For over a week the Kurdish town of Kobanê in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) has been under severe attack from the Islamic State (IS). The attack commenced on September 15, when thousands of IS fighters supported by dozens of tanks and heavy artillery attacked Kobanê on three fronts. Thus far, the IS advance has caused tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to leave their homes in the villages surrounding Kobanê and seek refuge in either the city itself or across the border in Turkey.
Thanks to the brave resistance of the local Kurdish YPG/YPJ militias (the People’s and Women’s Defense Forces), IS has been unable to capture the town. The chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Salih Muslim, stated full of confidence: “I know the people of Kobanê very well. Some villages can be lost, certain retreats can happen. They can close in on the city. But Kobanê will never fall. For Kobanê to fall, everyone there must be killed.”
Horrific as it sounds, this might very well be the plan IS has in mind. It was the YPG/YPJ forces, together with the seasoned guerrilla fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that broke the siege of Sinjar in Iraq, where thousands of Yezidis faced a massacre at the hands of IS. Now the jihadists might consider it the time ripe for revenge.
More worrisome, even, are the reports of Turkish support for the Islamist fighters. Even though Turkey categorically denies all links with IS, the coinciding of the release of 49 Turkish hostages days before locals of the region sighted Turkish trains dropping of tanks and ammunition in IS-controlled areas has raised many eyebrows among critical observers of the situation.
Kobanê under attack
This is not the first time Kobanê has been under attack from IS. In early July, after IS captured Mosul one month earlier, the jihadists used the heavy arms they seized from the Iraqi army to lay siege to Kobanê. After several days of fighting, and hundreds of losses among IS ranks, the terrorist group had to accept defeat at the hands of the Kurdish defense forces.
The town of Kobanê is important for IS both in strategic and symbolic terms. Situated close to the Turkish border, a mere two-hour drive north of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, Kobanê has been on the Islamists’ wish-list for a long time. Seizing Kobanê would mean splitting Rojava — the region in northern Syria predominantly populated by Kurds, also known as “West Kurdistan” — in two, and securing IS control over an important stretch of the border with Turkey, making it even easier for them to receive supplies and foreign jihadists from abroad.
Moreover, the earlier defeat of IS by the Syrian Kurdish forces both in Kobanê and Sinjar has been interpreted as a slap in the face of the jihadists. Especially the fact that almost a third of the Kurdish militias are made up of women has served to shame the radical Islamists who prefer to see women covered in black robes from head to toe, rather than unveiled, independent and empowered with a AK-47 in their hands.
The last important fact that has put Kobanê high on the agenda of the Islamic State is that this is the place where the Rojava revolution started on July 19, 2012, when the town was liberated from Assad’s forces and became home to the Democratic People’s Revolution. In this struggle, Syria’s Kurds have declared their autonomy from the state and have since been working to implement democratic confederalism and people’s assemblies as a means to govern themselves.
Despite the urgency of the situation in Kobanê, another issue has been dominating the headlines of the state-controlled media in neighboring Turkey. On September 20, 49 mostly Turkish staff members of the Turkish Consulate in Mosul were freed after they had been kidnapped by IS on June 11 when the terror group overran the city.
In the Turkish media the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and the Foreign Ministry are covered with glory for their roles in the freeing of the hostages. Even though President Erdoğan personally denied any speculations about a deal struck with IS, critical observers have questioned Turkey’s relations with the terrorist organization and their role in the attack on Kobanê.
It is a public secret that Turkey has been a long-time covert supporter of IS, but as one of America’s key allies in the region it got away this support until IS started to stir things up in Iraq. For Turkey and other NATO allies the Islamist organization was initially seen as an important ally in the proxy war to bring down Assad’s regime. The fact that the group’s actions were guided by an ideology that even Al Qaeda considered too radical was not a reason for Turkey to sever its ties with IS.
On the contrary, the thousands of foreign fighters among IS ranks have largely entered Syria by illegally crossing the border from Turkey. Injured IS fighters have reportedly been treated in Turkish hospitals and oil from IS-controlled territory is smuggled into Turkey, with knowledge of local officials, where it is sold on the black market.
