After about four months of fighting ISIS was defeated in the Kurdish city of Kobanî (Ayn al-Arab) in northern Syria. It was the worst blow dealt to ISIS since the beginning of the American and coalition campaign against it.

Issued on: 08/02/2015 Type: Article –Overview1.   On January 30, 2015, ISIS issued a video in which it admitted, for the first time, that its fighters had retreated from Kobanî (Ayn al-Arab) in northern Syria, and that control of the city had been retaken by the Kurdish forces. Two operatives who fought in Kobanî admitted that ISIS forces had retreated from the city. They claimed (for propaganda reasons) it was not a defeat in the campaign but rather a retreat carried out because of the coalition force airstrikes (Aamaq News Agency, January 31, 2015). According to media reports ISIS began retreating from dozens of villages in the rural area surrounding Kobanî it had taken control of in the summer of 2014. The coalition airstrikes on ISIS targets in the region continue.

2.   The ISIS campaign on Kobanî’s surroundings began in the middle of September 2014. In order to take over the city ISIS concentrated a force of several thousand operatives with tank and artillery support. During the first stage ISIS took control of the rural region around the city. During the second stage (which began on October 7, 2014) ISIS forces succeeded in entering the city itself and took control of the eastern and southern suburbs. In the three following months fierce fighting developed in Kobanî, during which ISIS met with determined resistance from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which had aerial and logistic support from the United States and the international coalition.

3.   It was ISIS’s worst defeat since the American-led international coalition forces began the campaign declared by President Obama on September 10, 2014. The main cause of the defeat was ISIS’s difficulty in sustaining extended fighting in an urban setting against trained, highly-motivated Kurdish forces who were intimately familiar with the terrain and determined to defend it. The intensive American and coalition airstrikes also contributed greatly, but ISIS’s claim that the aerial attacks were the cause of its defeat in Kobanî isincorrect and intended to minimize the significance of the Kurdish forces and provide an excuse for the defeat. However, ISIS’s well-oiled propaganda machine has kept a low profileregarding Kobanî while it diverts attention to recent events elsewhere (the executions of the Japanese hostages and the immolation of the Jordanian pilot).

4.   The months of fighting turned Kobanî into a symbol, thus ISIS’s failure, after it had fostered an image of invincibility, is a severe blow to its prestige. Moreover, ISIS’s failure at Kobanî may have the following implications:

1)  ISIS failed its attempt to enforce its control over a wide swath of hundreds of kilometers along the Syrian-Turkish border, where three international border crossings are located (See map): Tel Abiad (under ISIS control), Jarabulus (under ISIS control) and Kobanî (controlled by both, currently under the control of the Kurdish forces). The victory can make it easier for the Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG) to preserve their connection with the Kurds in Turkey (PKK) and also possibly with the Peshmerga forces in Iraq (although the Turkish authorities can be expected to make such connections difficult to maintain).

 The border crossings between Turkey and Syria, from east to west: Qamishli, Ras al-Ayn, Tel Abiad, Ayn al-Arab, Jarabulus, Bab al-Salameh, Bab al-Hawa and Kasab ( Tel Abiad and Jarabulus (controlled by ISIS) and Kobanî (Ayn al-Arab) (currently controlled by the Kurds) are circled in red.
The border crossings between Turkey and Syria, from east to west: Qamishli, Ras al-Ayn, Tel Abiad, Ayn al-Arab, Jarabulus, Bab al-Salameh, Bab al-Hawa and Kasab ( Tel Abiad and Jarabulus (controlled by ISIS) and Kobanî (Ayn al-Arab) (currently controlled by the Kurds) are circled in red.

2)  The victory at Kobanî is a practical and morale-raising achievement for the Kurdish forces in Syria (YPG). It may encourage the separatist aspirations of the Syrian Kurds living mainly in northern and eastern Syria, and strengthen their resolve to establish an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. It can also raise the morale of the Kurds in Iraq fighting against ISIS. Thus it can be expected that the confrontations will become more intense between the YPG and ISIS in the areas where ISIS control interfaces with local Kurdish control in northern and eastern Syria (ISIS will probably seek to retaliate against the Kurds for the defeat suffered in Kobanî, and in the future may try to retake the city).

3)  ISIS’s failure to maintain control of Kobanî may have influence on other areas of conflict in Syria and Iraq where the coalition forces have successfully halted the momentum of ISIS attacks. The end of the Kobanî campaign will make it possible for the American and other coalition air forces to divert their efforts to other focal points of conflict and of ISIS control in Syria. Thus it can be assumed that ISIS’s many enemies in Syria and Iraq will be encouraged by the defeat in Kobanî and try to gain territorial control over other regions of battle. On the other hand, ISIS may try to concentrate on locations where it has identified its enemies’ weak spots to restore its damaged prestige and compensate for the defeat in Kobanî (following its retreat from Kobanî, ISIS now has available forces).

5.   An important lesson learned from ISIS’s failure in Kobanî is that airstrikes, regardless of how intensive they are, are not enough to win a campaign.[1] In the case of Kobanî, the combination of the high combat capabilities and determination of the Kurdish forces defending the city, along with the aerial and logistic support of the coalition, were what led to ISIS’s first defeat of such significance (as opposed to ISIS’s other successes, including the continuation of the flow of foreign fighters from and terrorist attacks in Western countries). The lesson learned about the need for skilled ground fighters in Kobanî is relevant to other areas in Syria and Iraq where the international coalition is fighting ISIS.

6.   For the chain of events at Kobanî and the results, see the Appendix.

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[1]The coalition forces led by the United States carried out more than six hundred airstrikes in the Kobanî region at the expense of attacking targets in other locations in Syria. They focused on ISIS’s supply lines, its weapons, vehicles and operatives. While they did in fact harm ISIS and make fighting difficult for it, they were not the reason for its defeat, and certainly not the only reason.