The battle over de Kurdish town of Kobani, right at the Turkish-Syrian border, is in its second week now. What if Kobani falls? And why are Turkey’s hands still tied to take action against IS?
PUBLISHED 3 HOURS AGO
‘These are the showers. Hot water 24 hours a day’, says Mehmet Yavuz, local leader of governing party AKP in the Turkish border town of Suruc. He wants to elegantly swing open the door, but alas, it’s locked. ‘It will open in the morning’, he continues cheerfully. We continue walking through the Süleyman Shah Friendship Park, which is rapidly being turned into a refugee camp. Toilets were already there: a standard utility in a family park. Next to the toilets, a small mosque. ‘Some 5,000 refugees can stay here when the camp is finished in two or three days’, Yavuz calculates.
The refugee camp is close to Yumurtalik village, where a border crossing has been improvised to let refugees from Syria cross into Turkey. When Beaconreader was there last week, there were no mass border crossings, just hundreds a day at the most. But if Konabi, the Kurdish town on the other side of the border, falls, then a flood of people might come. Mehmet Yavuz: ‘We will receive them with open arms’.
How sinister that must sound to the Kurds who are protesting the advance of Islamic State and the alleged role of Turkey in that advance. They are only a stone’s throw away from the refugee centre and the Yumurtalik border gate, but they represent another world in these few square kilometres. They don’t see any humanity in the words of AKP’s Yavuz.
These people fear that the policy of the AKP towards NorthSyria is aimed at getting as many Kurds as possible from there to Turkey, and thus leave hardly any of them behind in the enclave of Kobani. It would help facilitate the buffer zone that Turkey wants in North Syria. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pleaded for such a zone last week at the United Nations in New York, claiming the zone would help protect Turkey against Islamic State advances.
The protesting Kurds claim otherwise: they believe, without exception, that Turkey wants to wipe out the Kurdish forces in Syria, represented by the political party PYD and its armed forces the YPG (the forces now defying Islamic State around Kobani). The PYD and the YPG are, after all, linked to the PKK in Turkey, with which the Turkish state is still in a state of war, despite an ongoing cease-fire.
The desired outcome
Zoom out a bit more, and this is connected to wider Turkish and inter-Kurdish politics. The PKK and its affiliates are in a power struggle with the KDP, the party of President Barzani of the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq. The two have huge ideological differences as well (read more about that in this article). Turkey has intensified its ties with Iraqi Kurdistan over the last couple of years, including a warm connection between Erdogan and Barzani. The stronger Barzani is, the weaker the PKK and its affiliates, seems to be the desired outcome.
The PKK and the YPG remain strong though, as one of the only military powers willing and able to fight the Islamic State. Barzani’s peshmerga ran away when IS advanced around Sinjar this summer, leading to a tragedy with Yezidi refugees. The PKK came to the people’s rescue, and have been helping the peshmerga elsewhere in Iraq as well to fight Islamic State.
Paying lip service?
Now Barzani has offered the YPG his help in the battle for Kobani. But nothing has come of it yet. Kurdish leaders in Syria have to agree first, but there is also the problem of getting the peshmerga to the besieged canton. Entering from Iraqi Kurdistan into Cizire, the Syrian Kurdish canton, is easy, since Cizire and Kurdistan border each other. But going from Cizire to Kobani is quite a different matter: the area between the two cantons is in the hands of IS and other militias. Another route would be via Turkey. On one hand, the friendship between Erdogan and Barzani makes it not impossible, on the other hand, the picture of armed Kurds on their way through Turkey to help the YPG, affiliated with the PKK, is hard if not impossible to sell to the Turkish population. So does Barzani really want to help the YPG, or is he just paying lip service?
PKK fighters, by the way, have the same problem of being unable to reach Kobani from their bases in the Qandil mountains, so they cannot help out either.
So, the YPG fighters are alone, militarily. When allied bombings started on the IS ‘capital’ of Raqqa, last week, the hope was that IS positions around Kobane would be next. Such operations are basically the YPG’s only hope. The bombings did come, but they seemed too small-scale and ineffective.
(There will be a cool map here once I find out how to embed it)
The Kurds protesting at the border between Turkey and Kobani believe that there is an understanding between the international anti-IS coalition and President Erdogan: let Kobane fall into IS hands, then bomb the city when all citizens have fled and subsequently establish (part of) the buffer zone. That way, the power of the PYD and the YPG would be seriously diminished: a long-term goal of Turkey, which has repeatedly spoken out against Kurdish self rule in Syria. The buffer zone would take that even a step further. Turkey would gain control over what is now land in Kurdish hands and part of what the Kurds consider their historic home.
Complication: for the PKK, the Kobani issue is part of the peace process in Turkey, as PKK field commander Cemil Bayik said in an interview with AlMonitor. If Kobani falls, the peace process in Turkey between the PKK and the government might be over, because the PKK will blame Turkey for the role they believe it plays in supporting Islamic State. Latest news is that also jailed PKK leader Öcalan has connected Kobani to the peace process in Turkey.