In the light of the ongoing attack on Kobanê, persistent rumors are going around about Turkey’s more direct support for IS. Firat News reported that a day before the start of the attack, on September 14, thousands of IS members were brought to the border in buses, where they were allowed to enter Syria by the Turkish military. One local states that: “The gangs [IS] bring personnel and weapons across the border under supervision of the Turkish army. We have witnessed it many times. On this occasion it was a day before the attacks began.”
Autonomy in Rojava
So why would Turkey care about the Kurdish population in Syria? The most likely explanation is that Turkey does not fear the Syrian Kurds as much as it fears what they have achieved. The social revolution of Rojava has served as a beacon of hope for the millions of Kurds in the region, whose traditional homeland had been carved up and divided amongst Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
The Charter of Social Contract, which serves as a constitution for the three autonomous cantons in Rojava, leaves little room for discussion when it comes to the relationship between people and state: “[The Charter] protects fundamental human rights and liberties and reaffirms the peoples’ right to self-determination.” This, obviously, adds insult to injury for the Turkish state, which has been waging a decades-long war against the formerly separatist PKK, which recently laid down its arms and no longer demands independence for the Kurdish people, but rather a degree of autonomy for the Kurds living within the borders of the Turkish state.
The close links between the PKK and the people of Syrian Kurdistan go way back. It was here that the founder and current leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan had sought refuge in the late 1990s, and it was the remnants of the PKK in Syria that founded the PYD in 2003. In the eyes of Turkey, the PYD is nothing but a Syrian branch of the PKK, and it continues to treat it as such.
Last year, when Assad pulled his forces from Rojava to reinforce the troops besieging Aleppo and the PYD declared it was ready and able to govern the region, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan (now President) simply declared that he would not accept the creation of a “terrorist” structure in the region. Claiming that a separatist Kurdish enclave would pose a direct threat to Turkey’s interests and security, he stated: “It is our most natural right to intervene (in northern Syria) since those terrorist formations would disturb our national peace.”
Öcalan’s call to arms
The close relationship between the Kurds in Syria and Turkey does not only exist in the imagination of Erdoğan, but is very much part of the daily realities of the populations living in the region. The arbitrary borders drawn in the early years of the 20th century divided tribes and families, which suddenly found themselves living on different sides of the newly-established national borders. Nonetheless, due to the rough and inaccessible mountainous frontier regions, the local Kurds with intimate knowledge of secret pathways across the borders continued to live out their lives in what they considered Kurdistan.
For these reasons, the Kurds of southwestern Turkey still feel closely connected to their kin in northern Syria. The solidarity between the two groups of Kurds was already on display when hundreds of young men and women crossed the border into Syria two months ago, during the first IS attack on Kobanê, and the same process has repeated itself in recent days.
To aid the resistance, Öcalan called on the Kurdish people to initiate a mass-mobilization against IS: “In relation to ISIS attacks, all our people should shape their lives in line with the intensified war going on in Kurdistan at the moment. It is not only the people of Rojava but also all the people in the North and other parts of Kurdistan that should act accordingly.”
Unsurprisingly, Kurdish activists who protested at the border against the suspected Turkish involvement with the events in Kobanê were attacked by security forces with tear gas and water cannons.
Support the Kurds
Despite the fact that the advance of IS appears to have been slowed down, or even halted on several fronts by the forces of YPG/YPJ, Kobanê and the rest of Rojava are still under imminent threat of being run over by the radical Islamist fighters. The recent bombings by the US and its allies of IS positions in Syria may provide some relief for those defending the town, especially after overnight air strikes apparently hit IS-held territory in the vicinity of Kobanê, but what the Kurds really need right now is international recognition of their unique position as an autonomous entity, and the funding and arms supplies that come with it.
As long as the international community remains silent about Turkey’s suspected support for IS, it will be complicit in the crimes committed against the Kurdish people. The advance of IS cannot be stopped by means of air strikes and diplomatic condemnations. Rather, IS needs to be cut off from its major lifelines (i.e., the influx of new recruits and financial and material support from countries in the region), and it needs to be crushed militarily. In both cases Turkey and the Kurds will have a key role to play: Turkey needs to put its money where its mouth is, ending all covert support for IS, and the Kurds need to be armed and supported so they can once and for all finish off these extremist forces spreading terror across the Middle East.