KOBANI, Syria — Sitting in a mosque in this majority-Kurdish city in northern Syria last year, Sheikh Omar expressed optimism that things would improve for his people.
“The USA and Europe helped us get rid of IS,” he said, referring to the Islamic State group whose self-declared caliphate once established a reign of terror across eastern Syria and much of northwestern Iraq.
“Now we hope to return to a normal life, in which Muslim and non-Muslim can sit together and share food, water, and even land,” Omar told The Times of Israel.
As the sheikh uttered these hopeful words, it’s likely he couldn’t imagine that barely a year would pass before the residents of Kobani would once again be threatened with mass slaughter.
2014: Under siege by Islamic State
To understand the position that the town of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, finds itself in today, it is necessary to go back five years to the second half of 2014. At the time, IS had completed an extensive conquest of lands across northern Syria and had advanced to the outskirts of Kobani.
By then, the terror organization had taken most of the surrounding villages, effectively encircling the town from three directions. For residents, the only escape route was in the direction of the Turkish border in the north, where they would face Turkish soldiers who were less than sympathetic to the Kurdish population, to say the least.
For several months the people of Kobani were under siege, sometimes facing starvation, as armed Kurds tried to fend off the invading IS forces at all costs with the support of aerial bombardments from allied forces.
The blockade of Kobani soon became one of the most talked-about fronts in media coverage of the war with IS, as both sides tried to portray a victory. The Kurds claimed that IS had only conquered the suburbs and that they still held the city center; IS insisted that it controlled the entire city.
The terror group even put out a video clip of captured British journalist John Cantlie allegedly filmed in Kobani’s center.
It’s always darkest before dawn
It was only after four months of besiegement, hundreds of civilians killed, and tens of thousands displaced that the Kurds finally managed to expel IS from the city in December 2014, liberating the surrounding villages in the process.
Over time, a relative calm and sense of security returned to Kobani. City residents who had fled slowly trickled back to their homes. Merchants restored their shops while volunteers helped with the difficult work of removing the dead bodies littering the streets.
The impressive Kobani campaign became a symbol of the struggle against IS — not only due to its prolonged duration, but also because it marked the first time that a cooperative effort from local ground forces combined with air support from Western allies managed to successfully liberate large swaths of land from the grip of the terror group.
It was a milestone display of the hard work and determination of the Kurdish forces, and it resonated around the world.
‘How much is a pack of cigarettes in Israel?’
This reporter’s trip to Kobani can be credited to the initiative of a local Kurdish journalist who was born and raised there. After we spent a few days together in Qamishli, along with a visit to the onetime capital of the IS caliphate, Raqqa, journalist Nizar — whose name has been changed to protect his identity — offered the rare opportunity to see his hometown.
The journey from Raqqa to Kobani lasted several hours. The pastoral view out the car window made up for the grueling ride on bumpy and sometimes unpaved roads. As night began to fall, Nizar pulled up to the only functioning hotel in town.
Once this reporter’s belongings were stowed away in a hotel room — which, of necessity, was shared with another two French journalists — Nizar, his brother Suhaib, and another relative escorted the group to a local restaurant that served exquisite kebabs.
The Kurdish hosts expressed a keen interest in Israel, asking question after question about the country’s history and life there today. They had an impressive knowledge of the state’s many wars, particularly the War of Independence, the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
But they were also curious about more mundane matters, such as the cost of a pack of cigarettes in Israel, discrimination among Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews there, and the frequency of intermarriage between Jews and Arabs, among other things.
‘The Jews are our brothers, too’
The next morning Nizar gave me a brief tour of Kobani. Large sections of road were still broken, and on nearly every street were homes bombed by American planes during the war against IS.
Despite the trauma and destruction wreaked upon the Kurds, they seemed determined to focus on the future. Construction crews were hard at work rebuilding, merchants woke up early to display the goods in their stores, and small children played hide and seek among the ruins, all contributing to a sense of returning sanity.
It was at one of the local mosques that spiritual leader Omar told The Times of Israel about the harsh period under IS siege.
“During the siege we experienced many difficulties — we faced hunger and thirst, our boys were killed, in some cases IS forced small children to watch their parents beheaded,” he said.
Omar accused IS of killing thousands of people for political reasons under the pretext of religious war, and condemned the organization’s extremist views.
“Christian, Muslim, it’s all the same,” he said. “Even the Jews are our brothers — only the extremists are looking for differences.”
Omar did not conceal his hostility toward Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom the Kurds have long accused of cooperating with IS. Kurdish separatists in Turkey have for decades fought the government, often violently, for independence, and Erdogan views armed Kurdish forces on his country’s border as a threat that must be eliminated.
“Radical organizations serve the interests of ‘the Sultan,'” Omar said, referring to Erdogan. “IS was established in the name of religion, but all they have are political goals, not connected to religion at all.”
But ending the conversation on a note of faith and optimism, Omar expressed hope that “Kobani will be as it was and even better, a united nation like America or Europe.”
“We hope to keep receiving aid from Western countries. If they continue with their assistance, it will provide great relief for our residents, and life in Kobani will be normal once again,” he said.
History repeats itself
Less than 15 months after that interview, the dream of a normal existence for Kobani’s residents has never seemed so far-fetched. US and French forces have abandoned the area, giving the green light to a Turkish invasion that would spell disaster for the opposing Kurds.
The town faced the prospect of falling to Turkish proxies rushing in from the north, or being delivered into the hands of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s soldiers coming from the south.
Among the members of the Turkish militias are Islamic extremists — some of whom have even fought for IS — who declare outright their intention to slit the throats of the “infidel” Kurds.
The Syrian army has arrived in the area under the pretext of protecting the Kurds. But in practice, it is there to recapture territory lost during the civil war, thus shattering the Kurds’ fantasy of “Rojava” — the autonomy they sought to finally establish in Syria’s north.
“At present, the situation inside Kobani is still quiet, but at any moment it can change,” a local resident recently told The Times of Israel.
“The Turks have bombed the surrounding villages, and they don’t distinguish between soldiers and civilians,” he said. “The city is still under Kurdish control, so things currently remain the same, but Assad’s soldiers are right on the border.”
Since then, Russian military police have entered Kobani, and there is evidence in some cases of even Syrian troops circulating around the city with Russian flags — perhaps flown as a measure to ward off Turkish bombings.
An agreement reached October 22 between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that, at least temporarily, the Turks would not invade Kobani. But the deal came with a price for the Kurds: give up their sovereignty and surrender the city that has become the Kurdish symbol of liberation back into foreign hands.