Murat Karayılan*, a top official of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), answered the questions of Deniz Kendal from Yeni Özgür Politika on a range of topics concerning both past and recent events.
In part of the interview published in Yeni Özgür Politika on 2 February, Karayılan talks about the Kobanê resistance when the city was under the siege of ISIS in 2014.
If we go back to the attack on Kobanê; how was the situation in Kobanê and Rojava before 15 September 2014? What was the atmosphere like when the first attacks began in 15 September? Why did ISIS choose Kobanê for the attack?
This can be seen from different angles: Reasons such as Kobanê being a place of Kurdish patriotism for a long time, and even Leader Apo’s personal presence there and carrying out social and political activities can be elaborated on. But the more recent and visible main reason was that Kobanê was under siege. In other words, it was a city in the strategic position of being the weakest link that could not get help from anywhere. Because there was no communication or any usable roads between Kobanê and Cizîre, and between Kobanê and Afrin. There were ISIS forces in between blocking. In other words, it was under the siege of ISIS and the Turkish Republic at the same time. On one side was Turkey and the other 3 sides was ISIS. So it was like an island in a sea of terror. As far as I know, there were around a thousand YPG members defending Kobanê, but they did not have heavy weaponry.
ISIS commanders knew all of these details, but they also knew that the YPG did not flee as quickly as other forces they faced, but they stood and resisted. Therefore, on 15 September 2014, ISIS started to attack Kobanê from 3 sides with the US tanks and advanced weapons they had captured in [Mosul], Iraq.
For example, they could have carried out the same attack against Cizîre, but they did not. Why? Because YPG forces were more concentrated there. Their numbers and their weapons were a little more effective. Since Kobanê was identified as the soft under belly of the YPG, they targeted Kobanê first.
What happened then?
In the meantime, it should be mentioned that while we were preparing for a guerrilla force to be sent to Southern Kurdistan at the beginning of August, [to defend Yazidis] even in July, and when the attacks started, we were making extensive interventions with our units, at the request of the YPG -which was then not able to send their forces from Cizîre to Kobanê – we sent a certain amount of our forces from North Kurdistan (East and Southeast of Turkey) to Kobanê as reinforcements.
We also sent some combatant forces and commanders from the Amed region, including a group of ‘new fighters’, to Kobanê. In that process, our reinforcements were not only to Southern Kurdistan; but at the same time, we had made reinforcements to Rojava and especially to Kobanê.
In fact, ISIS had accomplished an attack on Kobanê in July. I think it had taken about two weeks. Then our forces arrived there. There were clashes, ISIS made some progress, but they were stopped. In other words, we had kept such contact with the YPG at that time.
Kobanê was not the only city under siege in Rojava.
Afrin had a similar situation. There were also conflicts there. In this context, and upon the request of the YPG, some reinforcements were also sent to Afrin over the Amanos mountains of North Kurdistan. Especially, Comrade Masîro, who was Amanos Command at that time, and friends such as Martyr Vedat and Martyr Şiyar Malatya came to Afrin with an influential group and participated in the clashes in Afrin and supported the YPG forces.
In the same period, during the ISIS attack on Kobanê, some of these friends somehow also found their way and reached Kobanê by secretly passing through the areas held by ISIS.
In this respect, the Kobanê Command was strengthened to some extent. However, these new comrades did not assume the direct command. The old ones served as the former Kobanê command; the new comers took on different supporting roles in the resistance.
In short, YPG forces resisted against the intensifying coordinated attacks of ISIS of 15 September. But these waves of attacks were quite huge.
During these times, historic and critical resistance was exhibited, such as those whose resistance meant that they did not leave their posts and resisted to the very end by reaching martyrdom when they were being surrounded in that school building. Yet, ISIS forces continued advancing from all three sides. This is because the attack was carried out both with the support of armoured vehicles and in a coordinated manner. They also used a tactic: Fighting forces at night were resting during the day and new fighting forces were then taking over during the day. A state of constant warfare, conducted in this manner for 24 hours a day, was very naturally wearing down the defending force. The Kobanê forces did not have the resources for such a situation. Thus, ISIS started to move closer and closer to the centre of Kobanê by advancing over the terrain.
How did you act in the face of these extensive attacks?
