The War Nerd: Nobody could have predicted Islamic State's retreat from Kobane (except me)
KUWAIT CITY — A strange thing happened in Kobane, the Kurdish border town besieged by Islamic State: It didn’t fall.
In fact, today the BBC reported that Islamic State, the supposedly invincible jihadis who have been besieging Kobane, is retreating from the city.
Nobody expected that. Well, nobody except me. I’ve been saying for a long time that IS(IS) was the most overhyped military force on the planet, and that IS has been attacking Kobane for fifteen months—fifteen damn months—without success, which might just sort of suggest it’s not the juggernaut it’s been made out to be, and that IS’s other supposedly scary advance toward Baghdad is no more than a sad attempt to recover some of the Sunni suburbs of the capital the Sunni controlled completely less than a decade ago.
But I learned a long time ago you don’t get rich being right in this business, so I wasn’t surprised to be all alone yelling “Paper Tiger!” at IS while all the Lexus-driving pundits went into hysterical Victorian-girl fits on TV. It comes with the territory, like the roaches in our Kuwaiti kitchen.
Of course, it was only the suckers in the punditry who were actually surprised to find out how weak IS really is. The guys in the Pentagon must have known better—at least I friggin’ hope so—but they were pushing the “Kobane delenda est” line as hard as any dumb-ass pundit—not because they really bought into the IS juggernaut meme but because they *wanted* Kobane to fall, and the sooner the better.
That may seem surprising at first. After all, the enemy this Kurdish militia was facing, IS(IS), has been selling captured women and girls into sex slavery—and you don’t have to take my word for it. These freaks actually published an article in their house magazine, Dabiq, boasting about the way they enslaved, sold, and raped all the women and girls they captured in Sinjar:
“The Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the sharia amongst the fighters of the Islamic State . . . after one-fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State authority to be divided as khums,” or required payment of spoils of war to a caliph, the article says.
It continues, “The enslaved Yazidi families are then sold by the Islamic State soldiers.” With an enemy like that, you’d expect the freedom-luvin’ rulers of the U.S. to be fairly enthusiastic about helping the Kurds defend Kobane. But they’ve never been into it, inventing one excuse after another for leaving the Kurdish YPG militia to face these friggin’ monsters all by themselves. The Pentagon’s Press Secretary John Kirby even said it was the Kurds’ own fault:
"We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria. It’s just a fact. I can’t change that.”
That’s utter crap, of course. You’d be hard put to find better light infantry than the YPG anywhere in the world. But that was the scenario the Pentagon had worked out: Kobane would fall, Islamic State would move in, tsk-tsk, what a tragedy, and the sooner that tragedy happened, the better for everyone.
A non-stop grinner, Admiral Kirby kept “warning,” which is to say, “hoping and praying,” that Kobane was going to fall one of these days. Kirby was worse than an end-times preacher, just as eager for the disaster he was supposed to be preventing. Here’s Kirby, preaching Armageddon in a briefing on October 9:
(CNN) -- U.S. airstrikes "are not going to save" the key Syrian city of Kobani from being overtaken by ISIS, said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
"I think we all should be steeling ourselves for that eventuality," he told reporters in a daily briefing Wednesday. It’s unusual for a Pentagon flack to speak that plainly. They usually prefer the language of what “could” or “may” happen. But there was Kirby, a week ago, saying bluntly that Kobane, like a sinner rejected by Calvin’s God, was not going to be saved. And, if that wasn’t enough, he adds a little advice for the press: “…[W]e all should be steeling ourselves for that eventuality.”
Amen, Admiral! The end was nigh!
You’d think a pundit or two would have asked, “Why? Why must Kobane’s end be nigh?” Because there’s this little thing called “air-dropping supplies.” The USAF is pretty good at that—managed to keep the whole city of Berlin fed and fueled more than a half-century ago. All those transports, all that practice air-dropping expensive materiel to every worthless militia in the world…and we couldn’t drop a few TOWs, or just RPG rounds, to the defenders? Kobane’s defenders didn’t even have enough water, but you didn’t hear anything about the US water-bombing them.
Because, very simply, the US was waiting eagerly for the town to fall. There were all sorts of reasons for this, and none make any real sense. The two biggest are: (a) The hick Islamists running Turkey tilt toward IS and hate Kurds, all Kurds, with the same insane virulence that Turks hate all their neighbors, and especially any minority that dares to identify itself as non-Turkish; (b) The YPG militia defending Kobane is linked to the PKK movement, which is nominally “Socialist,” and American apparatchiks, no matter who’s officially in charge, have never un-learned the anti-Commie nonsense they learned at Georgetown; and (c) The “brave, doomed defenders of Kobane” were worth much more dead than alive, much more in defeat than in victory. If they lost, they’d be beheaded by the vicious loons in IS, and those severed-head videos would be great US agitprop, a great little way to put more pressure on Turkey over the theatre the US really cares about—Iraq.