Historic Kurdish lands
The last thing that Kurds in Turkey want is for the peace process to end. The last thing they want is to see coffins return to their cities and villages with the remains of PKK fighters and of soldiers. The PKK can only resume the violence if the Kurds who support them agree that there is no other way – and the fall of Kobani could be it. For outsiders, Kobani is in Syria, a country other than Turkey, but for Kurds it’s all Kurdistan. If what they consider historic Kurdish lands, which have recently been under Kurdish democratic self-rule, are taken over by Turkey after supporting jihadist Islamic State, then count on a Kurdish willingness to make more sacrifices.
This is how much is at stake for the Kurds protesting not far from the neat state-run refugee camp for Kobani citizens. This is why they are protesting so unrelentingly at the border, wanting to cross it to help the YPG, waving PKK flags, singing patriotic Kurdish songs praising the PKK and the fight for freedom.
‘Provocations’, the state calls it. Beaconreader talked with a lieutenant at a blockade, who pointed at three Kurdish youths with covered faces waving flags of the PKK and the YDGH (the PKK’s youth organization in the cities), only a hundred meters away from the army. ‘This cannot be tolerated’, said the lieutenant, who was not allowed to give his name. ‘The flags are from an illegal terrorist organization so we have to end this demonstration.’
Next to him Sabri Murat, a 44 year old married father of seven, was trying to convince the soldiers to let him cross the border. He has tears in his eyes. Murat, a Kurd from Turkey, has family in Kobani and wants to see how they are doing. And he wants to contribute to fighting the Islamic State. Murat: ‘Yes, my wife allows that. She can lose me in the battle, but by dying that way I might save somebody else’s life, and that life is worth just as much as mine.’
The lieutenant told Sabri Murat that he understands him: ‘I am a state soldier, you are a state citizen. We are brothers. And you could give the help that you wanted to give if there was no illegal demonstration and if there was no illegal flag.’
Murat turns around and walks away. He asks Beaconreader: ‘Your country has a flag, right? And Turkey has a flag. Well, we have a flag too, and that’s our flag’, he said, pointing at the PKK standard. ‘It may be illegal to him, but it’s legal to us.’
A second later, the very same soldiers we just talked to started shooting teargas in large amounts. Up until now, in the almost two weeks that the border protests have been going on, according to Dicle News Agency 25 citizens have been injured by tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.
The AKP government rejects all accusations that they are supporting the Islamic State. Initially, Turkey wasn’t able to join the international anti-IS coalition because IS was holding 49 Turkish diplomats and their families as hostages, but they have been released now. President Erdogan has said that now that the hostages are freed, they will be able to do more, although he hasn’t really delivered on that promise.
This may have to do with another complicated situation for Turkey in IS-held lands, namely the protection of the tomb of Süleyman Shah. He is the grandfather of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, (and yes, the park that is turning into a refugee camp now is named after this man), and his tomb is situated on a small piece of Syrian land that is officially Turkish territory and protected by Turkish special forces. The tomb is now surrounded by Islamic State, leading to speculation that this is a de facto hostage situation. The Turkish government denies this, but doesn’t say much more about it. (Read more about the tomb and its role in the war in Syria in this Washington Post piece.)
Are Turkey’s hands really still tied? This week, Turkish parliament is expected to vote in favour of two resolutions that authorize the army to carry out cross-border operations into Iraq and Syria. If accepted, it remains to be seen if the authority will be used, and if so, for what exactly: to fight IS, or to install a possible buffer zone, or both? Some 35 tanks have been sent to the border already, aimed at Syria. But no huge troops deployment has been built up, so marching into Syria doesn’t seem to be a plan right now.
Turkey has other reasons though not to take military action against IS. The group has cells in Turkey, which could easily carry out retaliation attacks. And the Syria policy of Turkey is still aimed at outing President Assad. Turkey is afraid that attacking IS might play into Assad’s hands.
From one world into another
Being around the border for eight days, visiting both the state facilities and the protesting Kurds, being lead through an almost ready refugee camp by a smiling and dust-free local AKP leader and the next hour among the protesters running away from clouds of teargas, makes one feel like one is jumping from one world into another.
These two worlds don’t meet. The refugees who stay in the town of Suruc, which is in the administrative hands of the Kurdish movement, get no help from the state, and neither do the municipal workers who try to help them with insufficient budgets. One day, Beaconreader came into the office of the zabita, the municipal police, just when the zabita boss was talking on the phone to a state cop. ‘Help us!’, she pleaded with a strong voice and wild eyes about to break into tears. ‘We cannot do this alone. Even if you only try to arrange the traffic here, which is getting out of hand, we would be happy! Anything! Please!’
At the DBP office (the pro-Kurdish party, formerly known as BDP) there are countless volunteers doing their share in helping the thousands of families that came from Kobani. Which family needs diapers, where are blankets needed, where shall we hand out food, how are we going to protect the people camping outside from the rain expected in the coming days?
AKP’s Mehmet Yavuz smiled when asked about cooperation between his party and the DBP. ‘We have to leave our political differences behind to tackle this humanitarian disaster and to help our guests from Syria.’ They should, but they don’t. It’s not about ‘political differences’, it’s about a fundamentally different view of what exactly is happening on these few square kilometres. The AKP shows the world how good it is at setting up high quality refugee camps in no time (and it is, as they have shown in already hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees since the civil war started) and how purely humanitarian their intentions are. But the activist Kurds don’t trust the AKP for a split second. To them, it all fits into yet another dirty game that Turkey is playing against the Kurds.