Why the Islamic State Raided Kobani

5 MINS READJun 26, 2015 | 09:01 GMT
Why the Islamic State Raided Kobani
People watch smoke rising from the Syrian town of Kobani on June 25.
(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

In the early hours of June 25, Islamic State fighters formed up under cover of darkness to launch two very distinct attacks in northern Syria. To the northeast, a sustained assault on the city of al-Hasaka beat back forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, which enabled the Islamic State to take several outlying suburbs. Though this attack was the more strategically significant action, a swift and violent raid on the Kurdish-occupied town of Kobani on the Turkish border generated much more public outcry. This is not without good reason. 

The operation in Kobani was designed to maximize chaos and confusion. Around 30 Islamic State fighters infiltrated the town before dawn, some masquerading as Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) personnel and some wearing Free Syrian Army uniforms. Once inside the town they began to spread out, bringing forward as many as five vehicles packed with explosives to initiate the assault. The intent was to cause as many casualties as possible. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 35 people were killed in the raid, and 20 more died in an outlying village, the majority of them civilians. Approximately 12 of the attackers died in the fighting.

This attack comes on the heels of a successful territorial offensive by YPG and Free Syrian Army elements against regional Islamic State groupings. By severing a crucial supply line running from Turkey, Kurdish and rebel forces believed that the Islamic State's offensive ability had been significantly reduced. This partially explains the Kurds' shock over the Kobani raid and erroneous reports that a massive and sudden territorial reversal had occurred. Initial reports even (falsely) stated that Islamic State fighters had moved through Turkish territory to come in from the north.

In fact, the Kobani operation was a perfect example of a raid: an often-overlooked military action that uses minimal personnel to accomplish specific missions, typically ones that have a disproportionate effect on the ground. While inherently risky, the overall economy of force and potential impact make the raid an indispensable tool for armed combat.

Raids are distinguished from other military operations in that they do not focus on the permanent holding of territory and have a planned withdrawal phase. In essence they are surgical strikes against a known enemy, meaning that they are likely to occur at specific frontline positions or deep in enemy-dominated territory. Units conducting raids in unfriendly ground must use mobility and stealth as their primary tools for accessing their target. Therefore, raiding force structures tend to be relatively small compared with standard unit sizes in any given conflict. They are often better trained than standard forces as well because of the array of skills needed to complete a raid.

There are many reasons for executing a raid over more common mission types, such as advance to contact, deliberate and flanking attacks or ambushes. The most common rationale comes from the fact that raids allow military planners to temporarily reach into their enemy's backyard, inhibiting the opposition's war-making abilities in a cost-effective manner. A commander may not have the manpower or materiel to drive entrenched enemy fighters out of their fortified positions, but it is feasible to dispatch a small unit with the appropriate skills to disrupt a supply line by destroying a bridge 15 kilometers to the rear, which in turn may degrade the enemy's ability to continue to mount a defense.

Specific raid missions derive from a commander's desire to achieve a broader effect on the enemy. Usually a single raid does not accomplish a consistent or widespread effect on an enemy. For example, in an effort to degrade militant networks in the global fight against terrorism, the United States and its allies employed special operations forces ceaselessly, normally on missions to kill or capture key leaders and recover valuable intelligence. Any individual leader can be replaced, but consistent raids put tremendous pressure on the command and control nodes of transnational militant organizations. By removing more key personnel than can be replaced or by making leaders so preoccupied with their day-to-day survival, small dedicated forces can interdict the enemy's planning cycle and ability to conduct operations. In another example, the Taliban have consistently raided Kabul to keep a large amount of security fixed in place, thereby degrading confidence in the government. These are forces that could be deployed elsewhere but instead remain on static security details, effectively waiting to counter a potential threat rather than being deployed proactively.

On the surface, a single raid mission can easily be misconstrued, in turn leading to more confusion, which may be the actual goal in itself. The Kobani raid illustrates this point. The actual operation accomplished little in tactical or strategic terms and was effectively a suicide mission. But it led to some Kurdish claims that Turkey facilitated the attack, deepening suspicions of one another in an already distrustful relationship. 

More important, unexpected shock actions such as raids push hard choices onto YPG and Syrian rebel commanders. If they do nothing in return, they may face domestic ire and their soldiers may be distracted with concerns about their homes. Alternatively, in an effort to prevent similar attacks in the future, commanders could move a disproportionate amount of — inherently finite — manpower in an effort to secure vulnerable regions more tightly. This is the same manpower that was recently pushing the Islamic State hard and successfully stripping the group of territory. With the surgical sacrifice of a handful of fighters, the Islamic State could force the YPG or the Free Syrian Army to make strategic decisions.

In addition, the raid did not happen in isolation. Islamic State forces are making headway in al-Hasaka to the northeast, and reassuring the occupants of Kobani of their safety will be a further distraction for Syrian rebel and YPG commanders. The full success or failure of the Islamic State raid on Kobani cannot be measured, however, because much depends on the extent to which the Kurdish and Free Syrian Army leaders react to the provocation. Any miscalculation or overreaction on their part could have negative consequences for the war in Syria and thus the region. These are the disproportionate effects a successful raid can have.

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