If Isis seizes the border city, who’s to say they won’t attack the Turks next? Erdogan needs to stop treating Kurdish people like others
The Turkish president asks: ‘What does Kobani have to do with Turkey?’ You look at refugees like this and you think: everything. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters
Any second now, it seems as if Syria’s Kurdish border city of Kobani will fall. Amazingly, Kurds have been holding their ground, and western air strikes have yielded “positive results”, according to the region’s top leader, who says that “with the help of US and coalitions jets, we can expel Isis from Kobani and save the lives of these civilians”.
But such is the danger of positive thinking: unless something happens to drastically shift the balance of power on the ground, the Islamic State (Isis) may eventually overtake the city, forcing many times more than the 200,000 Kobanis already in exodus into an unknown future, upheaving the relative peace of Kurdish-controlled Syria and possibly ending to one of the most unheralded ongoing peace discussions in the world.
That something is Turkey, which could and should save Kobani – but which has been passively monitoring the death-soaked danger unfolding on its border. The United Nations has warned of genocide on the scale of Srebenica, asking only for volunteers and their equipment to enter the city, but Turkey has refused. Kurdish leaders have called for a corridor to allow weapons and aid transport, but Turkey keeps saying no. Indeed, the only access Kobani has to the outside world is Turkey, with Nato’s second largest army and its tanks on the border, but Turkish leaders in Ankara simply look on.
Why? Such is the danger in stubborn politicking: Ankara does not want Kurdish autonomy, and it is still worried about Bashar al-Assad more than Isis. We are worried about the wrong atrocities, goes this line of thinking, just because Isis is scary. But Turkey has ulterior motives – and they have led not just to a willful ignorance of massacre, but to a willing breakdown in the political peace process.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was supposed to be the architect of that process, which promised a solution to a decades-old standoff on Kurdish rights with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But just a few days ago, Erdogan said the PKK and Isis were “the same”, and the PKK responded with harsh statements of its own, going so far as to threaten to “mobilize the guerrillas”. This isn’t helpful, obviously, but is that Turkey’s true intention with the Kurds? To prevent Kurdish independence at all costs, just because it is led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is so closely aligned with the PKK and has had so much success actually governing across the border in Syria?
Ankara has asked for the creation of a Turkish controlled buffer zone, which would include Kobani and essentially end the autonomous canton system that the Kurds have been governing themselves. The international community is not interested.
Ankara has also suggested creating a no-fly zone to weaken Assad, even though – by forcing the PYD and the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) to join the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), two groups with very little power left on the ground that have never accepted the Kurds as an equal partner – it would essentially weaken the Kurds in Syria, making them depend on Turkey’s way of war. The coalition fighting Isis does not seem too interested in that either.
When I talk to Syrian Kurds, they seem to believe that Turkey considers their desperate situation merely an opportunity to impose conditions upon them that are virtually impossible to accept: that they give up the Kurdish self-government that has emerged across Syria over the last two years, thus weakening Kurdish aspirations for more autonomy in Turkey.
Kurds in Turkey have taken to the streets in mass protest, condemning Erdogan’s gross passivity but acting with increasing caution, as the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan says it’s time for talks. Among the Kurds in both Syria and Turkey, there is a serious concern that the peace process would collapse if Kobani falls, and that Turkish-Kurdish relations will be irreparably damaged.
But even if Turkey doesn’t care about the Kurds, Turkey should be concerned for itself. If Isis seizes Kobani and the border gate, there is no guarantee that the group will not launch attacks against Turkey in future. At the very least, Isis will gain access to more economic and political resources and be able to recruit new fighters easily. Ankara must accept that the fight for Kobani is not only for the Kurds; it is a fight for Turkey, for the entire region.
“What does Kobani have to do with Turkey?” Erdogan asked over the weekend, rhetorically but to the intense sorrow of Kurds worldwide. The answer, simply, is everything. The Kurds in Turkey and Syria are intertwined, whether Ankara likes it or not. This goes beyond compassion, beyond Erdogan’s tears for the killing of a the daughter of Muslim Brotherhood leader.
By remaining idle, Turkey will always be remembered for its inaction in the face of a rapidly approaching massacre. But Kobani offers an historic opportunity for Turkey to show it is on the right side of history; all it needs to do now is open that safe corridor, and a golden opportunity for reconciliation awaits. All Ankara needs to do now is help those in need, in the face of barbarous terrorism.
We are still waiting. Any second now, Mr Erdogan. Any second now.