SEPTEMBER 2014 will be remembered by the people of the city of Kobane in northern Syria as the tensest period to date. For months on end, the heavily armed Islamic State (Daesh) armies have tried to capture this city and its surrounding villages. The fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish guerilla army, have held them off. In September, Daesh threw its heavy artillery at this strategic city and breached the lines, sending tens of thousands of Kurdish residents towards the nearby Turkish border. The military ability of Daesh grew as it commanded U.S. weaponry stolen from the Iraqi bases in Mosul. Hundreds of Kurdish fighters from the YPG and from their kin armed forces of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) from Turkey streamed into Kobane city and district to hold the line against Daesh. PKK commander Murad Qara Yalan asked his fighters to defend Kobane “to prevent the replica of Sinjar”. He was referring to Jabal Sinjar, where the Yazidi community of Iraq had been encircled in August. At the time of writing this, the line to defend Kobane remains unbroken. By the time this article comes out in print, it is likely that Daesh would have taken Kobane. It would be a major defeat for the Kurdish armies.
Why has Daesh put so much of its firepower and its fighters into the fight against the city of Kobane? Over the course of the past two years, Daesh has tried to capture as much territory as possible towards the Turkish border. Turkey has, despite its claim to close its border posts, been—for reasons to be explored below—lax with its border posts.
To the west of Kobane lies the border town of Jarabulus, captured by Daesh whose fighters routinely use this border post to resupply from Turkish markets. To the east of Kobane is the border town of Tal Abayd, again in the hands of the Islamic State. From Tal Abayd, Daesh fighters who are wounded have been going to the Turkish city of Urfa, where they have been known to receive free medical treatment at Odessa Hospital, and at Ceylanpinar Public Hospital. Barzan Iso, a Syrian Kurdish journalist, says that Qatari charities have been using the Jarabulus crossing to get aid to Daesh. If Daesh takes Kobane, it will have control over the entire length of the central span of the Turkish-Syrian border.
The Kurds are an ancient people who have not been able to realise their modern aspirations. Numbering 30 million, they live in a belt from Iran through Iraq into Syria and Turkey. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the aftermath of the First World War, the Kurdish desire for a nation state was dismissed out of hand by the regional actors and the imperial powers.
The elements of Kurdish nationality lived close to the surface—a common language with roots in old Indo-Iranian and a culture that is diverse but rooted in common legends. None of this mattered to the imperial powers and a newly aggressive Turkey. The efforts of movements led by Shaykh Mahmud (Iraq), Simko Agha (Persia), Shaykh Sa’id (Turkey) or the Bedir Khan brothers (Syria) made little impact. Revolts felt imperial steel. Sir Arnold Wilson, British Commissioner in Iraq, was confident that violence was the only coin for the Kurds —their protests “followed upon one of the sudden fits of anger which are typical of the Kurdish temperament”, he said condescendingly in 1919.
The Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi borderlands have never meant much to the Kurdish people. Their ancient connections took them across the border posts for trade and tradition. They had fought in each of their countries for independence or autonomy, with little success until the 1980s. In more recent times, the Kurdish resistance movement used its alignments in these neighbouring states for refuge. Repression in the immediate aftermath of the Turkish military coup in 1980 sent the fighters into Syria, where they regrouped in Qamishli and other towns.
When Saddam Hussein’s armies went after the Kurds in Iraq, they fled to Syria and Turkey. Between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the Kurdish people have held fast through commonalities of language and custom, eager to create a national home for their people. These routes drew the political linkages of the Kurdish nationalists tighter. The heart of Kurdish nationalism committed itself to ideas of socialism and secularism. New Kurdish nationalist groups with a strong Marxist bent emerged in this period across the region, from Iran’s Komala (Organisation) in 1968 to Iraq’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (led by the young socialist Jalal Talabani) in 1975 and the most resilient Left force, the PKK led by Abdullah Ocalan, in 1975.
The U.S. attack on Iraq in 1991 provided an opportunity for the Iraqi Kurds, who seized the moment to create an autonomous region with U.S. assistance. For a decade, the Iraqi Kurds were able to form state institutions in an oil-rich region, building the experience of governance with U.S. support. Contradictions abounded. Since 1984, the PKK has been in an armed struggle against the Turkish government. Experienced PKK fighters used the Iraqi Kurdish area for respite and created secret bases in the mountainous border region. Despite U.S. pressure to expel the PKK fighters and despite animosity between the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, deep Kurdish nationalist sentiments prevented the expulsion of the fighters. After 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan consolidated its state institutions. Since then, Turkish and Syrian Kurds routinely came to Iraq to study and to work. Iraqi Kurdistan showed that older national aspirations could come to life. For most of the parties—but for the PKK—previous Marxist allegiances fell away.
The uprising in Syria afforded the Syrian Kurds an opportunity to create their own state. The Syrian government troops of Bashar al-Assad withdrew to defend Damascus and the heartland cities of Syria. The YPG’s political leadership declared the creation of Rojava, an independent Kurdish state that went along the Turkish border in three cantons—Kobane (in the centre), Cizir (in the east, with Qamishli as its major city) and Afrin (in the west). The Syrian Kurds first took the city of Kobane on July 19, 2012. It became the main base for Rojava. Cizir and Afrin officially joined the new formation in January 2014.
The YPG had from its earliest days been helped by the far more sophisticated PKK, with 40 per cent of the YPG army made up of female battalions. Funds had to be collected from the Kurdish population, which gives out of patriotism even though the economic condition in the region has been miserable. Connections to the rest of Syria had been essential for the Syrian Kurds—the surreal state was clear in May when busloads of Syrian Kurds braved Daesh front lines to take school examinations in Aleppo (Daeshfighters kidnapped many of the students on their return journey and they are being held in fighting units under the penalty of death). The chaos in Syria has brought misery to this newly independent enclave, which nonetheless has financed an army that is supplied by the black market in arms and equipment. They are vastly outgunned by Daesh, which now has sophisticated weaponry stolen from the U.S.-supplied Iraqi bases and from the border trade across from Turkey.
Until September, the YPG-PKK made substantial gains against Daesh, holding them away from the main towns of Rojava. The tide turned once the U.S. air strikes in Iraq moved Daesh battalions towards Syria. A blitzkrieg from the Daesh capital of Raqqa won them the Syrian airbase at Tabqa. Having taken the border towns with Turkey, Daeshnow encircled Kobane and moved its battalions to a long-term siege. “We have lost touch with the residents in the villages around Kobane,” said Ocalan Iso, deputy head of the Kurdish forces in Kobane. Half a million people wait in Kobane. Their fate is fragile.
The PKK’s Ocalan has been in Imrali Prison (Turkey) since 1999. Over the course of the past 14 years, peace talks between Ocalan and the Turkish government have ebbed and flowed. A state of no-conflict persists, as the PKK and the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the “Imrali Process”. The Turkish government (and the U.S.) has notified the PKK as a terrorist organisation. One of the main demands from Ankara has been for the PKK to disarm. With the Daesh threat, this demand is suicidal. Despite the Imrali Process, Ankara is uneasy with the new prestige of the YPG-PKK in the fight against Daesh. When the Yazidi population was stranded on Mount Sinjar, it was the YPG-PKK that opened up a humanitarian corridor into Rojava. In Turkey itself, a canny Kurdish politician, Selahattin Demirtas, was able to win 9.8 per cent of the popular vote in the August 10 presidential election. Kurdish parties normally win no more than 6 per cent, but Demirtas had appealed to the leftist currents across the country who are dissatisfied with Erdogan and the old Republican Party. The new entente between the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish political parties as well as the new showing of Kurdish politics in Turkey goes down uneasily in Erdogan’s circles.
The YPG, meanwhile, is convinced that Turkey has openly colluded with Daesh. YPG commander Sipan Hemo suggests that Daesh is backed by the Turkish intelligence services. “When they fought us”, Hemo said, Daesh fighters were “using Turkey’s borders without the objection of the Turkish army and authorities; they were treating all of their wounded militants in Turkish hospitals”. Commander Hemo argues that Daesh is “a stick made of fire and everybody was willing to use this stick”. That the Turkish state has to date refused to join the U.S. coalition against Daesh is an indicator of its mixed feelings towards the organisation. The New York Times’ Ceylan Yeginsu’s remarkable story on a recruitment centre for Daesh in Hacibayram, a neighbourhood in Ankara, adds fodder to Hemo’s assessment. A YPG official told me off the record that Turkey’s treatment of Daesh might be compared to Pakistan’s use of the Taliban. Both states, the official suggested, believe that they can use these radical organisations for their own regional objectives. “It is already clear that Turkey has run into the same kinds of problems as Pakistan,” said the official.
Shells continue to land near Kobane as Daesh throws its heavy artillery into the battle. Talk of a moderate coalition to fight Daesh does not include the Kurdish fighters. The Turkish government’s view of them as terrorists counts out their participation. It also means that they will receive little overt assistance from the West. Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces that have been roundly defeated by Daesh have retreated into Kobane. Maysaa Abdo of the YPG Military Council in Kobane told James Harkin recently that the FSA had fought Daesh, “but they failed. And all this fell into our laps.”
The belief that the FSA can be constituted as a genuine alternative to Daesh makes little sense in this sector, where they seem to be consistently in retreat. The YPG and the PKK, alone, continue their fight not only against Daesh but also for their national aspirations. How long this will last is to be seen. At present, the future of Kobane hangs in the balance.