Yes, two big and very important questions. We should answer them comprehensively if we want to understand firstly what’s going on in Kobene, just in the Turkey-Syria border, secondly, the highly probable and far-reaching consequences of this war for the Kurdish question in Turkey.
Turkey’s Syria policy in broad-brush strokes
When the Arab Spring reached to Syria in March 2011, the anti-regime protests were initially quite peaceful. In many places Sunnites and Alawites were together in the demonstrations with the common demands of “democracy” and “welfare”. Then, not only the Baathist regime but also some Sunnite regional powers, with the backing of United States, have begun to “criminalize” the civilian struggle. These regional powers were Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. They supplied arms, military equipment and training to the then “moderate” opposition forces in Syria. The money was coming from the oil rich countries and Turkey was allowing “moderate fighters” to pass across its borders to Syria. The training centers and other facilities were mainly in Turkey, near the border cities.
The Muslim Brothers movement was forming an important part of this “moderate opposition”. If the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have been successful in overthrowing Basher Esad’s regime by armed struggle, then it was likely that Muslim Brothers would obtain a significant power share in a post-Baathist political structure. Those were the days when Muslim Brothers have also ascended to power in Egypt with the election of Muhammed Al Mursi as the president.
The dominance of Muslim Brothers in Syria and Egypt alongside with Ennahda (or the Renaissance Party) in Tunisia, was the geopolitical dream of Qatar and Turkey. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States were considering Muslim Brothers as a potential danger for their own regimes.
But this dream didn’t realize neither in Egypt nor in Syria. While FSA –significantly funded by Muslim Brothers– have been weakening and loosing positions against the Syrian army, the Salafi groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra took to the stage by the beginning of 2012. These Salafi groups were fighting more effectively against the Esad regime and were better equipped thanks to the financial support of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
It was then that the Turkey’s governing party, AKP and its leaders, made a decisive change in their Syria policy and shifted their support to Salafi terrorist groups. I emphasize the adjective “terrorist”, since these groups carried out mass killings among the civilians, especially the Alawites since the beginning.
From the vantage point of R. T. Erdogan (then Prime Minister and now elected as President), if the project of bringing Muslim Brothers to power had broken down, they could reach the same goals this time by supporting Salafi terrorists. What were these goals?
Two main goals of Turkey with regard to Syria
The first goal should be more obvious. If you got a political ally in power in a country remarkably less developed than yours, then this country can be your backyard or “colony” in many ways. The project was this: Islamist groups of various tendencies and then openly terrorist organizations like Jabhat Al-Nusra or Islamic State (IS) would overthrow Basher Esad’s Baathist regime and Syria, with its Sunnite majority just like Turkey, would be a market place for Turkish companies ranging from construction and food industry to financial business. Not only this of course. Turkish government was dreaming of getting share of the underground economic activities so widespread in Middle East. The flow of piles of dollars into Turkey was very critical to finance the chronic current account deficit of Turkey.
Destroying of the “Rojava” revolution
The second goal may not be so obvious for readers who are less informed about the Kurdish issue. While the civil war was escalating in Syria, the Kurds in the north, near the Turkish border, were occupied with building their own democratic autonomy.
The Syrian Kurds have long been suffered from discriminations and persecutions pursued by the Baathist regime. In 1962, 20 per cent of the Kurdish population was stripped of their Syrian citizenship. The Kurds who are made “stateless” in this way amount to about 500,000. And the Syrian regime were prohibiting the Kurds from having education, publications etc. in Kurdish.
So at the beginning of the civil war, the Syrian Kurds were very cautious with regard to Arab nationalism deep rooted both in Baathist regime and the opposition groups. Even secular opposition groups which were part of the FSA were not prepared to recognize a Kurdish autonomy in a post-Esad Syria. Consequently, the Kurds and their well organized party PYD (Party of Democratic Union) –the Kurdish party in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) with a large popular basis– remained neutral in the civil war.
Indeed Syrian Kurds have embarked on building a different kind of autonomy in Rojava. First, three “cantons” declared their autonomy in January 2014: Efrin in the west, Kobane in the middle and Cezire in the east. These cantons are self-managed by local assemblies, that is, by popular bodies organized from bottom. Secondly, all the ethnic and religious minorities in Rojava –Arabs, Turkmen, Yezidis, Christian minorities like Assyrians and Armenians– are able to be represented in local assemblies. They are part of the decision-making mechanisms.
In a region where ethnic and religious communities are increasingly losing the desire to live together and even becoming enemies to each other, Rojava is of course a striking and encouraging example.
But Rojava is at the same time a wicked example in the eyes of the Turkish state. In spite of all the corruption problems, Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi (or Southern) Kurdistan has already been in place since more than two decades. The Kurds in Turkey (called “Northern Kurdistan or “Bakur”) have been struggling for a “democratic autonomy” and other civil rights such as education in Kurdish language. Now the emergence of Rojava means that “Kurdistan”, so long buried in the ground, is re-surfacing as a social, cultural and political entity. Consequently, the emergence of Rojava lead by a party (PYD) so close to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) –which has been fighting for the basic rights of Turkey’s Kurds since thirty years– is a kind of nightmare for the Turkish official policy.