So the message from DC was clear: “Die, Kurds! Die, and do it on-camera and soon!”
And in case anyone missed the point, John Kerry, who’s Secretary of State, or at least plays one on TV, made one of his stirring speeches—remember Kerry’s bold orations from 2004, when he managed to look like a wimp compared to a guy who spent the Vietnam war in Alabama? Kerry could convince a wolverine to give up and sob in despair, rather than fight. And he did his best to work his defeatist magic on Kobane, by making it very clear the U.S. wanted no part of the fight:
"Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to Daesh [ISIL in Arabic]. Kobane is one community and it is a tragedy what is happening there. And we do not diminish that," Kerry said.
If you can stay awake through Kerry’s Eeyore monotone, you get the idea: He’s saying, “Die, Kobane! Die! Fall, already!” As a general rule, when someone tells you, “It’s a tragedy, and we do not diminish that,” you should make your peace with God, because they’ve decided you’re expendable.
So the end was nigh for Kobane, according to the whole DC elite. Well, It’s now October 16, 2014, and Kobane has disappointed the Admiral just like the universe disappoints all the Armageddon preachers who’ve ever lived, doing the one thing they really won’t stand for: Not falling.
So the question has changed from “When will Kobane fall?” to “Why didn’t Kobane fall?”
There are three major reasons for the non-fall of Kobane. I’ll try to explain them quickly here.
1. Because Islamic State is a lousy, overrated fighting force.
Did I mention that I tole ya so? Yeah, well, I’m saying it again: I tole ya so. Islamic State is good at one thing: Hype. And I don’t say that entirely dismissively. Hype is a very important part of combat, whether it’s a schoolyard fight or a full-on war. Many battles—you might argue, most battles—are won on hype. But hype only works on weak opponents. So, when IS started its hick-krieg (thanks to Anibale for that term) over the plains of Iraq last June, the so-called Iraqi Army fled without firing a shot. That “army” was a corrupt ARVN-model mess of scared Shia boys, commanded by venal creeps, and they never even tried standing up to IS.
The Kurds are a whole different matter. They’ve never been scared of any Arab force. There’s not a lot of love lost between Kurds and Arabs—I knew a guy in Suli whose dad was a professor of Arabic, taught it to him from birth, but he refused to speak a word of it, in memory of the Anfal.
Kurdish irregulars held Saddam’s Sunni army back for years; the notion that they should fear a much lesser Sunni militia would be laughable to them.
So, when surrounded by this new, scary, Sunni militia called Islamic State, the Kurdish YPG militia in Kobane simply fought back, as a matter of course, with no fuss or panic—not even when the creeps in IS sawed off the heads of the women of the YPJ and photographed them like trophies, including this shot of a woman who looks worryingly like my best World Lit student in Sulimaniya. [Scroll down to bottom photo. Warning: Very Graphic.]
None of that scared the Kurds. And they soon revealed how badly IS fought against people who didn’t scare. Here’s a memorable—not to say hilarious—clip showing how badly IS fought in Kobane, wasting the expensive armor they took from the Iraqi Army:
An IS tank advances with no infantry support down a rubble-filled street in Kobane, not even using its machine guns to disperse the YPG men who stroll out into the street once it’s passed, not even bothering to hide. For those who’ve never heard of shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons, this is about as smart as rolling around the floor of a butcher shop, then jumping into the tiger enclosure at the zoo to preach the gospel to the big cats. Tanks without infantry support have been death-traps for generations, and the very worst place to send them is a narrow, rubble-filled street. Everybody knows that.
The Kurdish men and boys shadowing the tank know it. They’re all but laughing at this ridiculous contraption, waiting eagerly for what they know is going to happen.
The tank stops at an intersection, elevates its main gun, and fires down the street at an unseen target. The YPG men gesture expectantly, starting to flinch for the first time—not at this useless hulk of a tank but because their friends down that street are fitting the RPG round into the launcher, and they know there’s going to be a big dose of what the DoD calls “kinetic” where that tank is standing.
The tank fires again, and less than a second later, it explodes as that RPG round sends superheated molten metal spraying through it as droplets of the MBT armor now zip into the crew compartment at the speed of detonating TNT, as the blast knocks the turret half-off and turns anyone inside to instant bulgoki. Somebody’s little jihadi won’t be comin’ home to Hamburg or Tunis or Croydon, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of filthy woman-selling, child-raping swine.
