With additional reporting by BaderKhan Ahmed
The center of Kobani, Syria is bustling, but the mood is grim. Shoppers and shop owners chat in hushed tones, trading the latest news and rumors they’ve heard about the increasingly tense and complex situation in the region. A banner hangs across one of the main streets, asking locals to stop buying Turkish products. It’s part of a larger boycott launched following the withdrawal of US forces from Northeast Syria and subsequent attacks on several cities in the area by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian National army factions. To date, Turkey’s Operation “Peace Spring” has killed more than 150 civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Soon after the US withdrawal, the Syrian Democratic Forces struck a deal with the Syrian government and Russia that sent soldiers from both entities to points near the Syrian-Turkish border to protect areas from attack. Despite this, Kobani residents worry the Syrian border town is Turkey’s next target.
“We are all afraid of Turkey and ISIS, and when the Americans withdrew from here, there was no one to help us,” a Kobani clothing store owner named Mustafa said. “Russia hasn’t done anything good in Syria. What we want is for the Americans to come back and help us, because we don’t trust the Syrian government or Russia to protect us. How could America leave us like that? I feel like I am living in a night-mare. America is seeing everything Turkey is doing to us, and they do nothing.”
Shervan Derwish, spokesman of the Manbij Military Council, says America broke many promises to the SDF and YPG forces in the region when they withdrew. “This was much different than what they were telling us they would do,” he said. “For all of us, it was a shock. We had joint interest, joint operations against the terrorists. And suddenly, they just left everything.”
Most in Kobani are afraid of to relive the horrors they experienced in 2014, when ISIS took control of most of the city. In a village on the outskirts of Kobani, a woman named Yaz Hasbah sits in front of her home with a six year-old boy on her lap. “When ISIS came in 2014, they killed his father. They destroyed our home. We lost everything,” she said. “We’re terrified. It’s winter, and we have young children. We don’t even have heaters for our home, and soon we will have to flee and sleep in the streets.”
My first trip to Kobani was in October 2014, at which time ISIS controlled roughly 75% of the city. Artillery and gunfire was constant and audible from Turkey. A month earlier, the US-led coalition against the Islamic State began hitting ISIS positions in and around the city with airstrikes in support of the local Kurdish YPG and YPJ forces. Around the time of my arrival, factions of Free Syrian Army fighters and Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq were coming to join the fight, holing up in buildings around the city and joining forces on the front lines against ISIS.
I was given a tour of the portions of Kobani that had been freed from ISIS by a YPG fighter named Kajin Ismet Shex Hasan. Hasan, then 19, stopped by a building recently decimated by a coalition airstrike. “This was an ISIS base,” he said. “There are eight ISIS corpses under this rubble.” As we walked further into Kobani, I saw death and destruction on a massive scale. Decomposing bodies and body parts littered the battlegrounds.
By then, most of the 130,000 civilians in and around Kobani had fled, and the few who remained were sleeping in a field directly adjacent to the Turkish border. One civilian told me then that Turkey had promised to let the remaining civilians cross to safety in Turkey. “But this hasn’t happened. We are here, freezing with nothing while ISIS is right next to us.” He wasn’t aware that days earlier, Turkish president Erdogan had declared that no civilians were left in the embattled city, essentially denying the existence of those who remained.
Other civilians told me they’d seen ISIS militants and their heavy weaponry passing through the Turkish border unimpeded. “They just walked into Kobani, and the Turkish soldiers on the other side of the border stood there and watched them,” one man said.
Manbij Military Council spokesman Shervan Derwish, who was leading a group of fighters in Kobani, corroborates such claims. “On November 29, 2014, our group was ambushed by an ISIS armored vehicle that entered Kobani from Turkey,” he said. “It exploded at the Kobani border gate. I saw it…I was fifty meters away from it. It was clear that the Turkish army was pulling back from the border and left ISIS to enter and surround us. The Turkish collusion with ISIS was very clear that day.
“Turkey is the main supporter of ISIS and other radical groups. Everyone knows this, but no country wants to mention this, because they are worried about their joint interests with Turkey,” Derwish said.
Along with help from coalition airstrikes, ISIS was pushed out of Kobani in early 2015. “When we defeated ISIS in 2015, it was the beginning of the end of ISIS,” said Kajin Ismet Shex Hasan, now 24. He is still a fighter with the YPG, and currently, his group is preparing for an attack a possible attack from Turkey and their proxies in the Syrian National Army. “We don’t know exactly what will happen, because the situation is very complicated,” he said.
“I have participated in every major battle the YPG has faced,” he said. “I have been shot three times. But I am not afraid, because it is an honor to do this for my people. We are 100% ready for any attack. And what has affected us the most was not the Turkish attacks…it was the betrayal of the US.”
As the YPG in Kobani prepares for a possible attack, civilians prepare to flee. “We have seen the videos on the internet where [the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army factions] are beheading civilians and calling them infidels,” said Kobani dress shop owner Sakina Wali. “We know they want to come here and do the same. When Turkey attacked Serekaniye, we packed our bags to leave. And our bags are still packed now.”
Jamil Khabat, an SDF commander in Kobani recalled that journalists came in droves to cover the 2014 battle of Kobani. “There were so many foreign journalists coming then,” he said. “Will they come if Turkey attacks us now?” Following the agreement between the SDF and Syrian and Russian forces, there was a mass exodus of foreign journalists in Northeast Syria. The prevailing concern has been that the Syrian government would begin to detain journalists, particularly those with a history of embedding with the Syrian Opposition in the course of their reporting.
In an interview with SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel a few days ago, he told me that journalists have no reason to be concerned. “The procedures remain the same,” he said. “And if any changes or dangers were to arise, we would immediately inform the journalists who want to come.” (It is worth noting that we have encountered no problems in reporting from Northeastern Syria, including in areas with an increased presence of the Syrian government and Russia.)
But reporting from Kobani presents additional challenges. During the 2014 battle, journalists were able to cross to Kobani directly from Turkey. Now, the trip must be made from inside Syria. Using the M4 high-way, the trip from Qamishlo, the de facto capital of the Autonomous Administration of Northeastern Syria, took roughly four hours by car just a month ago.
Attacks on strategic points along the highway by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian National Army factions have made the throughway inaccessible, turning the trip into an eight hour slog through dangerous dirt roads in remote areas. As we passed through a checkpoint near Raqqa en route to Kobani, Asayish security forces warned us that armed bandits were robbing drivers, emblematic of the instability brought on the area by the US’ hasty withdrawal.
Leaving Kobani, we joined a convoy of local journalists following a joint patrol of Turkish and Russian armed forces through the Kobani countryside. In each village we passed, people poured out of their homes to pelt the military vehicles from both countries with stones. “Erdogan terrorist!” they chanted.