Moustafa Mohamad has been consuming nothing but Gatorade for more than two weeks as he stands at the traffic overpass at Dupont Circle and tries to get the attention of passersby, the news media, and the Washington powerbrokers. He is fasting for Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish town near the Turkish border. Kurdish fighters and Free Syrian Army rebels are currently locked in a fight with the Islamic State over the fate of the town and the region.
It’s not an easy sell. Washington is certainly one of the most news-savvy cities in the country, but many pedestrians have no idea where Kobane is. They stare at the mannequin dressed in a red robe with the sign next to it, “ISIS Slave Sale: $500 for Kurdish Women.” Someone who obviously didn’t bother to read the many placards on display called the police to complain about a pro-ISIS demonstrator at Dupont Circle.
True, the allegiance of the factions fighting in Syria can be difficult to follow. Even the Obama administration has had a hard time deciding which groups to support and which ones to put on the terrorism list. But Kobane is more than just another town in the civil war in that benighted country. It is fast becoming a symbol of stubborn resistance to ISIS and its brutal policies.
If Kobane falls, it will not likely just be a territorial acquisition. The Kurds expect a scourge much like what has already befallen the Yazidis at the hands of ISIS: all men over the age of 10 killed and the women sold into slavery. UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura has compared the situation to Srebrenica—the town in Bosnia where Serbian paramilitaries slaughtered thousands of Muslim civilians—and has called on the international community to save Kobane.
Moustafa Mohamad decided he had to do something. Back in the early 1990s, Mohamad represented Kobane in the Syrian parliament. After becoming disillusioned with the possibilities of change, he went into exile in the United States. He has lived for 10 years in the Denver area.
When his hometown became the latest target of the Islamic State, Mohamad came to Washington to plead his case. He linked up with another exile, Kani Xulam, the director of the American Kurdish Information Network, who has been helping with logistics and also pressing for congressional support on Capitol Hill.
Their main ask is for a humanitarian corridor between Turkey and Kobane to save the civilians remaining in the town. Although press reports indicate a remaining civilian population only in the hundreds, Kani Xulam estimates that there are around 2,000 people who have remained to help the Syrian Kurdish fighters in the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that are defending the city.
The other two demands are more controversial. The first is that the United States should increase its support for the YPG. In mid-October, in addition to launching air strikes against Islamic State targets around Kobane, the administration began to drop arms and aid for the Kurdish fighters. Particularly with Samantha Powers at the UN, the administration is sensitive to anything resembling genocide happening on its watch. It doesn’t want Kobane to cast a shadow over the Obama years in the way that Srebenica or Kigali did for the Clinton era.
Advocates are also calling on Turkey to allow Kurds to cross the border to fight against the Islamic State. The most that Turkey has done is allow the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga to cross through Turkey to fight the Islamic State. But the Turkish government has been reluctant to allow its own Kurds to help the YPG in the belief that it works hand in hand with the Kurdish separatist movement PKK in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even went so far as to say, “To us, ISIS is the same as PKK.” Indeed, some reports suggest that Turkey might even support ISIS against the Kurds. More likely, Turkey is willing to adjust its strategy depending on how best to achieve its ultimate goal: dislodging Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
The Obama administration has just announced that it will send another 1,500 troops to Iraq to train Iraqis and Kurds. The United States is also planning to bring Syrian fighters to Saudi Arabia for training. But the United States also doesn’t want to strain relations with Turkey, a key ally. And it is fully aware of how wary the American public is of getting involved in yet another war in the region. So the Obama administration is desperate to find a balance: air strikes but no (or few) boots on the ground, attacks on ISIS but no inadvertent bolstering of the Assad regime, assembling a coalition of Arab states against ISIS but trying to prevent some of these states from funding extremist factions on the ground, and so on.
Meanwhile, Moustafa Mohamad maintains his vigil at Dupont Circle. If Kurdish fighters are successful, he will go back to visit Kobane. After all, he still has family there. For him the conflict is deeply personal, and he hopes, ultimately, to tilt the balance in the Obama administration—in favor of his home town.