The Kurdish-Islamic State Problem

The Turkish authorities are finding it problematic – Kurdish refugees are fleeing in their tens of thousands in the wake of an Islamic State offensive against Kobani, compounding an already fundamental humanitarian crisis. The lot of the Kurds has been a savage one, be it fleeing battles with Turkey, Syria and now, with the Islamic State in Iraq.

For a time on Sunday, Turkish security forces closed the border at the village of Kucuk Kendirciler, fearing the movement of Kurdish fighters into Syria but also the sheer volume of human traffic. The true balance of reasons is simply not known at this stage, though speculation is rife.

Pressures with Kurdish refugees, at least from Ankara’s perspective, is not new. With the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Iraq’s Kurdish minority sought refuge in Iran and Turkey. The latter found themselves closing the borders to prevent a potential half a million refugees from entering.

The issues were, and remain, glaring – not merely a humanitarian one (Turkey, historically, has not recognised non-Europeans as refugees), but a security one posed by having a larger, and restless Kurdish population within its own borders. For largely that reason, Turkey actively rejected the creation of permanent refugee camps in the border regions, fearing that such enclaves would become incubators for separatist sentiments.

Kurdish fighters certainly have their hackles up. With the de facto abandonment of Kurdish lands in the Syrian north and northeast, the Popular Protection Units have begun to have some effect. The Assad regime has essentially left them to their own devices, and loose alliances with other rebel groups have formed.

The assault on Kobani immediately saw some 3,000 fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) move from their base in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. Bassam al-Ahmed, Istanbul-based spokesman for the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria, claims that “this could be a kind of ethnic cleansing in Kobani.” The Kurdish fighting equation continues to remain highly problematic for Ankara, whose officials watch on as efforts are made to arm various Kurdish groups in the wake of the IS onslaught.

The atmosphere is also thick with rumours – are the Turks colluding with IS in the destruction of the Syrian Kurdish enclaves? The Amed pro-Kurdish news agency wonders whether “Isis [is] the paramilitary wing of the neo-Ottomanism project of Turkey in the Middle-East”.

The other complication in a woven basket of complications is Turkey’s own relationship with IS. On the surface of it, Ankara’s position has been one accusing the Assad regime in Syria of allowing the Islamic State to thrive in the hot house of the Syrian opposition. The reason is simple: as long as IS exist, the Syrian opposition is weakened, bloodied on two fronts – one snapping from Damascus, and one from the new, aspiring organisation.

Some finger pointing has also been taking place by Turkish officials against Washington’s position on IS, given the foot dragging in response to the organisation’s initial gains. Washington, in turn, has been directing the finger at the rather lax stance Ankara has taken to closing the tap on foreign fighters making the transit through Turkey to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s own position in Syria is one of attempting to farm out anti-Assad moderates to support, though the distinction is often manufactured rather than genuine. It does, however, have a sophistication beyond the school grade distinctions made by Washington. For one thing, the Turkish distinction on the al-Nusra front is at odds with those of its Western allies. As al-Nusra has been fighting, at stages at least, with “moderate” elements, abandoning them would potentially drive them into the IS orbit. That, at least, is Ankara’s double game.

The latest release of 49 Turkish diplomats and their families held by the IS group also brought the critics out. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hails the virtues of Turkish covert operations and skill. IS remains mum on the subject. When pressed on the issue, the President came up with his characteristically earthy rebuke: “To run the state is not like running a grocery store. We have to protect our sensitive issues; if you don’t there would be a price to pay.”

Erdogan’s stance is in stark contrast to a small number of pro-IS websites in Turkey which has suggested that the release of the hostages was prompted by the orders of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This may not in itself be surprising – Erdogan did say in June that “no one should expect me to provoke ISIS.”

The sum of all this is that Turkey, like other countries in the Middle East, along with allies, fiends and foes, have come to the realisation that a good deal of bungling has been taking place. Some of it has been more active than others. Out of the Sunni-Shiite fault lines and resentments, a new, aggressive combination of forces have emerged to chart out something resembling a state. Whether it is fed, or arrested, remains the glaring question. Answers remain few and far between.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: