Everything’s at stake for the Kurds in the battle for Kobanê

Turkish police use tear gas on Kurdish protesters. EPA/Sedat Suna

In recent weeks, the Kurdish town of Kobanê on the Turkey-Syria border has become centre stage in the struggle against IS (Islamic State). The latest round of attacks on the town and its surrounding areas began in July 2014 – but IS has been intensifying its attacks on Kobanê since September 15.

It has been so far met with fierce Kurdish resistance. However, the main Kurdish military force – the People’s Protection Units, or YPG in its Kurdish acronym – has been unable to prevent IS entering the town. The subsequent intensification of US air strikes against IS positions around Kobanê seems to have helped in slowing IS advances, but without immediate support in the form of heavy weapons and ammunition for the YPG, as well as continuing air strikes, it could be just a matter of time before the town falls to IS control.

To escape the IS onslaught, thousands of Kurds have taken refuge in Turkey – but according to Kurdish sources, the lives of an estimated 10,000 civilians who remain in Kobanê are still in danger.

Flashpoint

Kobanê’s strategic importance for IS is supposedly the main motive behind its attacks, but underlying ideological reasons and antagonisms based on ethnic difference are also playing a part.

IS’s goal of establishing a state run according to Islamist fundamentalist ideology is in stark contrast with the Kurds’ vision of a democratic, secular, gender-egalitarian and plural Syria, and the rise of IS and its attacks against the Kurds are dragging the Kurds into a much larger regional sectarian conflict.

In recent months, the Kurdish movements in Iraq, Turkey and Syria have begun to co-operate more closely against IS. This sort of pan-Kurdish mobilisation is not new; ever since the early 1980s, the Kurds in Syria have been active in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its insurgency against Turkey, which began in August 1984.

But the current wave of Kurdish protests in Turkey, a release of tension that has been building for years, shows how serious things have become. The government has failed to deliver a comprehensive plan to end the conflict through peaceful means and to broaden Kurdish rights; with that failure, it has left millions of Kurds deeply frustrated.

The disaster in Kobanê was the last straw. The unrest in towns and cities across Turkey is continuing, especially in the majority Kurdish regions, despite a curfew and a harsh police response. The death toll in the protests has already passed 30.

The Kurds are enraged at Turkey’s reluctance to allow help and supplies to cross the border to Kobanê to reach Kurdish fighters, who have been encircled by IS for more than three weeks now. They suspect that Turkey’s intended buffer zone in Northern Syria would simply serve what they see as Ankara’s broader objective: an attempt to stifle the Kurdish movement in both Syria and Turkey.

New Steps Needed

Despite the peace talks between Turkey and the PKK that have been rumbling along since March 2012, Turkey continues to view the Kurdish movement – both in Syria and Turkey – with suspicion. Consequently Turkey has been alarmed by the rising influence of the PYD (Democratic Union Party) since July 2012, which is seen by Turkey as the PKK’s extension in Syria.

The dialogue only came about in the first place because of positive developments in the conflict, in particular a significant decrease in violence on both sides. But these positive developments have so far failed to bring about a notable shift in Turkish public debate, or a coherent new policy – which will be essential if the deep-rooted conflict is ever to be resolved.

Things were already moving fast before Kobanê came under attack. Earlier this year, the PYD has taken a key role in establishing three Kurdish Cantons in Syria, which are now managing their own affairs. Turkey has long opposed the idea of any Kurdish self-rule in Syria on the grounds that it could fuel demands for similar structures in Turkey. That is now translating into a lack of Turkish assistance in the face of the IS attacks and very harsh measures to quell Kurdish protests.

And the sudden escalation in anti-Kurd violence within Turkey, which has been exacerbated by nationalist lynching attempts targeting Kurds, shows how fragile the situation is and how it is ready to spiral into a major social conflict, torpedoing the fragile negotiations and erupting into a full-blown ethnic battle.

Decisive Turkish action, including facilitating military assistance, is urgently needed not just to stop IS, but to safeguard what few positive gains have been made in recent years. Without it, a resolution to Turkey and Syria’s Kurdish crisis could be set back decades.