What the ruins of Kobane tell us about the destruction of Syria

The ruins of Kobane

What one small town says about the destruction of Syria

Published on November 13, 2015

KOBANE, Syria — A heap of dust is all that remains of the house where Alan Kurdi was born and raised, before war sent his family fleeing and he drowned on the short sea crossing between Turkey and Greece.

The image of the toddler’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach turned him into an instant symbol of the suffering of Syrians so desperate to reach Europe that they are prepared to risk their lives making the dangerous journey.

His flattened home, destroyed in an American airstrike in the landmark battle for control of the Syrian town of Kobane last year, has not been so widely seen. It is just one of thousands of buildings leveled, among hundreds of thousands more that have been obliterated in Syria during the four-year-old war.

As the conflict drags into a fifth year with no end in sight, little heed is being paid to the enormity of the havoc being wreaked on the country. Some 2.1 million homes, half the country’s hospitals and more than 7,000 schools have been destroyed, according to the United Nations.

The cost of the damage so far is estimated at a staggering $270 billion — and rebuilding could run to more than $300 billion, according to Abdallah al-Dardari, a former Syrian government minister who heads the National Agenda for Syria program at the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. That’s more than 10 times the amount spent by the United States on reconstruction in Iraq, with few discernible results.

When a Turkish soldier picked up the body of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi in September, it became an instant symbol of Syrian refugees' suffering and desperation. Alan was the son of Abdullah Kurdi, a native of Kobane, who lost his wife and two sons when their dinghy sank off the coast of Turkey. | Graves hold the remains of Kurdi's family members.

If or when the war ends, any government will find itself “ruling over a pile of rubble,” Dardari said. “I don’t know who will fund this.”

The immense human toll is a far more immediate and obvious concern. As many as 250,000 people are dead, 1 million have been wounded, 7.6 million are displaced within Syria and 4 million have fled across the borders, according to the U.N.

[As tragedies shock Europe, a bigger refugee crisis looms in the Middle East]

The numbers rise daily with each new airstrike and each new offensive launched, as Russian planes join Syrian and American ones in bombing the country and the various factions sustain their relentless attacks on one another with rockets, mortars and artillery.

So, too, does the damage, compounding the tragedy in small and unseen ways that also kill people or drive them to seek new lives elsewhere. The more buildings are flattened, the more homes, shops and businesses are lost, the greater the incentive to flee the country — and the less people will have to return to whenever the war finally ends.

“We’re allowing a level of destruction we will never have the means to address,” said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group. “They’re wiping one city after another off the map.”

Kobane stands as a small reminder of how much is being lost.


Abdullah Kurdi had fled to Turkey to work, but he chose to make the dangerous trip to Greece because he didn't make enough money to live in Istanbul. His home was leveled in the battle for Kobane.

“If you lived in Kobane, would you stay?” asked Alan Kurdi’s father, Abdullah, as he recounted the events that spurred his family’s fateful departure for Europe in the patched-up wreck of his father-in-law’s home. The walls are cracked, half of the roof is missing, and the living room and bedroom are perforated by neatly rounded holes left by rocket fire.

His own house next door is entirely gone. It was destroyed in a U.S. airstrike, he said, and though that is impossible to independently confirm, much of the worst damage in the town was inflicted by the U.S. warplanes that were instrumental in driving the Islamic State away.

Kurdi was already living in Turkey when the Islamic State attacked, working to support his wife Rayhan, 26, and his two young sons, — Alan, 3, and Ghaleb, 4 — back home in Kobane. As the militants closed in, the family fled, too, joining him in Istanbul and then on the journey to Europe.

Four months of fighting between Kurdish forces — backed by U.S. air power — and the Islamic State has left much of the town of Kobane in rubble. At least 3,247 structures were damaged.



Severely damaged

Moderately damaged

Impact crater




2,000 ft.

