If Kobanê falls, the US and Turkey will be to blame

  • October 4, 2014

Conflict & Combat

As Kurdish forces put up a heroic fight to save the democratic stronghold of Kobanê, the US-led coalition seems content to let ISIS commit a massacre.

As I write these words, Kurdish fighters are waging a heroic battle to keep the strategically important city of Kobanê on the Syrian-Turkish border from falling into the hands of ISIS. Kobanê has been under siege since mid-September, when ISIS forces launched a ferocious three-way assault on the city, terrorizing the local population and causing up to 160.000 civilians to flee to Turkey. On Friday, ISIS stood within a hundred meters of Kobanê’s suburbs, but local forces — though heavily outgunned — have so far managed to keep the extremists out. Kurdish commanders fear a massacre if the city falls. It is not clear how much longer their defensive lines can hold.

Though shamelessly under-reported in the international media, the battle for Kobanê is of crucial importance for the fight against ISIS, the fate of the Kurds, and the future of the region more generally. As one of the few strongholds of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Kobanê is both a major thorn in the side of ISIS and the site of a thriving popular experiment in democratic autonomy. Yet the momentous struggle of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) is being blatantly ignored by the US-led coalition and cynically exploited by the Turkish state, both of which appear to be content to let ISIS slaughter the local population and decimate the Kurdish resistance.

For almost three weeks now, the men and women of the YPG/YPJ — armed only with light machine guns and a few rocket-propelled grenades — have been battling the extremists in close quarters combat. ISIS has deployed heavy US-made weaponry, including at least 20 tanks and armored vehicles seized in the sack of Mosul, but since they advanced onto Kobanê in relatively open plains they were vulnerable to airstrikes. “Most civilians have left the city, and any minute ISIS will be inside Kobani,” Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Friday. “There are many questions as to why [the US-led coalition] don’t attack ISIS now as they are easy targets … Without their heavy vehicles, the Kurds would be able to defeat them.”

Turkey, for its part, has been accused of colluding with ISIS in a dual attempt to oust its regional nemesis, the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, and at the same time undermine the Kurdish struggle for autonomy. It is a public secret that Turkey — an important US ally and the second biggest military force in NATO — has long kept its borders open to extremist militants trying to enter Syria to join the insurrection against Assad, even allowing ISIS fighters to cross back into Turkey to regroup, receive medical treatment, and sell Syrian and Iraqi oil on the black market. At the same time, it has prevented thousands of Turkish Kurds from crossing the border and joining their compatriots in the defense of Kobanê, even firing teargas at Kurdish refugees fleeing from Syria.

In recent days, under heavy pressure from the US government and with its hands freed following the release of 46 Turkish hostages held by ISIS, Turkish officials have been stepping up their anti-ISIS rhetoric. On Thursday, Turkey’s Parliament accepted a bill that would allow the government to intervene militarily on Syrian soil to “fight terrorist groups.” Prime Minister Davutoğlu has stated that “we wouldn’t want Kobanê to fall; we’ll do whatever we can to prevent this from happening.” This rhetoric, however, contrasts sharply with the reality on the ground. Earlier this week, Turkey moved dozens of tanks towards the Syrian border, but in what appears to be a sign towards ISIS that it does not intend to intervene, it neatly parked them facing away from Kobanê.

The reasoning behind Turkey’s maneuvers appears to be fairly straightforward. President Erdoğan has indicated that he will not approve any actions that aid the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units, which the Turkish governments considers to be a “terrorist” organization. Simply put, there is a fear that the PYD-led Rojava revolution in Northern Syria could embolden Kurds in Turkey to seek similar autonomy within its borders. As the Turkish columnist Ömer Taspinar writes, “Ankara is concerned that the American-led campaign against ISIS will achieve two things. First, it will strengthen the Syrian Kurds, who maintain close ties with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Second, it will strengthen the regime in Damascus … Ankara will decide to play an active role in the coalition only if it gets serious commitments about reversing these dynamics.”

