Kobanê, the Kurdish struggle, and the dangers lurking ahead

  • October 19, 2014

Conflict & Combat

While ISIS has been driven out of Kobanê, dangers of U.S. imperial prerogatives lurk around the corner for Kurdish ambitions for democratic autonomy.

Now that various reports confirm that the amazingly brave Kurdish men and women have succeeded in holding the town of Kobanê and even driving out the ISIS fascists, it is time to reflect. How did they manage to repel ISIS? Why did the U.S. become more heavily involved? And what dangers lurk ahead?

Two weeks ago, the indomitable People’s Protection Units (YPG) came out with a defiant statement underlining the sense of their “historic responsibilities”, promising that “the defeat and extinction of ISIS will begin in Kobanê. Every single street and house of Kobanê will be a grave for ISIS.” Many admired the courage of the Kurds. Turkish and other comrades even tried to join in the defense of Kobanê and worldwide campaigns were set up to raise money for them.

But there were probably few outsiders who truly believed that ISIS’ murderous assault could be stopped, with several published articles assuming Kobanê had all but fallen. This was in large part due to Turkey’s criminal and intransigent position of blocking Kurdish supply lines, and the lack of U.S. interest in what — in their imperial calculations — was a strategically unimportant town.

Two weeks later, the situation seems to have been turned around, with ISIS reportedly retreating and a Kurdish official stating that “There is no ISIS in Kobanê now,” although fighting continues on the eastern outskirts. In these same weeks, the U.S. has stepped up its aerial bombardments of ISIS positions in and out of Kobanê, and engaged for the first time in direct talks with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Kurdish YPG commander Baharin Kandal, meanwhile, said “her militia group had been receiving arms, supplies and fighters.” Although she did not disclose more information, journalists in the Turkish town of Suruc, 15 kilometres across the border from Kobanê, reportedly “met fighters who have been passing back and forth.” This could be due to the fighters’ intimate knowledge of the region, but a “well-placed Turk” told the BBC “that supplies had indeed been allowed across.”

As was reported on ROAR two weeks ago, if Kobanê had fallen, the U.S. and Turkey would have been to blame. Both states had the power and military capacity to stop ISIS from reaching the town. Moreover, and more importantly, various reports seemed to prove that Turkey was actively helping ISIS by:

  1. allowing wounded ISIS fighters to receive treatment in Turkish hospitals, and cross back into Syria to re-join the fight;
  2. allowing ISIS to cross the border and sell oil from the oil-fields it controls on Turkey’s black market, a fact of tremendous financial importance for ISIS;
  3. blocking the experienced PKK-forces from crossing into Syria to help defend Kobanê and fight ISIS, and likewise blocking weapons and other necessary supplies;
  4. last week this was compounded by actively re-engaging in the war against its own Kurds when it bombed PKK positions in the southeastern Dağlıca district.

Although all of the above still holds, imperial politics and calculations are complex and reflect the need to defend various and contradicting interests. In the case of Kobanê, it is obvious that Turkey was happy to let ISIS deal a heavy blow to the Kurdish forces, and potentially slaughter thousands of Kurds. It was also looking to trade off international pressure for a renewed front against Syria’s Assad. The United States, too, was perfectly happy to let these ‘unworthy victims’ die, and made clear Kobanê was of no significance to them.

What changed this situation? Although the U.S. still prioritizes fighting ISIS in Iraq, in which it has many more economic interests and its reputation to defend, it increased its air attacks on ISIS around Kobanê, possibly in coordination with the Kurds. Kurds in the region are understandably cheering on these U.S. air strikes on ISIS positions, and from the beginning the Kurdish resistance had been calling for more or more effective air strikes.

Two reasons seem to me to explain the intensified involvement of the U.S.

Firstly, the well-trained YPG-PKK forces proved the most effective military opponents of ISIS, even when highly outnumbered and outgunned. Whereas in Iraq the army — despite a decade of U.S. training and advanced weaponry — crumbled at the mere sight of ISIS fighters, the YPG-PKK forces proved their ‘worth’ for the second time, after first coming to the rescue of the Iraqi Yezidi’s. Since the United States does not want to put ‘boots on the ground’, since its regional allies have not shown any serious commitment so far, and since its aerial campaign is doomed to failure, it needs allies who are determined to fight ISIS.

Secondly, the U.S. is helping out in Kobanê for “propaganda reasons”, in the words of the BBC’s diplomatic and defense editor, Mark Urban. As in any good mafia network, in international relations reputation is everything. With the U.S. announcing it will “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS, and the eyes of the world on Kobanê due to the hardened bravery of the Kurdish fighters and the activism by their supporters all over the world, a massacre in Kobanê would have dealt a blow to U.S. credibility. Kobanê “is more of a symbol than a strategic asset, but its loss would strengthen the sense that [ISIS] is unstoppable”, Brookings Institution military analyst Michael O’Hanlon adds.

