Kobanê resists Islamic State – but Turkey still can’t get the Kurdish question right

Fired up, ready to go: Peshmerga fighters on the way to Kobanê. EPA/STR

The biggest new development in the ongoing conflict between the Kurds and Islamic State has been the growing co-operation between the Kurdish movements in Iraq and Syria – a phase change that forces to upend the whole question of Kurdish politics.

The link-up between Kurdish movements across borders has been a major security coup. It first paved the way for a US airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medical supplies on October 20, resources which were sent to defend the town of Kobanê, which has been under siege from IS for seven weeks. We’ve also seen the deployment of Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, armed with heavy weapons such as artillery and anti-tank missiles.

These events have run contrary to many analysts’ initial expectation that Kobanê’s fall to IS was a foregone conclusion – and the exemplary resistance of Kurdish forces has drawn the support of both the international coalition and the Peshmerga forces.

But winning the support of the international coalition is a major development for the Kurds’ entire political cause, not just for their fight against IS.

Previously, the US authorities rejected the idea of working with the Kurds in Syria at all, on the grounds that the main Kurdish political party in Syria – Democratic Union Party (PYD) – has links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the US’s list of terrorist organisations.

But the Kurds’ response was astute and effective – and has forced the US’s hand. The Syrian Kurdish political parties met in Duhok, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, to establish a joint administration for Syria’s Kurdish-controlled areas. The Kurds of Syria and Iraq knew that closer co-operation could make them an important force in the international fight against IS – which in turn is likely to increase their clout in regional politics in general.

But even with this new-found solidarity, any effort to properly integrate the Kurds into the existing regional power equation will have to clear significant hurdles.

Heels dug in

Better Kurdish co-operation in the fight against IS has not led to a significant change in Turkey’s attitude. Ankara still refuses to develop constructive and co-operative relations with the PYD, a strong indication that the same old ideas of what security entails still govern Turkey’s approach to its Kurdish question.

True, Turkey’s ongoing attempts to restart the peace process have at least gestured to the possibility of co-operative, mutualistic relations – but that still demands, not just an end to the recent rise of violence in Turkey, but a sea change in Turkey’s whole approach to the Kurdish conflict. Ankara needs to stop framing the Kurdish question as a security problem, and start taking measures to genuinely accommodate the Kurds’ demands.

Depressingly, statements made by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicate a hardening attitude.

Previously, the PKK’s unilateral ceasefires and cessation of violence was interpreted by Turkey as the end of the Kurdish conflict, rather than an opportunity for major reforms that could meet the Kurds’ demands. The recent escalation of violence, and the ensuing war of words over whose fault it is and how to stop it, reveals how delicate the situation is – and exposes the lack of trust that still defines Turkey’s approach to peace with the Kurds.

Open up

Unfortunately for the Turkish government, the sympathy that the Kurdish forces continue to win as a result of their resistance in Kobanê is translating into growing popularity and a change of attitude internationally.

The US and its allies are beginning to accept that Syria’s Kurds cannot be excluded from the campaign against IS, or from any eventual post-conflict settlement in Syria. This is in stark contrast to their refusal to engage with the Kurdish representatives in the built-up to the Geneva II Conference on Syria earlier this year, and it’s making Turkey’s hitherto intransigent position more and more uncomfortable.

At the heart of Turkey’s reaction to the Kobanê resistance is the fight over the Kurdish question in Turkey itself, as well in Syria. Turkish attempts to “outflank” the Kurds in Syria have so far not produced the desired outcome, and under severe pressure from the US, Ankara has reluctantly agreed to let Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces cross its territory to reach Kobanê.

Given that many of the PKK’s guerrillas are now fighting IS in Iraq, it’s hard to imagine the PKK fully restarting its insurgency in Turkey in the short run. But as long as Turkey’s approach to the conflict is shaped by its own narrow security priorities, the escalation of violence is likely to continue.

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