Kurdish anger is exploding onto the streets of Turkey and across Europe in protest at Western inaction in Kobanê and Turkish collusion with ISIS. As the extremist militants of the Islamic State close in on the besieged town on the Turkish-Syrian border, with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) running low on ammunition and Kurdish commanders warning of an impending massacre, the Turkish government and the US-led coalition appear to be content to stand by and let ISIS unleash a bloodbath in the city.
In recent days, thousands of Kurds have descended upon the Turkish town of Suruç, just miles from Kobanê, in an attempt to cross the border, break the siege and bring supplies and reinforcements to their family, kin and comrades. Turkish troops have responded by sealing off the border crossing and firing teargas and rubber bullets both at Turkish Kurds trying to break into Syria and at Syrian refugees fleeing towards Turkey. Cut off from the outside world and without much air support, the YPG fighters are left to fend for themselves.
Desperate to get Turkey and the international community to take decisive action before ISIS overruns the city center, Kurdish protesters are staging demonstrations, occupations and actions across Europe. In The Hague, a group of Kurds briefly occupied the entrance hall to the Dutch Parliament, in Brussels they broke into the European Parliament, and in London they staged a protest at the Oxford Circus tube station. Further protests were held in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Stockholm and dozens of cities across the continent.
On Tuesday, heavy clashes also broke out throughout Turkey, leaving streets ablaze and resulting in at least twelve deaths. In Istanbul’s Gazi neighborhood, police fired teargas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators. In Mus, a 25-year-old man was reportedly killed after being struck in the head by a teargas canister. In Diyarbakir, two men were killed when Islamist groups opened fire on Kurdish protesters. Violent protests also broke out in Ankara, and authorities declared a curfew in five Kurdish-majority provinces.
The main demands of the Kurds are for the US-led coalition to step up airstrikes against ISIS positions and for the Turkish military to open up the border and thus relieve the siege of Kobanê, allowing reinforcements, supplies and ammunition to flow through towards their comrades in Syria. The Turkish government has stated that it is only willing to open the border if the Syrian Kurds give up their self-governing cantons, join the Free Syrian Army, and allow Turkey to establish a buffer zone in Northern Syria (Western Kurdistan).
The Kurds are rightly furious at these demands, which clearly belie Turkey’s real intentions: to crush the thriving experiment in democratic autonomy that has been underway in Western Kurdistan ever since Assad’s troops retreated from the North in July 2012. On Saturday, President Erdoğan stated that for him ISIS and the PKK are basically the same. Since the YPG militia in Kobanê are effectively fighting under the Syrian wing of the PKK, Turkish support can be ruled out. In recent weeks, Erdoğan has made it more than clear that he would prefer to see an expanded Islamic State over a consolidated Kurdistan.
Turkey will therefore never be the savior in this unfolding drama. Instead, the Kurds must be given a fair chance to fight for themselves and deal a heavy blow to the ISIS gangs — something they can only do if they are well-armed, well-supplied and supported from the air. The YPG and PKK fighters have so far proven themselves to be the most disciplined, the most courageous and the most effective armed opposition to ISIS on the ground. But they are a leftist force that is still considered to be a “terrorist” organization by Turkey, the US and Europe. While the US and Europe are starting to recognize that the YPG/PKK may be a useful ally, they have proven unwilling to offend Turkey over the issue.
The result of this Turkish sabotage and international lack of determination has been to unravel the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, which had been underway ever since the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew most of its fighters from Turkey in 2013. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has stated that the future of the peace process will depend on the outcome in Kobanê, and he has given Turkey until mid-October to show its commitment to preventing the fall of the city. Since it is unlikely that Erdoğan will change course, the PKK may soon see itself forced to resume the armed struggle against the Turkish state to defend the democratic advances that the peoples of Kurdistan have made since 2012.
In this sense, Tuesday’s riots may be only a taste of what lies ahead. With Kurdish outrage boiling over and the peace process on the verge of collapse, it now seems increasingly likely that the Syrian civil war will spill over into Turkey. If this were to happen, the Turkish government and the international community will have themselves entirely to blame. At this point, there is only one way to prevent such a catastrophic escalation of the conflict: for Turkey to open the border and the US-led coalition to strike ISIS positions around Kobanê. Only if this impending massacre is averted will Turkey itself be able to remain at peace.