By refusing to carry out meaningful airstrikes on ISIS positions around Kobanê and allowing the extremists to overrun the town unencumbered with US-made tanks, the Obama administration appears to have aligned itself with Erdoğan’s demands. The US knows that, in the months and years to come, it will need Turkish airbases and possibly Turkish ground support to defeat ISIS. Since it still considers the PKK and PYD to be terrorist organizations, it shares Turkey’s preference to have ISIS and the Kurds battle it out to death. This cynical approach confirms just how little interest the US and its allies truly have in promoting democracy across the region.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s dirty games are pointing into a predictable direction. Erdoğan has now publicly reserved the right to establish a Turkish-controlled buffer zone in the Syrian border region, while actively lobbying the US to establish a no-fly zone over Northern Syria. Since ISIS does not have an airforce, this effort is clearly aimed at keeping Assad from intervening when Turkey takes control of what is now de facto Kurdish territory inside Syria. At the same time, however, Erdoğan wants to avoid (or at least postpone) a head-on military confrontation with the Syrian Kurds, which would inevitably lead to a breakdown of the peace process and renewed armed conflict with the PKK. And so he will allow ISIS to commit a massacre in Kobanê and decimate the Kurdish resistance before intervening to crush both — in the name of “anti-terrorism”.

This historic betrayal of the Kurds by Turkey and the US is not the first, and it certainly will not be the last. However, this time around the betrayal is all the more despicable because the Syrian Kurds have been by far the most organized, the most democratic and the most courageous armed opposition to ISIS on the ground. When the Kurdish peshmerga — associated with the conservative-nationalist Kurdish regional government in Iraq, a key alley of Turkey and the US — embarrassingly retreated from Mount Sinjar in August, leaving tens of thousands of Yezidi refugees stranded, dying of thirst and surrounded by ISIS, the YPG/YPJ fighters crossed over into Iraq and risked their lives to establish a humanitarian corridor, saving thousands of Yezidi from certain death.

Meanwhile, the social revolution that has been underway in Kobanê ever since Assad’s forces retreated in 2012 has contributed to the flourishing of a democratic culture that promotes popular participation, social emancipation, gender equality, ecological sensitivity, local self-organization, and ethnic and religious pluralism. As such, the fall of Kobanê would deal a serious blow not just to the Kurdish cause and the fight against ISIS, but also to the struggle for a secular and democratic alternative in the region. The brave Kurds, of course, would fight till death, but as Kobanê’s Defense Minister Ismet Sheikh Hasan puts it, the US-led coalition “needs to strike ISIS targets before it’s too late. ISIS is not only a threat for the Kurds, but for the entire world… If a massacre takes place tomorrow, the international community will be responsible.”

UPDATE 04/10/’14: Saturday evening will mark the start of the traditional Eid al-Adha holiday across the Muslim world, and ISIS has declared that it wants to seize the town to celebrate Eid in the Kobanê mosque. But on Saturday morning, Kobanê’s Defense Minister Hasan reported that Kurdish forces have inflicted heavy losses on ISIS: “there are 150 dead bodies of gang members at Miştenur. They cannot collect them.” The spokesperson for the Kobanê canton government, Mahmud Beşar, referred to the battle for Kobanê as “an epic that will determine the destiny of Kurdistan”:

We will say the Eid prayers in Kobanê, but the two armies (YPG/YPJ) are writing an epic of resistance. The collapse of the [ISIS] gangs is continuing. At this minute there are fierce clashes going on. Kobanê is in a key location as regards a democratic Syria and a democratic Middle East. We will resist to the end. What is important is Kobanê and the democratization of Syria and the Middle East. We are fortunate to be involved in the writing of history. The Rojava revolution began here, and now the destiny of the Kurdish people is being written here.

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is an LSE Fellow in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics, and the founding editor of ROAR Magazine. His first book, Why Not Default? The Political Economy of Sovereign Debt, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

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