with the islamic state’s flag being raised above kobane for the first time, voices whisper in erbil, whether this could have happened here as well. and, if it could have happened in the past, is there a chance it might happen in the future? could erbil fall like kobane?
the answer is no. the only things kobane and erbil have in common are that they are both a city and both inhabited by a kurdish minority within their respective state. kobane is in syria. erbil is in iraq. but that is not the decisive factor that divides them. the vital difference is the international basement in erbil and its beating heart of oil production in the region. what i recently came across in a washington post article that was referring to the monday quiz night tradition for expats in erbil is one show of how settled the international community is in erbil. more than that, the american embassy is here, and so are representations from the british, french, german, italian, swedes. the united nations have a huge compound on the outskirts of the city and word has it that there is also more us-boots on the ground than officially known – because we are speaking of those invisible boots that do not count as military deployment. special operations and cia. it is with this tremendous presence, that far supersedes the international importance of kobane, that erbil is too vital to fall.
however, one might argue, that there have been talks about not letting kobane fall either. so what would be left of erbil if the internationals were to be evacuated?
let’s look at kobane first. itself a strategic town through its border to turkey, kobane before has been a symbol for a victorious kurdish defeat of isis. with its close border to a nato country, one would assume that the city has a symbolic relevance for the international community as well. i beg to differ. and there is two reasons for it. the first reason is the double play of turkey. turkey has not only supported the uprising of isis in syria from the beginning, it has also maintained a rather favorable position towards them throughout the years. while these relationships seem to be breaking in more and more due to international pressure, turkey is still interested in both seeing bashar al-assad in syria gone and in weakening the kurds, in syria or anywhere else for that matter. with their tanks lined up along their own border now, they are watching the fighting over kobane from a far distance, just making sure that the islamic state respects their border while giving weak excuses of why they have not interfered to safe kobane in the last three weeks. one might rightly point out, however, that turkey is not the only country that has an interest in the region and a fighting ground with isis in kobane. with the international strategic bombings focusing on syria more than iraq nowadays, one might assume that they have an interest in supporting whichever ground force that is there to defend the cities and people against the islamic state. this is where the second reason comes in – it is the changing tactics of the islamic state fighters that is giving the international community a headache. realizing their own vulnerability (and visibility from the air) moving on pick-up truck caravans, isis fighters have switched from fighting on open plains in cars and tanks towards a more versatile operational tactic by walking on foot in the cities. hidden between the houses and civilian population, a bombing from the air is no longer possible without breaking every established rule of warfare. yet the international community is reluctant in putting ‘official boots’ on the ground.
it is there, while the internationals are crunching numbers and thinking of options and consequences of interference, the islamic state takes the city of kobane street by street from the kurdish fighters.
based on the same two arguments, let me now review erbil. in light of the changing isis tactics, there is indeed a source of concern in the islamic state infiltrating into the city without much notice. however, at this point, the strength of iraqi-kurdish intelligence has to be pointed towards. and i am not even referring to military intelligence, as one hardly hears anything about that – but i am referring to something that i have experienced myself here already, which is a high level of civil alert and sense of responsibility. if there is something suspicious in their familiar neighborhood, kurdish citizens will call the security, assayish, to look into it – a system that, in times like these, is more than comforting.
as for the second argument, the role of turkey is less significant than in the case of kobane. while also playing a double play in iraq, turkey is less significant as there is international backing for the kurdish peshmerga from the united states, germany, france, the united kingdom, czech republic, hungary and others. and every new ‘boot’ on the ground ‘made in europe’ or ‘the united states’ increases the hope that yet again oil makes an area worth fighting for.