The fighting for Kobani over the last few weeks is of historical significance for multiple reasons. A small, largely Kurdish, town nestled along the Syrian side of the border between Turkey and Syria, it became a center of contention after some 67 villages containing an estimated 140,000 or more people were compelled to seek refuge on Turkey’s side of the border due to ferocious attacks. Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters were determined to ethnically cleanse the area of its population and establish its dominance along the entire south side of the 910-kilometer (about 566 miles) border stretching from north of Aleppo to the Syrian Kurdish-controlled region of Jazira in northeast Syria; this was seemingly accomplished with the approval of Turkey.
Kobani, a town of 44,000, had long been of some importance in the region. It grew to importance due to Germany’s attempt in the first two decades of the 20th century to build rail links from Berlin to Baghdad in an effort to challenge British hegemony in the Middle East. The railroad line passing just to the north of Kobani had become the border between Turkey and Syria after the signing of the Franklin-Bouillon Treaty between Turkey and French-mandated Syria in 1921. The rail line served an important role in Turkey’s suppression of the Sheikh Said Rebellion in the spring and summer of 1925. This rebellion was the first of three — Sheikh Said, Mt. Ararat and Dersim — important rebellions of Kurds against the government in Ankara up until the start of World War II.
These three rebellions and others to follow contributed to sowing the seeds of contemporary Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey and Syria. As a result of the rebellions, and Turkey’s harsh responses, some of the population fled to Syria. As a result there are strong tribal and family ties among Kurds on both sides of the border.
The current importance of Kobani and its surrounding region is due largely to three developments: the US-led war against ISIL, Turkey’s response and the resulting Kurdish dilemma.
The US-led action, or lack of action, at least as this article is being written, to come to the aid of Syrian Kurds is due to Washington’s focus on “containing and degrading” the forces of ISIL in Syria and Iraq; a degradation for which they need the active and possible military intervention of Turkey’s armed forces. A second reason is that Turkey, although it did not sign the Sept. 5 Jeddah Communiqué, is an important member of NATO and, unlike other NATO members, it shares a 910-kilometer border with Syria. Although, at the time of writing this article, Turkey had not yet decided publicly to provide armed forces to the coalition, it is providing logistical, intelligence and other undisclosed support, such as allowing coalition forces to use the huge, Turkey-controlled NATO İncirlik air base.
The major reason the US is having difficulty in persuading Turkey to take an active military role in Syria is that Turkey, right up to the announcement of the Jeddah Communiqué, was supporting ISIL forces in a variety of ways. One of the reasons for Ankara’s support for ISIL is that Turkey opposes the creation of three autonomous Kurdish-controlled regions along the border stretching from Aleppo to the northeast province of al-Hasakkah.
The resulting intertwining of these developments suggests that Turkey has a policy of supporting ISIL and the al-Nusra Front even as the US-led coalition is attempting to extirpate ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey seeking to prevent a Kurdish autonomous region
The reason that Turkey supports ISIL and al-Nusra’s war against the Kurds is that Turkey seeks to prevent a Kurdish autonomous region on its southern border with Syria. By eliminating “Rojava,” the Kurdish appellation for “West Kurdistan,” Turkey also hopes to further weaken the Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey, especially the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its politically affiliated organizations such as the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
The irony of these above-mentioned developments is that the PKK and its affiliated offshoot in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are the only two groups that have fought strongly against ISIL and al-Nusra for the past three years! Until June 2014, the US still supported elements of both groups, and Turkey only announced publicly in December 2013 that is had stopped supporting both groups. But it is now clear that Turkey continued to support both groups.
It was only during his visit to New York on Sept. 25 to attend UN sessions, at a meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden, that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan alluded to providing support to the coalition. His statement indicated that Turkey was unable to take any action against ISIL or al-Nusra prior to Sept. 20, on which date ISIL released 46 Turkish and three other hostages that it had been holding since June 11.
These developments indicate the difficulties of building a strong anti-ISIL coalition. The two groups of fighters (the PKK and PYD) that are strongly contesting ISIL and al-Nusra have been declared terrorist organizations by the US, the European Union and Turkey because they are fighting NATO ally Turkey in order to achieve more political, linguistic and cultural rights and democracy. A further irony is that the Gulf Arab countries that are now engaged in air combat with ISIL are all opposed to democracy. Most of the declared Kurdish terrorist groups want democracy, but the Arab Gulf countries are strongly opposed.
In the battle for Kobani, Kurdish fighters from West Kurdistan (the People’s Protection Units [YPG] and PYD), North Kurdistan (the PKK), Iran (the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan [PJAK]) and South Kurdistan (the peshmerga) have participated. This means the window of opportunity of meaningful progress in the peace process in narrowing.
Robert Olson is the author of “The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion, 1880-1925” and an analyst of Middle East politics.