Islamic State may have been driven from Kobani, but wounds remain

Berivan Hasan, 25, hugs her nephew Ronas, 2, and niece Renaz, 6, whose parents were killed when Islamic State insurgents briefly recaptured the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria and wreaked havoc.
Berivan Hasan, 25, hugs her nephew Ronas, 2, and niece Renaz, 6, whose parents were killed when Islamic State insurgents briefly recaptured the Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria and wreaked havoc. McClatchy

Dump trucks by the hundreds ply the streets of this mostly Kurdish town daily, hauling off the rubble left from the Islamic State’s attack a year ago and the U.S. airstrikes that forced the insurgents out.

Whole sections of the town still lie in ruins, with multistory buildings flattened like pancakes, some 3,500 houses destroyed and 4,000 seriously damaged, according the official overseeing rebuilding.

But the Kurdish authorities that control the enclave have decided to make this a showpiece for reconstruction. Water is now flowing to some 40,000 of the 70,000 residents, and the town is bustling. Cement trucks can be seen heading for construction sites, businesses are reopening, and there are even city services, like trucks washing down the streets.

“We will build a new Kobani. It will be ecological – no house more than three floors,” said Abdurrahman Hamo, 41, the coordinator of reconstruction. “Every resident should be able to enjoy a bit of earth, see the sun, and have a garden at home.”

While the town and its environs seems to be physically on the mend, reconstruction may not ease the anguish caused by the Islamic State’s second attack in June, when its fighters infiltrated the city and slaughtered nearly 300 people, most of them civilians.

Kobani is a tale of two disasters. The first played out on live television in autumn 2014, when Kurdish fighters fought and died to save the town as the U.S. airdropped ammunition and conducted airstrikes.

Forced from Kobani in June, the Islamic State struck back in June, when the town’s defenders were fighting battles elsewhere.

The second drama took place off camera, in the middle of the night and on the back streets. This time, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the YPG militia that had fought so valiantly to defeat the Islamic State, were nowhere to be found.

Berivan Hasan, 25, lost six members of her family on June 25, the first of three days of terror. It was during Ramadan, when many people sleep during the day when they are supposed to be fasting but are up well into the night when eating and drinking are allowed.

“I got home at 3:30 a.m. I was so tired. I woke up because of the sound of bullets, heavy shooting in our house,” said Hasan, the deputy prime minister of the canton.

Islamic State fighters had entered the house and shot her older brother and her sister-in-law on the ground floor.

“He was in the corner of the room. They fired many bullets.” His wife, with a 2-month-old baby in her arms, rushed to him. “They killed her as well,” Hasan recalled.

Then her mother, an aunt and two cousins went into the street seeking help. All were shot. Hasan barricaded herself in her room.

When she came out the next afternoon, her first concern was for her brother’s six children, but all had survived. She had suddenly become their surrogate parent.

About 80 Islamic State fighters were on a rampage. They went house to house, threw grenades into dwellings, shot family members in groups, and posted snipers on rooftops, shooting down at civilians, Human Rights Watch reported, based on interviews with survivors. It took three days before the YPG was able to restore order to the town.

Altogether, the Islamic State fighters killed 286 people, all but 28 of them civilians, according to Bozan Khalil, the minister of the interior in the canton. Hundreds more were wounded.

What happened next was typical for any Islamic State assault against Kurdish-dominated northern Syria. Leaders of the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, immediately blamed Turkey for the slaughter, as did the main Kurdish party in Turkey.

Figen Yuksekdag, co-leader of the People’s Democratic Party, the Kurdish party that had entered the Turkish Parliament for the first time weeks earlier, led the charge. “The whole world knows the Turkish government has supported ISIL for years,” she said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State. “Today’s massacre is a part of this support.”

Salih Muslim, the PYD’s co-president, made the same claim. “Everything shows there was infiltration from Turkey,” he said. “Turkey is denying everything, but she is telling a lie. Some had escaped to Turkey and yielded to Turkish soldiers.”

Turkish support for the Islamic State is an article of faith among Kurdish officials. “For sure, they came across the Turkish border,” said Khalid Ali, the coordinator of the House of the Peoples, a group that helps run the city of Tal Abyad, interviewed in mid-October.

“We don’t have any proof,” said Khalil, the canton’s interior minister, but “for sure Turkey gave them some intelligence.”

Hasan sees it differently. “The fault was ours,” she said. The Kurdish police force and the YPG “should take responsibility. We couldn’t provide enough protection for the civilians.”

The YPG fighters who had been posted to the town had left to fight at Tal Abyad, 35 miles to the east, and once they’d pushed the Islamic State from that city had moved to Sirrin, south of Kobani. The capture of Tal Abyad allowed the militia to link up two of three self-styled cantons and craft a contiguous entity Kurds call Rojava. It also cut a major transit link from Turkey to the Islamic State.

Today, there’s a neighborhood watch group on every Kobani street to watch for Islamic State infiltrators. ‘We’ve learned our lesson,’ says an official.

But Kobani paid the price.

The second assault of the Islamic State was another reminder that it is no ordinary terrorist group.

The fighters were outfitted in uniforms identical to those of the YPG or to those of the Arab units of the Free Syrian Army who fight alongside it. They learned simple Kurdish phrases and used them as they approached a checkpoint two miles south of Kobani about 3 a.m.

“They managed to talk their way through the checkpoint,” Khalil said. Some of the blame was on the guards on duty. “One of the fundamental errors we made was that we accepted anyone who wanted to join the Asayish,” the local police force, he said.

Islamic State fighters also came from other directions.

Coordinating by walkie-talkie, the assailants started firing their weapons once in the town. “We thought people were celebrating the liberation of Sirrin,” said Hasan. “They were not.”

The Islamic State also drew on newly inserted sleeper cells. A few days before the massacre, the Islamic State ordered all Kurds out of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital southeast of Kobani, and many of those expelled headed to Kobani. “They could have sneaked some people in among them,” said Khalil.

Today, there’s a neighborhood watch group on every street, to alert everyone to any disturbance and become the first line of defense. “We have learned our lesson,” said Hasan.

In part because of the recriminations with Turkey, relations remain tense. Turkey opens the border crossing from Kobani only twice weekly, and then only for those entering Kobani. Traffic is not permitted into Turkey.

Still, Turkey has allowed humanitarian aid as well as building materials, construction machinery, even garbage trucks to flow to Kobani – much of it donated by predominantly Kurdish municipalities in southern Turkey, according to Mumin Agcakaya, president of the Rojava Soldarity and Aid Association in Turkey.

One of the biggest complaints of Abdurrahman Hamo, who’s in charge of reconstruction, is that foreign countries such as the United States are not making contributions.

He estimated the cost of reconstruction at $2.5 billion. But he said almost all the funds they have raised are from Kurds in Turkey and Western Europe, and nothing directly from major governments.

He said the restoration of the water supply was undertaken by an international humanitarian aid organization. That cost was met by a major government, according to the aid organization. But in keeping with the risks of working in northern Syria, where journalists and aid workers have been kidnapped and killed, the official asked that his group not be named, and he declined to say which nation had financed the restoration.

McClatchy special correspondents Zakaria Zakaria in Kobani and Duygu Guvenc in Ankara contributed.

Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc