As I write these words, Kurdish fighters are waging a heroic battle to keep the strategically important city of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border from falling into the hands of ISIS. Kobani has been under siege since mid-September, when ISIS forces launched a ferocious three-way assault on the city, terrorizing the local population and causing up to 160.000 civilians to flee to Turkey. On Friday, ISIS stood within a hundred meters of Kobani’s suburbs, but local forces — though heavily outgunned — have so far managed to keep the extremists out. Kurdish commanders fear a massacre if the city falls. It is not clear how much longer their defensive lines can hold.
Though shamelessly under-reported in the international media, the battle for Kobani is of crucial importance for the fight against ISIS, the fate of the Kurds, and the future of the region more generally. As one of the few strongholds of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Kobani is both a major thorn in the side of ISIS and the site of a thriving popular experiment in secular pluralism, gender equality and democratic autonomy. Yet the momentous struggle of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is being blatantly ignored by the U.S.-led coalition and cynically exploited by the Turkish state, both of which appear to be content to let ISIS slaughter the local population and decimate the Kurdish resistance.
For almost three weeks now, the men and women of the YPG — armed only with light machine guns and a few rocket-propelled grenades — have been battling the extremists in close quarters combat. ISIS has deployed heavy U.S.-made weaponry, including at least 20 tanks and armored vehicles seized in the sack of Mosul, but since they advanced onto Kobani in relatively open plains they were vulnerable to airstrikes. “Most civilians have left the city, and any minute ISIS will be inside Kobani,” Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Friday. “There are many questions as to why [the U.S.-led coalition] don’t attack ISIS now as they are easy targets … Without their heavy vehicles, the Kurds would be able to defeat them.”
Turkey, for its part, has been accused of colluding with ISIS in a dual attempt to oust its regional nemesis, the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, and at the same time undermine the Kurdish struggle for autonomy. It is a public secret that Turkey — an important U.S. ally and the second biggest military force in NATO — has long kept its borders open to extremist militants trying to enter Syria to join the insurrection against Assad, even allowing ISIS fighters to cross back into Turkey to regroup, receive medical treatment, and sell Syrian and Iraqi oil on the black market. At the same time, it has prevented thousands of Turkish Kurds from crossing the border and joining their compatriots in the defense of Kobani, even firing teargas at Kurdish refugees fleeing from Syria.
In recent days, under heavy pressure from the U.S. government and with its hands freed following the release of 46 Turkish hostages held by ISIS, Turkish officials have been stepping up their anti-ISIS rhetoric. On Thursday, Turkey’s Parliament accepted a bill that would allow the government to intervene militarily on Syrian and Iraqi soil to “fight terrorist groups.” Prime Minister Davutoğlu has stated that “we wouldn’t want Kobani to fall; we’ll do whatever we can to prevent this from happening.” This rhetoric, however, contrasts sharply with the reality on the ground. Earlier this week, Turkey moved dozens of tanks and armored vehicles towards the Syrian border, but in what appears to be a sign towards ISIS that it does not intend to intervene, it neatly parked them facing away from Kobani.
The reasoning behind Turkey’s maneuvers appears to be fairly straightforward. President Erdoğan has indicated that he will not approve any actions that aid the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units, which the Turkish governments considers to be a “terrorist” organization. Simply put, there is a fear that the PYD-led Rojava revolution in Northern Syria could embolden Kurds in Turkey to seek similar autonomy within its borders. As the Turkish columnist Ömer Taspinar writes, “Ankara is concerned that the American-led campaign against ISIS will achieve two things. First, it will strengthen the Syrian Kurds, who maintain close ties with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Second, it will strengthen the regime in Damascus … Ankara will decide to play an active role in the coalition only if it gets serious commitments about reversing these dynamics.”
By explicitly refusing to carry out airstrikes on ISIS positions around Kobani and allowing the extremists to overrun the town unencumbered, with their U.S.-made tanks left intact, the Obama administration appears to have aligned itself fully with Erdoğan’s demands. The U.S. knows that, in the months and years to come, it will need Turkish airbases and possibly Turkish ground support to defeat ISIS. Since it still considers the PKK and PYD to be terrorist organizations, it would also prefer for ISIS and the Kurds to fight each other to death before intervening. This cynical approach confirms just how little interest the U.S. and its allies truly have in promoting democracy across the region.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s dirty games seem to point in a predictable direction. Erdoğan has now publicly reserved the right to establish a Turkish-controlled buffer zone in the Syrian border region, while actively lobbying the U.S. government to establish a no-fly zone over Northern Syria. Since ISIS does not have an airforce, this effort is clearly aimed at keeping Assad from intervening if Turkey takes control of what is now de facto Kurdish territory inside Syria. At the same time, however, Erdoğan wants to avoid (or at least postpone) a head-on military confrontation with the Syrian Kurds, which would inevitably lead to a breakdown of the peace process and renewed armed conflict with the PKK. And so he prefers to allow ISIS to commit a massacre in Kobani and decimate the Kurdish resistance before intervening to crush both — in the name of “anti-terrorism”.
This historic betrayal of the Kurds by Turkey and the U.S. is not the first, and it certainly will not be the last. However, this time around the betrayal is all the more despicable because the Syrian Kurds have been by far the most organized, the most democratic and the most courageous armed opposition to ISIS on the ground. When the Kurdish peshmerga — associated with the conservative-nationalist Kurdish regional government in Iraq, a key alley of Turkey and the U.S. — embarrassingly retreated from Mount Sinjar in August, leaving tens of thousands of Yezidi refugees stranded, dying of thirst and surrounded by ISIS, the People’s Protection Units crossed over into Iraq and risked their lives to establish a humanitarian corridor, saving thousands of Yezidi from certain death.
Meanwhile, the social revolution that has been underway in Kobani ever since Assad’s forces retreated in 2012 has contributed to the flourishing of a democratic culture that promotes popular participation, social emancipation, gender equality, ecological sensitivity, local self-organization, and ethnic and religious pluralism. As such, the fall of Kobani would deal a serious blow not just to the Kurdish cause and the armed opposition to ISIS, but also to the struggle for a secular and democratic alternative in the region. The brave Kurds, of course, would fight till death, but as Kobani’s Defense Minister Ismet Sheikh Hasan puts it, the U.S.-led coalition “needs to strike ISIS targets before it’s too late. ISIS is not only a threat for the Kurds, but for the entire world… If a massacre takes place tomorrow, the international community will be responsible.”