How A Single Town In Syria Became A Symbol Of The War Against ISIS

Jan 27, 2015
Originally published on February 4, 2015 1:12 am
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to hear now about how a single town in Syria has become a symbol of the war against the so-called Islamic State. Kobani sits along the border between Syria and Turkey. And this week, Kurdish fighters retook most of the town from the Islamic State. The Kurds were supported by hundreds of U.S. and coalition airstrikes. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following the story and joins us now. And Tom, what more do we know about how these Kurdish retook Kobani?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, three things came together. You mentioned hundreds of airstrikes. Eighty percent of all U.S. and allied airstrikes in Syria took place right around this area of Kobani. And to make this work, though, you need a ground force. There were no U.S. troops, of course, on the ground there, so they had to rely on the Kurdish forces. And finally, they were helped by the fact that Turkey allowed a supply line across its border to support these Kurdish fighters. And U.S. Central command confirms what the Kurdish fighters are saying - that about 90 percent of the town is in control of the Kurdish fighters. The rest is still being contested.

SIEGEL: And what's the significance of Kobani? Does its recapture represent an important setback for ISIS?

BOWMAN: Well, it's not really that important. It's really just kind of a dusty crossroads town, but capturing it would have given ISIS even more of the northern border area in Syria and Iraq. Kobani was really more of a symbol. First you had international news media on the Turkish border, and it was the only safe place you could see the fight against ISIS. So that tended to elevate the importance of the town. Some call it the CNN effect - you have pictures. And then the question becomes, hey, why can't the U.S. do more to help these poor people in Kobani? But there was also symbolism for ISIS, too. They wanted to show that they were still on the offensive. They continued to have momentum.

SIEGEL: Well, is that momentum now stopped?

BOWMAN: Well, U.S. officials are being cautious. They're not claiming that this is a significant turning point against ISIS. In fact, the Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said today, no one is spiking the football, even around Kobani.

SIEGEL: Although there have been reports today that the fight around Kobani may have killed around a thousand fighters for the Islamic State. That sounds like a lot of people have died there.

BOWMAN: Well, it does sound like a lot. But remember, the estimates are anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq, which is of course a big range and gives you a sense of the uncertainty of this fight and this enemy as well.

SIEGEL: So what's next in the fight against the Islamic State?

BOWMAN: Well, we're told airstrikes will continue around Kobani and in Syria, but the Obama administration has long said that the main focus is Iraq. And that's a particular challenge because the Islamic State controls a lot of territory to the north and west of Baghdad - areas that were, of course, helped by the U.S. forces particularly in the Anbar province west of Baghdad. The problem here is you have an Iraqi army that's widely seen as not very competent. So hundreds of U.S. trainers have been sent to help. Hundreds more will go.

You also have a serious political problem in Iraq. ISIS is finding support among the minority Sunni tribes in Iraq. They, of course, were treated poorly by the previous Iraqi government. And there's still a lot of distrust among Sunnis. The U.S. is trying to act as a go-between, and you need these Sunni tribes as allies. So if there's a turning point in all of this, the place to watch isn't Kobani. It's Mosul. That Iraq's second-largest city.

SIEGEL: But just back to Kobani for a second. Hundreds of airstrikes against a rather small place. Do we know if the targets are vehicles, buildings, places where a few fighters are gathered? What are they - do we know...

BOWMAN: It's all of that.

SIEGEL: All of that.

BOWMAN: And they had plenty of targets, and a lot of it was fighters - was small groups of fighters, vehicles and so forth - hundreds of airstrikes for a small town.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks a lot, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.