The stakes are high. The long-anticipated Kurdish spillover from Syria hit the streets of Turkey last week in the form of riots, leaving more than 30 dead and at least 350 wounded.
With tanks and soldiers on the streets of Turkey’s Kurdish cities, many Kurds were reminded of the worst days of the conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish state in the 1980s and 90s. The clashes this week pitted Islamist Kurds against leftist, pro-PKK groups; pro-PKK groups against police and soldiers; and Kurds against Turkish nationalist mobs. A government-imposed curfew did little to stop the violence.
The protests were triggered by what could be the imminent fall of the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Kobane, a city controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a sister party of the PKK, to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after a nearly month-long siege. Nearly 40 percent of the town is now in the hands of ISIL, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and at least 180,000 civilians have crossed into Turkey. In effect, ISIL has ethnically cleansed the city and surrounding areas of Kurds, prompting the UN to warn of another Srebrenica.
Syria’s Kurdish communities, clustered along three noncontiguous areas on the Turkish border, have been essentially autonomous for two years as the Syrian civil war turned the attention of Assad’s forces elsewhere. Given the history of conflict between Kurdish nationalists and the Turkish state, as well as demands by Turkey’s Kurds for greater rights, Turkey has been hostile to this experiment in Kurdish autonomy just across its border.
From Ankara’s perspective, there is now a war in Kobane between two terrorist groups, the PKK-affiliated PYD and ISIL. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently referred to the two as the same: terrorists. However, comparing the PKK and PYD to ISIL is both disingenuous and counterproductive to Turkish interests, not least because Turkey is in the midst of historic and now tenuous peace negotiations with the PKK’s revered imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK leadership has tied the talks to the fate of Kobane.
For Kurds, the protests are about the Turkish government’s perceived support for ISIL. Specifically, this issue centers on Turkey’s unwillingness to open its border to Kurdish fighters and allow passage of heavy weaponry to defend against the better-armed ISIL militants. Turkey has balked at the idea, even as the UN calls for Turkey to allow Kurdish fighters and weapons to reach the besieged town. Turkey argues any weapons could be transferred to the PKK, even though it is also clear the PYD wants good relations with Turkey and the West.
Turkey also has met with PYD leader Salih Muslim on several occasions, including last week when it tried to wring a host of concessions from the Syrian Kurds in exchange for Turkish support to the besieged town. As a whole, the demands were not anything PYD leader Muslim would or could never implement – including abdicating his group’s autonomy, breaking relations with the PKK, fighting Assad and supporting his ouster and sharing power with other Syrian Kurdish factions that are weak and have tried to undermine the PYD. Turkey also demanded the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), fall under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (never mind the PYD is already cooperating with several FSA groups, including in Kobane). In effect, Turkey was asking the PYD to commit political suicide and become a vehicle for Turkish interests.
As a result of this impasse and Kobane’s impending fall, the two-year-old peace process between Turkey and the PKK is on the verge of collapsing. If or when Kobane falls, the faith Kurds have put into the peace process will end. “If Turkey won’t allow Kurds in Syria their natural rights, then what kind of rights will they give their own Kurds,” Firat Sayan, a teacher at the Kurdish Institute of Istanbul, told War on the Rocks, echoing the feeling of many Kurds. “What, then, is the point of the peace process?” If the talks fail, the implications for Turkey and the broader Middle East, including the fight against ISIL, are dire.
The PKK and legal Kurdish parties have shown through the protests that they can stir up massive upheaval in Turkey. And they have international opinion on their side. For the first time in its history, the PKK is in the international spotlight in a positive way. That may change, however, if it decides to resume violence in Turkey. Restarting the conflict in Turkey won’t serve Kurdish political objectives, but the PKK likely feels it has no other choice and must act on its word.
While the loss of Kobane will represent a major strategic defeat, it is not the only area of Syria controlled by the PYD. The group holds Afrin in the northwest of Syria and the larger Jazeera region, which includes the city of Qamishli. Some Turkish analysts argue the PKK will lose support due to the fall of Kobane, but the opposite is more likely. From the Kurdish perspective, the Kurds were surrounded by ISIL on three sides while Turkey blockaded from the north and the United States did very little beyond token airstrikes towards the end of the battle.
The fact that the PYD will fight to the last man and woman shows heroic resistance in the face of multiple adversaries. The battle for Kobane will go down in Kurdish history as a tragic yet heroic moment that fits with the Kurdish nationalist movement’s narrative of the Kurds as an oppressed people. Battles such as Kobane form the founding narratives of nations. Eventually, Kobane will take its place alongside the genocide at Halabja and Anfal, the Dersim uprising and the hanging of Qazi Mohammed, founder of the short-lived Mahabad Republic.