Source: U.N. Institute for Training and Research


On Sept. 2, Rayhan, Ghaleb and Alan all drowned when their flimsy dinghy filled with water and sank off the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, along with two Iraqi children.

Kurdi refused to discuss details of the incident. But he said he felt he had no other choice than to try to start a new life — his wages were too low for the family to live in Istanbul and when they returned to Kobane after the fighting ended, they found their home gone.

“We had nothing to stay for,” said Kurdi, who is now living in Iraqi Kurdistan and was speaking during a brief visit to his family. “Every house here is damaged. In every house there is the smell of war. People are only living here because they don’t have any choice and because they suffered too much as refugees.”

[For desperate refugees, ‘the smuggler’s room is over there’]

Kobane offers just a glimpse of the wider devastation being inflicted around Syria. The war here was brief by comparison to some of the battles still raging elsewhere, but it was fierce. The Islamic State attacked in September last year, surged into the town, then by January had been driven out by local Kurdish forces aided by U.S. strikes.

The victory has repeatedly been held out by President Obama and other U.S. officials as one of the greatest triumphs of the war so far, a David and Goliath encounter in which outgunned and outnumbered Kurdish fighters held at bay then eventually defeated wave after wave of militant invaders.

But in those four short months, much of the town was reduced to rubble. Barely a street or a building was untouched. Whole neighborhoods lie in ruins, their streets a ghostly echo of the life they once contained.

And Kobane is by no means the worst afflicted of the communities ravaged by war, many of which have been fought over continuously for the past four years. In the northern metropolis of Aleppo, one of Syria’s major cities, more than 14,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed, mostly in airstrikes conducted by the Syrian government, according to satellite imagery studied by the United Nations.

That includes only the damage visible from the sky — other buildings are likely to have been wrecked by the mortar and artillery fired on a daily basis across the front lines, said Lars Bromley, who analyzes the satellite imagery for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

The cost of the damage in Syria so far is estimated at a staggering $270 billion — and rebuilding could run to more than $300 billion.

“Aleppo is by far the most devastated thing any of us have ever seen,” he said. “I call it Stalingrad.”

Other major cities are almost as bad, and there are countless smaller communities, unmapped and unmonitored, that have also been pulverized by a war that has spared no corner of the country.

“You have large urban areas that are just gone. They are flattened to all intents and purposes,” Bromley said.

With the Islamic State now driven back by more than 40 miles, Kobane offers a rare instance of a community in Syria that is already starting to rebuild. But it is a daunting task, and little in the way of help has arrived.

Politics have deterred large-scale international aid, said Idriss Nassan, a spokesman for the local Kurdish government. Turkey objects to the creation of the new Kurdish entity and keeps the border mostly closed, permitting only limited supplies of humanitarian aid to cross. Western governments are reluctant to help for fear of offending Turkey, Nassan said.

The U.S. government is providing help in the form of humanitarian aid, but is not assisting the local authorities with the reconstruction effort, a senior administration official said.

[U.S. seeks to capitalize on defeat of Islamic State in Kobane]

A little more than half of the prewar residents have returned, and the town is coming back to life. Some shops have opened, seven schools are working and 70 percent of the water supply has been restored. But there is still no electricity, and families who have come back to broken homes they can’t afford to repair face a grim winter without proper shelter.

The local government has spent $25 million — most of it donated by private individuals — on clearing the streets of rubble, but the overall cost of reconstruction could be as much as $6 billion, Nassan said. “We need a very big effort,” he said.

Abdullah Kurdi doesn’t plan to return. The regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan has promised to help him set up a charity in Alan’s name, and he is living there now. He had come to Kobane only to visit to the graves of his wife and sons, three identical tombstones lying unmarked in a far corner of the cemetery on the edge of the ruined town.

A boy plays with his dog in a neighborhood surrounded by destruction in Kobane. “You have large urban areas that are just gone. They are flattened to all intents and purposes,” said Lars Bromley, who studies satellite imagery for the United Nations.

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