‘A blessing and a curse’: Kobani residents on US military presence in Syria’s north

Even as the Islamic State rapidly loses its Syrian territory, American military presence in the country has no clear end in sight.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated in a press briefing on Monday that US forces had no intention to “just walk away and let ISIS 2.0 pop back around.”

Three years ago, the United States-led anti-IS coalition began to provide air support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—later the main component of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—in their fight against the Islamic State.

In October 2014, US aircraft dropped weapons, ammunition and supplies to the YPG as they fended off a major IS offensive and encirclement in the northern Aleppo city of Kobani, according to a CENTCOM statement at the time.

Today, US intervention in Syria has expanded from airstrikes and supplies to include military bases and on-the-ground advisers in Rojava, Syria’s Kurdish-majority north.

US military convoy near Kobani on September 29. Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP.

This past July, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency published the reported locations of ten US military installations in Rojava, including a military installation and airbase just outside of Kobani.

The Kobani base was to serve as a headquarters for the SDF during their ultimately successful offensive to capture Raqqa city from the Islamic State, local media outlets reported earlier this year.

A coalition spokesperson contacted by Syria Direct on Wednesday would not comment on specific bases but stated that “although most major population centers have been freed of ISIS control, a lot of work remains to ensure the enduring defeat of its ideology.”

As the US looks toward a potential long-term role in Syria’s Kurdish-majority northern territories, Syria Direct’s Dayna Eyob spoke to residents on the ground in Kobani about their views toward an ongoing American presence.

Their views ranged from enthusiastic support for US support in fighting “terrorism” to outright criticism of American “occupation” in northern Syria.

“Residents feel protected from any attack, whether from the northern border with Turkey or from Daesh factions and others like them,” says Kilo Essa, a Kobani resident and local politician.

Fayan Mohammad, 24, sees the military base as a symbol of US occupation in northern Syria. “We are now under their control—American control—and in their hands,” she says.

All the residents Syria Direct spoke with agreed that the US military presence in the region provides some protection from external threats, but said they are aware that the country is acting primarily in its own interests.

“The Americans aren’t here as a charitable organization,” says local shop owner  Khabat Afandi. “They didn’t come to give us alms. They have a plan and, in time, it will become clear.”

Fayan Mohammad, 24, is a university graduate from Kobani with a degree in law.

Q: What do you think about the US military presence in Kobani and other areas?

I am against the establishment of military bases in this region because I’m not blind to the real reason they are here.  The bases, as I see it, are here to serve American military and political interests moving forward.

These bases are American assets, and, in my view, they ensure that the United States has a hand in the region in the future.

Q: As a civilian in Kobani, do you view the American military bases as playing a role to protect the city and its residents?

Yes, along the lines of what happened before in Tel Abyad. In Tel Abyad, a region not far from us, Daesh [the Islamic State] infiltrated and the Americans intervened, with their warplanes bombing Daesh positions. If not for the US warplanes, Tel Abyad could have been an even larger massacre than it was.

[Ed.: In July 2015, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in a jointoffensive with Free Syrian Army factions wrested control of Tel Abyad, a once multi-ethnic city near the Turkish border, after two years of Islamic State (IS) rule. The US-led coalition supported the YPG offensive with airstrikes on IS positions in the city. The US-led coalition also provided air support to YPG forces on the ground to repel an IS offensive on Tel Abyad in February 2016.]

Daesh is now far from us, but even if they were near—if they tried to breach the area or carry out massacres against civilians—then [I expect] these military bases would certainly intervene. They play a role in protecting the city and its residents, but of course they are protecting the very region where they themselves are stationed.

If [American forces] left the area, I think their reasons for protecting us would go with them.

Q: Does the presence of US military bases near the Kobani region make you feel safer? Or do you see them as the markers of an occupying force in the Kurdish territories?

It’s occupation in my view, but I could see how others might see it differently.

I see it as an occupation because we are now under their control—American control—and in their hands. We can be toyed with and turned in whatever direction they wish. They work with us in order to serve their own benefit, so that we can serve their interests.  

Q: Have the forces at the US military bases carried out any drills or exercises in Kobani?

There have not been any drills or exercises because here they only leave the military bases for the frontlines and places where they have work to do.

Sometimes they go to Kobani city, so we see American soldiers there in civilian or military dress, but they always have [members of] the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] or the Kurdish People’s Protection Units [YPG] accompanying them. They do not go by themselves, or mingle with people on their own.

Q: Do you believe that the military presence of the Americans in Kobani will be a blessing or a curse for the people of the region?

It will be both a blessing and a curse.

A curse because in the future we will be completely under their control. The Americans have the freedom to do what they please with us. If we make a decision and they approve, it will be fine. But if they don’t approve, then we won’t be able to carry out that decision.

A blessing because, as Kurds, we are striving for recognized future autonomy in our region. We see the presence of the Americans as a blessing because in the future they could support our calls for autonomy and federalism in northern Syria. Maybe their support of it will be a blessing for the Kurds in the future and in this way the Americans will benefit us.

**

Kilo Essa, 47, is from Kobani and a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, which maintains a tense relationship with the PYD, the leading political party in Syria’s majority-Kurdish territories.

Q: What do you think about the US military presence in Kobani and other areas?

When the international and American forces came to fight Daesh [the Islamic State], they became an umbrella that protects 35 percent of Syria. So, of course they will have bases inside Syria in order to achieve their goals.

The presence of American bases and international coalition forces has had a positive impact in supporting the Kurdish YPG/J forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

As long as these bases remain, we will have support. We hope that after they finish this war, the [international] forces will rebuild the affected areas in Rojava and support the Kurds in those areas.

Q: Does the presence of US military bases near the Kobani region make you feel safer? Or do you see them as the markers of an occupying force in the Kurdish territories?

America came at our request. We called on the world to stand with us against terrorism. These forces are not occupiers. America is a supportive force—they support the people of Syria and the Kurds.

Q: Do you believe that the military presence of the Americans in Kobani will be a blessing or a curse for the people of the region?

I’ll say it again: American presence here is a positive presence. We as the Kurdish people know it is positive for us because they haven’t harmed us. They harmed our enemies. They supported us and protected us. Why would we stand against them? We thank America.

**

Khabat Afandi, 47, is both a shop owner and a playwright from Kobani.

Q: What do you think about the US military presence in Kobani and other areas?

I think the American bases in Kobane and the surrounding area have a positive role. They bring security to residents. Residents feel protected from any attack, whether from the northern border with Turkey or from Daesh factions and others like them.

There is certainly a plan behind the presence of bases—a plan to redraw the map of the region—but project is beyond our frame of reference. Of course the West has a plan. One hundred years after the Sykes Picot agreement, there must be a new map and a new plan.

Q: As a civilian in Kobani, do you view the American military bases as playing a role to protect the city and its residents?

Of course, they have a role protecting the city. Even though we consider the [American] forces to be effectively occupying forces, they also bring security to residents.

Regardless of any plans or political intentions, they are protecting us.

Q: Do you believe that the military presence of the Americans in Kobani will be a blessing or a curse for the people of the region?

These forces have never treated residents or the Self-Administration poorly. But, as I said, the Americans aren’t here as a charitable organization. They didn’t come to give us alms. They have a plan and, in time, it will become clear.

Reporting by Dayna Eyob.

These interviews are part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of northern, Kurdish-held Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.