Turkey’s Kurdophobia as a Precursor to Kurdish Genocide: The Case of Kobani
Turkey’s Kurdophobia as a Precursor to Kurdish Genocide: The Case of Kobani
Recently, the international community called upon Turkey’s President Erdoğan to take steps to help the Kurds in Syria who had been held under siege by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from mid-September 2014 to January 26, 2015. However, Turkey did not react to ISIL’s heavy attacks and did not assist the Syrian Kurds in defending themselves. In this article, I attempt to explain Turkey’s hesitation to help the Kurds who were under threat of genocide by ISIL. The article suggests that Turkey’s inaction can be explained by the country’s Kurdophobia. I advance this by first explaining Turkey’s actions towards the Kurds historically and then vis-à-vis Kobani –a Kurdish town in northern Syria bordering Turkey. Further, I discuss how Turkey’s Kurdophobia has been shaping Turkey’s policy choices. The article states that Ankara’s recent stance against the Kurds and Kurdish semi-autonomy in Syria almost brought genocide to the civilians and defenders of Kobani. It also agitated the Kurds and degraded Turkey’s international standing. I further maintain that Turkey’s policies have generated counterproductive outcomes for the Turkish Republic. Its Kurdophobia has perpetuated a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein Ankara’s hostile strategy has distanced Kurds and provoked an antagonistic reaction from them. I end by arguing that if Ankara wants to encourage perpetual peace in Turkey, it must abandon its Kurdophobia.
Introduction: Syrian civil war; A story of violence
The outbreak of the Syrian civil war in the spring of 2011 turned Syria into a war zone. The Syrian government’s brutal response to early non-violent demonstrations paved the way for opposition groups to turn into armed movements. Over the course of the escalating conflict, some opposition groups radicalised and some jihadist groups gained considerable strength. Despite numerous regional and international attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict, the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad and the anti-government groups preferred obduracy by pursuing their war –that is, the total humiliation and annihilation of the other side.
With the persisting internal war, both government forces and anti-government groups conducted human rights violations, ranging from the arbitrary detaining of civilians to mass murders. To investigate asserted human rights violations since March 2011 in Syria, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICISAR) on August 22, 2011 with resolution S-17/1. The Commission’s last report stated that both the government forces and anti-government groups conducted human rights violations.
The report states that the government forces, as well as the anti-government rebellion groups, perpetrated massacres and conducted pervasive attacks on civilians, carried out systematic murder, torture, rape, sexual violence and enforced disappearance. In addition, they recruited and used children in hostilities, and they disregarded the special protection accorded to hospitals, medical and humanitarian personnel. The Syrian government’s indiscriminate and heavy aerial bombardments and shelling brought about significant civilian casualties. The Government’s numerous violations also included the execution of civilians, which was evidenced in a leaked confidential report. The Commission report further maintains that Bashar Al-Assad’s government used chlorine gas and chemical weapons. Relatedly, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, expressed that even though Syria agreed to stop using chemical weapons by officially joining the UN Chemical Weapons Convention, the Syrian regime has subsequently continued to use chemical weapons fourteen times since joining the UN Committee. In fact, on some occasions, there were clear signs of, and indeed forensic evidence of, the use of chemical weapons. Anti-regime groups’ car bombings have further terrorised the civilian population. A Human Rights Watch reported that opposition groups executed and conducted unlawful killings of many civilians, including women and children. Both sides, as the United Nations and other international and regional organisations’ reports affirmed, have committed gross violations of international human rights and war crimes that amount to crimes against humanity.
The Syrian Civil War, as the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (henceforth Syrian Observatory) documented, has left nearly 300,000 people dead, including 63,072 civilians (containing 10,377 children and 6,603 women) since the beginning of the Syrian uprising until December 1, 2014. The conflict affected 10.8 million of Syria’s 22 million population, displaced 6.5 million internally by mid-2014 and resulted in 3,725,940 registered Syrian refugees –not to mention the wanton destruction of the country and psychological desolation of Syrian people. Beyond such devastation, the prolonged civil war has induced epidemics of infections that have spread through hapless populations in Syria and in neighbouring countries. The war has resulted in devastating humanitarian consequences; millions of Syrian refugees have faced financial, political, and logistical challenges. Refugees have experienced considerable destabilisation that has affected the entire region, threatening the fragile stability of surrounding countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and even Turkey.
Turkey’s shifting policy during the Syrian civil war
Turkey’s relations with Syria had been historically tense through the 1990s due to Damascus’ alleged support for the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) (PKK) –a Kurdish insurgency fighting against the Turkish government since 1984 for the communal rights of and autonomy for the Kurds in Turkey. Accordingly, Turkey was on the brink of declaring war on Syria in 1998 as the latter supported the PKK. Facing a real danger of military conflict with Turkey, in October 1998 Damascus signed the Adana Memorandum, which designated PKK as a terrorist group and required Damascus to end its activities in Syria and expel this movement, including its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, from Syrian territory. After signing the Memorandum, Turkish-Syrian political relations improved considerably, marking a new phase of good will.
