Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

World View: The Syrian Kurdish town witnessed the deaths of 164 civilians this week

Gunmen from Isis disguised as members of the security forces entered the town at dawn on Thursday. They immediately killed at least 18 civilians, including women and children shot at close range whose bodies were later found in the street. “The body of one child bore the impact of five bullets,” says the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. At least 120 people were murdered in their homes or killed by Isis rockets. “[Isis] doesn’t want to take over the town,” a local journalist was quoted as saying. “They just came to kill the highest number of civilians in the ugliest ways possible.”

The mass slaughter took place in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, on the Turkish border, which Isis failed to capture in a 134-day siege that ended in January. At the time of writing Isis was still holding 70 people hostage in buildings in the town and, including 26 people executed in a nearby village, the total civilian toll has reached 164 dead and 200 injured, making it one of the worst massacres carried out by Isis in Syria. “Every family in Kobani has lost a family member,” a Kurdish activist, Arin Sheikhmous, told a news agency.

The killing and wounding of at least 364 people at Kobani was far and away the worst atrocity, in terms of casualties, carried out by Isis last week. The number of dead was twice the 67 people shot, blown up or decapitated by Isis adherents in separate attacks on Friday in Tunisia, Kuwait and France. But the media reporting of these three events was far more extensive than the coverage of the much bigger Kobani massacre, even though news of all four atrocities broke at about the same time.

 

Some of this skewed emphasis can be put down to an understandable anxiety in Britain to find out what had happened on the beach at Sousse in Tunisia where 37 died, because so many of the victims were British. Likewise, in France there was the grisly beheading of one man and an attempt to kill many more by ramming a car into gas containers. But this wasn’t just the foreign media putting exaggerated emphasis on dead white folk at the expense of brown, because there was plenty of detailed reporting of the suicide bombing at the Shia mosque in Kuwait City where 27 worshippers  were killed.

I watched CNN news on Friday evening and Kobani was not mentioned during the first 15 minutes of the broadcast, while coverage was also scant on BBC and ITN. It cannot have been because there was a lack of reliable information because Kobani is within sight of Turkey, and both Syrian Kurdish local authorities and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights were quick to give details of the killings by Isis.

The lack of international attention is explained by the fact that people worldwide have become inured to horrible things happening in the wars in Iraq and Syria. They are desensitised by seeing so many pictures of children killed or maimed by Isis suicide bombers or government barrel bombs. They no longer respond to such news and regard it rather as a permanent if regrettable part of the region’s political landscape.

This “atrocity fatigue”, when it comes to Syria and Iraq, is highly convenient for foreign governments who helped provoke these wars and now do little to stop them. The attacks in Lyons, Kobani, Sousse and Kuwait were all carried out by Isis adherents or sympathisers to instil terror among the enemies of the caliphate that was proclaimed a year ago tomorrow.

But if Kobani was given attention equal to or greater than the other three attacks, then people might begin to link last week’s terrorist spectaculars with the failure of the US-led coalition to weaken Islamic State, which is stronger today than it was a year ago. Coalition airstrikes failed to prevent Isis defeating the Iraqi and Syrian armies in May when the jihadis captured Ramadi and Palmyra. What makes the current wave of terrorist attacks different from 9/11 and 7/7 is that they are now openly backed by a state, with its own well-organised army, administration and political organisation. On 23 June, Isis spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called on jihadis to turn Ramadan into a time of “calamity for the infidels … Shiites and apostate Muslims”.

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The number of dead in Kobani was twice the 67 people shot, blown up or decapitated by Isis adherents in separate attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France (Reuters)

There has been much irrelevant speculation about how much operational control Isis had over last week’s attacks, but this misses a crucial development over the past year. Once al-Qaeda’s calls for attacks on the enemies of Islam would have emerged on tapes recorded in obscure hill villages in Waziristan or Afghanistan. But today the Isis spokesman speaks for a state more populous and militarily powerful than half the members of the UN. As long as the self-declared caliphate exists, there is no stopping attacks like those we saw last week.

Governments in Europe and Washington would like to keep the debate on how to combat terrorism by Isis and al-Qaeda-type movements on an apolitical, technical level, as if they were coping with a natural calamity like Ebola or Aids, for which they were not responsible. There are useless discussions on why the Isis-inspired killers in France and Tunisia were not under surveillance, or how to minimise the radicalisation of Muslim youth.

All this evades the obvious fact that “the war on terror”, declared with much fanfare and vast expenditure after 9/11, has demonstrably failed. Isis and al-Qaeda-type groups that are little different from it, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham in Syria, are expanding their influence at an extraordinary rate in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

The central reason for this failure is simple enough and is the same today as it was after 9/11. US and Western European power in the Middle East depends on an alliance with Sunni Muslim states that either support or sympathise with the Sunni communities in which are rooted Isis and Nusra. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey would not necessarily welcome the victory of the Sunni jihadis, but they might prefer it to that of their Shia or Iranian-backed opponents.

Thus the US, Britain and their allies are supposedly seeking to combat Isis, but they simultaneously oppose the main enemies of Isis such as Iran, Hezbollah, the Syrian army, Shia militias in Iraq, and the PKK in Turkey in the shape of its Syrian branch, the PYD. This attempt to ride two horses heading in different directions has led to some extraordinary political contortions. US aircraft have been aiding PYD by furiously bombing Isis positions around Kobani over the past few days, but the US still denounces PKK as a “terrorist” movement. On the other hand, US planes did not target Isis war bands when they were advancing to capture Palmyra from the Syrian army. As long as the US and Western Europe do not confront their Sunni allies over their tolerance or support for extreme jihadis, they are keeping the door open for more attacks like those we saw last week.