Feb 11, 2015 3:29 AM
Fresh off victory over IS in Kobani, Kurds seek more success
The Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) For Kurdish fighters, last month's victory over Islamic State militants in the town of Kobani in northern Syria was only the beginning.
Their ambition is to build on an alliance with moderate rebels in Syria and become the chief force fighting the extremists in the country.
Its commanders say such an alliance could be just the partner that the West has been seeking all along in the battle against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which began its rise in 2013 and now holds a third of both Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The Kurds quickly emerged as a potent foe for the Islamic extremists. In August 2014, fighters of the YPG, the main Kurdish force, battled Islamic State militants to carve out an escape route for tens of thousands of members of Iraq's Yazidi minority who were trapped on a mountaintop.
The fight for Kobani, which is on the border between Syria and Turkey, began after rapid Islamic State advances in mid-September. It further thrust Syria's Kurds to the forefront of the anti-Islamic State groups.
"The Kurds have proved to be a very reliable partner on the ground where none other exists in Syria," said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst who focuses on Syria and Turkey.
"In my view, if the West is looking for a partner, Kobani provides a successful example where Kurds and Arabs could work together to get rid of ISIS. ... It's a good model," he said.
Like their Iraqi brethren, Syria's Kurds have used the region's conflicts to further their nationalistic goals, carving out effective self-rule in the northeastern corner of Syria called Rojava, where they make up the majority.
For a long while after the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011, the Kurds tried to pursue their own path distinct from both the Syrian government and members of the opposition to the Damascus government.
That led to accusations among Syria's overwhelmingly Sunni rebels that the Kurds were siding with Assad's forces. There were repeated clashes, particularly between the Kurds and the more extremist rebel groups in northern Syria.
In the battle for Kobani, the Kurds say it was their determination and discipline that made the difference and showed they are worthy of Western support. A U.S.-led air assault began Sept. 23, with Kobani the target of about a half-dozen daily airstrikes.
At one point in October, the U.S. dropped bundles of weapons and medical supplies for the Kurdish fighters a first in the Syrian conflict. Dozens of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces joined their brethren in Kobani, bringing in heavy weapons that neutralized the Islamic State group's artillery advantage.
But Kurds say it was also a group of fighters from the Free Syrian Army who helped them turn the tide against the militants in Kobani.
In September, the YPG created a joint operations room with several moderate FSA brigades that formed an umbrella group called "Burkan al-Furat" Arabic for the "Volcano of the Euphrates."
The FSA units involved were made up of few hundred fighters, mostly ethnic Arabs and some Turkmens from nearby Minbej. They included small units such as Shams al-Shamal the "Sun of the North" brigade, and the Raqqa Revolutionaries, whose fighters were ousted from areas now controlled by the Islamic State group.
Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, a senior FSA commander, said fighting alongside each other has built confidence between the Kurds and the FSA, and it has also dispelled suspicions among many FSA members that the Kurds were Assad supporters.
"It will shape the future of a free Syria," he said.
Despite years of diplomacy and pledges to vet and train moderate rebels throughout Syria's conflict, the U.S. has not found a credible partner on the ground in Syria as it carries out airstrikes against the Islamic State group. Officials have acknowledged that the U.S. does not sufficiently trust any Syrian rebel groups to coordinate the air campaign, despite attempts by some pro-Western fighters to pass along intelligence about Islamic State positions.
The Kurdish-FSA alliance hopes to change that, saying Kobani was an example of coalition strikes working successfully with ground forces.
In recent days, Kurdish and FSA fighters have swept outward from Kobani to clear the surrounding countryside, seizing about 100 villages from the militants.
Kurdish commanders say their aim is to liberate all Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria and then to go farther, to help liberate Arab majority areas that have become Islamic State strongholds.
One such strategic town is Tal Abyad, which lies on a border crossing with Turkey and is a major source of commerce for the extremists. It also separates Kobani and the Kurdish-held city of Hassakeh in northeastern Syria.
"We are proud of their (FSA) presence with us. ... They have a history and have offered up martyrs, and this we will never forget," said Shorsh Hassan, an YPG spokesman based in Kobani.
Nawaf Khalil, a Europe-based spokesman for the powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, said the fight in Kobani proved to be a very successful experiment that should be expanded to other areas.
"There were no complaints, no corruption the weapons that were airdropped were used appropriately by the right people," he said.
The U.S., which says it plans to train moderate Syrian rebels, has not said whether Kurds will be receiving any training or further assistance. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said late last month that the U.S. will continue supporting "the brave defenders" of Kobani in the weeks ahead.
On Sunday, French President Francois Hollande hosted senior PYD leaders in Paris to discuss the victory in Kobani and their fight against the Islamic State group, in a meeting described by Khalil as the first of its kind, reflecting international interest in supporting Syria's Kurds.
Kurdish and FSA commanders say they need weapons, and they have proved they are worthy but are prepared to go it alone.
"We will continue cleansing one village after another, and after that, we will continue to liberate all of Rojava and all Syrian soil from this terrorist organization Daesh," Hassan said, using an Arabic acronym for the extremist group.
"This is the promise we have made to ourselves and to the Kurdish and Syrian people," he said.
Follow Zeina Karam on Twitter at www.twitter.com/zkaram.