Kurds' battle for Kobani unites a people divided by borders

Kurds' battle for Kobani unites a people divided by borders

ARBIL - Cloaked in Kurdish flags, thousands of people lined the roads to cheer on a military convoy headed for what was -- until recently -- an obscure Syrian border town, now the focus of a global war against the militants of Islamic State.

The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga were on their way to help fellow Kurds defend Kobani in a battle that has assumed huge significance in the United States' campaign to "degrade and destroy" the hardline Islamist insurgency.

It is unclear whether the small but heavily armed contingent of peshmerga will be enough to swing the battle, but the deployment is a potent display of unity between Kurdish groups that more often seek to undermine each other.

The unified front is being forged as Kurds emerge as the West's most trusted and effective partner on the ground in both Iraq and Syria.

But preserving that unity be tricky, given the competing ambitions for leadership of the world's more than 30 million Kurds, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslim, but who tend to identify more strongly with their ethnicity than religion.

Governments in each of the four countries across which they are spread - Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran - have tended to exploit internal Kurdish divisions to thwart their aspirations for independence.

"We all want the Kurdish people to be united," said 33-year old Ayyoub Sheikho, who fled Kobani last month and is now living in a newly pitched row of tents at a refugee camp in Iraq's Kurdistan region. "If we don't unite we will be trampled on."

Fuad Hussein, the Kurdistan president's chief of staff, said Islamic State had "destroyed the borders".

"It is the same terrorist organisation that attacks in (the Iraqi towns of) Khanaqin in Jalawla in Mosul in Kirkuk but also in (Syrian) Kobani, so this created a feeling of solidarity among the Kurds," he told Reuters.

NATIONAL IDENTITY

The deployment of peshmerga to Kobani illustrates the unprecedented degree of cooperation that has emerged between Kurdish groups across borders since Islamic State overran a third of Iraq this summer and proclaimed a caliphate straddling the frontier with Syria.

When Islamic State targeted Iraqi Kurdistan in August, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) descended from mountain bases on the Turkey-Iraq border to help blunt the offensive.

Around the same time, fighters from a Syrian Kurd group that has surged to promince during the civil war there -- the People's Protection Units (YPG) -- crossed into Iraq to save thousands of minority Yazidis from death at the hands of Islamic State militants who had torn through the peshmerga's defences.

Kurds from Iran have also been fighting alongside peshmerga forces in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"Kurds today are more unified than ever before, and even if they were to take a few steps back, they will still be much further ahead than they were six months ago," said Henri Barkey, a former State Department official who now teaches at Lehigh University in the United States.

"The upshot of all of this is a consolidation of Kurdish national identity".

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