The War Nerd: Let's put Islamic State's menacing advance into perspective by... looking at a map

By Gary Brecher , written on September 28, 2014

From The War Desk

For a week now, we’ve been getting nonstop scare stories about Islamic State’s menacing advance on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. And as far as it goes, the stories are true: Islamic State (IS) did come within 14 km of Kobani, attacking from the South, West, and East, before US air strikes and reinforcements from the Turkish-Kurdish PKK militia stopped them.

And yes, the fall of Kobani would be a bad thing. A very bad thing, because IS is something unusual: A demonized group that really is as demonic as the mainstream media makes it out to be. Not as powerful, not as important, but every bit as demonic. Islamic State—latest in a long string of names for what was once "Al Qaeda Iraq"—is a collection of the worst survivors of various Sunni Iraqi militias, spiced with a few over-hyped European misogynist converts. A rotten group, whose idea of godly fun is killing heroic, uppity women like Samira Al-Nuaimi and raping captured Yazidi children, and I hope they all suffer miserable deaths, the sooner the better.

But IS is not performing the great military feats these scare stories give them credit for. And making them out to be such great conquerors only inflates the ridiculous vanity of the sadistic ham-actors who flock to IS.

Take this alleged push toward Kobani. To see how little it really means, you need certain skills, like… oh, I dunno, being able to read a map. So start by finding Kobani on a map—which isn’t always easy, because Kobani is the Kurdish name, and many sites, including Google Maps, list it by the competing Arab one, “Ayn al-Arab,” though a search for “Kobani” will direct you to the right place, under the name “Ayn al-Arab.” OK, now, you’ve found Kobani/Ayn al-Arab, right? Yeah, little town on the Syria-Turkey border—which, by the way, is the key to everything that’s going on there. Now, let your finger drift westward along that border about 25 km. You’ll come to another little border town called Jarabulus.

Now hit the plus sign on your Google Map and you’ll see what a tiny chunk of borderland there is between Kobani and Jarabulus. The Syria/Turkey border is 877 km long, so the 25 km between Kobani and Jarabulus amounts to less than three percent of the border.

So what? Well, the point is that Jarabulus, a dusty little nowhere town of about 12,000 people, happens to be the location of one of the first “Emirates” declared by Islamic State in Syria.

Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) never made a serious attempt to hold the border crossing at Jarabulus, so it came under Sunni rebel control as early as the summer of 2012. At that time, the resistance was an ad hoc group organized on clan lines, like many spontaneous Sunni neighborhood insurgent groups in the early stages of the war. This one, according to the excellent Syria analyst Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, was called “The Family of Jadir,” after its leader, Yusuf Al-Jadir. This group controlled the little town of Jarabulus—without calling it an “emirate”—until IS (which was still calling itself “I.S.I.S.,” or “The Islamic State of Al-Shams [Syria]”) took Jarabulus by force, in June of 2013.

Keep this timeline in mind when you’re trying to assess the significance of IS’s big push toward Kobani: IS(IS) took Jarabulus, only 25 km west of Kobani, more than 15 months ago. If it really were anything like the powerful, mobile force it’s being made out to be, it could and should have swarmed east to take the next significant border town, Kobani/Ayn al-Arab, immediately afterward.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, IS did what it always did: Publicity. It declared this nowhere little town of Jarabulus an “emirate.” You could have heard the Syrians laughing even over the celebratory AK fire. “Emirate”? Jarabulus? Those two words just don’t go together in Syrian Arabic. It would be like Bakersfield declaring itself an “Empire.” No, even that doesn’t catch the absurdity of “Emirate of Jarabulus,” because Bakersfield is a fairly big town. More like “The Empire of Turlock.” (Sorry, Turlock, but I got a ticket once going through your lousy one-street burg and now you pay the price.)

The next thing IS(IS) did when they took Jarabulus was to cut off water supplies to Kobani, hoping to use thirst to drive the Kurds out, a tactic they tried several times over the next few months.

