The images are heartrending: Desperate families fleeing fighting, frantically trying to get their small children across the barbed wire fence separating Syria from Turkey. On the other side of the fence are bearded fighters from the self-styled Islamic State armed with machine guns and smiling coldly as they patrol thousands of civilians trapped on the Syrian side. The gunmen have reportedly been forcing those trying to flee to return to their homes in the war zone.
But while the border is where the cameras are, more pivotal events are taking place a few miles away, where ISIS is on the verge of suffering a potentially devastating loss — the strategic city Tal Abyad and its surrounding areas. The defeat appears poised to come at the hands of the YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, whose fighters, men and women, a few months ago liberated the devastated city of Kobani.
Now, with air support from the U.S.-led coalition, they are preparing to deal a significant blow to ISIS. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Kurds have already taken back from ISIS some 50 towns and villages. Meanwhile, Turkish officials say about 20,000 villagers, fearing getting trapped in the intensifying battles, are trying to cross into Turkey.
If the Kurds take Tal Abyad, as seems likely, they will cut off a key supply route into the ISIS “capital” in Syria, Raqqa. If you look at a map of the region, you can see why this is so significant — Raqqa is the strongest of ISIS strongholds, meaning that if it weakens, ISIS will become considerably more vulnerable.
This crucial battle, at a time when the United States is struggling to find a way forward against ISIS in Iraq, comes loaded with useful messages for Washington. Some key points:
1. It is possible to beat ISIS without strengthening the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Almost four years ago, President Barack Obama and European allies declared that “Assad must go.” But as the opposition to al-Assad’s rule morphed from a pro-democracy movement into an increasingly radical Islamist insurgency, Washington viewed Syria as offering only bad choices — an al-Assad dictatorship or radical Islamist rule.
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as moderate rebels were left with little material support and slowly wilted. Extremists grew stronger, and al-Assad became even more brutal, using chemical weapons and barrel bombs in a war that has killed more than 200,000 people. It seemed as if no positive outcome was conceivable.
But now Kurdish forces are advancing, helped by U.S. bombings and the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, showing that it is possible to push against ISIS without helping al-Assad.
2. Success will breed success and help unify the opposition.
One reason moderates have ended up so weak is that extremists, well-armed and financed, kept winning battle after battle. Nothing begets success like success. Many of the fighters who back Islamist groups do so only because they view them as likely victors in the battle against al-Assad. If the Kurds and other secular forces start winning battles, more fighters will be drawn to their side.
If the Kurds and their Free Syrian Army backers can win against ISIS and keep fighting, with U.S. and European support, against al-Assad, then there is a chance that the Syrian war could ultimately be brought to an end and create a pluralistic, moderate regime, which is what history tells us the Syrian people would prefer.
3. Another important message contained in the events of the past few days is that the United States can play a major role in defeating ISIS without flooding the battlefield and committing boots-on-the-ground.
But ultimately a political solution is needed.
The Kurds, legendarily fierce fighters, have proved themselves time and again. With strong U.S. support from the air and U.S.-provided arms, they could win. Nobody will fight harder to protect Kurdish territory than the Kurds. That is true in Syria and in Iraq.
Yet while ending the war in Syria and Iraq will require battlefield victories, more than anything it will require political change. In Iraq, Sunnis will not take on ISIS with all their might if they think it will only leave them under the heel of a sectarian government interested only in protecting the Shiites. In Syria, the fight against ISIS will not succeed unless the majority of the people believe there is a way to get rid of al-Assad.
4. Turkey’s motivations will prove confusing, at best.
The Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has two goals: to see the end of the al-Assad regime and to prevent the Kurds from growing stronger. Turkey has received millions of Syrian refugees, but it also stood by while Kurds were killed in Kobani and has shown little enthusiasm for Kurdish victories. It sees the YPG as an extension of violent Kurdish separatists in Turkey. And armed Kurds, winning battles against ISIS, spark fears that their battle will pivot to establishing their own country.
5. A final, dispiriting lesson is that civilians will become caught up in the fighting, their suffering exploited for political and tactical gain.
Turkey has at times tried to prevent civilians from entering. Others accused the Kurds of “ethnic cleansing” Arabs. But refugees, including Arabs, reportedly cheered news of Kurdish victories.
So, back to those images of ISIS fighters laughing from the Syrian side of the border? Why were they herding villagers back to the battlefield? One theory is that ISIS wanted them back so they could be used as human shields and prevent the United States from carrying out more bombing raids against ISIS.
Regardless, for the Syrian people, the suffering continues even as Kurdish fighters continue to make gains. Just one more reason for the rest of the world to do what it can to find a way to bring an end to this terrible war.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.