Kobane and virtual war


The 21st century is a strange, strange place.

Like almost everyone in the world outside Kurdish populated areas of northern Syria, I had never heard of the town of Kobane before the summer of 2014.

Kobane is a small city, roughly the size of Galway, in Irish terms, squeezed up against the Turkish border with Syria. Apparently it got its name from a Kurdish corruption of the word ‘Company’ because it developed as a railway hub in the early 20th century when European companies built the railways in what was then the Ottoman Empire. Officially though, in the Syrian Arab Republic it was known as Ayn al Arab.

Had it not been for the Syrian Civil War, people would probably still not have heard of Kobane and for that its 50,000 or so inhabitants would have been very grateful. Today they are scattered as refugees across Turkey, Syria and Iraq, or if they have returned to the shattered, bombed out city, are probably sleeping in the ruins of their houses.

But this is not the strangest thing about Kobane. Death and destruction has been visited on dozens of Syrian towns and cities without the rest of the world paying undue attention. No the strangest thing about Kobane is that the desperate battle waged there from September 2014 to January 2015 was followed across the world, literally ‘in real time’ by millions of people. And I was one of those people.

ISIS and the YPG

The insurgent group calling itself Dawla al Islamya fa Iraq wa al Sham (Daesh to its enemies) or in English ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or laterally, the Dawla Islamya (Islamic State or IS) swept across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, taking the city of Mosul and much of central Iraq and then attacking the Kurdish north.

From its advance, across the internet, came the most appalling images, heads cut off by grinning bearded fighters. Hosts of desperate teenagers (Iraqi Army cadets and Syrian conscripts) machine gunned into mass graves. Prisoners hoisted one by one to an execution place beside the Tigris River and then shot in the head. The Yezidis a minority Kurdish speaking sect, driven completely out of their homes to die on a barren mountain. All this happened within two months. All was filmed gloatingly and promoted on twitter and other social media by the group’s supporters.

The ideology of ISIS (an ultra-extreme form of Islamism) may not be unique, nor its violence (though horrific) unprecedented in the context of the chaos that has engulfed Iraq since 2003 and Syria since 2011. What was different was its unashamed promotion of its violence and its exposition to the world. It was saying; ‘we do not think this is wrong, we are proud of these atrocities and we will use them to impose our ideology’. They quickly became demon figures in popular culture.

And against them, the world needed heroes. The shambolic Iraqi Army did not fit the bill, nor the Syrian Army of the dictator Bashar al Assad, nor the Syrian rebels groups, themselves largely inspired also by political Islam. The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga seemed a better bet. But better yet was the Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG. The YPG (People’s Protection Units) was formed to defend Kurdish area of northern Syria when that country collapsed into civil war. It was largely sponsored by the Turkish Kurdish (excuse the shorthand, any Kurdish readers) guerrilla group the PKK.

It carved out three autonomous parts (‘cantons’) of Syria, Afrin, Cizire and alone in the centre, Kobane.

The YPG and its women’s militia the YPJ espoused and to some extent implemented, a radical egalitarian programme. For instance for every male official there must be a female one. Women fought alongside men. All localities must elect a committee which makes all local decisions. Despite being Kurdish nationalists, the YPG worked with all the other ethnic groups in areas under its control. It was the YPG which rescued the Yezidis from extermination on Mount Sinjar.

So when, in September 2014 ISIS forces attacked the YPG held city of Kobane, it seemed a genuine case of angels against demons.

Now in reality the YPG and their PKK sponsors are no angels. They are a highly authoritarian militaristic organisation, with a violent history, like any organisation involved in prolonged guerrilla war. But this did not seem important at the time.

Attack on Kobane

The battle for Kobane was a horrendous four month attritional killing match, largely fought out among the ruined buildings of Kobane itself.

I was not there.

What I am going to be write about here is how, in a very strange way, I and others experienced it. I awoke one morning and found a Guardian headline saying ISIS had taken 60 villages around Kobane.

Moving to twitter, one could get hourly updates, many of them, by Daesh sympathisers showing grinning fighters gloating over dead Kurds, lined up at their feet. Dead Kurds including beautiful young women, disfigured by bombs or bullets. One photo showed, or purported to show, a teenaged YPG prisoner having his throat cut. And all the more repulsive was the commentary. Of the dead female fighters, one wrote, ‘comfort women by night, cannon fodder by day’. Of the young murdered prisoner, ‘look now at the big bad communist PKK’.

Now here’s the strange thing about personal engagement in war. Seeing the pictures of dead young Kurdish fighters inspired in me immense, genuine sorrow. I would look at the shattered bodies and see bright beautiful young people whose lives had been snatched away. But when the YPG posted their pictures of killed Daesh, I thought either, ‘good’, ‘fuck them’ or else ‘not enough’. Dehumanisation comes easily to us when we pick sides.

