A coalition air strike on an ISIS target in Kobani, Syria, also known as the “Kurdish Alamo” in October 2014. Photo: Scott Bobb/Voice Of America
When the so-called Islamic State set its sights on Kobani, Syria, in mid-September 2014—encircling Kurdish fighters there—then-Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the city couldn’t be saved. As Turkish tank crews watched tensely from across the border, the US Air Force and coalition airpower went into action, making supply drops and hitting surrounding ISIS forces with bombs dropped from B-1B bombers. The 112-day siege proved to be the turning point in America’s commitment to fighting in Syria, and a battle lab for dynamic air and ground tactics.
Mosul, Iraq, fell to ISIS in June 2014. Three months later, ISIS fighters were battling Iraqi forces less than 25 miles from Baghdad. US and coalition airpower intervened, releasing 1,200 weapons in strikes during August and September 2014.
Kobani—also known as Ayn al-Arab—lay to the east of the Euphrates River. The town had grown up around a 1912 train station built as a stop on the Ottoman Empire’s Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. The city was home to Armenians and Kurds and had a population of about 45,000 when Syria’s civil war began in 2011.
In July 2012, Kurdish forces took over protection of the city of Kobani and the district around it.
Kobani held a strategic position on the border with Turkey. From Kobani in the West, past Sinjar and toward Irbil in the East, lay a corridor of oil pipelines and refineries. ISIS was tapping the oil for more than $2 million per day in revenue, the Pentagon said. Control of Kobani would help solidify ISIS control of Syria’s oil fields. Locking down that revenue was part of the goal for creating the ISIS caliphate.
Under ISIS control, Kobani would also be a haven for recruits going south to fight in Iraq.
It looked easy. On Sept. 16, ISIS forces seized a key bridge over the Euphrates. A drive with tanks and artillery captured small villages and brought ISIS to within 10 kilometers of the city of Kobani by Sept. 20. Soon artillery fire was falling into the city. Turkey counted 130,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees streaming across the border four days later.
Up to 4,000 ISIS fighters were advancing in parts of the city. Countering them was a determined force of fighters, starting with groups of Syrian Kurds. They were soon joined by Peshmerga, official Kurdish forces of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, and numerous other groups.
Kobani’s defenders were in trouble, though. ISIS took an important hill from the YPG—Kurdish militia in Syria—on Sept. 26. The momentum could overwhelm the city. Brazen ISIS forces behaved like an army moving freely, out in the open on the roads and arid terrain.
“As you know, this has been an important week for the US and our coalition forces as we began air strikes in Syria,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sept. 26. US and Arab allies carried out 43 air strikes into Syria, he reported.
The first US air strikes near Kobani began on Sept. 27. Air Force F-15Es struck an ISIS command and control center; a typical target for that phase of the campaign. Also in action were aircraft from the carrier USS George H. W. Bush.
For the next two weeks, coalition air strikes continued, but only in small doses. Coalition planners struggled to pinpoint suitable targets and to work with Kobani’s defenders. By Sept. 30, the Pentagon reported 76 air strikes in Syria, mostly near Kobani.
Washington was in shock. The Intelligence Community and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper “acknowledged that they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” President Barack Obama told “60 Minutes” on Sept. 30, 2014.
Defending Kobani would take a direct US commitment to defeating ISIS in Syria. While US and coalition partners were pledged to chase ISIS out of Iraq, Syrian policy was another matter. Fighting for Kobani meant more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, more air strikes, and forging a relationship with groups of Syrian Kurds as new partners on the ground.
“You can’t defend Kobani, Baghdad, Mosul, Erbil, and Sinjar,” as well as conduct strikes “against the Islamic State in places such as Raqqa, with a limited number of ISR orbits to collect necessary intelligence,” a senior Pentagon official told Kate Brannen of Foreign Policy on Oct. 7.
NO CAN DO
Although the coalition apportioned air strikes to the beleaguered town, pessimism prevailed.
A total of 135 air strikes had been carried out on Kobani targets by Oct. 9. “The US has now struck Kobani more than any other target except the Mosul dam,” Jim Sciutto of CNN tweeted on Oct. 9, 2014.
