What led to the battle for Kobanê?

November 6, 2014

Yusef Khalil explains the complex backdrop to the war over a city in northern Syria.

KOBANÊ, A town in northern Syria on the border of Turkey, was not expected to survive an assault by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) this summer. But the majority Kurdish population put up a heroic defense, and that got the attention of the world.

The battle is not over. Some 200,000 people have fled from neighboring areas as ISIS continues its assault on Kobanê and the surrounding region. The town's defenders from the Kurdish People's Protection Unit (YPG) and brigades of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)--fighting alone at first, and reinforced only recently by reported U.S. air drops of weapons and the arrival of soldiers from the Kurdish peshmerga militia in northern Iraq--have managed to hold back ISIS.

All this comes after weeks and months of ISIS's seemingly unstoppable advance. In northern and western Iraq, starting this summer, ISIS fighters captured Mosul; attacked the Yazidi minority, forcing them to flee their homes; came within a dozen miles of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan; and reportedly took control of territory to the west of the capital of Baghdad. In Syria, ISIS has maintained its base in the west of the country, and continued attacks in regions along Syria's northern border with Turkey, including the predominantly Kurdish area where Kobanê lies.

Fighters against ISIS in Kobanê
Fighters against ISIS in Kobanê

The actions of ISIS in areas that come under its control are oppressive and horrifying. The extreme Sunni fundamentalists institute dress codes for women, segregate schools between men and women, enslave those they conquer, and ban smoking and music. Any opposition, by Sunnis or non-Sunnis, is met with arrest, torture and execution, including crucifixions and beheadings. On several occasions, ISIS fighters have murdered hundreds of members of a tribe that stood up to them.

To listen to the mainstream media, though, you'd get the impression that ISIS swept through the area out of the blue--emerging full-blown as the greatest terrorist threat the world has ever seen. Beating the drums of war, the corporate media and the U.S. government portray ISIS as leaving a wake of destruction in its path, while headed towards an American city near you.

UNDER THE guise of humanitarian intervention, another war has been launched by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama. And of course, what better way to sell a war than whipping up Islamophobic hysteria. The propaganda campaign has been successful in convincing seven in 10 Americans that ISIS is an imminent threat to the U.S., according to a September opinion poll.

It's important to underline that ISIS is not a made-up threat. It may not be threat to Americans living in the U.S., but it is certainly is one for Syrians and Iraqis, from every religion and ethnic group.

But why does the U.S. care? Its actions prove the U.S. government isn't concerned with the welfare of the people of the Middle East, whether women or Kurds, or any other oppressed group. Washington only cares about remaining the hegemonic power in that part of the world--which has 75 percent of the proven oil reserves on Earth. But that would be a lousy campaign slogan.

The U.S. has, in fact, spent decades defending its interests by propping up dictatorships and intervening in the Middle East to maintain its top-dog position.

The violence that the U.S. and its allies have inflicted on the people of the Middle East is on a much grander scale than ISIS. Expelling populations, bombing civilians, laying siege to cities, beheadings, extrajudicial killing and every other atrocity that ISIS has committed has a historical precedent--often continuing to this day--that the U.S. is responsible for.

The creation of Israel, the U.S.'s staunchest ally in the Middle East, rests on the expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948. Today, more than 5 million Palestinians aren't allowed back to their land and live in exile. This past summer alone, Israel killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, including more than 500 children. But the U.S. didn't bat an eye--in fact, Washington supplied the weapons for this massacre.

Saudi Arabia has beheaded dozens of people this year in public executions. The regime enforces a similar hardline interpretation of Islam as ISIS. But that's okay, because the Saudi monarchy is another pillar of U.S. dominance in the Middle East.

Direct U.S. intervention stretches back decades, but for the sake of this article, let's start with the 1991 invasion of Iraq, which killed over 100,000 people in all. That was followed by economic sanctions that prevented most imports into Iraq, causing a spike in poverty and malnutrition and leading to the preventable deaths of 500,000 children under the age of 5, according to United Nations statistics. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's Secretary of State at the time, acknowledged this number and famously said "the price is worth it."

