had already been elected by the time he opened the restaurant, and he had no interest in the United States’ domestic political landscape. “We Kurds love the United States, so we love Donald Trump,” he said. “That’s why I named my restaurant after him.”

Mr. Shehki’s love for the United States is neither anomalous nor insignificant, as the story of the liberation of his hometown also happens to be the origin story of the American-Kurdish battle synergy that ultimately deprived the ISIS terrorists of their territorial caliphate in Syria. Kobane quickly became a symbol of Kurdish resistance and, after liberating the embattle city from the jihadists’ tyrannical grip in early 2015, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) would serve as the tip of the spear in America’s war on ISIS – carrying out crucial ground operations with the help of US-provided weapons, ammunition replenishments, training and logistical support, as well as coordinated airstrikes. 

That is, until Trump’s abrupt announcement earlier this month of an ill-planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria which paved the way for a Turkish cross-border military operation targeting Kurdish-controlled areas. NATO ally Turkey, which makes no distinction between the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a terrorist organization which has waged an on-again, off-again insurgency against the Turkish state since the 1980s– now threatens the very existence of the Kurds as it continues its widely condemned incursion across its southern border into Kurdish territory. 

The Kurdish YPG fighters were left to confront the second largest military in NATO without US support. As Kurdish civilians flee to safety from places like Kobane and YPG fighters launch a futile attempt to repel the better resourced and militarily superior Turkish forces, the desperate Kurds appear to be striking a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin that will provide them much-needed protection. Russian troops have already begun occupying abandoned American outposts and, as of October 18, images emerged of Assad-backed forces arriving in the Kobane area, triumphantly holding up images of Assad and replacing Kurdish flags with Syrian flags.

After so much success fighting alongside the United States, not to mention vital intelligence obtained on how Americans overtly and covertly conduct unconventional warfare, it is unfortunate to see the Kurds left with no choice but to turn toward America’s geopolitical adversaries for help. 

Trump never misses an opportunity to take credit for defeating ISIS – which, of course, is not actually defeated – recently claiming: “We were the ones that took care of [ISIS], specifically me because I’m the one that gave the order.” Such grandiose claims obfuscate the reality that it was the Kurds on the ground doing the majority of fighting and dying against ISIS. The American president would be wise to familiarize himself with the recent history that led to the small falafel shop in central Kobane that bears his name.

The Story of Kobane

In the fall of 2014, after conquering one third of Iraq and Syria with astonishing ease, ISIS set its sights on the inconspicuous border town of Kobane. The city’s conquest would have important strategic implications, as ISIS would gain control of a large uninterrupted section of the Turkish border, allowing the terrorists to expand supply routes and open the floodgates to thousands of fanatic militants. But Kobane’s defenders, a brave contingent of outnumbered, outgunned Kurdish fighters from the YPG refused to cower in fear. As al-Baghdadi’s genocidal terrorist army surged toward them, YPG spokesman Polat Can explained their willingness to die for Kobane: “We will resist to our last drop of blood together… If necessary we will repeat the Stalingrad resistance.” 

But as the Kurds fortified their positions and dug in to defend their hometown, ISIS’s strategic and tactical military prowess began to show. ISIS fighters systematically surrounded the city and methodically probed the outer lines of the besieged defenders from the west in the town of Jarabulus, the south near Sarrin, and the east near Tal Abyad – rapidly advancing on all three fronts and tightening the proverbial noose around the neck of Kobane. Tragically, the Kurds, whose national motto is “no friends but the mountains,” felt they had found themselves isolated and abandoned by an uncaring world.

Support came in late September, however, when the US-led coalition responded to the Kurds’ pleas for assistance and began launching merciless precision strikes on ISIS targets that had been identified on the ground by US-trained Kurdish air controllers. While the airstrikes slowed ISIS’s crushing offensive, the jihadi militants adjusted by setting infrastructure aflame to obscure the American air armada’s vision with towers of black smoke. ISIS then managed to press forward and it was not long until the infamous Black Banner was planted on a building in southern Kobane, marking the terrorists’ official penetration of the border town. Kurdish forces then declared the city a military area; all civilians were asked to leave immediately. Those who stayed prepared for a fight to the death. 

Once in the city composed of slim, meandering streets and winding alleys, ISIS’s reliance on brute force and heavy weaponry such as tanks proved to be more of a burden than an advantage. Equipped with an intimate familiarity of the terrain in Kobane, the YPG soldiers moved like ghosts as they bedeviled their fanatical foes with creative defense tactics such as ambushes and traps. But the waves of ISIS fighters never stopped coming, and the Kurds were soon low in weapons and ammunition. Impressed by their extraordinary resilience, the US military decided to intensify its support and airdropped much-needed weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies to the Kurds. American support breathed new life into the Kurds who were suddenly ready fight on with even greater speed and intensity.

By late October, as US air power cleared their way by engulfing ISIS positions in a storm of explosive rain, approximately 150 Iraqi peshmerga troops crossed the Turkish border into Syria to help their ethnic brothers and sisters liberate Kobane. Also at this time, YPG forces were further boosted by an influx of as many as 200 battle-hardened Syrian Arab rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an amalgamation of Arab Sunni rebel groups who, at this time, were known more for their opposition to the Assad regime. With the United States continuing its vital air support, the American-Kurdish-Arab troika conducted relentless joint operations against ISIS until the jihadi invaders had no choice but to retreat. The Kurds spent the next couple of months recapturing building after building, street after street, and village after village. 

By January 2015, ISIS officially acknowledged for the first time since the group rose to power that it had been defeated. In a video released by the pro-ISIS Aamaq News Agency, ISIS fighters cited US-coalition airstrikes as the primary reason for the defeat and downplayed the role of the Kurds, whom they referred to as “rats.” As the Kurds picked through the rubble of Kobane and assessed the damage incurred in battle, they reveled in their victory. “It is great to have beaten Daesh,” explained a Kurdish fighter from the YPG, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “But it would not have been possible without America and the peshmerga.”

Remember Kobane

The liberation of Kobane vividly illustrates not only the Kurds’ ability to repel ISIS, but also the remarkable synergy between the United States and the YPG.  This special relationship was ultimately what crumbled the ISIS caliphate and has since been vital in ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS. The YPG has been working directly with U.S Special Operations forces in mop-up operations in northeastern Syria – gathering intelligence, tracking ISIS movements, disrupting its networks, and targeting its leadership as the jihadists revert to underground insurgency mode. 

The Kurds have served reliably for five years as America’s primary boots-on-the-ground ally in Syria when it comes to the bloody battle against ISIS, having lost approximately 11,000 lives in the process. They simply deserve better than abandonment in the face of a Turkish threat. 

One thing is for sure: everyone at Trump Restaurant in Kobane will be counting on the American leader to reverse course and continue his support. It would really be a shame to see the name of the falafel shop changed to Putin Restaurant or, even worse, destroyed entirely by Turkish-backed invaders.