These good relations continued unperturbed even as the civil war erupted in Syria. With the rising violence, Turkey advised Assad to heed the Syrian people’s rightful demands. Consequently, then the Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoğlu conducted a series of meetings with Damascus. However, Turkey’s relations with Assad deteriorated as violence escalated in Syria. When a Turkish fighter jet was shot down on the June 22, 2014 due the claim that the jet was in Syrian airspace, tensions intensified between the two countries. However, the real shift in Turkish policy came when Assad took the decision to withdraw from northern Syria, thus leaving room for Kurdish self-control. Turkey suddenly became a fervent opponent of Assad’s rule and called for international action to topple the Syrian regime. Cockburn argues that Turkey’s position had been clear since July 2012, when the Syrian army, under pressure from rebels elsewhere, pulled out of the main Kurdish areas. Overthrowing the Assad government became a Turkish policy priority, even at the expense of supporting radical jihadist factions in Syria, as U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden elucidated.
Turkish policy and Kurdophobia
Despite relative periods of ease since 1923, the repression of the Kurds and their basic rights remained on Ankara’s agenda. Gunter says that following Turkey’s nationalist victory, a series of steps were taken in an attempt to eliminate the Kurdish presence in the new Republic of Turkey through legal sanctions and gradual, forced assimilation. On March 3, 1924, for example, a degree banned all Kurdish schools, organisations, and publications.
In its history Turkey outlawed the Kurdish letters of Q, X, and W; endeavoured to eradicate Kurdish names in Kurd-populated areas and/or replace them with Turkish names; banned the words Kurdistan and Kurd; criminalised speaking of the Kurdish language; barred listening to Kurdish music; and even arrested people for putting on the traditional Kurdish scarf, pushi. Süleyman Demirel during his presidency in 1993 put forward that he was against even the possibility of any language reforms for Kurds or granting them cultural rights, arguing that these reforms constitute a threat to the unity and territorial integrity of Turkey. Hugh Poulton elucidated Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds with an ethnic model, disclosing the Turkish state repression of all Kurdish basic rights that might lead to a separate Kurdish national consciousness.
What was understudied and yet what crucially explains Turkey’s adverse approach towards the Kurds is one of fear, that is, the country’s deeply rooted Kurdophobia. I shall define Turkey’s Kurdophobia as the fear of Kurds and the independent Kurdish state, and/or any Kurdish gain that may threaten the Turkish state due to the country’s sizeable Kurdish population. Since its dawn, Turkey has persistently feared that any Kurdish gain –which may not necessarily be within the territorial boundaries of Turkey– may empower or inspire its most populous minority, the Kurds, to seek independence. Therefore, any Kurdish empowerment whether in the form of polity creation, military formation, or even regarding basic communal rights –which, Ankara believes, might lead the way to Kurdish statehood– have been considered a threat to the unity and integrity of the Turkish state. Consequently, Turkey has been apprehensive of the matters regarding the Kurds, their rights, or any Kurdish empowerment.
Turkey –due to its Kurdophobia– has long held the objective in its foreign policy to curb Kurdish activities, gains, and rights both within its neighbours’ borders and throughout Europe and the United States where Kurdish accomplishments were visible. Kirişci argues that Turkish foreign policy and Turkey’s relations with the external world have been affected by the Kurdish problem. Ankara, for instance, had invested in eradicating the Kurdish parliament in exile and its activities in some European capitals, such as The Hague, Vienna, Copenhagen, Rome, Oslo, and Brussels, causing serious tension between Turkey and the governments of those respective capitals. Demirel also expressed his distress over the European Union Copenhagen criteria on minority rights for applicant states because of Turkey’s genuine fear of separatism.
Correspondingly, Ankara had vehemently opposed the creation of a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. Turkey had long feared that any institutional advancement in neighbouring Iraq would encourage Kurds and instigate an independent Kurdish state; thereby, it would threat Turkish integrity and indivisibility of its territory. Starting in the 1960s, Ankara had cooperated intensively with Baghdad in order to curb any Kurdish gains in northern Iraq. Yet, this became inevitable with the American-led coalition’s no-fly zone in northern Iraq after the Gulf war in 1991. The no-fly zone created a safe haven for Iraqi Kurds and enabled them to begin forming autonomous institutional structures. Turkey had vociferously resisted Kurdish gains in northern Iraq. However, Turkey reluctantly acquiesced after Kurdish leaders reassured Ankara that the autonomous government would not pursue independence for the Kurds but would cooperate with all Iraqi opposition to form a democratic alternative to Saddam Hussein’s regime, thus preserving Iraqi unity. The Turkish state till recent years did not recognise the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KRG) as a de jure provincial government. Today, however, Turkey asserts that the KRG is a vital partner in the region and undeniable revenue for Turkey, not only boosting the Turkish economy but also reducing Ankara’s dependency on Iranian and Russian energy.
In short, Turkey has unremittingly resisted any Kurdish gain in anywhere, including outside Turkey’s boundaries. Enfranchisement of the Kurds has been perceived to constitute a paramount threat to the Turkish state system and its territorial integrity as it may lead to Kurdish independence, a fear that Ankara still holds.
