The fight against the Islamic State (IS), whether in Kobani or around Mount Sinjar, has become an opportunity for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to prove that it is no longer a terrorist organization but a formidable regional force that shares universal values with the West. Kobani, along with other two autonomous Kurdish cantons in Syria’s north, is an important test drive for the Kurdish national movement and the PKK to display that they are capable of running their own territories in Syria, as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) does in northern Iraq. It also gives the PKK renewed confidence and inspiration to plan a similar autonomous region in Turkey’s southeast.
Turkey’s reaction to the siege of Kobani has drawn significant backlash internationally and domestically. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant political party whose fighters are defending Kobani, is technically part of PKK’s Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) which is now led by rebel commanders of the PKK in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. As such, Turkey was not willing to help the group militarily but still provided refuge to hundreds of thousands of civilians who have fled to Turkey. Not realizing the fight in Kobani would attract worldwide attention—let alone become a symbol in the fight against the IS—Ankara initially rejected the PYD’s request to let Kurdish fighters, along with their heavy weapons, through the Syrian border to join the fight in Kobani. Instead Ankara suggested a buffer zone and a no-fly zone in the north of Syria—not what the PYD wanted. However, after the U.S. State Department publicly acknowledged on October 16 that it is holding direct talks with the PYD, and after the U.S. military airlifted arms and ammunitions to PYD fighters in Kobani, the Turkish government caved. They agreed on October 29 to open the corridor the PYD sought to let peshmerga forces and their armored vehicles travel from Iraqi Kurdistan to Syria.
However, Turkey’s agreement to allow reinforcements into Kobani was contingent on the condition that only KRG’s fighters would be allowed through. The KRG parliament authorized deploying peshmerga forces there on October 22, the same day that representatives of the PYD and the KRG meeting in Dohuk reached a deal on how they would share power in Kobani. KRG President Masoud Barzani, Erdogan’s closest ally in the region, supports the PYD’s rival Syrian Kurdish parties, namely the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an umbrella group comprised of affiliate parties of both Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In recent years, the PYD has tried to suppress KNC-affiliated parties and groups, and since fighting with the IS began, the PYD has further consolidated its grip in the Syrian Kurdish territories. By letting Barzani’s forces deploy in Kobani, Erdogan and Barzani are hoping to regain some of the power there that they have lost to the PYD (and by extension the PKK). Yet so far, the influx of peshmerga forces to Kobani appears to be mostly symbolic; PYD forces have reportedly accepted only about 150 peshmerga troops with their heavy armory, a small number considering the thousands of IS fighters besieging the town.
The Turkish government’s initial refusal to intervene firmly on behalf of Kobani can be explained in part by their anger at the PYD. Turkey has sought for the last year and half to engage the PYD and its leader, Salih Muslim, by hosting Muslim several times in Ankara for long consultations, but reportedly demanded that the PYD sever its relations with the regime in Damascus. Instead of taking a clear position and joining the main Syrian opposition, the PYD sought to empower their autonomous cantons in the north. Ankara worried that this opportunism risked “jeopardizing its own position in a tricky and brutal war” and that PYD leadership might make “shady deals with the regime,” wrote Ibrahim Kal?n, top foreign adviser to President Erdogan. Even though Turkey does not formally list the PYD as a terrorist organization, President Erdogan made it very clear that for Ankara, two terrorist organizations (the PYD and IS) are clashing in Kobani, and that Ankara would not take a side. This rhetoric caused further disenchantment among Turkish Kurds.
But as Kobani hangs on after more than 45 days of fighting, thanks to the coalition airstrikes and airlifted supplies, Turkey’s position becomes more complicated. Even if Kobani falls, the Kurdish nationalist movement and its representatives, whether PYD or PKK, has already gotten considerable positive publicity for its resistance against the Islamic State. The fight is depicting the PKK as an indigenous force protecting what is deemed to be Kurdish territory, further boosting its nationalist credentials. The PKK militants who (along with the KRG’s peshmerga forces) rushed to rescue Yezidi people in the Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq, continue to gain sympathy for their cause. This has translated into increased calls in the West to delist PKK as a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, some critics argued Turkey should be kicked out of NATO for its refusal to help the West in the fight against IS.
And although the Turkish government agreed to allow KRG fighters to Kobani, its strong anti-PYD stance endangers its own peace talks with the PKK. Since the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, announced a ceasefire in March 2013, the administration in Ankara (via Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish Intelligence Agency) has opened dialogue channels with the PKK’s leadership to find ways to end three decades of conflict. But the Turkish government’s perceived Anti-Kurdish (and pro-IS) stance with regard to the Kobani crisis caused leaders of the PKK and Turkey’s Kurdish nationalist party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to call for nationwide demonstrations. Massive riots took place between October 6 and 8 in which over three dozen people were killed in Turkey’s southeastern cities, including but not limited to Diyarbakir, Batman, Hakkari, and Van. Turkish state officials reported that the PKK protesters burned schools, looted libraries and museums, attacked shops and police stations, and set fire to city buses and public property. Several people were tortured and killed, including a 16-year old boy, for having “pro-IS” long beards and an “Islamist” look. In the event Kobani falls, Kurds could blame Turkey’s inaction, and even bigger and angrier riots might take place.
The recent opening of an official direct channel between the United States and the PYD has given the PKK incentive to pursue a diplomatic road to Kurdish legitimacy and autonomy. As such, it is unlikely the PKK would end the dialogue with Turkey by resuming guerrilla attacks. Instead, the group might consider putting the peace process on the backburner while fighting IS in Iraq or Syria. However, many Kurdish leaders already stated repeatedly that the fall of Kobani, if that were to happen, will spell the end of the dialogue.
For now, Kobani seems like a losing battle for Ankara. If Kobani falls, Turkey’s Kurds may indeed give up on the peace dialogue. If Kobani continues with its resistance however, Kurds will be grateful for the airstrikes carried out by the United States and the anti-IS coalition, who will in turn support the Kurds as a much-needed ally on the ground. Meanwhile, Kurds won’t feel they owe anything to Turkey because of its continued perceived pro-IS stance. This perception extends beyond the PKK: in their recent visit to Qandil mountains on October 18 to meet with PKK leaders there, Pervin Buldan and Sirri Sureyya Onder of the HDP stated, referring to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party: “since the siege of Kobani began, the international community has identified AKP’s support for IS gangs.”
So far, Kobani’s resistance helped the Kurds in the wider region become more unified against IS threats and attract international supporters. The very same Kurdish unity seems to be the Turkish authorities’ worst nightmare, as it reinforces the idea of autonomy within Turkey for Turkish Kurds. Erdogan could have used Kobani to build trust with the Kurdish community by allowing greater support for the PYD in its fight with IS, but has instead reinforced the idea among nationalist Kurds that Turks are not viable partners, and that the enmity between the nationalist Kurdish movement and the Turkish State will continue at least as long as the AKP stays in power.
Ilhan Tanir is a Turkey analyst and freelance journalist based in Washington.