Understanding Kobane

Christopher Davidson looks beyond the headlines to ask: what are the broader implications of the attack on Kobane?

As we watch with horror the events unfolding in the dusty Kurdish-majority town of Kobane (Arabic name: ‘Ayn al-‘Arab), straddling the Syrian-Turkish border, we can expect a steady stream of ‘guns and tanks’ analysis to follow. Most will speculate about the ‘strategies’ of the so-called Islamic State along with the reasoning behind its particularly ferocious and sustained attack on this relatively small town.

It will be claimed that the Islamic State’s goal in Kobane is to:

‘Drive a wedge between the Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria’

Or that it is trying to:

‘Force Erodgan’s hand to make him intervene, just as Al-Saud has had to do, thus positioning El-Baghdadi as the only legitimate Islamic leader surrounded by Western-canoodling fake Islamic potentates and pseudo-democratic authoritarian presidents’

Or perhaps some will conjecture that IS is really:

‘Solidifying a border point to ease the transfer of weapons and ammunitions from Turkey, a secret funder of the Islamic State, while taking out a Kurdish thorn in Erodgan’s side’

Or, equally conspiratorially, and probably again without evidence, various others will argue that IS is:

‘Doing the work of the CIA/Mossad/Assad/Iran/Qatar (delete as appropriate) in weakening an obstacle on the path to domination over Syria and Iraq

Some of this analysis will rely on anonymous, mysterious sources and outrageously unlikely conclusions. Some will be penned by the shills of the numerous PR firms now working for the various actors involved – the strategy of most of these is to try to pin the blame for Islamic State funding on their most bitter regional rival. Confusingly and dishearteningly, such propaganda will even appear, cloaked as analysis, in well-known broadsheet newspapers, a sad testament to the state of the traditional media today. Nevertheless, there will also probably be much informative analysis, useful especially for those trying to follow the fast-moving events on the ground and the likely responses of the now multiple actors involved in the conflict.

Beyond these conventional discussions, however, it is time to step back and reflect a little on Kobane. What are the broader implications of the attack on this town? After all, surely most of the world had never heard of it until it came into the sights of IS. The following, I feel, are some important but neglected issues.

Something I half-expected a few months ago—perhaps in the wake of the fake female genital mutilation-Islamic State story, or perhaps in the wake of the Yazidi mountain rescue operation—is likely now becoming a reality. The Kobane battle, which is unfolding under the immediate gaze of global media stationed just across the hill in Turkey, will almost certainly spur on those elements of the Western public that would usually be out protesting against war to actually protest for war. After all, they have a televised ring-side seat at what could be an impending massacre or some degree of ethno-sectarian cleansing. The sense of irony in this will be strong, especially for those who remember the mass anti-war protests against the Iraq invasion in 2003. There has already been a well-reported protest in London’s Oxford Circus to get something done about the Islamic State, and I am sure many others have happened elsewhere.

Moreover, I predict that the (usually very vocal) Bourgeois-Left in Western democracies will join the street protestors in clamouring for stronger military action and probably even ‘boots on the ground’ against the Islamic State – the new ‘devil incarnate’ that has now firmly supplanted Al-Qaeda et al. This seems especially likely given the precedent of the 2011 Libya intervention, after which big chunks of the West’s Bourgeois-Left rejoiced in the destruction of Gaddafi’s regime by NATO strikes and a host of other military activities that quickly went far beyond the UN Security Council’s resolution.

This is important, because it has been quickly forgotten that UNSC Resolution 1973 of 2011 was quite explicit: ‘to establish a no-fly zone and to use all means necessary short of foreign occupation to protect civilians’. But what actually happened in 2011 (with broad public support in the West)? We most definitely saw airstrikes by NATO and regional allies that involved much more than ‘protecting civilians’ – they were actively engaging with Gaddafi’s regime in what was clearly an effort to destroy all remnants of his state. We even learned after the event that NATO allies such as Qatar actively deployed ‘hundreds of troops to support the Libyan rebels’, having previously only admitted to participating in the NATO no-fly zone. I remember this being more or less an open secret at the time.

But here we have to pause, as Gaddafi was much reviled around the world. So his removal in this manner somehow became legitimate and ‘the right thing for a civilized nation to help do’. Consequently, it became difficult to mount a counter-argument against such ‘mission creep’ interventionism. Today we have Syria’s Al-Assad – a man probably hated as much or more than Gaddafi ever was, now that we have witnessed three years of bloody civil war and the deaths of countless innocent civilians at the hands of his brutal security services.

So, in short, we have had Gaddafi and now we have Assad—both universally detested—as essentially easy ‘marks’ in what seems to have become a steady and relentless effort to emasculate the United Nations either by publicly modifying UN decisions or ignoring the UN outright. The UN has scrambled, as best as it can, to retrogressively fit the Iraq bombing campaigns into its narrative, and it will have to do the same with the Syrian airstrikes. But by the time the ‘boots on the ground’ arrive in Syria (probably not before Kobane falls, but maybe on some subsequent date)—which may not be Western or NATO boots, but those of Arab regional NATO client states—we will have read another compelling chapter in the story of the UN’s decline.

The exact drivers behind this brutally forged legal void, and the resulting implications—specifically for Syria, Iraq, and the proximate region—are also of great significance and deserve similarly close examination.

Christopher M. Davidson is Reader in Middle East politics at the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University. He is the author of several books on the politics and international affairs of the Gulf states, including Abu Dhabi: Oil and BeyondDubai: The Vulnerability of Success, and, most recently, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies


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