A brief history of Turkey’s Kurdophobia
Turkish policy with regard to Kobani can be clarified by disclosing Turkey’s cynical approach towards the Kurds and the pillars that the modern Turkish Republic was built upon, and, of course, the interaction between these two, as the former was perceived to be threatening the latter, i.e. the Kurds were traditionally perceived as threatening the very survival and unity of the Turkish State.
The modern state of Turkey was established on the motto: “One nation, one flag, and one language” which is still enshrined in Article 3 of the Turkish Constitution. These principles are irrevocable and unamendable. The Turkish Constitution vigorously emphasises the integrity of the Turkish Nation, indivisible unity of the Turkish state, and State territory.
This fear that has gripped the Turkish nation dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when many Balkan nations, Arabs, Armenians, and other ethnic groups under Ottoman rule, including the Kurds, were inspired by nationalism and desired their own nation-state –a fact that caused the ultimate breakdown of long Ottoman Empire. Following the creation of Turkish nation-state from remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Kurds remained the principal minority group in the newly established country. Yavuz states that the modern republic treated ethno-religious diversity as a threat to its project of nation-building, and used every means at its disposal to eliminate the causes and consequences of differences. Turkey’s official state ideology sought to deny the existence of the Kurdish people in that country through eliminating much that might suggest a separate Kurdish nation. By the same token, Bruinessen stated that the military and bureaucratic elite has been deeply committed to the idea of Turkey as a homogeneous nation, and thus they have perceived each denial of unity as a vital threat to the Turkish nation state.
Kurdish uprisings against the Ottoman Empire in its last decades and insatiable Kurdish revolts against newly founded Turkish state in the first half of the 20th century intensified Turkish government’s fear of Kurds. Three decades (since 1984) of protracted armed conflict with the PKK has further exacerbated this deeply rooted Kurdophobia among the Turkish bureaucratic elite in the modern Turkish nation. In other words, Turkey’s historical experience with the Kurds, including numerous rebellions against the Turkish republic, has contributed to the Kurds’ becoming an outstanding source of fear. Therefore, the Kurds, or to put it more accurately, the ‘perception’ of the Kurds by the Turkish power elite has shaped the policy choices of Ankara regarding any matter that might empower the Kurds –a fact that we have seen in the case of ISIL’s attack on the Kurds in Syria.
The number of the Syrian Kurds is estimated to be about 1.5 million, which constitutes nine per cent of total Syrian population of 22 million. These numbers suggest that the Kurds are the largest non-Arab minority in Syria. Similar to the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, Kurds in Syria have experienced communal discrimination by the government.
Largely underappreciated, the Syrian Kurds have been denied their social, cultural, and political rights. Syrian Kurds in many instances have been deprived of their citizenship. With the rise of Arab nationalism in Syria as evidenced in the Constitution of 1973, the exclusion of Kurdishness became a central element of the Syrian political system and culture. On March 12, 2004 Kurdish and Arab supporters fought over a football match in Qamishli –a town in northern Syria. The security forces shot at the Kurds, killing seven and wounding many others. This incident then sparked a chain of violent events for the Syrian Kurds. As a result, 36 Kurdish people died, 160 were injured, and more than 2,000 Kurdish detainees were tortured and ill-treated. These incidents resulted in a Kurdish uprising against the Syrian government, known also as the Kurdish intifada or serhildan –a Kurdish word for rebellion.
Following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in the early spring of 2011, the Syrian Kurds approached the conflict with caution and stayed out of the war. Though not quite supportive of the Syrian non-inclusive government, the Kurds did not join the rebellion. This resulted from the fact that anti-government groups were mostly Sunni and Arab nationalists. Robert Lowe, an expert on Syrian Kurds, stated that the Kurds in Syria worried that any dominant Arab nationalist government would deny the Kurds and their rights. Salih Muslim, head of Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party) (PYD) in Syria, said that the Kurds in Syria have been fighting the Syrian regime since the 2004 Kurdish uprising. Yet, the Kurds did not join the rebellion groups, for these groups are, he claims, “worse than the regime.” When the Syrian government took a strategic decision to withdraw the bulk of its forces from the Kurdish regions in Syria in mid-July 2012, the Kurdish armed forces, primarily the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units) (YPG) and its female brigade Yekîneyên Parastina Jinê (Women’s Protection Units) (YPJ) effectively filled the void and secured many Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. In November 2013, PYD with an array of other Kurdish political groups in Syria established an interim government in the controlled regions. The Kurdish semi-autonomous structure was composed of three democratic cantons: Efrîn (Afrin), Cızîrê (Jazira), and Kobanê (Kobani). They call these three district regions and some more territories in northern Syria as Rojavayê Kurdistanê, meaning western Kurdistan.
The Kurdish town of Kobani
Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab –the smallest Kurdish area in Rojava– is inhabited by roughly 10 per cent of the Kurdish population in Syria. Kobani is an almost entirely Kurdish city, although in the east and west the towns of Tel Abyad and Jarablus are inhabited equally by both Kurds and Arabs, following Arabisation. Located next to the border of Turkey and in between two cantons, Kobani holds a strategic position. Destroying Kobani would equal the destruction of the de-facto Kurdish establishment in Rojava, northern Syria. Kobani was the first city seized by Kurdish forces as part of a campaign to control Kurdish enclaves, the centre of Kurdish semi-autonomy in Rojava and the place where Kurds declared Kurdish autonomy in Syria on July 19, 2012.
