The beleaguered town of Kobane erupted in celebration earlier this week after fresh arms finally arrived to aid its Kurdish defenders in their epic six-week stand against the militant fighters calling themselves Islamic State (ISIS).
The light arms and explosives supplied from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and dropped by the United States Air Force have raised hopes of solidarity among a disunited and long-oppressed minority divided between four states. The weapons and explosives dropped early Monday came as Turkey caved under US pressure, and said it would allow the KRG’s peshmerga fighters to reinforce the town.
Heysam Mislim, a Kurdish journalist who is in Kobane and has been chronicling its fight in a diary for Newsweek, says extra snipers were positioned on frontlines to hold ISIS back and allow the defenders to savour what they see as an historic moment. “These supplies mean that Kobane is not alone and that Kurds elsewhere care about this resistance,” he says. “Kobane is now uniting us all.”
The assistance represents a rapprochement between the KRG, whose president, Massoud Barzani, has long been on poor terms with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the faction that assumed control of Syria’s Kurdish region after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces abandoned it to them in 2012. The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the rebel group that has fought a 30-year insurgency in quest of autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds.
In spite of protests from Ankara at their links to the terrorist-designated PKK, the airdrops and continuing US airstrikes also represent the emergence of a de facto alliance against ISIS between the PYD and Washington. “The biggest issue is that the United States is dropping military equipment to the PYD,” says Henri Barkey, a former State Department official and a specialist on Kurdish politics. “They can always dial back the relationship, but once you’ve done that you can never completely dial it back.”
The PYD’s stand in Kobane has also bolstered its credibility as a force against ISIS, not only in the eyes of Washington but also among Kurds in Syria and Turkey, where many have crossed the border to fight in their ranks. “It’s a defining moment in terms of Kurdish nationhood,” says Barkey. “They are proud of the fact that when everyone was crumbling in front of ISIS, the PYD stood firm, and got the Americans to join their side. It’s an enormous achievement.” Barkey compares the siege of Kobane to Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical attack on the town of Halabja, in which 5,000 Kurdish civilians died and which galvanised Iraqi Kurds’ fight for autonomy.
An ethnic and linguistic group of some 30 million divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, the Kurds were among the great losers of the carve up of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War. While the United States’ 2003 Iraq invasion led to the emergence of Kurdish self-rule there, the other Kurdish populations have had mixed fortunes.
In Turkey, the Islamist-rooted government has initiated a peace process that has loosened restrictions on Kurdish cultural freedom, allowing limited Kurdish language education, and offering the prospect of greater autonomy for the country’s 15 million Kurds.
In Syria, home to some two million Kurds, they remained under strict oppression by the Assad government, with many denied basic citizenship. A 2004 uprising was brutally repressed. However, as Assad’s regime became swamped in its own Arab uprising in 2011, it effectively ceded control of the Kurdish region – called Rojava by Kurds – to the PYD.
Syria’s Arab rebels, and many Syrian Kurds, at first regarded the PYD as an Assad proxy: his air force left its territories untouched, and the PYD allowed the regime to maintain control of some military installations in its territory.
As the ISIS threat has risen, however, support for the PYD and respect for its fighting prowess has grown among Syria’s Kurds as well as in the West. “Through Kobane, the PYD has made itself the force that represents the Kurds in Syria, and military success is enhancing its prestige,” says Barkey.
That success may bring broader regional dangers, however. Turkey’s decision to allow peshmerga forces to resupply Kobane via its soil may result in retaliation by ISIS itself, which is believed to have an extensive network of cells in Turkey. In a sign of the possible trouble to come, last Friday, ISIS militants attempted to kidnap a top moderate Syrian rebel commander in the Turkish town of Suruc. The failed attempt against Abu Issa, who leads the Thuwa Raqqa brigade, came only moments after he had met with Turkish officials who have agreed to help arm and train his force.
Meanwhile, as Ankara resisted Western pressure to allow military aid to the affiliate of an organization it has long viewed as its main security threat, fury grew among Turkey’s Kurds, culminating in the worst rioting the country has seen in more than a decade. At least 37 people died in the southeast Kurdish region in unrest that then sparked violent counter-protests among nationalist Turks The trigger for the protests was a comment by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan predicting that “Kobane will soon fall”. His apparent indifference was seen by many as confirmation that Ankara has been facilitating the Islamic State – a charge the government denies.
Ankara’s hostility to Kobane’s defenders is at odds with a two year old peace process it has pioneered in an effort to end the PKK’s 30-year-long insurgency in Turkey, which has claimed 40,000 lives. The PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is the group’s key negotiator in the talks, said earlier this month that the peace talks would end if the town fell.
Even though outside help means that prospect is no longer imminent, observers are still divided over whether that peace process will collapse and Turkey will again face its own Kurdish insurgency. Baskin Oran is a Turkish academic who was part of a panel of ‘Wise People’ assembled by the government to advise on the peace process.
In July, however, he quit because he believes Ankara is not sincere in its efforts. He accuses the government of playing ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’, holding out an olive branch to the PKK while also using aggressive rhetoric against it in order to pander to a Turkish nationalist majority that is deeply suspicious of those talks. “There is only one solution to the Kurdish question, bearing in mind that Kurdish consciousness has now reached a point to where they will take nothing less than regional autonomy through municipal councils, and AKP cannot give them that,” he says.
Aliza Marcus, a US-based Kurdish expert and author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, believes the empowerment of the PKK’s Syrian ally will force Ankara to treat the peace process more urgently: “In order to feel secure along their Syrian border they should make peace with the PKK, and they should realise that the moment to do that is right now,” Equally, she adds, the PKK would be foolish to resume its Turkish insurgency at a time when it is closer than ever to obtaining international legitimacy.
Despite Ankara’s 11th-hour decision to allow peshmerga forces access to Kobane, the broken trust between Turkey and the Kurds may be impossible to repair: “If you talk to people here in Kobane they would not miss a second to tell you that the Turkish-ISIS alliance is now crystal clear than ever before,” says Mislim. He accuses Turkish soldiers of opening fire on civilians attempting to deliver aid to the town. Mislim also cites the plight of 276 Kobane residents who have been held by Turkey since October 5th. Ankara has said it is detaining people it suspects of being PYD fighters. Amnesty International this week accused Turkey of unlawfully detaining the Kurds in a sports hall in the neighbouring Turkish border town of Suruc, and of threatening to return more than 100 to the war-torn town.
Wounded Kurdish fighters have died while being refused permission to cross the border.Last week, Mislim’s own cousin and close friend, Bangin Berio, became one of them. After being wounded on the front line, Turkish border guards made the ambulance carrying him wait for a couple of hours at the border. “Because he was bleeding from his critical wounds, he died right at the border crossing,” he says.
Mislim learned of his cousin’s death when another fighter came and handed him what he recognised his cousin’s harmonica and his favourite book. “I recognised the harmonica, it was the one Berio used to play and carry with him at all times. I asked if he was still alive, but the YPG fighter hugged me and just kept saying he was ‘sorry’ to me.”
In spite of the aid, the resistance of Kobane remains precarious, he adds, saying that without heavy weapons the town may still fall. “After I got the book and the harmonica I stayed around the central district for a while. I did not know what to do really. I had to either burst into tears or carry on my routine. I decided the latter.