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In Syria, Kobani Overshadows Larger Battles

From Stratfor


Alleged Islamic State militants stand next to an Islamic State flag atop a hill in the Syrian town of Kobani, as seen from the Turkish-Syrian border 

Summary
Although major news outlet coverage of Syria remains fixated on the battle for the northern Kurdish city of Kobani, this particular battle is largely a sideshow in the wider Syrian conflict. The battle has been notable in humanitarian terms, since more than 150,000 Kurdish refugees have crossed the Turkish border to flee the Islamic State's onslaught. However, even in terms of the wider Kurdish position in Syria -- which is a major cause of concern for Turkey -- the Kobani pocket is a small portion of the area populated by Kurds and controlled by the Kurdish militia group known as the People's Protection Units. Al-Hasaka and the Afrin region of Aleppo contain the bulk of Syrian Kurdish-populated areas under the control of the People's Protection Units. That Syria remains a dangerous country for independent reporters has ensured that the Kobani battle, which can be filmed from relative safety across the Turkish border, has gained undue prominence in the media.
Analysis
The battle for Kobani continues, with the latest reports indicating that the Islamic State has been pushed back from a tactically important hill on the outskirts of the city. The Islamic State's drive to take Kobani is not over, though, and the city remains at a distinct risk of falling to the militants, particularly as fighting shifts into the town's streets, where targeting would be more difficult for coalition airstrikes supporting the Kurdish defenders.

However, far more momentous battles are occurring in Syria that have significant ramifications for the conflict. One of the most important is the latest attempt by loyalist forces to cut the last remaining significant road into the city of Aleppo by seizing the Handarat hill overlooking the road. The most recent reports indicate that pitched battles are continuing between rebel and loyalist forces for the strategic position, with the hill being taken and retaken a number of times. As Stratfor has noted before, the simultaneous advances by both Islamic State and government forces on Aleppo's outskirts have raised the specter of encirclement for the rebel forces within what was the largest city in Syria before the conflict.

Offensives and counteroffensives also continue in the eastern Ghouta area in the outskirts of Damascus. The Syrian government is intensifying its efforts to pacify the area before rebel forces advancing from the south in the provinces of Quneitra and Daraa reach the outskirts of Damascus in force. These battles undoubtedly will rage for a long time, but in the last week alone government forces have largely taken Adra and its associated industrial area in eastern Ghouta, while rebel forces in Daraa have seized the town of al-Harrah and the army positions around it.

Other battles are taking place across the country, with ongoing fighting between the Islamic State and government forces around the city of Deir el-Zour and continued clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra and its rebel allies against Hezbollah on the Lebanese border. Firefights between rebels and loyalist forces on the Latakia hills have intensified, and rebel and government forces are both preparing for a major showdown in the northern parts of Hama province as the government seeks to drive north past Morek and eventually reach its besieged forces around Maaret al-Numan.

For its part, the battle of Kobani has some implications for the wider conflict. For instance, sizable Islamic State units are currently invested in the offensive on the town, and Kobani's proximity to the Turkish border could draw Ankara further into the Syrian conflict.

However, Kobani -- a town with a pre-war population of only about 50,000 inhabitants -- is hardly the strategic point it is touted to be in many current headlines. Its capture would not affect the underlying balance of power in Syria or even in the northern parts of the country. For years, the Islamic State has been solidly established along the border with Turkey, including at important border crossings at Tal Abyad and Jarablus. The Islamic State also did not face any real threat from the isolated Kobani pocket, and the People's Protection Units fighters there were forced into a defensive mode before the Islamic State seized the city of Raqaa. In fact, the offensive on Kobani mostly serves the Islamic State by proving that the group is still able to take territory in the face of coalition airstrikes.

Many battles will continue raging across war-torn Syria, in mountains, valleys, fields, deserts, small towns and major cities. However, the key battles will be the ones that affect the logistical lines and capabilities of the combatants, harm or benefit the industries that support them in the war, or significantly affect their demographic and recruitment base. Kobani obviously is of considerable importance to the fighters participating in the encounter, and to the Kurdish population affected by the battle, but ultimately it will not change much in the wider Syrian civil war because it does not alter any of those variables.

 

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