“Promise them anything, give them what they get, and fuck them if they can’t take a joke.”
–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to a staff member regarding the Kurds in 1975
“As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani, you have to step back and understand the strategic objective,…[Kobani] is not of strategic importance” –Secretary of State John Kerry to the press regarding the Kurds October 8th 2014
“Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” –Henry Kissinger to the House Intelligence Committee regarding the betrayal of the Kurds 1975
In war, truth is the first casualty. Aeschylus
Forty years have passed since Kissinger uttered his derisive statements and his still living shadow looms over the Potomac as much as Winston Churchill’s looms over the Euphrates. On January 22 the YPG forces in Kobani announced they had cleared ISIS troops from the city after a desperate four month seige that left the city deserted and largely ruined. After careful analysis, one hears the echo of Kissinger’s pronouncements and wonders if the Kurdish militias had survived and prevailed despite western efforts rather than because of them. As the world’s largest stateless ethnic minority, the Kurds have a familiarity with western betrayal and being viewed as chess pieces on a larger player’s board.
From the perspective of empires, what would be Kurdistan rests on a geography that is convenient in war and inconvenient in peace. Centuries of being caught between the Sultan, the Shah and the Czar were not improved by Churchill’s pencil lines on the map at the close of the Great War. Kissinger’s intervention a half century later did the Kurds and even worse turn. While Iran (then an American puppet) was willing to use the Kurds as a proxy force against Iraq (a Soviet client) until the two achieved better relations in 1975. Arms to the Kurds were cut off and a series of ethnic cleansings by Saddam began with US acquiescence. In order to shake hands, puppets must be discarded.
The current situation in the Middle East puts more imperialist fingers in the pie. Iran and Saudi Arabia are actively vying to be the dominant regional power. The aspirations of Turkey and Israel are also not to be overlooked. Of these four would be regional powers, three, Turkey, Israel and Iran, have domestic arms industries capable of producing modern military aircraft, drones, helicopters and tanks. Turkey, and to a lesser degree Israel, export major military systems. Thus greater Kurdistan lies within the borders of two regional powers and two failed states with ongoing proxy wars while four regional powers struggle for dominance while the United States, the various powers of Europe (individually and collectively) and Russia (at least via arms export) continue to be militarily involved.
As independent pieces in a regional game of supremacy, the Kurds of Kobani were nearly sacrificed outright by the United States. That particular area has been autonomous since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Despite being aligned with the PKK, it would be inaccurate to call the YPG forces communist. The PKK has drifted away from a Marxist national liberation ideologies of cold war era towards the warmed over Anarchism of Murray Bookchin, whom PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan “one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century.” History, current affairs, and the aims of a half-dozen empires and their proxies collided on the heads of Kobani for four months, and the words of Kissinger echoed in Kerry’s pronouncements and in every detonation.
“Put them in a spot where they have no place to go, and they will die before fleeing. If they are to die there, what can they not do? Warriors exert their full strength. When warriors are in great danger, then they have no fear. When there is nowhere to go they are firm, when they are deeply involved they stick to it. If they have no choice, they will fight. ” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter 11: The Nine Grounds.
Looking down from space at Churchill’s pencil lines on the map, one sees Kobani as a dot immediately to the South of a line the separates a place called “Turkey” to the North from a place called “Syria” to the South. Turkey was quick to make this line material with the deployment of tanks, ostensibly to prevent ISIS incursion but actually to prevent YPG retreat and to deter refugee migration. The pitched urban battle for Kobani was fought literally under the guns of the Turkish Army.
Direct and precise fire support could have been employed at any time during the fighting to make ISIS positions untenable. This never happened. There have been multiple allegations that ISIS fighters were supplied with arms by Turkish intelligence services to sustain the siege and to facilitate the resultant genocide what would have followed an ISIS victory. Turkey does not consider the existence of an autonomous Kurdish city on it’s border to be it’s national interest.
The eventual victory of a female dominated militia armed predominantly with decades old weapons over a veteran force of fanatics with more modern captured and smuggled arms can be better understood in the context of the impossibility of retreat and the deadly consequences of surrender.
“There was no ground for us beyond the Volga” – Vassili Zaitsev, Notes of a Sniper
“We are the boys who will go to a particular place, at H-hour, occupy a designated terrain, stand on it, dig the enemy out of their holes, force them then and there to surrender or die. We’re the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person.” Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers
Stalingrad can be seen as both prototypical of Sun Tzu’s dying ground and the defining urban battle of the modern era. At the outset of the battle, Germany attempted to bomb and blast it’s way into and through the city. They discovered that a building is a very organized pile of rocks. A bomb turns said building into several disorganized piles of rocks. Subsequent bombs re-disorganize and move those piles of rocks around. Fights in cities are won with small arms, knives and shovels in a messy street to street, house to house, room to room, eyeball to eyeball fashion.
The Soviet strategy in Stalingrad was to never commit more than 40,000 troops to the city at a given time. They were constantly outnumbered by a 6 to 1 margin by a better equipped enemy. They employed a tactic called “hugging”, keeping their forces close the Germans at all times to negate the latter’s artillery and air power. Although they suffered great losses, they forced the Germans to continue to commit and over commit while rationing their own commitment.
