Syrians are key
If there is anything remotely positive to draw from the ongoing fighting in Kobane it is that the Islamic State can be held and pushed back by local forces in Syria. In Mosul and across northern Iraq, the extremist group defeated the supposedly superior, US trained and equipped Iraqi army at lightning speed. The Iraqi forces are only starting to regroup now that political compromise has been reached in Baghdad and the West has begun to provide extensive support.
In Kobane, Kurdish fighters are poorly equipped, outnumbered, unsupported by foreign powers save for limited airstrikes, and largely cut off by ISIS on one side and by an uncooperative Turkey on the other. But after almost a month of siege Kobane has not yet fallen – despite predictions both by IS and by claims made by the former defense secretary.
Kobane may yet fall. This would be a huge failing by foreign powers who have pledged to degrade and destroy ISIS, and to prevent the town from being taken. What Kobane shows us, however, is that there are local Syrian partners with the will and strength to hold back the Islamic State.
Such partners are necessary but not sufficient to stem the ISIS tide, just as coalition airstrikes play a necessary but not sufficient role. Airstrikes can only be one part of a strategy to defeat ISIS. As it is, militants have quickly adapted their tactics to negate the effect of the strikes. ISIS has claimed it prepared a strategy to combat US air attacks in advance. Boots on the ground are needed to defend against and counter ISIS, and those boots must – where possible – belong to local actors. Supporting and coordinating with those actors is as vital as launching warplanes.
There is a third strand to an anti-ISIS strategy. While airstrikes and foot-soldiers make up the military solution, a civilian and political solution must also be reached. ISIS is a symptom of the power vacuum and social upheaval brought about by three years of vicious civil war. Address only ISIS, and its causes will remain, breeding future security threats and humanitarian disasters. A strategy to halt ISIS – and equally importantly its violent ideology – must include support for an internal dialogue among Syrians. The ultimate goal should be Syrian driven political and social reconstruction.
Just as Kobane shows that there are capable military partners out there, there are also capable civilian partners. Countless civil organizations built, led, and run by Syrian civilians have sprung up across the country in the last three years. Some have failed or been suppressed by the Assad regime, but many are thriving despite the parlous conditions and delivering services, aid, and order to Syrians of all stripes. These groups are well placed to provide a local backbone for any future rebuilding efforts.
The strategy thus far to defeat ISIS has often involved keeping Syrians themselves at arms length. But Kurdish fighters in Kobani, peaceful groups like the Syrian Civil Defense Units, and the myriad local groups already trying to build a better state from the ground up, show us that Syrians can take responsibility for their own future. We must help them achieve it.