By the time 2003 rolled around, Iraq was a broken country, already destroyed by the United States. But that wasn't enough for Washington. Intent on reshaping the Middle East as part of its "war on terror" launched after the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration made the case for another war on Iraq. It was based on lies--about having weapons of mass destruction, and about its ties to al-Qaeda and the September 11 attacks, and so on.

None of this was true. Al-Qaeda appeared in Iraq only after the 2003 invasion as a resistance to the U.S. occupation developed.

IN ORDER to understand ISIS, we need to understand where it came from. It didn't emerge out of nowhere one day to declare an Islamic state and go on a beheading spree. ISIS is well-organized, with a strategic plan--and it was able to grow because of conditions in the region that U.S. imperialism is responsible for.

Those conditions can be traced back to the CIA's training of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a guerilla army against the invasion of the former Soviet Union. Many of al-Qaeda's leaders and fighters, including Osama bin Laden, first emerged into public view in that era.

Fast forward to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Invasions by foreign forces always breed a local resistance, and so it was in Iraq. The forces resisting the U.S. occupation came from across the board. The U.S. responded with the time-honored colonial tradition of divide and conquer--most of all to drive a wedge between Sunnis and Shiites, the two largest communities in Iraq, and head off the threat of a united resistance.

The unleashing of sectarian conflict allowed sectarian groups to flourish. It wasn't until 2004 that one of those groups, under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, affiliated with al-Qaeda and became al-Qaedi in Iraq (AQI). This group fought against U.S. occupation forces, but also targeted Shiites ruthlessly.

AQI also managed to recruit and grow because of the U.S. policy of de-Baathification. After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the U.S. occupiers criminalized membership in Hussein's ruling Baath Party, which effectively meant firing many Sunni public-sector employees who had joined the Baath Party to get a job.

Thus, a large section of Sunnis were excluded from employment and participation in government in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. Likewise, large numbers of discharged personnel of the Iraqi armed forces, including high-ranking officers, joined the resistance, and many joined or allied with AQI.

At the same time, the U.S. was encouraging the creation of Shiite militias and incorporating them into the rebuilt national Army and police--basically turning these into sectarian institutions dominated by Shia.

The stage was set for a period of civil war and ethnic cleansing, as the sectarian Shiite-dominated government became more entrenched, and entire neighborhoods in the capital of Baghdad became segregated.

At the end of this process, the U.S. ended up having to withdraw its combat forces from Iraq in 2011, while Shiite parties with close ties to Iran held onto power. This was a setback for U.S. plans in Iraq--Iran appeared to be the main beneficiary of the U.S. invasion and occupation.

BUT 2011 was also the year of the Arab uprisings. After decades of living under repressive regimes, the Arab masses rose up against hated dictatorships and the neoliberal economic policies that have hurt the living conditions of most of the population--conditions which are the inevitable result of capitalist development and imperialist relations in the Middle East and North Africa.

In his book Lineages of Revolt, Adam Hanieh brilliantly explains why totalitarianism and the repression of political freedoms in the Arab world aren't an aberration in an otherwise peacefully developing capitalism. On the contrary, international capital required the creation of and support for autocratic regimes that would push through the transformation of these economies and the adoption of policies that would have been rejected wholesale in a true democracy.

Thus, what might have appeared primarily to be movements for political freedom--while important in their own right--are actually challenging a cornserstone of capitalism itself and the regional and international power structure that uphold it.

It didn't matter if the ruling class was a Western ally or an "opponent" of the U.S.--the Arab uprisings swept through North Africa and the Middle East, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, to Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. From the point of view of the U.S. and its allies among the Gulf monarchies and the other despots, this revolutionary wave had to be stopped.

The ruling classes struck back with a two-pronged regional counter-revolution. On the one hand, there was direct military repression--as in the case of Saudi Arabia sending troops into Bahrain to crush the uprising there and save the Bahraini ruling family.

On the other hand, ruling classes of the region whipped up sectarianism, with the aim of shifting the revolutions from being masses of people versus the dictatorship, to being dictatorships versus Islamic extremists or Sunnis versus Shiites.

THE COUNTERREVOLUTION in Syria was the bloodiest among the Arab uprisings.

The dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad immediately escalated the violence against peaceful protesters, detaining, torturing and killing them. Regime forces specifically targeted youth leaders, especially those who were reaching out across sectarian lines and who had a progressive vision for Syria. Some of the earliest chants in the Syrian revolution were "One, one, one, the Syrian people are one" and "Muslims and Christians are one." Others appealed to Kurds and Alawites to join the uprising.

At the same time, the government released some 1,000 jihadist extremists from prison in an attempt to shift the balance of forces within the revolution, so it could paint the uprising as the work of Sunni terrorists. The regime also sent its armed forces and sectarian militias on a rampage across Syria, and later unleashed its air force to bomb heavily populated civilian areas that dared to defy it.

Faced with the heavy-handed military response of the Assad regime, the Syrian revolution was forced to arm itself. The regime's militarization of the conflict is what invited international intervention--not just by the U.S. and Gulf monarchies, who were looking for a way to interfere with the revolutionary wave, but Russia and Iran, which provided Assad with weapons, ammunition and boots on the ground.

In this context, the U.S. attempted to strike a delicate balance. It didn't want the Syrian regime to win because that would strengthen Russia and Iran, but it also didn't want the Syrian Revolution to wipe out the regime and inspire similar uprisings in other countries, especially the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf.

So the U.S. limited the kinds of weapons it allowed to into Syria from Turkey. It interfered with arms supplies to the Free Syrian Army, blocking heavy weapons like anti-aircraft missiles and heavy guns. At the same time, sections of the Gulf bourgeoisie--sometimes in opposition to the ruling families--heavily funded Islamist militias in Syria, including ISIS.

This caused a mess for the groups that were attempting to mount an armed defense of the Syrian revolution. Some attempted to tailor their ideologies to their sponsors, and religious sectarian groups grew and attracted more fighters, because of their better access to funds and arms.

This situation created the opportunity for the remains of al-Qaeda in Iraq--now existing among the Iraqi refugees who had fled to Syria--to form the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

After gaining a foothold in Syria, ISIS moved back into Iraq, taking advantage of Sunni discontent against the sectarian Iraqi government. This summer, ISIS fighters won control over large swaths of Iraq--in the process capturing millions of dollars worth of U.S. military equipment abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi Army. These weapons were then used in other ISIS operations, including the takeover of more cities in Syria.

During that process, ISIS did what the Assad regime couldn't. It crushed the revolutionary movement in parts of Syria that had been liberated from the dictatorship. These large territories outside the central government's control had seen burgeoning examples of self-governance, with revolutionary councils and local committees taking over the task of organizing villages, towns and cities on a local level.

ISIS targeted bases of the revolution and set out to destroy them. In return, the regime didn't bomb well-known ISIS locations, buildings, headquarters and training camps.

It has been left to the Syrian revolutionaries to resist ISIS and protect their revolution. For many months, there have been pitched battles and different kinds of grassroots organizing in cities like Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. You wouldn't know it from the media's coverage, but the resistance to ISIS did not start just a few weeks ago with the battle for Kobanê.

This reality is hard to acknowledge for Stalinist supporters of the Assad regime who have opposed the Syrian revolution. For them, the priority is a geopolitical calculation--taking a side between warring imperialisms from above, instead of siding with the oppressed masses rising up from below. These forces also believe the Assad regime's hype that it supports Palestinian liberation and is leading a resistance against Israel and Western imperialism--despite the regime's bloody, decades-long record of attacking Palestinians and destroying their independent organizations.

THE EXAMPLES of Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Manbij are just three examples among many of popular self-organization through local councils and direct democracy. They were short-lived because they were isolated and attacked by both regime forces and ISIS.

In the majority Kurdish regions in northern Syria, however, the regime withdrew, hoping to keep the Kurds out of the revolution. Kurdish forces thus had the time and space to build a political project and vision, which other Syrians weren't allowed to do.

As Joseph Daher, a member of the Revolutionary Left Current in Syria, explained at his Syria Freedom Forever blog:

The autonomous self-administration of Rojava [the name for the Kurdish region inside Syria] is a direct and positive result of the Syrian revolution and would never have been allowed or able to exist without the popular and massive movement from below of the Syrian people (Arabs, Kurds and Assyrian together) against the criminal and authoritarian Assad regime.