Background on ISIL
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (in Arabic Da’ish), also known as ISIS or the Islamic State, was founded in 1999 by a Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with the name of Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād (the Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad). Evolving over the past decade and changing its name several times, it now calls itself the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being its leader.
Characterized by a radical Sunni ideology, ISIL seeks to fight for global jihad and establish a caliphate –an Islamic form of government– in the Arab world of al-Sham (greater Syria), Egypt, and the neighbouring states of the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq, which would be followed by North Africa, and then would spread across the entire world, as their leaders proclaim. The group has used the climactic tactic of dressing their victims in orange jump suits –like prisoners at Guantánamo– and then beheading them.
The ideological bases of this movement can be traced to the mindsets of early jihadist leaders. A letter from Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, to Zarqawi on July 9, 2005 states that the enemies of Islam in this great struggle are both the external enemy –al-kufr al-mushrikin (idolatrous infidels)– and the enemies within Islam. The latter, he says, are almurtadin al-kha’inin, meaning traitorous apostates, who belong to ahl al-zigh al-mariqiin (the community of renegade deviation) and embrace shirk (polytheism) and aqa’id ‘almaniya (secularist beliefs). Therefore, the ISIL movement believes that exclusion of enemies within, including some minority groups and western-oriented state institutions, is a necessity, and a primary step for an Islamic caliphate.
Figure 1: ISIL-led Sunni Rebel Activity Areas.
Source: Institute for the Study of War
With the chaos in Iraq and civil war in Syria, ISIL easily managed to gain control over large swaths of land, stretching from the Iraqi capital Baghdad to Aleppo, a city in northwest of Syria. The capture of these areas enabled ISIL to control rich oil resources, to bolster its military power, particularly with the capture of American heavy ammunition from the Iraqi army in Mosul, and to establish its dream of an Islamic caliphate. ISIL, therefore, has strengthened themselves economically, militarily, strategically, and ideologically, claiming to be the soldiers of God and an invincible power ready to shed the blood of enemies of Islam from both within and without.
Addressing the grievances of the Sunni sect and establishing order in the controlled territories, ISIL appealed to large Sunni masses, thus further increasing its support base and authority in the region. Its power further consolidated when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the end of ISIL and the birth of the Islamic State on June 28, 2014, the first day of Ramadan, orating: “Rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis.” Thereby, Baghdadi was calling on the Muslims around the world to live their Islamic ideals in the self-proclaimed state. The call generated enormous attention among Sunni masses all over the world, including Muslims living in Western societies, who felt alienated from their host countries.
The most powerful jihadist group in both Iraq and Syria, ISIL has fighters numbering between 20,000 and 31,500, according to a CIA report. Based on the latest estimate of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), the number of foreigners that have joined Sunni militant organisations in Syria and Iraq now exceeds 20,000 –most of which are in the ISIL ranks– and they hail from at least 81 countries and from all parts of the globe. A new CIA statement estimated that the number of fighters might have arisen to three times that which was previously stated, following battlefield successes since June 2014 and the declaration of the caliphate.
Through ISIL’s own networks and efficient use of social media, including Facebook, Skype, and Twitter, it managed to attract many young people to join its ranks and its fight for global jihad. Known for their brutal attacks on religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria, ISIL members –according to several regional and international human rights organisations– have committed grave human rights violations that amounted to crimes against humanity.
ISIL’s attack on Kobani
On May 26, 2013, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, composed of a group of no less than 21 Islamic jihadist groups in Syria, officially made a statement named Echo of Qussayr, declaring the Kurdish people in northern Syria as “traitors to our jihad.” The document stated as the group’s goal the “completion of a comprehensive cleansing process.” This clear genocidal threat to the Kurds in Syria began to materialise with ISIL attacking Kurdish enclaves, particularly Kobani, in early July 2013.
The capture of Kobani was of strategic importance to ISIL for numerous reasons. First, it would have given the group control of another key border crossing, thus putting a long stretch of Turkish-Syrian border from Jarabulus in the west to Tal Abyad to the east under its watch. Capturing Kobani therefore would have made it easier to bring supplies and foreign fighters into Syria from Turkey. Second, the capture would have crumbled the Kurdish semi-autonomous establishment, thus severely limiting the mobility of Kurds and their ability to unite with other cantons across the east and west in northern Syria. Most importantly, the Kurds –as almurtadin al-kha’inin (traitorous apostates) within the Islamic ummah– and Kurdish secular and democratic institutions, i.e., western institutions in the eyes of ISIL ideology, would have to be eliminated for jihad.
