A spirit like Salahuddin's: How Kurdish Muslims downed ISIS

Published October 22, 2014
Members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). —Photo by Reuters
Members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). —Photo by Reuters

From September 25 through October 19, 2014, a battle raged on ostensibly for a piece of land in the center of the planet, but it could well have been for the very soul of Islam.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) band of militants marched on to a small border town in the North of Syria and South of Turkey in their bid to rule the entire region stretching 60 miles from Raqqa in Syria to Turkey.

The small border town is called Kobani – commonly referred to as Ayn-al-Arab – inhabited by 250,000 Kurdish Muslims. The town was surrounded, outnumbered, outgunned, and written off for dead by most experts.

One minor wrinkle to the narrative: The moderate Muslim Kurdish men and women defending the town share their heritage with another famous Muslim warrior from the middle ages – Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi.

The ISIS had not prepared for their valour.

 YPG Commander coordinating airstrikes against ISIS from the ground. —Photo by AP
YPG Commander coordinating airstrikes against ISIS from the ground. —Photo by AP

Flush with weapons and confidence from their recent military success against US trained Iraqi army bases in the Anbar province, the ISIS looked invincible. The notoriety they gained from the beheading videos of Western aid workers and journalists made them appear monstrous and relentless in the eyes of the world.

A force of nine thousand ISIS with an array of Chinese, Russian, and US made weapons was ready to walk all over a small force of lightly armed 2,500 Kurds militia called the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) defending the town.

Also read: What ISIS and the 'caliphate' mean for Pakistan

The ISIS promised to pummel the city in late September and occupy it within a week just in time for Eid-ul-Azha celebrations.

And pummel the town they did with their firepower from the North, South, and the West with an aim to perpetuate murder, massacre and rape on a grand scale. In anticipation of their victory, they prepared the biggest ever banner to fly over the small city.

 Kobani under attack. —Photo courtesy of Tolga Bozoglu Epa/Landov
Kobani under attack. —Photo courtesy of Tolga Bozoglu Epa/Landov

Just to the north, Turkey watched the horror unfold in real time and chose to not even lift a finger.

While it allowed civilians from Kobani to cross over as refugees, Turkey also allowed many ISIS reinforcement and arms to slip into Syria. None of the native Kurdish from Turkey, however, was allowed into Kobani to help their brethren who begged for food, supplies, and ammunition in their fight against a much larger force.

Riots erupted in Turkey leaving dozens dead as conscientious citizens protested why Turkey sat idly by as ISIS prepared to unleash mayhem just south of their border. Many wondered what surreptitious bargain had Turkey struck with ISIS for the release of its diplomats from captivity a month or so earlier.

Under the leadership of the US, pilots of American, Saudi, and Emirati nationalities flew air force missions to protect Kobani from the ISIS, but the strikes were listless. The Kurdish units ran short of everything from bread to bullets, from oil to arms, from water to medical supplies.

Take a look: Pakistan Ulema Council condemns IS militants

Most civilians escaped into Turkey and those who remained operated under strict rations.

In the first week of October, not only were the ISIS able to march into a good part of the town, but just for effect, they beheaded any civilians they found to have stayed behind. The ISIS had occupied 45 per cent of the city. The banner ISIS had promised to fly over Kobani was now raised on the tallest building in the city.

 YPG fighters. —Video screengrab
YPG fighters. —Video screengrab

While the central and northern portion of the city remained in control of 2,500 men and women who chose to hunker down with a do or die mindset, the fall of the city appeared inevitable. The writing was clearly on the wall for the city when the US Secretary of State John Kerry on October 8th, 2014 came out and said the possibility of the fall of Kobani was imminent and that the town held no “strategic” value.

A Kurdish commander countered with a statement of his own soon after that “Kobani would never fall” which came across to the Western press as more bravado than foresight.

Read on: 5 misgivings of an ISIS fighter

Gaining in confidence, the ISIS began occupying buildings and homes left vacant by fleeing civilians in parts of the city within their control. The more they occupied the more visible they became as targets to the Coalition forces from the air. The Kurdish commanders got their coordination synced up with the air campaign of the Coalition forces.

And the tide began to turn as the air strikes rained down on the ISIS. The Kurdish fighters took to street battles to push back the ISIS. They began to take down ISIS snipers, fighters and patrols while the air attacks took care of their tanks, artillery, and fighting positions.

Kurdish women fought bravely besides men when there weren’t enough men left to defend. At least one of the Emirati pilots was also a woman striking the ISIS from the air. Chatter on the Internet suggests that ISIS soldiers fear women. They believe that if a woman kills them, they won’t make it to heaven as a “martyr.”

 The United Arab Emirate
The United Arab Emirate's first female air force pilot, Major Mariam Al Mansouri, 35, whose F16 fighter was one of several that are blitzing the ISIS. —Photo courtesy of the UAE Air Force

In a matter of days, the ISIS went from holding 45 per cent of the town to holding only barely any. The ISIS flags was not to be seen.

The ISIS had suffered its first major defeat on the battlefield and that also at the hands of a rag-tag army of Kurds with a will to defend and the bravery to stand up. Along the way the Kurds demonstrated to the world how best to fight the ISIS: By supporting genuine regional defenders on the ground.

70 percent of the nine thousand strong ISIS force was taken down with the airstrikes. The supplies that the Kurds had been begging for finally arrived on October 20th, despite Turkey yet again expressing its reservations on supporting the Kurds.

This time, John Kerry’s statement had a different tone when he said on October 20: “We have undertaken a coalition effort to degrade and destroy (ISIS), and (ISIS) is presenting itself in major numbers in this place called Kobani…”

Also read: IS seizes portion of Kurdish town despite air strikes

Never again will the world ever be able to say that moderate Muslims of conscience did not stand up to the ISIS militants.

And never will history forget that the ISIS were defeated in no small measure with the help of brave women.

No doubt, the coalition air strikes were decisive, but those would have been worthless without the resolve and commitment of the Kurds who held out and repelled the ISIS on the ground.

If the ISIS goes downhill from here, history may well fault their failure to account for the courage of the people of Salahuddin.

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