Kurds describe intense combat in Kobani, Syria, but vow to fight on

Kurds describe intense combat in Kobani, Syria, but vow to fight on
Thick smoke and debris rise Sunday from Kobani, Syria, as seen from Mursitpinar, Turkey, after an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition amid fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamic State militants. (Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press)

Simko Karamogh sits smoking a cigarette and recounts a close-quarters gun battle with an Islamic State fighter in the besieged city of Kobani.

"We shot him three times but he must have had some kind of drugs," recalled Karamogh, a 35-year-old fighter with the Popular Protection Units, the Syrian Kurdish militia defending Kobani. "He dropped his Kalashnikov and pulled out a knife. So we shot him again, in the head and the mouth."


For the past month, Karamogh has commanded a small unit of Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State militants who have advanced through farmland and villages toward Kobani, just south of the Turkish border in northern Syria.

He crossed the border into Turkey on Saturday with another Kurdish fighter, Ali Mohammed, who is responsible for delivering supplies to vanguard Kurdish units.

"We need antitank missiles," said Mohammed, 30, who, along with Karamogh, spoke Sunday in a home in the Turkish city of Suruc. "We cannot attack a tank with a Kalashnikov."

The two men sipped tea, scrolling through photographs and footage recorded in Syria. One video showed a naked man surrounded by extremist fighters. Another depicted Islamic State militants spraying bullets into a prone man's head.

Staunchly secular and with leftist convictions, the Kurds are an ideological counter to the Islamic State's fanatical interpretation of Islam. Many Kurdish fighters are women.

"Daesh are scared of them," said Karamogh, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "They think they will go to hell if a woman kills them."

On Sunday, bouts of gunfire and loud explosions shook Kobani. Islamic State fighters are increasingly sending suicide car bombs careening toward Kurdish positions, the Kurds say.

The U.S-led coalition attacking the Islamic State staged three more airstrikes overnight, the Pentagon said Sunday. The air-based assaults sent columns of smoke rising above the city.

The vastly outgunned Kurdish fighters holed up in Kobani are cut off from other Kurdish Syrian enclaves to the east and west. Turkish authorities have refused to allow supplies and volunteers into Kobani, enraging Kurds on both sides of the border. The Kurds say they are short on ammunition and weapons.

"We have to be very strategic," said Karamogh, wearing a ragged leather jacket. "We try to capture communications equipment and monitor their radios. At night we send small teams of fighters out to attack them."

Islamist fighters surged forward again Saturday, but were eventually repelled.

"We control about 70% of the city," said Anwar Muslim, who heads the Kurdish administration in Kobani, reached by cellphone Sunday inside the city. "ISIS is using tanks, car bombs and child soldiers," he added, using another common acronym for Islamic State.

Syria's Kurds, estimated at 10% to 15% of Syria's population, were long-repressed by the Syrian state, which denied them linguistic, cultural and political rights. As Syria's conflict dragged on, the Kurds say they opted for a neutral stance supporting neither the Syrian government nor the opposition.

When Syrian government forces pulled out more than three years ago, the Kurds established three self-governed cantons, including Kobani, and set up self-defense militias.


The policy bought them into conflict with rebel factions – including the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and various Islamist militias – and drew accusations of complicity with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Kurds deny being in cahoots with Assad's government. There is great mistrust between the secular Syrian Kurdish militiamen and largely Islamist Syrian rebel factions.

"We protect ourselves. We don't seek war with anyone," said Karamogh. "I didn't think it was possible for anyone to be worse than Assad, but it is: The Free Syrian Army."

It remains unclear how much longer the Kurds can hold out in Kobani, where they're being attacked from three sides.

Meantime, fears have been mounting for the estimated 500 to 700 civilians still trapped in Kobani. Recently, the two fighters said, Kurdish militiamen tried to reach a family trapped in a basement.

"We couldn't get to them. We lost eight fighters trying," said Karamogh. "Daesh may be able to destroy Kobani. But we will never let them control it."

Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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