These same popular forces also united against the Islamic reactionary forces that attacked in the past and continue to attack the Rojava regions. Today, the FSA and Kurdish forces are fighting side by side against ISIS in Kobanê, while we have also seen demonstrations of support in other liberated areas of Syria in solidarity with Kobanê

The revolution from below of the popular masses of Syria, Arab and Kurds, is the only solution against sectarianism, racism and national chauvinism.

This is what the Kurdish fighters were defending from the ISIS assault. But they faced obstacles from the U.S. and especially its allies. According to reports, Turkey had been allowing passage for ISIS fighters and weapons to cross the border into Syria--but with the battle for Kobanê underway, it blocked Kurds who massed on the Turkish side of the border, ready to join the defense of the city just a few miles into Syria. Even FSA units and Arab fighters in and around Kobanê weren't allowed arms because they were helping defend Kurdish areas.

In fact, even as the battle raged in Syria, the Turkish bombed Kurdish positions inside Turkey. The main Kurdish party in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has close ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. The Turkish military had carried out a decades-long campaign to destroy the PKK and deny Kurds their right to self-determination within Turkey.

As for the U.S., it expanded its air war against ISIS into Syria in September--but when Kobanê came under assault, it was willing to let the Kurdish city fall because, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, it wasn't a "strategic objective." The main focus of the U.S. bombings against ISIS positions was in Iraq, where Western companies have billions of dollars in investments in oil refineries and similar projects threatened by ISIS.

It was days before Turkey eased its blockade and the U.S. increased air strikes against ISIS positions in northern Syria.

FIGHTERS ON the ground in Kobanê played the major role in repelling the ISIS offensive. But even so, the U.S. air war, whatever role it played in defending the Kurdish town, is bad news for the Syrian revolution and for Kurdish self-determination, because the two are intertwined.

In reality, Assad's regime welcomed the U.S. expansion of its war on ISIS into Syria. The government sought to take advantage by escalating its war on territory held by revolutionaries. The regime was bombing the same forces targeted by ISIS while sharing airspace with aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition.

Not only are the U.S. air strikes killing Syrians--with people confused as to who is dropping bombs on them--but they are also destroying vital infrastructure, such as grain silos and energy plants.

According to Yasser Munif, a scholar and co-founder of the Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, who has visited northern Syria frequently since the uprising against Assad and witnessed the people's day-to-day struggles for self-organization:

The grain silos that the U.S. [bombed] were the flagship of Manbij [in northern Syria]. The regime never dared to attack them, nor did ISIS when it seized the city in January 2014. The workers were constantly threatened by FSA groups, Ahrar al Sham and, more recently, by ISIS, because they refused to work under military pressure. When Ahrar al Sham sent its fighters and took the silos from the revolutionary council, the entire city rose up and took them back.

When ISIS first controlled them, the employees stopped working and asked ISIS to remove its fighters from the silos. The U.S. air strikes killed people who abhorred ISIS... they destroyed part of the silos that were feeding more than 1 million Syrians!

For opponents of war and injustice in the U.S., being against the U.S.-led war on ISIS is not enough. We cannot be silent about the crimes of the Assad dictatorship, which is responsible for the deaths of 200,000 Syrians.

We are not only antiwar, but we are against the whole regional order that enables the U.S., Russia, China and all the dictatorships to repress the people of the Middle East and North Africa. And we are against the sectarian poison spread in different ways by all sides in the conflict.

There is no lesser evil here. All are complicit. We can't side with a dictatorship against ISIS or the U.S.. And we can't side with imperialism against the dictatorship or against ISIS. Nor with ISIS against the dictatorship.

We are for the unity of the Arab masses against their ruling classes--all of them--and their ability to overcome sectarianism through a joint struggle.

We can be critical of aspects of the struggle and the decisions of different organizations involved. After all, there is a lot at stake. But we do this while giving our unconditional solidarity to the struggle of people rising up to free themselves after decades of repression.

The cry for freedom, dignity and social justice that drove the Arab uprisings in 2011 can still be heard. The conditions for that and future revolts are still there. Things may be bad for some time, but there is no greater force than the united struggle of millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa--to lead to the kind of revolutionary transformation necessary to defeat sectarianism, and the ruling classes and imperial powers that enable it.

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