IS has supposedly lost at least 300 men in Kobane. And I do mean “men”; IS, unlike the YPG/J, does not allow women in combat. In fact, misogyny is about the biggest plank in their platform, and a huge part of this weird 21st century iteration of “jihad.” I suspect the total is actually much higher, because IS, quite simply, are idiots. They did everything wrong, from advancing across the entire front—west, south, and east, and the only reason they didn’t come at Kobane from the north too is that the Turks own that border and didn’t want their secret friends in IS to be that overt about the alliance. Then they kept trying to gain land even when the US got serious about air strikes. Which brings us to reason number two:
2. The U.S. finally got so embarrassed by the Kurds’ heroic defense that it had to get serious.
The US and its joke of a “coalition” began bombing Syrian targets on September 22, 2014. But none of the first wave of strikes came near Kobane. The strikes hit Raqqah, Deir-az-Zour, Hassakah, and Aleppo—but not Kobane. And for two weeks, as IS threw all its Iraqi reinforcements and armor at the town, the US made only token strikes around Kobane. It was very odd, reading the stories at the time, because if there’s one thing the US does well, it’s air strikes on open desert terrain. I’m not one of those naïve believers in air support as the answer to all military problems, but FFS, this wasn’t the NVA in the Central Highlands, this was IS in Syria. They train on country that looks like this and facing a ground force that was too stupid to retreat under pressure, the USAF should have been able to wipe out the IS forces attacking Kobane.
But the kind of strikes they were using didn’t make any sense, just like their refusal to use air-drops for resupply didn’t make sense. Instead of A-10s and Predator drones orbiting the battle—the obvious way to keep air power on-station as needed—the USAF was sending fighters in for the classic, and classically ineffective, run-and-gun routine.
The Kurds were puzzled. They accepted that they wouldn’t be resupplied; Kurds have learned the hard way not to expect the US to back them up when it matters. But they did assume—naively enough—that the air strikes were supposed to be stopping IS. And they weren’t.
If you consider the possibility that the US wasn’t trying to stop IS, at least not until domestic pressure built up on Obama after the first week of October 2014, then this makes a cold sort of imperial sense. The goal wasn’t to stop IS from taking Kobane. In fact, IS was supposed to take it; that would make the Turks happy, and the resulting horror pictures of the massacre that would ensue would shut up any domestic opposition to bombing the Hell out of Iraq, the theater the US really worries about. The strikes were meant as a show of fake good will, so to speak—kinetic good will that would send a lot of desert flying into the air without dislodging IS, and bleed IS a little in the process.
That changed after October 7. For whatever reason, the strikes got serious, as you’ll see if you look at the graph at the end of this BBC story.
In the ten days since then, air support seems to have been effective. So, you might reasonably ask, what happened on October 7? Well, that happens to be the day that Leon Panetta, Obama’s own ex-Secretary of Defense and CIA head, went public calling the President a wimp who needed to put the proverbial boots on the literal ground in Syria.
Next day, suddenly USAF air strikes started lighting up the idiots marking their positions around Kobane with that familiar black IS flag. Probably not pure coincidence. DC people have thick hides when dealing with jibes from pundits or opposition senators, but when your own SecDef/CIA boss calls you out for ducking the enemy, you have to tell the USAF to start actually hitting people. Which it did, and because IS is too stupid to retreat quickly as the NVA would have done in this situation, they’ve been getting wonderfully zapped for more than a week.
Which was apparently enough even for these “fuckin’ amateurs,” to use Walter Sobchak’s crude but accurate characterization. They’re leaving the trenches around Kobane, which will be hard to spin as a victory even for IS, which is good at online agitprop (and nothing else).
So, when you stand back and squint at this whole amazing story, you’re left with a third, final, biggest reason Kobane didn’t fall:
3. Because the YPG/J wouldn’t let it.
If you only read one story about what happened in Kobane, read this battle-journal kept by Heysam Mislim, a Kurdish journalist who decided to stay in the town through the siege.
What he describes is just plain heroic, and it tallies with what I saw of the phlegmatic, stoic Kurdish people in Suli. They don’t make much of a fuss about things, which is unusual in this part of the world, which could be called “The Yelling Crescent.” They don’t yell, the Kurds--but they don’t panic, either. And they held on, expecting very little from their ostensible allies—and they weren’t disappointed in that expectation, either—and waiting until the ammunition ran out, or IS brought in another batch of Chechens, Tunisians, or Iraqis too numerous to be stopped. They knew very well what would become of them when that happened. But as often happens when a force like IS cultivates a rep for insane brutality, that meant that negotiation and surrender was impossible anyway. No one was gonna be spared. There was no choice. They just fought on.
And for all sorts of tangential reasons, from DC politics to jihadist incompetence, they won. It’s the kind of story that keeps me writing war stories. War is horrible, boring and mean and stupid; it’s that woman’s head, carried by an IS goblin grinning like an idiot. But sometimes—very rarely, actually—people who’ve been pushed into war against their will come out of it as something more than the rest of us. Kobane was just another dusty town when Syria blew up a few years ago. No one in Kobane was strutting around trying to be a hero, which is more than you can say about the Ali-Jihadis in IS. All the Kurds of Kobane were trying to do was keep their town alive. And, to everyone’s surprise—and most of the big players’ annoyance—they succeeded. It’s the rarest thing in the world, a truly heroic story. But that’s what this is, and you can’t do much but be awed by it.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]