ISTANBUL — Kobani, a Kurdish town in northern Syria just a stone’s throw from the Turkish border, wasn’t widely known until recently. But now, with the Islamic State poised to overthrow the besieged town, Kobani has become a rallying point for all Kurds.
Members of Turkey’s Kurdish minority are alleging that the Turkish government is tacitly supporting the Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL. This week, tensions reached a boiling point as pro-Kurdish demonstrators took to the streets to protest the government’s inaction in the face of the possible fall of Kobani.
As of Tuesday evening, at least nine people had been killed in demonstrations protesting the Islamic State and the Turkish government, Reuters reported. The protests, organized in part by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, occurred across Turkey and in several international cities on Monday and Tuesday. Turkey imposed a curfew in five provinces on Tuesday, including Diyarbakir, the country’s largest Kurdish city.
For decades, a bloody conflict has raged between Turkey and its Kurdish minority, whose demands over the years have included self-rule, basic rights and greater freedoms. In 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — which the United States has designated a terrorist organization — announced a Kurdish uprising against the Turkish state. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed in Turkey as a result of the conflict.
In March 2013, the group’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan called for a cease-fire. As PKK militants withdrew to the Iraqi mountains and the beginnings of a peace process emerged, the conflict seemed to have reached a turning point.
But after a period of relative peace, Kurdish anger against the Turkish state has exploded once again.
More than 180,000 Syrian Kurds have fled from Kobani to Turkey in the past three weeks. Now, from the relative safety of Turkey — interrupted by the occasional Islamic State mortar shell that lands close to or within Turkish territory — they watch as dark plumes rise from their city. On Monday and Tuesday, there were a handful of coalition airstrikes on Islamic State positions, strikes that Kurds in Kobani said came late, but helped them to hold back the militants’ advance. Meanwhile, Turkish tanks lined up along the border haven’t budged an inch.
There have been repeated reports of desperate Syrian Kurds waiting at the border for days before being allowed to cross into Turkey. Turkish Kurds headed to Kobani to defend the city from the Islamic State have been turned away by Turkish border guards. And Kurds protesting in solidarity with Kobani’s residents have been met with tear gas by Turkish authorities.
At the same time, Turkey faces increasing criticism that it is turning a blind eye to extremist fighters who frequently cross Turkey’s porous border with Syria and recruit new fighters in Turkish cities. Many foreign fighters seeking to join the Islamic State fly into Istanbul.
Turkey, for its part, is worried about the Kurds becoming too powerful. “Turkey is concerned about the creation of an independent, or even autonomous Kurdish region in Syria,” Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert and an associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told The WorldPost.
In particular, Turkey is gravely concerned that the People’s Defence Units, the Syrian Kurdish fighting force that now controls Kobani, might gain more power. The People’s Defence Units is linked with the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
The protesters’ anger at the Turkish government over Kobani is echoed at the highest levels of the PKK. Ocalan, who has been imprisoned since 1999, warned last week that negotiations between Turkey and the PKK would end if Kobani fell to the Islamic State.
“I am calling on those in Turkey who don’t want to see the process collapse to shoulder responsibility,” he said in a statement. “The reality of Kobani and the peace process are not separable.”
Officials stress that Turkey is doing everything in its power to help Kobani — a claim met with skepticism from Kurds as the Islamic State hoists its black flags on the edges of the town.
“We will do do whatever we can so that Kobani does not fall,” Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently said. But his statement came with a caveat. “If Kobani falls,” he said, “Turkey is not at fault. If Kobani falls, this shouldn’t be tied to the solution process.”
Late last week, Turkey’s parliament voted to give the government the authority to take military action in Iraq and Syria. The vote also gave the government the ability to allow foreign countries to use Turkey as a base for attacks against the Islamic State. But while the vote has gotten much attention, this is the third year Turkey has voted to theoretically authorize a military intervention without actually undertaking one.
As Tuesday came to a close, it didn’t look like military action would be happening anytime soon. Hugh Pope, the International Crisis Group’s deputy program director for Europe and Central Asia, said Turkey was unlikely to use its new war powers.
“Turkey has made it clear that it is not about to invade Syria, and indeed, there are many reasons why it won’t,” Pope told The WorldPost. “Military capacity, legal obstacles, domestic political sensitivities, the possibility of Syrian retaliation and NATO obligations, to name just some of them.”