Therefore, groups of ISIL militants armed with tanks, rockets, and artillery launched their offensive attacks early July 2014 on the villages of Zor Mughar, Beyadi, and Ziyarete, located 40-45 kilometres west of Kobani. Subsequently, the Kurdish National Council in Syria (KNC) issued an official statement proclaiming: “Since the beginning of March 2013 there have been waves of attacks of ISIL and on July 2nd, its fighters launched a new major attack on Kobani Canton.” Idriss Nassan, deputy foreign relations minister of Kobani, explained the Kurdish defence during the early phases of ISIL’s attacks on Kurdish villages. He stated that ISIL began its offensive by first capturing the villages of Zor Mughar, Beyadi, and Ziyarete, and the YPG pushed ISIL fighters out of these villages after fierce fighting. On July 7, they targeted Kun Eftar village in the west of Kobani. On July 8, they attacked Evdiko village, and then attacked Abu Surra in the east of Kobani. After days of intense fighting, the Kurdish militants pushed back ISIL militants.
Figure 2. ISIL’s Offensive on Map. From Syracuse
Source: Agathocle de Syracuse, 2015.
Outraged by bold Kurdish resistance, ISIL brought more fighters and weaponry to start the second phase of its major attack on Kobani on September 15, 2014. Having the advantage of heavy weaponry and a large number of troops, ISIL captured 300 villages around Kobani in less than two months. Fearing massacre at the hands of advancing ISIL militants, hundreds of thousands of civilians left their homes and villages by mid-September, 2014, thus creating a vast flow of refugees streaming into Turkey and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
In its 13-day offensive, ISIL managed to reach the outskirts of Kobani. Kobani Defense Minister Ismet Sheikh Hasan noted on October 2, 2014 that clashes had been ongoing in the surrounding areas of Kobani for 18 days. He stated that despite ISIL’s heavy artillery and tanks and the Kurd’s limited light weaponry, Kurdish resistance did not let ISIL enter Kobani until then. By September 20, 2014, ISIL militants had advanced to within 15 km (9 miles) of Kobani. On October 6, they unrolled their characteristic black flag on Miştenûr hill overlooking Kobani. Soon, ISIL fighters entered the city and took control of some districts.
Looming Kurdish genocide
Faced with a dire humanitarian situation and ISIL’s threats of massacre, more than 200,000 Kurdish refugees had crossed the border to Turkey by late September 2014. Yet thousands of civilians remained in Kobani, trapped by ISIL and in imminent danger. Kurdish officials warned of an upcoming massacre and appealed to the international community for action. The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned that in addition to the 700 civilians in Kobani, perhaps 12,000 entrapped people (apart from fighters) would “most likely be massacred” by ISIL, urging international action to avoid genocide. Salih Muslim, leader of PYD in Syria, stated: “A massacre has begun in Kobani.” PYD’s official statement declared, “We call on the attention and support of the international community. We urge all defenders of democracy to support the Kurdish people in its fight against al Qaida and its fundamentalist affiliates.” Amidst intensifying ISIL advances and an approaching genocide of Kurds in Kobani, on October 6, 2014 Salih Muslim voiced, “Whoever is going to act should do so now.”
Consequently, Kurds from all over world rallied and started to campaign via social media for international action against ISIL’s threats of genocide. Demonstrations were organized in 206 cities, covering 40 countries across five continents, and Kurdish leaders in the western capitals and in the local region advocated for the Kurds in Kobani. Hundreds of eminent individuals, including Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Hugo Blanco, among others, signed an urgent call on November 1, 2014. They showed solidarity with Kobani and called on the world to fulfil their international legal obligation to prevent “ongoing genocide” in Kobani. As a result of these initiatives and protests on behalf of Kobani, the western world started to hear about the potential impending genocide of the Kurdish civilians in northern Syria. Subsequently, Kobani became an urgent issue on the agendas of the United States, some European countries, and international bodies, such as the United Nations. On October 12, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for “all the parties to stand up to prevent a massacre of civilians in Kobani.”
To help the Kurds under siege, the U.S.-led Coalition against ISIL started its air strikes against ISIL targets in northern Syria in early October. By October 20, 2014, Coalition air forces had conducted more than 135 airstrikes in and around Kobani. In addition, on October 19th, US officials stated that the United States’ military aircraft dropped ammunition, light weapons and medical supplies to the outgunned Kurdish units defending Kobani. U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, defended the move, noting that it would have been “irresponsible” and “morally very difficult” not to support the Kurds fighting in Kobani.
However, American aerial supplies and the Coalition’s response to the siege were inadequate to avert the threat of genocide in Kobani. For example, US General Martin E. Dempsey insisted: “Despite continued US-led airstrikes to keep ISIL forces at bay, Kobani could still fall into ISIL jihadists’ hands.” While the aerial attacks on ISIL positions did reduce the pace of their advance, the attacks were not enough to deter a possible genocide. The Kurdish fighters were still outgunned and outnumbered, and ISIL forces were adamant in their resolve to capture the city and slaughter the Kurds. In other words, Kurdish genocide was still looming in Kobani even after the Coalition’s strikes.
Turkey’s strategy towards Kobani
After the attack on Kobani, Turkey’s President Erdoğan asserted that Turkey would give the necessary support to the operation against ISIL. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said, “We wouldn’t want Kobani to fall. We’ll do whatever we can to prevent this from happening”. Despite the world’s consistent call on Turkey to help end the distressing humanitarian crisis at its doorstep and despite the officials’ promises for help, Turkey’s assistance did not materialise and the government did not actively cooperate with the US-led coalition against ISIL belligerents.