What they didn’t do was mount a serious frontal attack on Kobani, even though the town was defended only by lightly-armed YPG militia. It wasn’t until June, 2014—when IS had a big success on its Eastern (Iraqi) front, panicking the weak Shia-Arab “Iraqi Army” into abandoning all of Anbar Province without a fight—that IS was able to transfer some of its captured heavy weapons to the attack on Kobani, overrunning Kurdish town militias who were trying to stop tanks and artillery with nothing more than AKs and a few RPGs. With all this armor—paid for by you American taxpayers, so thank Mister Cheney the next time you see him—IS was able to take several dozen Kurdish villages in the enclave around Kobani.

But stand back a second and squint at this supposedly significant advance. First of all, it came a whole year after IS declared its “Emirate” in Jarabulus, just 25 km west of Kobani. So the front lines barely moved in that year, even though the Kurdish forces were no more than neighborhood militias with nothing more than small arms. Second, it only happened when IS, using its one good move—shifting forces across the Iraq/Syria border, away from pressure and toward opportunity—gained a huge, though temporary, advantage in weaponry by bringing Iraqi armor against those village militias. And third—and most important: It failed. Even with that huge advantage in weaponry, IS has failed to take Kobani, after a year and a half of woofing, a massive bulk-up with captured Iraqi armor, and the covert help of the Turkish authorities, who have been doing everything to make life easier for Islamic State forces and harder for the Kurds opposing them.

Even with all that overbalance of forces against them, the Kurds of Kobani have kept this supposedly unstoppable IS juggernaut at least 14 km from Kobani. That’s weakness, almost laughable weakness. And it puts a new light on Islamic State’s one significant victory, its rout of the so-called Iraqi Army from all of Anbar Province last June. That Army was huge and expensively fitted out with all the latest American gizmos, but it was also demoralized, corrupt, and stuffed with conscripts from the Shia of the South, who had been a subject people, terrorized by, and terrified of, their Sunni masters. It’s not that Iraqi Shia won’t fight; they will, and very fiercely—but only for their besieged neighborhoods, their hereditary imams, or—above all—any public insult to their religion. You find that pattern among subject peoples all over the world: They’ll die for the ’hood or the temple, but they can’t cold-bloodedly form up, march into the territory of their former slave-masters, and occupy that territory without quaking at the thought the old masters will reassert themselves.

When Islamic State roared over the border, preceded by its beheading videos, the old terrors came back, and the Shia fled. There were no battles to speak of, so there was no real demonstration of IS’s combat power.

The Kurds—even lightly armed villagers like the ones who held off IS for so long—don’t scare easy. They faced down Saddam’s army, and IS is no more than the dregs of that army, mangier but no meaner. So the Kurds stood and fought, even though they were badly outgunned. And what they demonstrated is that, faced with disciplined opposition, IS is such a weak combat force that it could not take a small town 25 km from its base of operations, even after bulking up and wasting 15 months probing its defenses.

And now, any chance IS had of even holding onto its gains in the hills around Kobani is gone. You can’t conduct Toyota-blitzkrieg, the only form of warfare IS does well, under constant air attack. Now that the Kurds of Kobani are being reinforced by PKK units from Turkey (in spite of everything the Turks are doing to try to stop them), IS will fall back on Jarabulus—their ridiculous little “emirate”—and take it out on their usual victims, any woman who was born in the wrong cult, wears the wrong veil, or dares to talk back.

So yeah, IS really is as bad as they’re made out to be, but we’re talking “bad” in both senses: They’re misogynistic swine, but they’re also really the most overrated, over-hyped bunch of hams this side of WWE. And when more people realize that, IS will lose their best weapon, their terror-propaganda. Without that, they show up as what they are: a mid-size Sunni militia with a knack for child-rape and no skills against anyone who doesn’t fall for their death-metal hype.