The Kurds have now been forced into a seemingly unavoidable but dangerous strategic alliance with the United States. Unavoidable, since they were outgunned by ISIS and needed advanced weaponry on its side to block ISIS and create breathing space. Dangerous, because Kurdish interests and intentions are diametrically opposed to those of the U.S., of which both are aware. The Kurdish attempts at creating autonomous democratic zones are just as much a threat to U.S. imperial interests as is ISIS. The cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy has always been the support for stable regimes who could successfully block any calls for democracy or national control over the country’s natural resources. In this sense, David Graeber’s comparison of the Kurds to the Spanish anarchists in 1936 holds up; although the anarchists were fighting the same fascists, all the major western powers opposed them and blocked weapon transports, with Churchill famously preferring the fascists over the anarchists or communists.

In light of the YPG-U.S. cooperation, it is useful to recount a more contemporary history, that of the 1991 betrayal of Iraq’s Shi’ites and Kurds.

It was in 1991, but it could just as well have been 2014, that a European diplomat noted that “The Americans would prefer to have another Assad, or better yet, another Mubarak in Baghdad.” This was during the first Gulf War, initiated because erstwhile ally Saddam Hussein had disobeyed American orders by invading Kuwait. The U.S. attack on Iraq created hope among the oppressed Kurds and Shi’ites, strengthened by Bush’s open encouragement to rise up against Saddam Hussein, thereby creating the impression the U.S. would have their back. But the uncertainties of a post-Saddam Iraq made the U.S. decide to keep Saddam in power. In some of the most dreadful weeks of Iraqi history, the U.S. — in full control of Iraqi airspace — stood by and allowed Saddam Hussein to break the U.S. controlled no-fly zone and use helicopter gunships to suppress the uprisings and slaughter Kurdish and Shi’ite civilians.

The Kurds need hardly to be reminded of these facts. Their families lived through these and other imperial betrayals. At the same time they will not waste time on Western armchair philosophers who condemn any cooperation with U.S. bombs — and rightly so. It was their lives on the line.

But this new situation does pose great difficulties. The fact that the U.S. continues to emphasize the importance of Iraq over Kobanê and that the commander of the U.S. military in the Middle East, Lloyd Austin, on Friday still thought it “highly possible” that Kobanê would eventually fall to ISIS raises serious questions. How long will the U.S. continue to aid the resistance with air strikes? What is being discussed in the high-level talks between PYD representatives with the U.S. State Department? What will the U.S. try to ‘get’ from the Kurds? More active cooperation in the fight against ISIS? In exchange for what?

One answer was given today in the statement of the YPG General Command. In it they confirm that they made a deal with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the group that has been fighting the tyrannical Assad regime with a degree of Western support. They also confirm that the FSA has been fighting on its side in Kobanê and that from now on they will cooperate in “Counter-terrorism and building a free and democratic Syria.” This is a significant change in strategy which entails fighting not only ISIS, but also Assad — a key Turkish demand — and which is further based on a “true partnership for the administration of this country” with all “social classes.”

Was this the price the leftist YPG had to pay in order to open up the supply lines? It is an open question what this will mean for the social revolution in Rojava.

It is not unlikely, for instance, that the supply lines across Turkish borders have been covertly tolerated by Turkey due to U.S. pressure and/or the deal that was made with the FSA. They can also be cut off. U.S. air strikes can also be ceased, and imperial considerations can change. The list of those who, out of necessity or choice, cooperated with imperial powers but were then left to die is endless. The sad fact is that modern-day Emperors can still decide who lives or dies.

As the Kurds are aware, in the long-term, cooperation with the United States is incompatible with their own ambitions and aspirations for a region and society liberated of all forms of oppression. But whether there are any other options in the short-term is a valid question. Even for the continuous supply of much-needed heavy weaponry and the free movement of forces they are to a large extent dependent on the preferences of the imperial masters.

This time, thanks to their own bravery, they forced the imperial hand and are able to fight another day. But what about tomorrow? Turkey has for decades been one of the most important regional allies of the U.S., and although the U.S. now needs the Kurds, this will at best be a temporary alliance.

For us, as Westerners who stand in solidarity with our Kurdish comrades, it is key to keep the pressure on our own states, to keep the eyes of the world focused on Kobanê and the wider Kurdish struggle. More than that, we need to openly support the calls of the YPG for arm supplies and argue for the PKK to be taken off that monstrous ‘terrorist list’. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the Kurds in the end can only count on themselves. The more freedom to move they have, the better armed they are, the better able they will be to protect the social revolution in Rojava and further combat ISIS.

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Jelle Bruinsma

Jelle Bruinsma is a PhD researcher in History at the European University Institute, and an editor for ROAR Magazine.

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