Thomas Friedman states, “What politicians here (on international forums) tell […] is usually irrelevant. What matters most is, and what explains their behaviour more times than not, is what they say in public in their own language to their own people.” In other words, Turkey’s pseudo-conciliatory pledges on numerous international occasions to aid Kobani and join the fight against ISIL proved insincere. Its actions at home demonstrated that Turkey favoured ISIL rather than Kurds in their fight.
It was at the height of tense clashes between Kurdish protection units and ISIL jihadists in Kobani that President Erdoğan announced: “Kobani fell or is about to fall!” Senior Turkish bureaucrats have been unwavering in degrading Kurdish movements on numerous occasions while failing to mention the human devastation conducted by ISIL in Kobani. A council member of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party, AKP) posted on his Facebook account while Kobani’s Kurds were on the verge of genocide: “Thankfully ISIL exists, May God never let you run out of ammunition…” Responding to calls for help for Kobani, Erdoğan furiously voiced: “Why Kobani? (…) Why not somewhere else (…) but always Kobani?” He frankly stated that Turkey could not accept an autonomous, Kurdish northern Syria after northern Iraq, referring to the Kurdish Regional Autonomy (KRG) in Iraq.
Turkish jets –amidst tense concerns about Kobani and despite ongoing peace negotiations with the PKK– attacked guerrilla bases in southeast Turkey, fuelling frustration and rage among Turkey’s Kurds. Furthermore, the Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi (Turkish Grand National Assembly) (TBMM) voted to extend the possibility for Turkish troops to enter Syria or Iraq if required with one year on October 2, 2014. Though the preamble of this extension marginally reminds of the UN Security Council’s request to take respective measures against ISIL or similar groups, it overemphasises the PKK as a threat to Turkey –despite PKK’s inactivity for almost two years and the peace process between the Turkish state and PKK. The decree also underlines PKK’s new incursions in the northern Syria in the form of PYD and its militias of YPG and YPJ. Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (Nationalist Action Party) (MHP), which favoured the extension, declared overtly that Turkish military presence in the region would prevent a Kurdistan, i.e. a Kurdish state, from arising. The Party’s deputy chairman, Yusuf Halaçoglu said the reaction to this ruling from opposing parties, mainly from Kurdish party in Turkish parliament, is because it precludes formation of independent Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria.
President Erdoğan stated, “To us, PYD and PKK are the same,” thereby disclosing Turkey’s official approach to the Syrian Kurds. Salih Muslim, after a secret meeting in Ankara with senior Turkish officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Turkish National Intelligence Agency, expressed that Turkey would not help unless the PYD joined the Anti-Assad rebellion coalition, dissolved its ties with the regime, dispersed the local cantons of Cizire, Afrin and Kobani, and ceased ties with the PKK.
Turkey’s enduring non-cooperation with the US-led coalition, its irresponsive attitude towards international appeals, and compliance with ISIL’s violent attacks on Kobani’s Kurds raised international confusion regarding Turkey’s policy vis-à-vis Kobani and tainted its image. This led to suspicion by the international community and among the Kurds as to a Turkey-ISIL pact to overthrow Kurdish semi-autonomous formations in northern Syria.
Turkey-ISIL alliance; myth or reality?
Turkey on every international stage denied any support for ISIL or collaboration with it. Erdoğan called such assertions “smear campaigns” and attempts to distort perception about Turkey. He declared that there is “a systematic attack on Turkey’s international reputation”, and stated: “Turkey has been subject to very unjust and ill-intentioned news items from media organisations.” Nevertheless, a study conducted by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University detailed Ankara’s provision of military equipment, medical care, transport and logistical assistance to ISIL fighters. Turkey furthermore trained them, supported ISIL financially and helped it in the Battle for Kobani.
The Western world has persistently, albeit not often overtly, criticised Turkey’s limited engagement in curtailing the relatively unhindered flow of ammunition and fighters across its border with Syria. Vice-President of the U.S., Joe Biden stated that Turkey (together with other US allies in the region) was responsible for the rise of ISIL, confessing: “We could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying (financial and weapon supply) them (ISIL and Al-Nusra).” Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (the People’s Republican Party) (CHP), accused AKP government of delivering weapons to terrorist groups in Syria, ISIL as being one of them. He quoted documents from a prosecutor in Adana, a southern Turkish city, and statements by two Turkish truck drivers relating to delivering munitions to the Syrian rebels as further evidence for direct involvement of the Turkish government. Furthermore, a 27-year-old senior security commander for the Islamic State, Abu Yusaf, said in an interview in Turkey with the Washington Post, “We used to have some fighters –even high-level members of the Islamic State– getting treated in Turkish hospitals [and] most of the fighters who joined us in the beginning of the war came via Turkey, and so did our equipment and supplies.” A nurse working at a private hospital in Mersin, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey within close proximity to the Turkish-Syrian border, told Turkish authorities and wrote to Turkish Parliament that she was “sick of treating members of ISIL.”
