In the last three weeks Kobane, a strategically located Kurdish enclave along the Syrian-Turkish border, has become a focal point of the international campaign against the Sunni extremist faction known as the Islamic State. The attacking jihadis are facing fierce resistance from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia linked to the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which is the primary Kurdish political party in Syria. The PYD is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed Kurdish group in Turkey.
The YPG has fought an uneven battle to prevent the Islamic State from overtaking the city and cementing control over long swathes of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Despite being the only effective non-jihadist force on the ground in the Islamic State-dominated eastern part of Syria, the YPG has received no outside aid or support from Turkey or its brethren in the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. The battle has taken on a surreal quality as fighting is taking place just across Turkey’s border, where Turkish tanks are stationed facing Syria, and journalists, Kurdish refugees, and civilians have camped out to watch events unfold.
There are five reasons why the outcome of the battle for Kobane will have significant implications for the fight against the Islamic State and developments in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq moving forward.
In a coalition where most of Washington’s regional partners are primarily focused on regime change in Syria, the jihadist attack on Kobane offers a test case of whether the United States can get its partners to temporarily set aside their other priorities and act effectively against the Islamic State. In the case of Turkey this includes not just Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s blood feud with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also the Turkish state’s strong desire to weaken the PKK, which fought a long insurgency against the Turkish military but has been engaged in a peace process with Ankara for nearly two years. Thus far, the Turks have been unwilling to prioritize the fight against the Islamic State over weakening the PKK, which is linked to the forces fighting to defend the enclave. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, another U.S. ally, also favors weakening Kurdish groups that do not fall under his direction. So far the Kobane experience suggests that it is the United States that has had to set aside its interest in “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State, in an attempt not to ruffle the feathers of its partners in Ankara and Erbil.
It is difficult to explain why U.S. airstrikes were so limited during the critical first two weeks leading up to the final siege of the Kurdish enclave. Washington has also resisted making direct contact with the PYD/YPG despite the fact that they represent the only moderate force in eastern Syria that can provide highly motivated and effective ‘boots on the ground’ in the fight against the Islamic State. The muted U.S. response, as the world watches Kobane succumb to the jihadist advances, sends a starkly different message about American priorities than the one U.S. President Barack Obama articulated this summer. If Turkey is permitted to derail the coalition’s priorities it sends a strong message to other partners and raises new questions about the coalition’s viability.
Turkey’s attitude toward the battle for Kobane has eliminated any remaining doubts about what Ankara sees as its priorities in Syria. The prospect of a Kurdish entity run by the PYD along Turkey’s border with Syria is too much for Ankara to accept. Instead, Turkey wishes to create its own buffer zones inside the Syrian border area to accommodate new refugee flows and deny the Syrian Kurds territorial self-rule. Despite U.S. and European pressure, Ankara has stiffly refused to permit Kurdish fighters from other areas to cross the Turkish border to assist in the defense of Kobane—effectively blocking off the only channel for outside reinforcements to reach exhausted defenders in the enclave.
In secret meetings last week between PYD leader Saleh Muslim and Turkish intelligence officials, Ankara reportedly demanded that the price for support to the YPG is that the PYD must dissolve its self-ruling local governments in northern Syria, join the Free Syrian Army—which has for the most part refused to recognize minority rights in Syria—distance itself from the PKK, and become part of Turkey’s ‘buffer zone project’ along the Syrian border. The Syrian Kurds were given a choice of full surrender to Ankara at the table or to the Islamic States on the battlefield.
The Kobane experience has raised serious questions regarding just what kind of role Turkey is able to play in a coalition whose stated objective is first and foremost to degrade the Islamic State’s capabilities in Iraq and Syria.
The outcome in Kobane will have significant implications for Turkish domestic stability, the government’s long-strained relations with its own 15 million Kurdish citizens, and for the fate of a nineteen-month long ceasefire between the Turkish army and the PKK.
PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has guided the peace process with Ankara from his cell in Turkey’s Imrali prison, recently declared that the talks would be over if Kobane fell. But, with or without the support of official leaders, Kurds in Turkey have already linked their future to that of the embattled enclave, which has become a powerful symbol of Kurdish nationalism and reinforced the belief that the Erdogan government has sided with jihadists against their compatriots in northern Syria. Anger spilled over into the streets earlier this week as Kurdish youth rioted in southeast Turkey and cities across the country, killing dozens over the past few days and shutting down several municipal areas.
The belief that Turkey’s Kurds have no other option in the face of the Islamic State threat but to hitch their wagon to Ankara represents a risky gamble by Turkish leaders. If open conflict with the PKK resumes, Ankara could potentially find itself facing three challenges to its security simultaneously—the PKK, Assad, and the Islamic State—effectively a three front war.
A massacre in Kobane will also have important implications for intra-Kurdish relations in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.
Barzani, who is president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), views YPG/PYD/PKK control of Syrian Kurdish areas as a threat to his own standing. But his main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has developed a close collaboration with the PKK, partly to offset KDP dominance in Iraqi Kurdish politics. Since the start of the Syrian crisis, Barzani has tried unsuccessfully to bring the Syrian Kurds under his full control. He closed the KRG border to the PYD, famously forcing Muslim to depart through Baghdad instead of Erbil after returning home to bury his son who was killed by the Islamic State in Syria last year.
PKK influence in Iraq has historically been very limited, but it is currently growing after PKK-aligned forces—under both the PKK and the YPG banners—moved to support the KDP and PUK peshmerga militias in Iraq, following the Islamic State’s attacks in the northern part of the country in August 2014. Even before the U.S. airstrikes began on August 7, the PKK’s rapid assistance helped blunt the jihadi offensive and contributed greatly to stabilizing Kurdish positions in the Yazidi areas of Mount Sinjar as well as south of Erbil, the KDP-run Kurdish capital. Now, the fate of the Kurds in Syria will again be felt in the political balance in northern Iraq.
Barzani’s failure to act in this crisis has prompted rising criticism and is likely to diminish his image among fellow Kurds and political rivals further if Kobane becomes the Kurdish Alamo. Those who are seen to be on the side of the resistance will see their influence enhanced in Iraqi Kurdistan’s shifting political dynamics.
The fate of the Syrian Kurdish experiment in self-rule—the so-called July 19 revolution, which began when Assad withdrew his forces from much of the Turkish border area in July 2012—will likely be determined in Kobane.
The Kurdish-run areas, known to Kurds as Rojava, include three geographically isolated border enclaves along an east-west axis, with Kobane located in the center. Kobane therefore serves as a geographic linchpin of the Rojava region. Even while embattled, it has helped tie down hostile Islamist forces that could otherwise have moved on the Kurdish areas to the east and west, the so-called Jazeera and Efrin enclaves. Without Kobane it becomes much more difficult for the two remaining enclaves to withstand the threats posed by the Islamic State and other groups to their security. Kobane’s fall could therefore set off a domino effect of Kurdish reversals in primarily the Jazeera region but also free Islamic State forces to move west toward the Arab countryside north of Aleppo and the border crossing at Bab al-Salama, which is crucial to rebel logistics.
The battle for Kobane may end in hours or days, but its impact is likely to be felt for a long time to come.
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