At the request of the YPG Command, we sent more reinforcements to Kobanê. If it wasn’t for those reinforcements, ISIS could have most likely advanced towards the centre of Kobanê more rapidly. But both we and the YPG Command, via Cizîre side, succeeded in sending more reinforcements. It is because in the meantime, we saw that there were possibilities on the road. For example, groups that went to Kobanê as civilians were able to reach the Kobanê border without encountering any serious obstacles. Taking advantage of the opportunities that arose for travelling on this road, the YPG Command was able to reinforce Kobanê from time to time through the Cizîre forces. However, these reinforcements were not enough to stop the full scale attack of ISIS.
I need to mention one of the key points regarding this intensifying process: And that was Leader Apo’s call for an urgent mobilization. It was this call of Leader Apo that guided the main resistance process. In that process, Leader Apo had perspectives that Kobanê should be absolutely defended. Likewise, he said that young people from Northern Kurdistan could go and join the resistance ranks, and called for a mobilisation on this basis.
The issue that strengthens our hand and reinforces that we are on the right track is the perspectives of Leader Apo with this mobilisation call that he evaluated from various angles in regards to the defence of Kobanê against ISIS. Mainly, after his call, there was a strong movement from the North Kurdistani people, and everyone came to stand in front of Kobanê and stood guard at the border, while many young people went directly to join the YPG ranks.
In addition to this, once the people even pushed they broke down the border line to Kobanê. As the result, the power that determined the direction of that process was the Leadership himself. In other words, the Kobanê resistance had reached its most important point. This was the reason why we, as HPG, believed that we should support it, and that we should even take more risks in the final analysis.
What was the attitude of the USA and other international powers at that time?
This attack was also on the agenda of international powers at that time. But then the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said in a statement, “We have nothing to do for Kobanê anymore.” Of course, his words of ‘nothing can be done’, meant that ISIS would now dominate Kobanê and carry out massacres against the people there.
And Erdogan’s words in Antep city, “it is about to fall, it will fall”…
Yes, Tayyip Erdoğan wanted to imply that Kobanê would definitely fall with those words, but the outcome left him grumbling into his beard.
After 15 September, when ISIS was rapidly advancing into Kobanê and everyone was expecting that Kobanê would fall, what did you do? What was the situation in Kobanê?
Since we were curious about the situation at that time, we contacted with the YPG’s Kobanê Command directly. Speaking about the situation at the frontlines, the Command stated that ISIS forces had reached to the touristic place which was about 5-6 kilometres from Kobanê on the south side (called Metham Seyran); and that clashes were continuing in that area, and he implied that the area may also fall. Then I asked him “Well, you say it will fall; if that place falls, the enemy will come and enter the centre of Kobanê; what will you do as the Command then?” That comrade replied to me “I will throw all my bombs to ISIS, and I will use the last bomb against myself.”
In other words, the belief in stopping the ISIS attacks had weakened. It was because there was a seemingly unstoppable momentum of advance. In short, some friends there, international circles and some others assumed that Kobanê would fall. The people, on the other hand, were in mass emigration in a way that was heartbreaking and watched with great pain and sadness. Something had to be done against it, and we couldn’t watch it like this.
At that time, we were holding the regular meetings of the HPG Command Council. The situation in Kobanê was also brought up and discussed at the meeting. It was because we had sent some forces there, and some of the forces we reinforced on this occasion fell as martyrs, thus, the situation in Kobanê had become critical.
What decision did you take then?
Well, there were two possibilities: Either the fall of Kobanê would be accepted like everyone else, or there would be ways found to prevent the fall of Kobanê by intervening somehow.
This could only be possible by envisaging heavy costs and carrying out a very determined resistance. Actually, both were very difficult. It was very difficult to accept that Kobanê would fall into the hands of ISIS, and the problems it shall cause would be much more serious.
But by continuing a resistance that could be successful in Kobanê, which was on the verge of falling in that exact moment, would also lead to many casualties. In addition, it was not the task of ordinary fighters to stand up to the combat performance of ISIS.
This could only be the work of experienced and self-sacrificing guerilla forces in Northern Kurdistan.
Finally, the meeting focused on our Leader’s call for mobilisation, and thus, it was decided that “Kobanê should not fall, we, as the PKK and HPG, must intervene in Kobanê; initially, 400 fighters must be transferred from the Northern regions to Kobanê.”
This decision was made on 1 October, and the Northern regions were instructed to act immediately on the same day.
We also shared our decision with the KCK Co-presidency. The management of our movement also approved our decision, and evaluated it as appropriate to take the risks. As the Central Headquarters, we were in a position to act proactively throughout this process. Both our Leader’s call for mobilisation and the direction he determined, as well as knowing that our KCK Co-Presidency, PKK General Secretariat, Women’s Movement Coordination and other institutional administrations were fully behind our decisions, motivated us more strongly.