As of now, what seems highly probable is that Turkey might have provided some sorts of assistance to the Syrian rebels, particularly ISIL. However, it is still early to definitely ascertain this, as further research and official records on this sensitive issue are needed. Nonetheless, considering Ankara’s unsympathetic position vis-à-vis Kurdish semi-autonomous entities in northern Syria, it is not strategically implausible that Turkey could have assisted ISIL fighters in order to obliterate the possibility of an autonomous Kurdish formation in northern Syria.
It is clear, however, that Turkey conspicuously avoided committing to an active role in the global fight against ISIL. What is also clear is Turkey’s notorious complicity and complacency with ISIL’s assaults on the Kurds in Kobani, thus leading to the suspicion of Turkey–ISIL’s cooperation particularly in relation to the Kurds. Salih Muslim stated: “If you talk to people here in Kobani they would not miss a second to tell you that the Turkish-ISIL alliance is now crystal clear than ever before.” Turkey’s probable support for and complacency with jihadist ISIL in its heavy attacks on the Kurds and Kurdish semi-autonomous structures in northern Syria, I argue, can be explained through Turkey’s fear of any Kurdish gain in Syria and its repercussions for Turkey.
Kurdophobia; a precursor to the possibility of Kurdish genocide in Kobani
Turkey’s sneering attitude towards the Kurds, fuelled by Kurdophobia, has been resurrected in the case of ISIL’s attack on the Kurds in Kobani. Turkey seemed to encourage radical jihadist groups in Syria, including ISIL, and remained idle to the ethnic cleansing unfolding only 1.5 miles from its southern border. From the start of ISIL advances, Turkey assiduously refrained from any action that might help Kobani’s Kurds and prevent the threat of genocide.
Despite heavy pressure from both the 18 million-strong Kurdish minority in Turkey –which largely considered the defenders of Kobani as brethren– and from the international community, the Turkish government remained inactive, watching an unfolding massacre at its doorstep. On September 28, 2014, Selahattin Demirtaş, co-leader of Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Peoples’ Democratic Party) (HDP), a pro-Kurdish party in Turkey, met with Prime Minister Davutoğlu, urging the Turkish government to help Kobani. The international community has been advising President Erdoğan to take more active steps to help the Kurds in Syria who had been under the siege of ISIL since mid-September 2014. The UN envoy to Syria appealed to Turkish authorities, asking the government to “allow the flow of volunteers, at least, to help Kobani’s self-defence.” The European Union (EU) called on Turkey to open its borders for any supplies for the people of Kobani.
Turkey –a long-time western ally, NATO member and a friend in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL with the largest army in the region– did not actively join the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on ISIL in Kobani and did not deliver any form of assistance to the Kurds who were under genocidal threat. Turkey consistently refrained from helping Kobani’s defenders, claiming that they are offshoots of PKK.
On the contrary, by blocking any attempts that could have helped end the ISIL attacks, Turkey appeared to welcome the fall of Kobani. Turkey, for instance, rejected the U.S. request to use its airbase at Incirlik, just a hundred miles from Kobani, for the air attacks against ISIL positions. Ankara, moreover, did not allow for a humanitarian corridor despite requests from the Kurds and the international community. Turkey, furthermore, did not let the Kurds in Turkey or the Syrian Kurds to cross the border to fight against ISIL. Meysa Abdo, a Kurdish female commander in Kobani, wrote that Turkey did not allow even the fighters from other Kurdish regions in northern Syria to transfer some of their armoured vehicles and antitank missiles. At least, by not allowing help to reach the Kurds while tolerating ISIL’s flow of reinforcements, weapons and ammunition against the Kurdish fighters in Kobani, Ankara was signalling that it would prefer ISIL to hold the town: anything was better than the Kurds, and for that it performed something of a death silence to ISIL’s ethnic cleansing of Kurds in northern Syria.
Turkey’s Kurdophobia shapes Turkish domestic and foreign policy choices, even at a juncture where a powerful extremist group was at Turkey’s border labelling the Turkish government as ‘apostate’, yet still perceiving the Kurds and the Kurdish empowerment in Syria as the primary threat. Ankara was so focused on eradicating Kurdish militancy or Kurdish de facto confederations in northern Syria and their links with PKK that it did not hesitate to embrace the upcoming ethnic cleansing of Kurds in Kobani.
Bayram Balci, a Carnegie fellow, stated that Turkey’s complacency with ISIL assaults on the Kurds illustrates Ankara’s fears that an extension of the Syrian crisis and a stronger role for the Kurds will not be in Turkey’s security interests. Turkey, in short, still remains very leery of any Kurdish gain due to its Kurdophobia, since to Ankara any Kurdish gain would jeopardise Turkey and its territorial indivisibility.
The Turkish government’s attitude towards the Kurds facing ISIL savageries, suspected support for those jihadi groups and complacency in ISIL’s genocidal attempt on the Kurdish people in Kobani, therefore, drew rage among the Kurds in Turkey and mounted international pressure. The Kurdish fury paved the way for unrest in Turkey’s southeast and some other major cities of Turkey from October 6 to 12, 2014. Ankara, instead of accommodating its Kurdish citizens’ demands for help, cracked down on them, resulting in more than forty deaths of Kurdish citizens in the protests. Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, declared that he would herald the end of peace process –the most serious peace effort in the intractable Turkish-PKK struggle that lasted for three decades and claimed 40,000 lives– if Kobani would fall. The Turkish government’s policies towards Kobani earned Ankara’s rebuke from both its Kurdish population and the West.
