KOBANI, Syria (Reuters) - Kurds are celebrating after flushing Islamic State militants out of the town of Kobani, but victory is not yet certain in their campaign to cement hard-won autonomy in northern Syria.
Hundreds of U.S.-led coalition air strikes have devastated the town, which is adrift in an Islamic State-controlled sea. Objections to autonomy from neighboring Turkey and the United States could also make it hard for them to sustain their gains.
The retaking by People’s Protection Units (YPG) last week of predominantly Kurdish Kobani after a four-month siege by Islamic State was a major defeat for the Sunni fundamentalist group that controls a 20,000-square mile arc of Syria and Iraq.
For the Kurds, it is a bittersweet victory, as almost 200,000 people, almost the entire population of Kobani province, are still sheltering in Turkey.
But many were still exuberant. Dozens of men waiting at the Turkish crossing to return to Kobani late last week shouted and danced for joy, unfazed by the wrecked city looming behind them.
Most of Kobani is destroyed, with unexploded shells and twisted hunks of cars strewn along the streets.
A few solitary YPG fighters in baggy fatigues prowl the town as shelling and gunfire echo in the distance. Fighting has now moved to the dusty outskirts, for the 400 or so villages that Islamic State, or ISIS, steamrolled through in September.
“This victory is for the Syrian people, but it is a first step,” said Idris Nassan, a senior official in Kobani. “We have to continue until we destroy ISIS. If they remain in Syria, Iraq or other places in the world, they will attack us again.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war from Britain, said Islamic State persists in rural areas more than 10 km (six miles) from town.
“Islamic State has relocated some fighters from the countryside north of Aleppo to villages around Kobani,” said the Observatory’s Rami Abdulrahman, adding it was important to focus on Syrian government offensives across the country as the war heads into its fifth year.
Syrian air force strikes killed at least 70 people in an opposition area outside of Damascus following rocket attacks by rebels that had hit the government-controlled center of the Syrian capital, the Observatory said on Friday.
The civil war, which began as a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, has killed 200,000 people and turned 3 million more into refugees.
The battle for Kobani weakened Islamic State, its best fighters perishing and much of its heavy weaponry depleted, Anwar Muslim, the top official in the town told Reuters at Freedom Square, where a statue of an eagle still stands, surrounded by flattened tower blocks and cratered streets.
“They will attack again ... The coalition has supported us with weapons and air strikes. We are hopeful they will continue so we can eradicate ISIS,” Muslim said, adding that Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and a few Free Syrian Army brigades remain in Kobani.
The FSA cooperation marks a turnaround after earlier clashes between them and the Kurds. Last month, Syrian government forces also battled Kurds, breaking a tacit agreement between the two sides to focus on other enemies in the war.
The Kurds, who espouse socialism and promote gender equality, first captured Kobani in 2012 after Assad’s forces withdrew, dubbing it the Rojava, or western, Revolution. Two other non-contiguous Kurdish-dominated regions of Syria are also under their control. Kurds say the territory is home to about 4 million people.
“This victory means a lot for the Rojava Revolution. When we defeated ISIS in the city, we removed the fear from other parts of Rojava” that have been battling the jihadists, said Muslim.
Kurds in Iraq too are fending off new Islamic State offensives and complain of being out gunned.
“The YPG have proven they are the most effective force on the ground against ISIS,” said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish-affairs expert based in Washington. “The defeat at Kobani is a big blow to ISIS’ reputation that it can take anywhere it wants. It will encourage more people to put up a fight.”
Some 3,700 Islamic State fighters and 400 YPG combatants died in Kobani, he said, citing Observatory and YPG figures.
Most of the Kurds who died were from Turkey, Civiroglu said.
This lends credence to NATO member Turkey’s argument the YPG is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which waged a 30-year war for autonomy but is now seeking peace.
Turkey has repeatedly warned it will not tolerate Kurdish self-rule on its Syrian frontier and may worry the win at Kobani will embolden its PKK adversaries at the bargaining table.
Washington has also opposed Kurdish autonomy, for fear it divides the Syrian opposition and because of the YPG’s links with the PKK, which is on the U.S. terrorist list, though it does draw a distinction between the groups and coordinated with the YPG to repel Islamic State from Kobani.
Despite the distrust, Kurds recognize that the Turkish government is Kobani’s lifeline in an ocean of Islamic State territory, if they are to sustain their foothold.
“We hope Turkey will help us rebuild Kobani,” said Nassan. “For civilians to come back we need a corridor at the border.”
He was unable to estimate the cost of rebuilding Kobani, which had a pre-war population of about 50,000, and did not rule out erecting a new city elsewhere. Despite a lack of power and water, 15,000 civilians are in the city, he said.
The spread of disease is a danger, with corpses of Islamic State fighters poking out of the rubble.
A makeshift hospital in the basement of a former school is another grim reminder that the fighting continues to seethe.
Medical staff in a filthy room treated two fighters, including one woman, with bullet wounds, then bundled them in blankets and transferred them in a van to the Turkish border.
All five of Kobani’s hospitals were destroyed, and help for serious injuries lies across the border in Turkey.
Serxwebun, a 21-year-old Kurd from Turkey, was wounded last September just days after Islamic State’s siege of Kobani began when a mortar shell destroyed the building he was in.
“Of all the Kurdish uprisings, Kobani is our greatest victory,” he said. “But it is just one battle in a very long war. When I imagine the future, I only see Kurds fighting.”
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut; editing by Philippa Fletcher