What was Soviet grand strategy in 1942 became Kurdish desperate necessity 72 years later. Retreat from Kobani was prevented not by an icy river but a second hostile army. Until shamed into some action, no help would come from America except for the fruitless gentle prodding of an intransigent Turkish government. America is at war with Isis, yet committed not a single boot until late in the game, and did not feel the need to crawl down a hole and dig the enemy out with a knife. Why send a Marine when there is a teenage girl perfectly willing to do his job? The global outsourcing of labor to unpaid children has transcended from Nike to Northrup Grumman.
A handful of American airstrikes landed within the city towards the end of the siege. News sources claim that there were in excess of 150 American airstrikes in the Kobani area over the course of the four month campaign. The definition of “Kobani area” is unclear within the context of airstrikes. The definition of “airstrike” will be discussed later in the article.
The grisly mathematics of the battle appear as follows: 2,000 YGP fighters and 300 Free Syrian Army fighters fought against 9,000 ISIS troops for four months. During the course of the fight an additional 250 Free Syrian Army troops entered the fight and Kobani was reinforced by about 150 Kurdish Peshmerga troops from Iraq. This last forced was belatedly allowed to join the fight by Turkey and the US once both world opinion and the battle’s likely outcome favored the YGP. The YGP lost 500 killed and the Free Syrian Army an additional 70. ISIS lost between 1,200 troops killed in direct combat and another 1-2000 to American airstrikes along with over a dozen tanks and many other vehicles. In short 2,700 militia fought non-stop for four months against a better equipped veteran force that outnumbered them three to one and managed to inflict casualties at a two to one ratio before airpower was factored in. 300,000 civilians fled the area.
Averting human tragedy was not an American strategic objective. That tragedy did not unfold as envisioned with the exception of a massive refugee crisis and damage to the physical infrastructure of an autonomous Kurdish area. Had America, or any major or minor power, been willing to place 500 pairs of boots on the ground in the beginning, no tragedy would have occurred at all.
What is the objective here?
The American (and Turkish, and Iranian, and…) is that there be no state or society in the region that is autonomous from their power. Control of oil resources is also nice, but most of the oil in Syria is being smuggled by ISIS to and through Turkish markets. Kobani is not anywhere near an oil producing area. Observe:
Aside from being a major border crossing from Syria to Turkey, and thus a potential route for tanker trucks, Kobani has no strategic value to the petroleum industry. Those tanker trucks are often used to smuggle oil from mobile drilling and processing facilities in ISIS territory. Obviously such facilities are easy targets for American airpower.
A significant amount of American airpower is being used to target oil infrastructure controlled by either the Assad regime or Isis. As seen above, relatively few bombs are needed to destroy temporary structures used to process flammable materials.
American air strategy centered around the use of B-1B bombers from the 9th Bomb Squadron based in Texas. When not used a nuclear deterrent, the B-1B has a role of loitering over the battlefield and dropping a few bombs when called. The distance between Syria and Texas suggests that some B-1Bs were forward based in the region to reduce flight time and maintenance. The B-1B costs $720,000 per flight hour. Although air-refueling makes it possible for the aircraft to strike Syria from Texas, a 26 hour mission costing more than $18 million in maintenance expenses seems to be an expensive way to destroy a pickup truck even for the US Air Force.
The B-1B is capable of carrying either 24 2000lb bombs or 84 500lb bombs. Press reports indicate both were used in the campaign and the photo above shows craters consistent with the 500lb MK-84 device. There appear to be about 20 bomb strikes on the above target suggesting a quarter of a load from a single B-1B was employed.
Not all of the flights employed B-1Bs, and not all of the 9th Bomb Squadron’s 15 aircraft were likely deployed to the fight as some are committed to Afganistan. However with over 150 airstrikes in the campaign and an average of 50 bombs per B-1B, it is clear that the majority of the ordinance expended by the United States was not used in direct support of the fighters in Kobani. Where did the bombs fall?
Dangling the Kurds on a string
A quick look at a satellite map shows the military difficulties faced by ISIS. Kobani sits at the end of a long supply line surrounded by open country. 9,000 fighters and their vehicles use up a great deal of food, fuel and bullets. That has to get to the front somehow, and it did via pickup trucks and later motorcycles.
In retrospect it seems that the American strategic objective was to lure ISIS to Kobani, prolong the siege and suffering and force the enemy to double down. This strategy was designed to maximize the use of airpower but not (American) boots on the ground. The Kurds got just enough help to keep them alive and ISIS committed for as long as possible so that they could be targeted with million dollar modern American equipment rather than hundred dollar thirty year old Soviet equipment in Kurdish hands. What nobody expected was Kobani to hold and the Kurds to snatch victory from oblivion.
Henry Kissinger is still alive and working in DC. His words ring true today. The Kurds were promised much, and they got what they got. This time they fucked back and ISIS took the joke.
Despite the late game solidarity from the rest of the world, the YGP seems to still view solidarity as a two way street. In their official post battle statement they said “”The battle for Kobani was not only a fight between the YPG and Daesh [ISIS], it was a battle between humanity and barbarity, a battle between freedom and tyranny, it was a battle between all human values and the enemies of humanity.” Perhaps its time for the west to show the Kurdistan the solidarity they have earned.