The Battle for Kobani: What Is at Stake?

The Battle for Kobani: What Is at Stake?

“What does Kobani have to do with Turkey?” This question by President Erdoğan of Turkey neatly sums up his government’s position on the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani. The whole world is watching anxiously as Kobani holds out against a siege by ISIS; even UN envoy for Syria has asked Turkey to let Kurdish fighters cross the border, citing Kobani’s right to self-defense. And yet Ankara continues to ignore the humanitarian crisis next door, with President Erdoğan nonchalantly remarking that “Kobani has fallen…[I mean], it is about to fall.” However, for the millions of Kurds in Turkey – some of whom have relatives in Kobani – what is happening there is nothing less than the slaughter of their own kinsfolk.

When the fighting started one month ago and Kobani was surrounded on three sides by ISIS, nearly 200 thousand Kurds fled to Turkey, abandoning their houses and possessions. ISIS has now reached the center of Kobani; in the daily live broadcasts of its attacks, Turkish soldiers and tanks can be seen sitting idly in the distance. The outrage among Turkey’s Kurds at their government’s inaction has triggered mass protests reminiscent of the Arab Spring. More than three dozen people have been killed in three-way clashes between the police and groups affiliated with the PKK and the Sunni Kurdish organization known as Hizbullah. Curfews have been imposed and tanks patrol the streets in some cities, yet Turkey’s citizens still feel apprehensive about their own security. To grasp the causes of this sudden unrest requires a knowledge of what is at stake in the fight over Kobani.

The Kurdish-majority region of Rojava (“West Kurdistan” in Kurdish) in northern Syria is made up of the three non-contiguous areas of Cizire, Kobani, and Afrin. After the uprising against Bashar al-Assad and the withdrawal of the Damascus regime from these areas, Rojava came under the administration of the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the PYD or Democratic Union Party. Posters of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan can be seen on buildings and in squares throughout Rojava; its three cantons have implemented Öcalan’s system of regional autonomy. This represents a real turning point for the PKK. For the first time in its history, it has been able to implement its ideal political model in clearly-demarcated areas under its control and supervision. Needless to say, the Turkish government was not pleased to see lands on its southern border fall under the control of the PKK, with which it has fought a 30-year war. Though Erdoğan reacted by stating, “We regard this system as terrorism, and we will not allow it,” he was unable to do anything about Rojava for three years. Then, last month, ISIS began to attack the midmost and smallest of Rojava’s three cantons, Kobani. Only 270 kilometers separate ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa from Qamishli, the center of the regional PKK administration. In terms of their governments, however, the two regions might as well be in different universes. ISIS has imposed a medieval system of government on Raqqa, demanding that all women be fully veiled and beheading criminals. By contrast, the PKK (which began as an explicitly Marxist-Leninist organization) has set up an autonomous political system in Rojava, in line with Öcalan’s principle of “democratic autonomy.” Women serve in the military in Rojava, and members of different ethnic groups such as Assyrians and Arabs are represented in its government.

For nearly three years, the Turkish government has been engaged in negotiations with Öcalan, who is currently imprisoned on İmralı Island in the Sea of Marmara. Both the circumstances and the substance of these talks have been kept secret from the public. From time to time, the armed wing of the PKK has strongly objected to certain details in the peace process. Nonetheless, the negotiations continue, as does the cease-fire. Here it is worth pointing out that the word “cease-fire” merely denotes a temporary cessation of hostilities and the commencement of negotiations. The road from a cease-fire to a lasting peace can be long and tortuous, and both sides are aware that they may resume hostilities at any time. In recent history, organizations like ETA in Spain and the IRA in Northern Ireland have gone through a similar process, with failed negotiations and broken cease-fires. Erdoğan’s statement “What is happening in Kobani now might happen in Haseke or Afrin tomorrow” makes it clear that Turkey regards the assault on Kobani as a bargaining chip in its own negotiations with the PKK.

Though Turkey describes ISIS as a terrorist organization, its stance regarding the group can be perplexing. Soon after ISIS’s attack on Mosul, Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency reported how fortunate the people of Mosul were to have come under ISIS rule. Likewise, just a few weeks ago, the same agency shared photos on its Twitter account showing a joyous Eid al-Adha in the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa. There are many other unanswered questions. Is Davutoğlu making excuses for ISIS in saying, for instance, “If the Sunni Arabs had not been marginalized in Iraq then there would not be such an outpouring of rage now”? Is the prime minister turning a blind eye to the profits ISIS is making from its sales of black market petrol? Then there is the recent statement by US Vice President Biden, who said of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other allies that “they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad.” On March 24th, 2013, the New York Times reported that 130 flights containing military supplies from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan had arrived at Ankara’s Esenboğa Airport and other Turkish airports (with the knowledge of the US) and that their cargo had been taken across the Syrian border by truck. The whereabouts of these alleged arms shipments are still unknown.

