As the Kurdish town of Kobane continues to defy Islamic State (IS) forces, many pundits have condemned Turkey’s unwillingness to help the People’s Protection Units (YPG) keep the forces of “evil” at bay.
In a dichotomy characteristic of mainstream reporting on the Middle East, the Kurds, one of the region’s perennial victims, have largely been cast as the “good guys”. The YPG and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) lived up to that image by helping to rescue Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar.
Turkey, in possession of NATO’s second-largest army, has been thrown in with the “bad guys”. This perception was heightened when protests in Kurdish majority areas of Turkey against government inaction resulted in more than 40 deaths. But is this “bad guy” label a fair representation of Turkey’s reluctance to intervene in Kobane?
The Turkish government has valid reasons not to become embroiled in the defence of Kobane against IS. It would be a breach of Syrian sovereignty and international law.
Also, the YPG is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD, the predominant faction of three non-contiguous self-declared Kurdish autonomous regions of Rojava (Western/Syrian Kurdistan), which is linked to the PKK. This is a movement that waged a decades-long guerrilla war, at a cost of more than 40,000 lives, in pursuit of independent state at the expense of Turkish territorial integrity.
The PKK is now more committed to Kurdish self-determination than separatism. A ceasefire has been in effect since March 2013. The PKK, and the PYD by association, is still listed as a proscribed terrorist organisation by Turkey and much of the west, including Australia and the US.
Territorial integrity comes first for Turkey
Turkish sovereignty, and in particular territorial integrity, has been an extremely prickly subject since the First World War. This didn’t just lead to the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire – which contributed to many of the problems in the region today – but also the Allied invasion of Turkish Anatolia. A Kurdish state was proposed, which would have included vast tracts of land ceded from what is today recognised as Turkey.
In effect, the war didn’t finish for Turkey until 1923. Turkey’s borders today are the result of nationalist resistance led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Merely referring to “Kurdistan” can trigger an angry response, as I experienced while travelling in Capadoccia in October 2013 when I mentioned working in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkey, in essence, is being asked to risk its soldiers to save a “terrorist” organisation that has been trying to dismember the Turkish state for decades. The government couldn’t sell this to the wider Turkish public even if it wanted to.
More to the point, it suits Turkey that IS and the YPG/PKK are slugging it out: not only are two of its primary enemies otherwise occupied, but they are weakening each other.
Kobane is not a strategic priority
If Kobane falls, it will be a blow to PKK prestige. The Turkish government is calculating that a PKK threat to end the peace process if Kobane falls is a bluff; the Kurds are too weak to fight both IS and Turkey at once.
Turks are not entirely unwilling to help. The country is hosting some 1.5 million refugees, including around 200,000 from the Kobane area. Given Australia’s reaction to asylum seekers, and the pitiful numbers taken in by Turkey’s NATO allies, it’s a bit rich to criticise Turkey as being unhelpful.
While the resistance in Kobane has been impressive and the political organisation of Rojava is regionally unique in terms of its inclusiveness of women and minorities, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s declaration that Kobane is not of strategic importance is apt.
Hard up on the Turkish border, Kobane is otherwise surrounded by IS forces. As high-ranking members of Turkey’s ruling AK Party note, the vast majority of those left in the town are fighters and others who have chosen to remain.
On what conditions might Turkey intervene?
Turkey has not ruled out intervening, but it has a list of conditions.
Turkey demands a renewed focus on toppling the Assad regime, which entails renewed training of the seemingly mythical “moderates” of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Turkey points out that whatever happens in Kobane pales in comparison to the ongoing bloodshed in Syria. This three-and-a-half-year conflict has cost more than 200,000 lives.
Turkey also demands a buffer zone in Syrian territory to shield Turkey from IS retaliation should it intervene. The Turkish-Syrian border is some 900 kilometres long, porous and hard to defend. It is also unclear on what terms Turkey secured the release of consular staff held by IS after capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.
It is true that Turkey has, until recently, done little to stop foreign fighters entering Syria to fight the Assad regime. Before the ascendancy of Islamist radicals, however, supporting anti-Assad rebels was the de facto policy of many regional states, the Obama administration and other western governments. It wasn’t until the Islamist monster created by the proverbial Dr Frankensteins of the region escaped that this policy began to shift.
Finally, Turkey demands that the PYD renounce its territorial ambitions. Unsurprisingly, the PYD refuses to do this in light of its strong position in the two other self-declared autonomous regions of Rojava. The PYD has been accused of collaborating with the Assad regime – the Syrian army withdrew from Kurdish areas without a fight, yet officials were subsequently on hand to assist with Yazidis rescued from Sinjar – and Turkey has no intention of allowing another PKK haven to be set up along its borders.
Kurds are not a united force
The PKK already operates from the Qandil mountains in Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) territory in Iraq. There is, however, no love lost between the dominant party of the KRG – the Kurdish Democratic Party – and the PKK as they vie for leadership of the wider Kurdish national movement.
The KRG has even, in the past, allowed the Turkish army into the autonomous region to conduct operations against the PKK. While travelling in the mountains near Turkey I was surprised to drive past a Turkish army base on Iraqi soil, before being shown a valley desolated by Turkish bombs years earlier.
The KRG has also refused to recognise the autonomous cantons of Rojava. The KRG says a ditch it has dug along the KRG-Syria border is to keep IS out, but Syrian Kurds see it as a “betrayal” with the purpose of keeping them out. In short, the KRG is often seen as a Turkish lackey and Kurdish political unity is a myth.
This explains why Turkey agreed to help transfer Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and FSA reinforcements in the defence of Kobane. Only 150 Peshmerga and 50 FSA fighters have been allowed to enter Kobane. Despite an ostensible unity agreement recently signed by the KRG and PYD, the latter sees a large, Turkish-assisted influx of these fighters as a means of weakening PYD, and by extension PKK, influence in Rojava. The PYD thus refused the much higher numbers originally touted.
Given all these factors, it’s unsurprising that Turkey refuses to intervene with boots of the ground. Other US-aligned “coalition” members haven’t volunteered to do much more than engage in what often appears to be an elaborate and exceptionally expensive way to destroy empty buildings.
The PYD-YPG resistance is testimony to their courage, but the western public’s fleeting emotional investment in Kobane isn’t going to flick a magic switch in the Turkish majority’s collective consciousness after decades of separatist conflict.