The last glimpse I catch of Kobanê, before we are forced off the hill overlooking the town by Turkish soldiers in their armored personnel carriers, are two pillars of smoke rising from the city center. Just minutes before, two loud explosions could be heard, after which clouds of dust and debris emerged from between the buildings in the town, just across the border from Turkey.
Despite the fact that coalition jets and drones are circling overhead, invisible to the naked eyed but clearly recognizable by their humming sounds, it is clear that these were not airstrikes: the explosions appeared in an area that is still under control of the People’s and Women’s Defense Forces (YPG/YPJ), and the smoke looks different from the kind that normally follows air strikes. That leaves only one possibility: these were the explosions of two more ISIS suicide car bombs unsuccessfully attempting to break Kurdish defense lines.
Immediately after the second car explodes — either detonated by ISIS or neutralized by the YPG/YPJ — half a dozen Turkish APCs come rushing from the border towards the hill where foreign journalists and local observers have gathered to keep track of the situation in the city. The soldiers command everyone, including the media, to leave the viewpoint immediately. No explanation is given, and we quickly return to our car to make our way back to Suruç, the Turkish border town just eight kilometers away.
Solidarity from a local activist
A few days ago, in the bus back to Urfa from Suruç, a man started talking to me. Introducing himself as Müslüm, a 31-year old Kurdish activist from around Suruç, he told me about his brother, who is currently fighting with the YPG in Kobanê. Müslüm hasn’t spoken to him for over five months, as any contact with Turkish volunteers fighting with the YPG in Rojava would put him and other family members back home at risk of arrest by Turkish authorities.
“He is fighting for the canton system, for the freedom of the Kurdish people and for the freedom of all people,” Müslüm says. “The independence of Rojava is a big problem for Turkey, because its canton system is an example of what the future of Kurdistan could look like.”
Müslüm fully supports and is proud of his brother. He himself is no stranger to political activism either, having spent three years in prison for his political involvement in the Kurdish struggle. He was deported to Cyprus after his release and was only allowed to return to Turkey on the condition that he would not engage in politics anymore. This doesn’t seem to bother him too much.
“The government calls me a terrorist because I speak at protests that demand democracy for the Kurdish people. They don’t like anything that has to do with freedom for the Kurdish people. But I don’t listen! Every day I am active in the Kurdish struggle. All the people here are like me.”
The Turkish government keeps track of all Kurdish activists, and Müslüm’s name appears on a special blacklist, which means that every time he gets checked by the police there is a chance they will take him down to the station. This, however, doesn’t stop him from offering me all the help I might need, and over the next few days Müslüm would go out of his way to bring me to the villages dotting the Syrian border, which are presently occupied by solidarity activists — the so-called ‘human shields’ — and off-limits to foreigners.
Discussing democratic autonomy
After the funeral of seven YPG/YPJ fighters whose bodies were brought from Kobanê to Turkey in order to be properly buried here, a large crowd gathers in the local headquarters of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP). While everyone is drinking tea and watching the latest news from Kobanê on a Kurdish channel, Ayşe Muslim — the wife of Saleh Muslim, the co-chairwoman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and de-facto leader of Rojava — walks in and starts shouting angrily at the men: “What are you doing here, watching television and drinking tea while our comrades in Kobanê are fighting for your freedom?! Go to the border to show your solidarity!”
Later, in the village of Measêr, where hundreds have flocked to watch the siege of Kobanê unfold, I sit down with some men at the local mosque to discuss their views on Rojava’s canton system and Öcalan’s theory of democratic autonomy. Among them is the brother of one of PKK’s highest commanders, who is happy to share some of his ideas.
“The canton system and the project of democratic autonomy is not just a Kurdish project,” he says. “The idea is that it facilitates the communal life of people of different religious, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Yes, the PKK fought for national independence before, but this was in the period of the Cold War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the communist-socialist block, we have come to realize that one country with one government is not the right solution.”