The most striking fact is that Turkish government is engaged for nearly two years in a process of dialogue (which is aimed to give place to a negotiation process) with the PKK leader A. Ocalan who is imprisoned in an island. The two parts, Turkish state and PKK have pledged not to attack to each other. Consequently for the first time since the beginning of the armed conflict in 1984, young people didn’t kill each other for so long during this period of dialogue (or “peace process”).
Under these circumstances every reasonable person will recognize the importance of Rojava: the destruction of Rojava revolution may enable the Turkish government to define the Kurdish question as a kind of “minority” problem within the nation-state, which can be resolved without having to jeopardize the supremacy of the Turkish identity. On the other hand, the survival of Rojava can enable the Kurdish movement to remind the Turkish authorities that it should accord a real autonomy to the Kurds if the territorial integrity of Turkey has to be preserved in the face of an emerging Kurdistan.
Kobane besieged by IS and the future of the “peace process”
Kobane is besieged by IS from three fronts for more than twenty days. The fourth front is Turkish border. IS militants attack the People Protection Unit’s (YPG) fighters defending the city with heavy weapons such as tanks and rockets which they seized in Mosul. IS militants reached to the outskirts of the city due to their supremacy in weaponry. There is hand-to-hand fighting within the city for two days, a fierce fight street by street and building by building. The causalities of YPG are increasing.
Turkish state continues to secretly provide military equipment to IS. I personally talked to many eyewitnesses on the border and recorded their testimonies. Thousands of Kurdish people are keep watching inthe nearby villages both to prevent the penetration of IS militants and to give support to YPG fighters. And the Turkish police are attacking violently to these people with tear gas and plastic bullets.
If Kobane falls, which is an increasingly likely outcome, everyone knows that the Kurdish fighters and the civilians remaining in the city will be massacred. About 100,000 people from Kobane, all of them civilians, have migrated from Kobane to Turkey. Young men, after leaving their families in Turkey’s border town “Suruc”, return to Kobane to fight with IS.
The coalition air forces led by US don’t bomb IS positions efficiently around the city. So the advance of IS has not been prevented. While I’m writing this piece, the Washington correspondent of CNN said that “to save individual cities and towns like Kobane is not the top priority of US administration, though they wouldn’t certainly like to see a massacre in Kobane”.
Indeed the whole world is watching the fall of Kobane without doing anything. Whereas YPG fighters are only asking that Turkey opens up a corridor through which they could transport heavy weapons from other cantons of Rojava to Kobane. Turkey didn’t accept it and nobody in the “humanitarian coalition against IS” is willing to provide heavy weaponry to Kobane’s people.
Meanwhile Turkish parliament voted a bill by the votes of AKP and the ultra-nationalist party MHP. The bill authorizes Turkish government to send military forces to Iraq and Syria to combat with the terrorist organizations without explicitly mentioning IS. It’s largely believed by dissenters in Turkey that the bill aims to take control of Rojava and put an end to the democratic autonomy of Kurds in Northern Syria. The President also lays down a no-fly buffer zone in Northern Syria as a condition for joining the international coalition. IS hasn’t got any air force, so why he asks for a non-fly zone? Obviously in order to prevent Esad’s air forces to intervene and to bomb IS positions. Turkish army deployed in the border now waits for the fall of Rojava without even shooting a bullet to IS. Then, when Kobane will fall, it will invade the Kurdish region as a “savior” and will display its benevolence to the whole world.
The human price will be very high: “peace process” will broken down
However the consequences of the fall of Kobane will be as heavy as a possible massacre in the city. PKK and Ocalan have already declared that the fate of “peace process” and the situation in Kobane are very much intertwined. It’s very clear that if Kobane falls, it’s almost certain that the armed struggle will be resumed. This means the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands of young people from both sides.
The only force that can prevent the breakdown of peace process and perhaps the fall of Kobane is a mass mobilization of Kurds and other opposition forces all over Turkey and a strong pressure from the democratic world opinion.
Indeed this kind of mass mobilization has already begun in Kurdish cities and towns in Turkey. In the last two days, hundreds of Kurds took the street mainly in Kurdish cities and towns of Turkey to protest Turkish state’s support to IS. They all asked the opening of an humanitarian corridor in Turkish soil for sending aid materials, including heavy weapons, to Kobane.
As it’s usual with Turkish security forces and the seemingly Islamist paramilitary groups supported and protected by them, at least 18 persons have been killed during the protestors and many more have been wounded according to BBC-Turkish. Turkish government declared a curfew in Diyarbakir, non-official capital of Turkey’s Kurdistan and many other cities and towns where there were mass mobilizations for two days.
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