In this way, by coordinating the process from one centre in the war against ISIS, it also led to the development of a system that was able to take quick decisions, and does not get caught up in bureaucratic problems on the resistance fronts such as Kirkuk, Maxmur, Shengal and Kobanê. This way of commanding also had resulted in many benefits.
Thus, when Kobanê was about to fall and everyone was waiting for the sad end, we made the decision to prevent its fall.
How did the YPG respond to this decision?
Of course, the YPG General Command had the exact same stance that ‘Kobanê should never fall’. They welcomed our decision of support very positively. In fact, they also prepared a reinforcement plan from Cizîre in parallel with what we had decided. They were constantly making reinforcements, but the casualties were very high, and their current battling forces were not enough to stop the attacks of ISIS.
Therefore, some of the commanders who led the war in Kobanê had started to feel some hesitation creeping in for continuing the resistance. They personally had no problems with fighting, but there were those who were concerned about getting progress and success.
In some battling forces, there was a situation of giving up. In addition to sending extensive reinforcements, partial changes and reinforcements were made in the command in Kobanê.
For example, comrade Çekdar Amed, who went from the Amed region (who was martyred in the Amed region, where he later returned in 2016), was appointed as a member of the command. Additionally, some new task sharing and renewals were made in the Command board. I mean that such an intervention was made in Kobanê, and on this basis, fighting reinforcements flowed there rapidly from Northern Kurdistan and Cizîre region. There was also a serious shortage of ammunition. We emptied all of our warehouses in the Botan region sending them to Kobanê. There was also the transfer of ammunition both from there and from other places. But the war was so fierce that they constantly needed more ammunition.
How did you reverse the process?
There was no serious obstacles to the flow of the reinforcements. In fact, once (it could be 3rd or 4th October), ISIS launched a violent attack against positions 200-250 metres close to the Turkish border crossing, which is a critically strategic place. There had been casualties, and Kobanê had been weakened, and was in serious danger of falling. At that time, we had learned that an important guerilla force that went there as reinforcements had already reached Mürşitpınar, and would pass over to Kobanê in the evening. And right on cue, the Command in Kobanê was told by us as “resist on until the evening; reinforcements will reach you towards the evening.” But the Command stated that it might be difficult to endure until the evening.
Thereupon, we contacted friends in the vicinity of Etmanekê Village behind Mürşitpınar, and we said to them, “You must act during the day; if you cannot reach now, the city may fall.” It was because that, if that front fell, ISIS would surge and hold that border crossing, and no one would be able to enter the city anymore. So then, ISIS would have destroyed the city.
At that time, the people also stood guard on the Northern Kurdistan side (in the city of Suruç and on the crossing border). These comrades also mobilised the people, and the people are flocking to the border. People throw stones, and things to the soldiers there. They make mayhem by throwing; meanwhile, 63 friends first mingled with the people in civilian clothes, then jumped over the border fence and crossed the border in broad daylight and arriving to Kobanê.
In fact, the transition of this group could be seen as it was recorded on cameras at that time, and was shown on televisions. But of course, no one knew that those who crossed the border were very experienced and dedicated Apoist guerillas. The soldiers at the border do not interfere in any way to the people or the comrades passing by. Thus, the comrades arrived to Kobanê. In Kobanê, the good thing was that there were enough weapons in the ammunition depots. Every comrade who enters the city immediately took the guns and ran to the frontlines, thus the weakness on that front is taken care of, and the positions are strengthened.
Regarding the departure of these reinforcements, you have just stated that the passageways are relatively unproblematic. At that time, from which regions and by what methods were your comrades reaching Kobanê?
At that time, we directed our forces from Botan, Amed, Garzan and even Erzurum regions to Kobanê. For example, the heroic commander Comrade Cemşit –who was also a true son of the people of Kurdistan who grew up in Kobanê, and played a very important role in the liberation of Kobanê – came from the farthest regions like Erzurum and came to the rescue of the city. All these roads, comrades were coming by vehicles. Even a group of 9 comrades in one place got caught by the police, but they were soon released.
Was all this an attitude to support the fight against ISIS?
No. Of course it wasn’t. The Turkish state wanted to turn Kobanê into a killing zone for us, namely PKK guerrillas. He [Erdogan] more or less planned to turn Kobanê into a human slaughterhouse. The Turkish state calculated that the guerrilla forces, which they could not remove from the mountains of Botan, Amed, Garzan and Erzurum for years, would go to Kobanê and they could kill all of them there. For this reason, he overlooked these transitions. Because he was watching the process in Kobanê very well.