While the PKK and PYD may lose on the battlefield, they can win politically. The loss will strengthen the PKK’s claim to being the leader of the Kurdish nationalist movement vis-à-vis its main rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, who has followed a policy for most of the Syrian conflict of alliance with Turkey and hostility towards the PKK/PYD. Although there has been a softening of relations between the Kurdish factions, many Kurds in Turkey and Syria view it as too little, too late. Barzani’s policy against the Syrian Kurds is even more troubling in the context of the role PYD/PKK forces played in reinforcing Iraqi Kurdish forces. Meanwhile, Barzani’s crony-capitalist, petro-state model shows signs of moral and economic corruption. The Iraqi Kurdish leadership used the Kurdish military forces, or peshmerga, to distribute political patronage and wasted resources by building malls, five-star hotels and prestige projects. Conversely, the PKK-aligned forces showed revolutionary resistance and sacrifice for the people. This is having an impact on the Kurdish street.
The United States also will lose credibility and stature among Kurds, who in general are the most pro-Western people in the region. U.S. airstrikes came too late and did not have sufficient effect. The US policy toward the Syrian Kurds has been held hostage by NATO ally Turkey, as Washington must perform a difficult balancing act to get Turkey onboard an anti-ISIL coalition while also heeding Turkey’s sensitivities towards the PKK, a recognized terrorist group. Yet Washington’s policy approach to the Kurdish people is fraught with inconsistencies. Secretary of State John Kerry, echoing other U.S. officials, stated that Kobane is not even a “strategic objective,” though he did recognize that watching the plight of the Kurds on television was hard to witness. Deputy U.S. National Security Adviser Tony Blinken and Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby both commented that U.S. airstrikes would not be enough to save Kobane. “We don’t have a force inside Syria that we can cooperate with and work with,” Kirby said, similar to other U.S. statements. Meanwhile, Arin Mirkan, a female Kurdish commander of the PYD’s armed wing, entered a long list of martyrs, blowing herself up in a suicide attack to save her fellow comrades from an ISIL tank. At least a dozen Islamic State fighters were killed.
The PYD has repeatedly called for cooperation with the United States, but this has fallen on deaf ears in Washington. Understandably, the United States is concerned about mission creep in Syria, limiting its so-called “degrade and destroy” agenda to ISIL infrastructure, military assets and command-and-control centers. As is often the case, comedian and Daily Show host Jon Stewart cut to the heart of contradictory U.S. policy, stating in reaction to reports of ISIL tanks freely maneuvering across the countryside around Kobane:
You guys said [ISIL] is the most evil thing since Hitler’s sliced bread. For God’s sakes, you broke into Dancing with the Stars to tell us we’re hunting down [ISIL] members and assets wherever they are. Well, these guys are burning tank donuts on a Kobane hilltop and they are [ISIL], so what’s up?
Self-defeating policies seem to be the norm these days in both Ankara and Washington. The fall will imperil a larger area than just Kobane – Turkey, and therefore NATO, will have yet another area controlled by ISIL on its border, and ISIL’s stature will continue to grow among jihadist groups. Not to mention that if Kobane isn’t a strategic objective for the United States, as we have been told by officials, then by extension neither is a Kurdish peace process in Turkey since it could end with the fall of Kobane.
Looking forward, the Kurdish issue in Turkey could go a number of ways. One possibility is a return to war and end of the peace process with mass mobilization of Kurds throughout Turkey. This is a terrifying situation that would have both the PKK and Turkey fighting on multiple fronts from Iraqi Kurdistan to Syria to Turkey. Such a scenario will undermine efforts to fight ISIL, as well as embolden the Turkish intervention option against the Syrian Kurds.
The other option is that the PKK brings things to the edge of the cliff, then Ocalan steps in to end the chaos, thereby showing his power and strengthening the bargaining position of the PKK against the Turkish government. The current peace process, after all, started in late 2012 when Ocalan called for an end to a hunger strike in which Kurdish prisoners were on the verge of death and the Turkish government was under pressure. The Ocalan option will reinforce the PKK’s policy that the final word rests with their imprisoned leader. This comes at a time when one of the PKK’s primary demands for the continuation of negotiations has been met, namely a legal foundation for the peace process and a third-party observer to take part in negotiations that up until now have been largely been conducted in secret between Ocalan and Turkish intelligence. Despite having spent more than a decade in prison, Ocalan’s word holds godlike status among the PKK’s rank-and-file.
It’s easy to look at the battlefield and conclude the PYD and PKK lost. But as Kurds across the region rally around the PKK, the group has once again shown it is the premier Kurdish nationalist group with the popular backing of millions of people.
The fall of Kobane and potential end to the peace process in Turkey is a flammable situation that could unravel Turkey’s security and potentially that of the region. Developing an ISIL policy will be even more difficult, as well as any solution in Syria or Iraq. The PYD/PKK remains one of the best options to fight ISIL in Syria. It’s time the United States and Turkey realize that before it is too late.
Chase Winter is a writer and analyst covering Turkey, the Kurds and Middle East. He has been following Turkey for more than 10 years, including two years as a Turkish news editor and four years in-country researching Turkish politics, foreign policy and the Kurdish issue. He holds a BA in International Studies and MA in Middle East Studies from the University of Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @chaseawinter.
Photo credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann