KOBANI, Syria (Reuters) – Kurds are celebrating after flushing Islamic State militants out of the town of Kobani, 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 Islamic State-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 Koran after a four-month siege by Islamic State was a major defeat for the extremist group that controls a 20,000-square mile arc of Syria and Iraq.
For the Kurds, it is a bittersweet victory, as some 200,000 people, almost the entire population of Koran province, are still sheltering in Turkey.
But many were exuberant. Dozens of men waiting at the Turkish crossing to return to Koran late last week shouted and danced for joy, unframed by the wrecked city looming behind them.
Most of Koran 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 Islamic State, or ISIS, steamroller through in September.
“This victory is for the Syrian people, but it is a first step,” said Indris Nissan, a senior official in Koran. “We have to continue until we destroy ISIS. 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 Islamic State persists in rural areas more than 10 km from town.
“Islamic State has relocated some fighters from the countryside north of Aleppo to villages around Koran,” said the Observatory’s Ramie Abdul rah man, 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 Bashaw al-As sad in March 2011, has killed 200,000 people and turned three million more into refugees.
The battle for Koran weakened Islamic State, its best fighters perishing and much of its heavy weaponry depleted, Anwar Muslim, the top official in the town told Reuters 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 ISIS,” Muslim said, adding that Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and a few Free Syrian Army brigades remain in Koran. The FSA cooperation marks a turn around after earlier clashes between them and the Kurds. Last month, Syrian government forces also battled 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 Koran in 2012 after 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 ISIS in the city, we removed the fear from other parts of Rojas” that have been battling the militants, said Muslim.
Kurds in Iraq too are fending off new Islamic State offensives and complain of being out gunned.
“The TPG have proven they are the most effective force on the ground against ISIS,” said Mutual Civiroglu, a Kurdish-affairs expert based in Washington.
“The defeat at Koran is a big blow to ISIS’ reputation that it can take anywhere it wants. It will encourage more people to put up a fight.”
Some 3,700 Islamic State fighters and 979 TPG combatants died in Koran, 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 Koran 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.