Still, Washington wavered. The Obama administration had committed publicly and at the United Nations to pursuing ISIS through Iraq. What about Syria
“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,” Kerry said at a news conference in Washington with Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary.
“We are trying to deprive ISIS of the overall ability to wage [war], not just in Kobani but throughout Syria and into Iraq,” Kerry added.
“No Can Do” screamed Time magazine’s headline on the prospects of saving Kobani.
“The US has been restricted in its ability to battle ISIS for two reasons: it waited for months before taking action, and then—per Obama’s orders—it decided not to commit any US ground troops to the fight,” Mark Thompson wrote in Time on Oct. 9, 2014.
Katherine Wilkens of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace called Kobani “A Kurdish Alamo.”
“In a coalition where most of Washington’s regional partners are primarily focused on regime change in Syria, the jihadist attack on Kobani offers a test case of whether the United States can get its partners to temporarily set aside their other priorities and act effectively against the Islamic State,” Wilkens wrote in an Oct. 10, 2014, piece.
NATO allies such as the Netherlands and Belgium were deploying forces to join the coalition, and France was already in the fight. For the time being, their parliaments had restricted air strikes to territory in Iraq only. Ultimately, Bahrain, Britain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE air forces participated alongside the US providing air support for Kobani.
Airpower was the main tool available. “Just to remind, there’s not going to be a US ground combat role here,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, said on Oct. 10, 2014. “I’m putting that out very clearly.”
As for airpower, some doubted its effectiveness, given the slipping situation.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen because, again, in the absence of any ground force there, it is going to be difficult just through airpower to prevent ISIS from potentially taking over the town,” then-Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken told NBC News on Oct. 13.
As part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the images above show a US air strike against an ISIS vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) in Syria. Video: CENTCOM
MORE THAN A DRIZZLE
Air strikes were, however, definitely having an effect. The attacks quickly constricted the mobility of ISIS forces. “Before the air strikes happened, they pretty much had free rein,” admitted Kirby. “They don’t have that free rein anymore, because they know we’re watching from the air.”
ISIS forces got better at concealment, according to Kirby.
Two types of air strikes were underway. First was dynamic targeting of what Kirby called “mobile assets on the ground.” These included tanks, command posts, even trucks used in the oil smuggling. Deliberate, pre-planned targeting also went against “fixed targets, a headquarters building, command and control nodes, a finance center, oil refineries.” The idea was to prevent ISIS from consolidating its gains.
However, a sprinkling of strikes wasn’t going to be enough. ISIS forc- es and tanks advanced closer to the center of Kobani on Oct. 10. A spasm of suicide vehicle bombings followed as ISIS fighters tried to dislodge Kurdish strongpoints.
Both sides were now determined to prevail.
Saudi Arabia joined US fighters and bombers striking ISIS targets southwest of Kobani on Oct. 13.
“Rather than the bombing prompting a tactical retreat” by ISIS units, “they appear to have doubled down in their quest for Kobani,” observed Derek Flood, a journalist who was in Turkey on Oct. 15, 2014. As American air strikes rapidly increased in and around Kobani, ISIS fighters “ushered in reinforcements from their reservoir of recruits in al-Raqqa and Aleppo, and ramped up their employment of vehicle-borne suicide bombers,” Flood wrote in the CTC Sentinel, West Point’s counterterrorism journal, in November 2014.
For ISIS, too, this was chosen ground. It clearly mattered to ISIS, Kirby said, “because they kept presenting themselves there and presenting targets.”
In fact, the air strikes put Kobani in the global spotlight. For the US and coalition partners, Kobani was on the verge of becoming a major failure.
Across the border, Turkish tanks lined up to keep a wary watch. Turkish civilians could see the fighting in Kobani from the town of Suruc on their side of the border.
ISIS fighters took over checkpoints, a key hill, and drove Kurds out of a school building.
With Kobani nearly defeated, Washington made its move. NATO ally Turkey had entered the anti-ISIS coaltion on Oct. 2. Now Turkey agreed to allow resupply to the Kurds to sustain the fight in Kobani.
