Kobane Battle Kills Scores of Foreign Fighters, Leaves ‘Massive Destruction’

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Kurdish people hold a picture of a female fighter during a celebration rally near the Turkish-Syrian border at Suruc, in Sanliurfa province on January 27, 2015, who was killed in conflict with ISIS militants in Kobane. AFP/Bulent Kilic

Published Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Large numbers of foreign fighters are among the jihadists killed in the battle for the Syrian town of Kobane, a senior US official said Tuesday, saying the concerted campaign was halting the militants' march.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) announced the "liberation" of Kobane on Monday from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist group which seemed poised to seize the town after it began its advance on September 16.

Analysts say the loss of Kobane is both a symbolic and strategic blow for ISIS, which set its sights on the small town in a bid to cement its control over a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border.

"Despite all that manpower, all that sophisticated weaponry, ISIS couldn't get the city, so it's a big blow for their plans and it's a great achievement for the Kurds," said Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu.

"Our forces fulfilled the promise of victory," the YPG said, cautioning that fighting was not over yet.

"The process to ultimately liberate Kobane canton (region) is ahead of us. We pledge that we will successfully carry out this promise as well," the group added.

The United States said Kurdish fighters are now in control of about 90 percent of the town on the Syrian-Turkish border.

"ISIL now, whether on order or whether they are breaking ranks, is beginning to withdraw from the town," a senior State Department official told reporters, using another acronym for ISIS.

But he warned that the militants were "adaptive and resilient" and no one was declaring "mission accomplished" yet.

The US and some 60 coalition partners is engaged in the "first phase of a multi-year campaign," he stressed.

Many critics doubted the effectiveness of the US-led air campaign in Syria and Iraq, which Washington claims aims to degrade ISIS' military capability.

In an interview with Foreign Affairs magazine on Monday, Syria President Bashar al-Assad criticized the efforts of the US-led coalition in Kobane.

“Kobane is a small city, with about 50,000 inhabitants. It’s been more than three months since the beginning of the attacks, and they haven’t finished. Same areas, same al Qaeda factions occupying them — the Syrian army liberated in less than three weeks. It means they’re not serious about fighting terrorism,” Assad, whose army has been fighting ISIS and other armed groups in Syria for four years, said.

Similarly in Iraq, the Pentagon said Monday that ISIS has lost only one percent of the territory it captured in Iraq since the US-led coalition began launching air raids in Iraq in August.

But a victory in Kobane was an important milestone in trying to change the narrative of the militants, who have attracted thousands of foreign fighters to their ranks, mostly disaffected youth drawn by the promise of adventure.

ISIS had poured some of its best foreign fighters into Kobane, the State Department official said, but in the last six weeks the losses had begun to cause splits in the ranks.

Observers say ISIS lost nearly 1,200 fighters in the battle, of a total of 1,800 killed, despite outgunning YPG forces with sophisticated weaponry captured from Iraqi and Syrian military bases.

"We don't get into body counts, but it's in the four figures in terms of the overall number of ISIL fighters that have been killed," the State Department official confirmed.

Many foreign fighters — many of them Australians, Belgians, Canadians and Chechens — were among them, he said, refusing to give exact figures other than to say "it was hugely, hugely significant."

"The entire notion of this organization which is on the march, inevitable expansion, (its) overall momentum has been halted at Kobane," he added.

With the eyes of the international media watching the militants "wanted to raise the largest flag they ever made over Kobane," the US official said.

"Kobane shows that you're not going to be part of something great .. so the whole narrative that [ISIS] is trying to put out, Kobane really puts a dent in it,” he added.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters continued to battle ISIS in villages around Kobane, both to the southeast and the southwest, a day after expelling the jihadists from the strategic Syrian town, as thousands of residents who fled across the frontier into Turkey gathered at the border hoping to return, more than four months after the fighting began.

The town's recapture marked a key symbolic and strategic blow against ISIS, but officials warned massive reconstruction was needed and the fight would continue for the surrounding villages.

In Turkey, thousands of Kurds among the 200,000 who fled Kobane and the surrounding area, flocked to the border.

Most went to celebrate, but some tried to cross the frontier, which remains officially closed.

Turkish security forces used tear gas and water cannon to push back those who approached the barbed wire separating the two countries.

Only a handful of people were able to cross, including Idris Nassan, deputy foreign minister for the Kobane regional government.

"People are very glad. They are celebrating. Morale is very high," he told AFP from the town.

He said the regional government was urging residents not to return yet.

"There is massive destruction. At least 50 percent of the city is destroyed," he said.

"We are asking them to wait and not come immediately because we don't have basic necessities for them. There is no food, no medicine. We don't have electricity or water," he added.

Nassan said the regional government would now appeal to the international community for help.

"We need aid. We need experts for reconstruction. We also need weaponry to continue to fight," he said, adding "this is the first stage, the liberation of Kobane. The next stage is the liberation of the villages."

Turkey fears Kurdish expansion

As the Kurdish militia raised their flags over Kobane, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country opposed the idea of a Kurdish-controlled autonomous government in northern Syria.

"We do not want a new Iraq. What's this? Northern Iraq," Erdogan told Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper.

"A northern Syria there after northern Iraq... It is not possible for us to accept this," he said.

A Kurdish expansion on the southern Turkish borders doesn’t bode well with Ankara.

Turkey, however, has turned a blind eye when scores of ISIS jihadists crossed its borders into Iraq and Syria, as the extremist group set its sights to establish a “caliphate” over a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish and Iraqi-Turkish borders.

Damascus has repeatedly accused Turkey of harboring, financing, training, and arming militants since violence erupted in March 2011.

In October, a foreign Islamist fighter who joined the Syrian rebel ranks in 2012 told Reuters that the Turkish borders “were wide open” and armed rebels “used to get in and out of Turkey very easily. No questions were asked. Arms shipments were smuggled easily into Syria.”

Erdogan’s government denies all accusations.

Since ISIS emerged in its current form in 2013, it has captured large swathes of territory in northern Syria and Iraq.

It has declared an Islamic "caliphate" in territory under its control, and gained a reputation for brutality, including executions and torture.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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