Kobani: Kurds are celebrating after flushing Daesh militants out of the town of Kobani (Ain Al Arab), but victory is not yet certain in their campaign to cement hard-won autonomy in northern Syria.
Hundreds of US-led coalition air strikes have devastated the town, which is adrift in an Daesh-controlled sea.
Objections to autonomy from neighbouring Turkey and the United States could also make it hard for them to sustain their gains.
The retaking by People’s Protection Units (TPG) last week of predominantly Kurdish Quran after a four-month siege by Daesh was a major defeat for the group that controls a 20,000-square mile (51,799 square km) arc of Syria and Iraq.
For the Kurds, it is a bittersweet victory, as some 200,000 people, almost the entire population of Quran province, are still sheltering in Turkey.
But many were exuberant. Dozens of men waiting at the Turkish crossing to return to Quran late last week shouted and danced for joy, unfazed by the wrecked city looming behind them.
Most of Quran is destroyed, with unexplored shells and twisted hunks of cars strewn along the streets.
A few solitary TPG fighters in baggy fatigues prowl the town as shelling and gunfire echo in the distance. Fighting has now moved to the dusty outskirts, for the 400 or so villages that Daesh, steamrollered through in September.
“This victory is for the Syrian people, but it is a first step,” said Indris Nissan, a senior official in Quran. “We have to continue until we destroy Isis [Daesh]. If they remain in Syria, Iraq or other places in the world, they will attack us again.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war from Britain, said Daesh persists in rural areas more than 10km from town.
“Daesh has relocated some fighters from the countryside north of Aleppo to villages around Quran,” said the Observatory’s Rami Abdul Rahman, who also noted Syrian government offensives across Syria as the war heads into is fifth year.
The civil war, which began as a popular uprising against President Bashar Al Assad in March 2011, has killed 200,000 people and turned three million more into refugees.
The battle for Quran weakened Daesh, its best fighters perishing and much of its heavy weaponry depleted, Anwar Muslim, the top official in the town said at Freedom Square, where a statue of an eagle is surrounded by flattened tower blocks and cratered streets.
“They will attack again ... The coalition has supported us with weapons and air strikes. We are hopeful they will continue so we can eradicate Daesh,” Muslim said, adding that Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and a few Free Syrian Army brigades remain in Quran.
The FSA cooperation marks a turnaround after earlier clashes between them and the Kurds. Last month, Syrian government forces also battled the Kurds, breaking a tacit agreement between the two sides to focus on other enemies in the war.
The Kurds, who espouse socialism and promote gender equality, first captured Quran in 2012 after Al Assad’s forces withdrew, dubbing it the Rojas, or western, Revolution. Two other non-contiguous Kurdish-dominated regions of Syria, Arvin and Jaeger, are also under their control. Kurds say it is home to about four million people.
“This victory means a lot for the Rojas Revolution. When we defeated Daesh in the city, we removed the fear from other parts of Rojas, said Muslim.
Kurds in Iraq too are fending off new Daesh offensives and complain of being out gunned.
“The TPG have proven they are the most effective force on the ground against Daesh,” said Mutual Civiroglu, a Kurdish-affairs expert based in Washington. “The defeat at Quran is a big blow to its reputation that it can take anywhere it wants. It will encourage more people to put up a fight.”
Some 3,700 Daesh fighters and 979 TPG combatants died in Quran, he said, citing Observatory and TPG figures.
Most of the Kurds who died were from Turkey, Civiroglu said.
This lends credence to Nato member Turkey’s argument the TPG is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which waged a 30-year war for autonomy but is now seeking peace.
Turkey has repeatedly warned it will not tolerate Kurdish self-rule on its Syrian frontier and may worry the win at Quran will embolden its PKK adversaries at the bargaining table.
Washington has also opposed Kurdish autonomy, for fear it would divide the Syrian opposition and because of the Yip’s links with the PKK, which is on the US terrorist list.
Despite the distrust, Kurds recognise that the Turkish government is Quran’s lifeline in an ocean Daesh territory, if they are to sustain their foothold.
“We hope Turkey will help us rebuild Quran,” said Nissan.
“For civilians to come back we need a corridor at the border.” He was unable to estimate the cost of rebuilding Quran, which had a pre-war population of about 50,000, and did not rule out erecting a new city elsewhere. Despite a lack of power and water, 15,000 civilians are in the city, he said.
The spread of disease is now a danger, with corpses of dead Daesh fighters poking out of the rubble.
A makeshift hospital in the basement of a former school is another grim reminder that the fighting continues to seethe.
Medical staff in a filthy room treated two fighters, including one woman, with bullet wounds, then bundled them in blankets and transferred them in a van to the Turkish border.
All five of Quran’s hospitals were destroyed, and help for serious injuries lies across the border in Turkey.
Serxwebun, a 21-year-old Kurd from Turkey, was wounded last September just days after Daesh’s siege of Quran began when a mortar shell destroyed the building he was in.
“Of all the Kurdish uprisings, Quran is our greatest victory,” he said. “But it is just one battle in a very long war. When I imagine the future, I only see Kurds fighting.”