Washington placed its bet on airpower.
On Oct. 20, three USAF C-130s conducted multiple airdrops to resupply Kurdish forces, defending the city. In the airdrops were 24 tons of small arms and ammunition. The airdrops also included 10 tons of medical supplies. Kurdish authorities in Iraq provided the supplies, according to Central Command. As the opertion progressed, Operation Inherent Resolve would log over 1.4 million pounds of supplies airdropped from August to December of 2014.
A B-1B over Syria. B-1s conducted airstrikes against ISIS targets, dropping 1,700 guided weapons on Kobani during the seige. Photo: SSgt. Perry Aston
HOPE FROM ABOVE
From a strategic perspective, there was hope.
“For its campaign against Kobane, [ISIS] has converged en masse for a conventional attack upon a fixed geographic point,” observed Jill Sargent Russell of Kings College London. While ISIS “might momentarily hold an advantage against any concerted defense with effective fire support, they are weak and soft targets,” she pointed out in an Oct. 20, 2014, comment to Britain’s Daily Telegraph.
“Suddenly, the fight for this little-known town took on vast symbolic significance,” wrote Fred Kaplan in Slate on Oct. 31, 2014. “And if ISIS was telling the world that Kobani was a decisive battle along the path to the Islamic State’s victory, then Obama—who’d put American resources and credibility on the line—had little choice but to treat it as a decisive battle as well,” Kaplan assessed.
By early November, ISIS was failing to gain new ground. Four attempts to take a border crossing with Turkey had failed.
ISIS called for reinforcements. So did the Kurdish fighters. Backed by steady US and coalition airpower, the Kurdish groups were securing their foothold in Kobani.
ISIS controlled about 60 percent of Kobani as of Nov. 5, 2014. It would prove to be their high-water mark.
The decision to assist Kobani marked a change in the US strategy in Syria. Now the US had to “deliver on helping develop a trained, moderate opposition in Syria that has the requisite leadership and military skills to actually go ahead and defend territory inside Syria,” as Kirby explained at the Pentagon.
What followed was two months of street-by-street fighting. For US airpower, the problem was that ISIS fighters had wrapped themselves around the city and what was left of its civilian population.
It was up to a combination of ISR and battlefield input from the Kurds to outline areas for strikes. As the force on the ground improved tactically, so did its use of airpower. Open supply lines from Turkey also had a significant effect.
US and coalition aircraft striking Kobani faced a long flight from deployed bases. They also had to fly past Syria’s air defenses. Syria’s integrated air defense system usually looked westward, toward Israel, and coalition aircraft operated in the East. Yet the threats were real.
American F-22s in-theater helped quarterback the strike packages. Aircraft such as B-1 bombers, F-15E and F-16 fighters, and others carried electronic warfare systems able to process and jam signals. The B-1s were especially good at dealing with electronic threats.
Dynamic targeting was sharpened during the siege of Kobani. Joint Tactical Air Controllers rarely deployed with the Kurds. Instead, they employed ISR to watch the fight. As targets developed, JTACS did collateral damage estimates and forwarded targeting. Sometimes cell phones were part of the process.
Lt. Gen. John W. Hesterman III, then-commander of US Air Forces Central Command, explained that the vast majority of dynamic targeting strikes were “well away from friendly troops in contact. And we use a multitude of sources to initially ID the enemy and communicate what we see. Then JTACS in operations centers do a collateral damage estimate and then we deconflict friendlies. And when that’s done, a senior officer clears the sortie.”
“You know, the average time for those strikes, by the way, is measured in minutes, not hours, or even halves of hours.”
B-1S AT KOBANI
By far the single largest amount of ordnance pounding ISIS targets in Kobani came from B-1 bombers, which dropped 1,700 precision guided weapons on Kobani during the siege.
“Bones” from the 9th Bomb Squadron at Dyess AFB, Texas, deployed to Qatar in July 2014 expecting six months of long combat overwatch flights to and from Afghanistan’s airspace. They had been used consistently since 2001 to loiter and drop bombs, provide overflights, or simply keep watch. Previously, in Afghanistan, the 9th Bomb Squadron’s B-1 crews found it could take four to five hours to develop and strike a target.