With the explosions in Kobanê clearly audible in the background, more and more men join the discussion. “Last year Barzani [the conservative leader of Iraqi Kurdistan] called for the unification of all Kurdish people in one single country,” one man adds. “But the PKK disagrees with this plan, because such a state will eventually be no different from the Turkish Republic. The Kurds have many different religions and we speak many different languages. How could we unite ourselves under one single government?”
The men agree that, given the strength of the Turkish state and military, the widespread adoption of a canton system like Rojava’s is still far off. Still they see democratic autonomy as the only real alternative. “We don’t need professional politicians, but rather want the people to make decisions about their own lives, based on consensus and by means of local councils.”
Just outside the village, in the shadow of the military base that covers the small hill overlooking Measêr on the one side, and the Syrian border on the other, I meet with Sabri Altinel. This veteran of the DBP is having a chat with his teacher-friend who came from the city of Kars to show his solidarity with the people of Kobanê. Altinel smilingly conveys to me that “now everybody here is an anarchist. We’re against ISIS as well as against the Turkish state.”
Red line Kobanê
Several days ago, Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, presented the Turkish state with a deadline to act on peace with the country’s Kurdish population. “We can await a resolution till October 15, after which there is nothing we can do,” his statement read. “They (the Turkish authorities) are talking about resolution and negotiation but there exists no such thing. This is an artificial situation; we will not be able to continue anymore.”
The men of Measêr fully support Öcalan’s statement, because they are fed up with being stalled by the Turkish government, which keeps bringing up the issue of the Kurdish peace process every time an election peeks around the corner, but which, when pushes comes to shove, consistently fails to act upon its promises. They believe Öcalan set the deadline so that the implementation of promises made in the negotiations so far can no longer be postponed — and in light of the events in Kobanê, the government will be forced to reveal its true face.
“Kobanê is everything,” the PKK commander’s brother states. “Kobanê is the red line: for the PKK, for Öcalan, for the Kurdish people, for everyone. Without Kobanê we can’t talk about anything.”
The general opinion of the Kurds and their supporters here at the border is that the Turkish government has had a hand in ISIS’ assault on Kobanê. This rumor was confirmed by a member of ISIS with whom we spoke on the phone, a mere two hundred meters from the border with Syria.
My friend Murat and I were walking through the fields when we met a man who explained to us that he had just escaped from Kobanê. He told us how, two days before, he had tried to call a friend who was fighting with the Women’s Defense Forces. But instead of his friend answering, an unknown man picked up the phone and told him that his friend was dead — killed by ISIS — and that this phone now belonged to him.
Murat encouraged the man to try and call the number again, and after it rang a number of times, the same man picked up. Our friend spoke to the ISIS fighter for a while, in Arabic, and then asked him: “how is your friend Erdoğan doing?” The reply confirmed what many here have been suspecting all along: “Erdoğan has helped us a lot in the past. He has given us Kobanê. But now we don’t need him anymore. After Kobanê, Turkey is next!”
The PKK’s October 15 deadline is approaching fast, and with the border still closed for any material or logistical support for the Kurdish defenders of the city, the likelihood of a new civil war in Turkey becomes greater every day. The men of Measêr would have preferred a political solution over violence, but realize that if the Turkish government continues to stand by idly, blocking the border as their comrades in Kobanê are being slaughtered at the hands of ISIS, they will not be left with much choice.
It therefore appears that the Syrian civil war is rapidly spilling over into Turkey, not in the last place because the majority of YPG fighters in Kobanê are reportedly from the PKK, aiding their Syrian comrades in the fight against ISIS. As news emerges of fresh Turkish airstrikes on PKK positions in the southeast of the country, it is clear that the ceasefire is rapidly breaking down. As such, the coming days will be decisive for the future of the Turkish-Kurdish peace process.
Unless the Turkish government suddenly makes a dramatic turn, opening the border crossing to Kobanê and supporting the Kurdish resistance against ISIS, it will be difficult to prevent a further escalation of violence in the region.