MIT knew almost everything.
There were 50 casualties per day in Kobanê at that time. I’m telling you clearly; There were 50 casualties per day. 13-14 of them were martyred, others were injured. The Turkish state knew all of this. Because all the wounded were sent to Suruç for treatment. Some of the martyrs were even sent. Afterwards, they stopped sending the martyrs. I mean, they were seeing this, too. According to the calculations made by the MIT and the Turkish state, the forces leaving all the northern states, as well as all the forces transferred by the YPG from Cizîre, would have been liquidated and killed by DAESH once they reached Kobanê.
In this way, they wanted to turn Kobanê into a grave for us, by ‘cutting our roots’, so to speak. That’s why they tolerated the passage of our forces.
What did you do when you saw the aim of the Turkish state in that environment where casualties were experienced at the level you specified?
Actually, after a point, we understood this situation, but now the dice were thrown and it was necessary to go all the way. We aimed to reverse all these plans with victory by focusing on success.
As it is known, Kobanê became a grave for them, not for us.
For this reason, after that first reinforcement of 400 cadres, reinforcements were made one after another, and a very extensive conflict and resistance began in Kobanê, at a distance of metres from chest to chest.
Then you also had a Stalingrad analogy…
Yes, Kobanê will not fall; it will turn into a Stalingrad; We said that there will be a house-to-house conflict in Kobanê and Kobanê will be the beginning of the end of ISIS. That’s exactly what happened. Maybe ISIS is not over, but the starting point of the end of the empire it created was Kobanê.
History and our experiences proved that these words spoken at that time were not simply dry propaganda.
What would you say briefly about the attitude of the people in that process and the actions taken?
Because the people understood. There was a great resistance of our people in Northern Kurdistan, which is known in the literature as 6-7-8 October, but actually it lasted for 1 week. In the same period, our people’s ‘vigil guards’ actions developed in order so the Turkish state could not reinforce the mercenaries. Along the border, people stood guard day and night, holding hands.
All of our northern people gathered in front of Kobanê. A border watch was held on both the right and left of Mürşitpınar. The Kobanê Resistance had now turned into a social-national-democratic resistance, and Northern Kurdistan stood up as a whole for a week.
In other words, that great mobilisation, the police killing of people by the order of Erdoğan, nearly 50 martyrdoms in total, that spirit and that stance had a great impact on those who resisted in Kobanê. Our people showed, with their resistance, that they will never accept the fall of Kobanê. This attitude of the people had a very positive effect on the Kobanê resisters. In fact, at that time, state forces sort of retreated a little from places like Cizre. Yeah; There were police attacks and martyrdoms in places like Amed and Kızıltepe, but even though there were state attacks in places like Cizre and Nusaybin at the beginning, they eventually withdrew. In other words, by withdrawing into their own shelters, the street has passed into the hands of the people. It was such a process. All this had a decisive influence on the resistance.
Now there are some HDP members who are on trial for that resistance process; even many of them are in prison…
It’s completely irrelevant. This grassroots resistance appeared as the reflection of the process. It was a mass determination triggered by Erdoğan’s words “Come on, it is going to fall” while at the same time ISIS launched the attack on the city centre. In other words, it was Erdogan’s cynical words such as “it has fallen, it will fall” that brought the people on to the streets. They provoked people in the society. It so happened that our people took to the streets and we, as the HPG, were directing our guerrilla forces to Kobanê at the same time.
This is Northern Kurdistan’s high level of protection for Rojava, which was under the threat of ISIS brutality.
At that time, ISIS was constantly advancing. They were in the city at that time, and moving in to the city centre. As I just mentioned, there was now a distance of around 250 meters from the Mürşitpınar Border Gate. Had they held it, the city would have fallen. It was a very narrow space. In fact, we had more than 100 patriotic people of Kobanê’s inhabitants who stood by the resisting forces until then. The social unit administration of Kobanê probably sent them to the North, as they had given up hope of success.
They did this without the Command’s knowledge. In short, many people actually had hesitations, but we always believed that the comrades like Gulan, Arîn Mirkan, Hebun, Cudi, and Cemil who went all the way from Amed and Botan would resist until the end, and would not let them pass.
* Murat Karayılan is a member of the PKK Executive Committee and Commander at the Kurdistan People’s Defence Headquarters