In 2013, they’d dropped just 93 bombs in Afghanistan over six months.
At Kobani, the intensity of the fight ratcheted up. “It was a massive shift in rules of engagement,” said Lt. Col. Erick Lord, the 9th BS commander, to Military.com in a January 2018 interview.
In Kobani, “It was just go. Blow everything up,” Lord said.
“It was an urban environment, so it was a lot of buildings,” Maj. Charles Kilchrist told the website.
“We had jets there every single day for 24 hours a day. Along with the F-15E Strike Eagles,” he said.
An F-16 pilot described her missions over Kobani. Especially after night sorties, dawn would break over the deserted town. It looked “like a moonscape,” she said.
One ongoing concern was interference from Syria’s Air Force. This F-16 pilot appreciated how F-22s often just took care of air superiority and let the F-16s concentrate on air-to-ground work.
Maintaining air patrols over Kobani meant six or more hours on station. Depending on what happened, fighters were often rerouted back into Iraq to refuel.
The F-15s and B-1s would tag each other, handing off targeting coordinates as they rotated in and out for the days-long watch.
“We were just bombing them back, and back, and back … to the West, and [ISIS] would try to sneak around to the South, and then we would see them, and … it was just a huge battle,” Kilchrist said.
On the ground, the arrival of Iraqi Kurd Peshmerga troops brought forces with experience in coordinating US air strikes.
“There were times we were bombing across the street, and as soon as the weapons were going off, they are charging into the rubble to take out what’s left and move forward that line of troops to the next block,” one B-1 pilot told Air Force Times. “It’s an amazing job the [Kurdish forces] did and how they are, more so than air- power, critical to victory in Kobani.”
The B-1s went Winchester—dropping their entire bomb load in one mission—a total of 31 times in the fight for Kobani. That was a credit to smooth air-ground coordination. Typically, crews would release weapons on individual targets throughout several hours.
“The more they [ISIS] try to act like an army … they just reinforce failure, and we kill them at a very great rate,” concluded Hesterman.
“They were very willing to impale themselves on that city,” one B-1 crew member told Air Force Times.
On Jan. 19, 2015, Kurdish YPG fighters retook Mistanour Hill. Kobani was declared fully liberated about a week later.
The “air strikes helped a lot. It helped when we had a reliable partner on the ground in there who could help us fine-tune those strikes,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon on Jan. 27.
Kobani was a significant defeat for ISIS. It lost personnel, territory, and its command and control safe haven. The ISIS plan to mass and exert military force over the city fell apart.
CNN reported ISIS fighters withdrew from Kobani because “we no longer had places to hold there,” an ISIS fighter said. “We were inside Ayn al-Arab and we occupied more than 70 percent, but the air strikes did not leave any building standing, they destroyed everything.” The targets even included motorcycles, he added.
Also in late January, Hagel announced the US would begin to train and arm Syrian opposition forces. The success of combining Kurd ground forces and coalition airpower at Kobani had proved the concept.
Then-USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh acknowledged that his service flew about 60 percent of the sorties in the air war against ISIS. However, he shrugged off the credit.
“The DOD approach is not to defeat ISIS from the air. The intent is to inhibit ISIS, to attrit ISIS, to slow ISIS down, to give a ground force time to be trained because the ground force will be required,” Welsh said in a State of the Air Force press conference on Jan. 15, 2015.
Holding Kobani was not the end of the ISIS fight. It took a huge acceleration of air strikes from 2015 through 2017 to secure Iraq and bottle up the worst of ISIS. The weapons release count for Operation Inherent Resolve reached 106,808 at the end of 2017.
However, at Kobani, airpower again stepped in as the workable option in a foreign policy crisis, with lives on the line and the world watching. As with Bosnia, Kosovo, and the early days of Afghanistan, allies found their airmen provided a way to fight.
Concluded one B-1 crewman: “I look forward to telling my grandkids that I got to help these people and to defend their homes.”