Within the armed opposition in Syria, ISIS is becoming more and more powerful every day. It now controls a swath of Iraqi and Syrian territory extending from the outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Raqqa, hundreds of kilometers away. The images coming from the region show ISIS in possession of a full panoply of military supplies and vehicles – everything from tanks to the latest models of pickup trucks. It is still a mystery who is supplying ISIS with the ammunition for its weapons, or with the tires and spare parts for its vehicles. However, it would be impossible for ISIS to survive without assistance from neighboring countries. ISIS is currently fighting against the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, and – most recently – the PKK’s forces in Kobani. All three powers are viewed as enemies by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, as well as Turkey. The Gulf states are worried that an increasingly powerful Shiite government in Baghdad may become a lodestone for the Shiites on their own soil. Turkey shares their worries, while also being concerned about the PKK’s foothold in northern Syria. Finally, Turkey and the Gulf states are united in their hostility towards the Assad regime.

The PKK has no choice but to defend Kobani against ISIS’s attack. And yet it lacks experience in conventional warfare,being accustomed to using “hit-and-run” tactics in its armed struggle. Moreover, the PKK lacks the materiel to resist ISIS’s heavy weaponry; obtaining help from outside is impossible unless Turkey permits it. The fall of Kobani would mean a serious loss of prestige both for the PKK itself and for the millions of Kurds who support it. Moreover, after Kobani, the battle may spread to Cizire and Afrin, leading to a great loss of manpower for the PKK, which is estimated to have roughly 10 thousand fighters. In short, the PKK is in a very precarious position. The outcome of its negotiations with Turkey remains uncertain; at the same time, ISIS’s attacks may thin its ranks and deprive it of its newly-acquired territories.

Wishing to make things difficult for the PKK, the Turkish government is not content merely to watch the crisis unfold from this side of the border. The Turkish parliament’s recent authorization for the use of force in Syria and Iraq explicitly stated that the PKK posed at least as much of a threat to Turkey as ISIS. In an unexpected U-turn, Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party or MHP – normally the staunchest opponent of the AKP’s foreign policy – supported this resolution. Erdoğan’s statement that “Whatever ISIS is to us, the PKK is the same” suggests that the AKP increasingly views the peace process as a means of disabling the PKK. With the PKK backed into a corner by ISIS, perhaps Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have resolved to deal a death blow to the group, with the support of Turkey’s nationalists, who were opposed to the peace process from the very start.

Is Turkey turning a blind eye to ISIS? Kurds living in Turkey, hearing these kinds of statements from the government, are becoming more and more convinced that it is. The social unrest that has followed the news of ISIS’s entry into Kobani shows that the PKK may have decided to go “all in.”  Dozens of people have lost their lives in Eastern Turkey, which has become extremely unstable. Police stations, government buildings, and schools have been set on fire, and lynchings have been reported in cities with mixed Kurdish and Turkish populations.

For the past three years, the AKP’s rallying cry has been “creating a new order in the Middle East.” It is now clear that its pursuit of this strategy has only plunged it further into the mire. Unrest in the Middle East is no longer limited to Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt; it has spread to Kobani – just a few hundred meters from the Turkish border – and even to the Turkish cities of Diyarbakır and Gaziantep. The Turkish government must revert to its policy of working towards social harmony – and soon. The fact that the AKP leadership can refer to the current protests as “vandalism” shows just how blind it is to the looming danger.

When all is said and done, the AKP’s political ascendancy was built upon Turkey’s democratization and EU accession process. If its goal is to make Turkey into a Middle Eastern country where tanks patrol the streets, then it should know that the rules of the game in Middle Eastern politics are very different. There are many direct and indirect ways that Turkey can save Kobani from ISIS. In the past, Erdoğan never missed a chance to lecture Western and Arab leaders about the crises in Gaza, Myanmar, and Bosnia. His present indifference to the conflict in Kobani is therefore inexplicable. If Erdoğan means to use Kobani and Rojava to strike a blow against the PKK and its supporters, then this will return Turkey to where it was in the 1990s. In the worst case scenario, Turkey may even relive the nightmare of Yugoslavia. If democracy and common sense do not prevail immediately in Turkey, the result will be disastrous for all parties concerned.

Behlül Özkan is an Assistant Professor at Marmara University and the author of the book “From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan: the Making of a National Homeland in Turkey” published by Yale University Press in 2012.

Assistant Professor Behlül Özkan, Marmara University, İstanbul

Please cite this publication as follows:

Özkan B. (October, 2014), “The Battle for Kobani: What Is at Stake?”, Vol. III, Issue 10, pp.38-44, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (



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