For several weeks fighting ebbed and flowed in the countryside, each day maps posted up online showed Daesh creeping closer to Kobane itself. At times the YPG would counter attack, and the yellow lines on the map would expand. Pictures posted up on twitter by Kurds would show the horrible black flag begin thrown down by YPG fighters and replaced with the yellow flag with red star of the YPG. And I would punch the air. I was filled full of admiration for the bravery of the Kurdish fighters. I would play punk versions of Spanish Civil War songs on my computer. ‘No Pasaran’, ‘Madrid que bien resistes’.

But ISIS had the upper hand in numbers and weapons. The videos they would post up showed them advancing in tanks, with self-propelled artillery and in disciplined formations. They reached Kobane itself it the first week of October. The virtual war now took on an even more surreal dimension. Several hundred metres away from the actual fighting was the Turkish border, where foreign journalists and Kurds could watch the battle in relative safety. So now one could get live actual reports and live footage from the battlefield.

A Kurdish activist calling himself Cahit Storm hid in a pepper field just over the border and morosely told his followers that the Black flag had appeared on hills and buildings inside Kobane. Mishtenur Hill, 600m high overlooking the town fell to ISIS after a bitter battle in which the Kurds used , at least once, suicide bombers. Within hours the pro-PKK twitter accounts were referring to ‘the martyr Arin Mirkan’.

As Daesh fighters took over the hill a panicked Kurdish tweeter named Kovan Direj called desperately for air-strikes, ‘Strike them! Strike them!’ he wrote. We, those of us following the fighting with an increasing sense of dread, felt as if it was actually happening to us. A Spanish journalist on the border, Lluis Miguel Hurtado, tweeted ‘without the hill defending the town would be a utopia.’

Pictures appeared online of grinning Daesh militants holding up the severed head of a ponytailed female YPG fighter. Hours later the Kurds posted a picture of his own dead body. ‘Karma didn’t take long for this motherfucker’ someone wrote.

As the Kurds were pushed back into a corner of the town, it was becoming apparent that the situations was desperate. Cahit Storm wrote on twitter, ‘you have no idea how difficult it is watching Kobane falling to Daesh’. Kobane came to dominate my thoughts. I even dreamed of it constantly. Every time I was away from the internet for any period I immediately checked it with a sense of dread expecting to hear the worst. It got so that I would only log in going straight to trusted pro-Kurdish twitter accounts. I didn’t want to hear bad news from any Islamo-fascist gloating over the latest atrocity, nor to see pictures of their dress-clad bitches under their insect-black flag.

At the same time Turkey closed its border, refused all help to pass through its territory and shot down in dozens the pro-PKK Kurds who demonstrated in support of Kobane on its streets.

But the worst never quite happened. I was part of a twitter storm asking the US first for air-strikes and then for an airdrop for the beleaguered Kurds. And miraculously, both occurred. Seeing packages of the parachuted arms ammunitions and first aid supplies dropping form the air, I again punched the sky. And suddenly Cahit Storm and others were reported massive explosions from American bombers in the ISIS-held part of Kobane. What do you know, I thought, just occasionally the Americans get around to bombing the right people.

But that was not the end of the battle. Far from it. It became a slugging match in which the YPG forces held doggedly on to their enclave in the west of Kobane, while ISIS tried to dislodge them with suicide truck bombs and mass assaults. Meanwhile the US Air Force relentlessly pounded the ISIS positions. It was grim, bloody urban warfare. The toll it took on actual participants, both in terms of lives lost and trauma inflicted must have been awe-inspiring. Oddly enough the relentless attrition also took its toll of twitter warriors.

Several seemed to succumb to a kind of combat exhaustion as the fighting dragged on.

Here’s what I wrote, privately in early November 2014. ‘What’s going to happen I just don’t know. There’s a part of me that just wants it to be over. The twitter updates, the smashed up bodies. I want it all to end. Maybe the peshmerga will get in in time. Maybe not. If not let’s be honest it’s all over for the YPG fighters in Kobane. In the most gruesome way. I can’t even think about that.’

Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga forces with artillery and mortars did get in. In January 2015 the Americans stepped up air-strikes and the town, what was left of it, was liberated.

It was a great victory over what looked like certain defeat for the forces of humanity. A huge Kurdish flag was planted over the re-taken Mishtenur Hill. It was of course a huge relief for those of us who had been caught up in the drama from far away. But I wonder, if any others, like me felt a little ashamed of themselves.

I blocked all the pro-ISIS accounts I have come across, so now I never see pictures of YPG dead. I do see, increasingly, pictures of heaps of Daesh dead. And I don’t even think anymore, well that is regrettable, but in the end it will save lives.’ Nor do I even think, ‘fuck them’. I just think ok, looks like a good day then’.