Realising the growing Kurdish anger and dwindling international patience over Turkey’s inaction, Ankara decided to allow 155 heavily armed Pesmerga forces from the KRG in northern Iraq on October 22, 2014 and some Free Syrian Army Brigades to cross into Kobani. The U.S. welcomed the Pesmerga deployment. Thanking Turkey, Jen Psaki, representative of the U.S. State Department said they are working on a sustainable way forward to support forces in Kobani to “degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.” Kurds in Turkey and in Syria cherished the arrival of Pesmerga units. Salih Muslim described the arrival as a “historical moment.” The arrival of Pesmerga with heavy artillery and Free Syrian Army reinforcements raised the morale of the Kurdish fighters in Kobani and shifted the balance of power, thus leading Kurdish forces go on the offensive against ISIL military bases.
After nearly five months of intense clashes in Kobani, Kurdish fighters, with the help of coalition air strikes on ISIL positions, suppressed ISIL’s siege and prevented the looming genocide. They announced the liberation of Kobani to the world on January 26, 2015. “YPG is in control,” said Idriss Nassan, Kobani’s declared deputy foreign minister. Liberation of Kobani created joy among the Kurds all over, bringing celebrations to the streets. Thousands of Kurds chanted across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, celebrating the liberation of Kobani. On January 30, 2015, ISIL released a video acknowledging the retreatment of its fighters from Kobani.
The historical experience of Ankara with its own Kurds and its deeply rooted history of Kurdophobia has generated the fear that any Kurdish gain may ultimately bring about a cataclysmic challenge to the indivisibility, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Turkish republic. Consequently, Turkey has oppressed its Kurdish citizens and worked to preclude any Kurdish gain in Iraq, Iran, and Syria due to the fear that the empowerment of the Kurds in these neighbouring countries would inspire the Kurds in Turkey to achieve greater degrees of independence and facilitate the instigation of an independent Kurdish state. Therefore, Turkish foreign policy has made it a priority to inhibit any Kurdish activity in the world, and in particular, in Europe and the United States where Kurdish activities have become more visible in the last decades. That is, Turkey’s Kurdophobia has effectively shaped Ankara’s domestic and foreign policy priorities.
Turkey’s Kurdophobia has recently shown itself in Kobani, where ISIL vowed to conduct an ethnic cleansing of Kurds. Although the United States, international bodies, such as the European Union or the United Nations, and the Kurds called on Turkey to take necessary steps to prevent the threatened genocide in Kobani, Ankara failed to heed these calls. Instead, Turkey’s actions proved that Ankara welcomed ISIL’s heavy attacks and did not give much thought to the unfolding genocide of Kurdish civilians. Seeing the semi-autonomy of the Kurds in Syria as a greater threat to Turkey, Ankara appeared to be pleased by ISIL’s attempt to eradicate Kurdish semi-autonomous structures and take over the areas under Kurdish control in northern Syria. Ankara’s actions thus reflected an appalling compliance between Turkey and ISIL’s assaults on Kurdish Kobani. Ankara did not seek to thwart ISIL, but complied with its attacks on the Kurds and actively prevented assistance for defenders of Kobani to breach ISIL’s siege –such measures that almost brought Kurdish genocide. The Kurdish defenders and entrapped civilians in Kobani were on the verge of slaughter, as ISIL fighters were about to capture the last enclaves inhabiting Kurdish civilians. Had there not been an international coalition’s attacks on ISIL and reinforcements from Kurdish Pesmerga, the genocide of the Kurds would have been inevitable in Kobani.
Ankara’s policy towards Kobani, which was shaped by its Kurdophobia, therefore, degraded its international standing, its credibility as an honest ally of the West in the region, and its adherence to its international obligation emanating from international human rights instruments and specified in the UN Genocide Convention to prevent genocidal threats. Furthermore, it brought colossal anger to Kurds all over world. The Kurdish community in Turkey started to distance itself from the Turkish government, as many believe that it is delighted with the bloodshed of the Kurds. Consequentially, Ankara succeeded in pitting large contingents of Kurds against Turkey. Instead, it could have won the hearts of its most populace Kurdish minority had it acted to prevent the apparent impending massacre of the Kurds in Kobani. This approach would have established a level of trust between the Kurds in Turkey and the Turkish state that would have strengthened the peace process between Ankara and PKK. By seeking to achieve an equitable place for Kurds in Turkey that respects their communal rights, Turkey would have had the possibility of rejecting its deeply entrenched assertion that Kurds in Turkey constitute an existential challenge to the territorial integrity and indivisibility of the Turkish Republic. It is only through a Turkish-initiated rejection of its insatiable Kurdophobia and its deeply counterproductive policy of disenfranchising the Kurds that Turkey can attain its perpetual peace.
Hüseyin Tunç, MA, Columbia University, New York
Please cite this publication as follows:
Tunç, H. (July, 2015), “Turkey’s Kurdophobia as a Precursor to Kurdish Genocide: The Case of Kobani”, Vol. IV, Issue 7, pp.69-96, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=9519)
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