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Kobani, Turkey and the Perfect Storm

The fallout from Kobani reverberated across Turkey this week.  There were riots across the country, from Istanbul to Ankara and the southeast including Diyarbakir, Batman, Varto, Mardin, Van and Siirt.    Twenty-two protesters died between Monday and Thursday; there are curfews in six provinces; water cannon and tear gas is being used to quell intra-Kurdish clashes between supporters of the PKK and the Peoples’ Democracy Party  (HDP) on one hand and pro-Islamic State Kurdish Hizbullah and the Huda Par (Free Cause) Party on the other, between Kurds and Turkish nationalist ultras and between all of them and Turkish security forces.  Busts of Ataturk were smashed (by whom?) and the Turkish flag burnt.  Erdogan’s ‘Kurdish peace’ – never spelled out in any detail anyway – is a smoking ruin.

The spectacle of a government and an army standing by while the Islamic State closed in on the largely Kurdish town of Kobani, a few hundred metres across the Turkish border, shamed Turkey in the eyes of the world and infuriated Kurds everywhere.  Kobani was left to dangle in the wind, the Islamic state only held off through the bravery of its outgunned and outnumbered defenders and, belatedly, through increased strikes by US aircraft.  As the town appeared about to fall, Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, travelled to Ankara for help and was made an offer he could not accept.   Align your people with the so-called Free Syrian Army against the government in Damascus and cooperate in the establishment of a no-fly buffer zone across the border and we will help you.  Muslim declined and went back to Kobani.  By Thursday Kobani was hanging on, with the Islamic State attack blunted but with its fighters inside the town and fighting the Kurds street to street.   That the US would only go so far in defending Kobani was made clear by John Kerry, who said the town was not a US strategic target.

Turkey’s Syria policy collapsed a long time ago but Erdogan is not giving up despite 200, 000 deaths in Syria and a massive outflow of its citizens into neighboring countries.  He is full of blame for everyone else:  Syria would not be in this position if Turkey’s friends had taken its advice, when the truth is the imposition of a no-fly zone without the authority of the UN Security Council would have triggered off a global crisis.  Huge amounts of money and ‘western’ political capital were wasted on the so-called Free Syrian Army without it being able to get its act together:  any more would only have been more money down the drain.  After four years even the US has had to admit that in reality that there is no such thing as the Free Syrian Army and that if they want to create a ‘moderate’ ground force to stand up to the Islamic State (and simultaneously continue the war against the government in Damascus) they are going to have to start all over again.

Erdogan argued against Jabhat al Nusra being defined as a terrorist organization by the US State Department and was a latecomer to putting the Islamic state in the same category, along with the PKK, with whose whose imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish government has been negotiating the ‘Kurdish peace’ in recent years.

Erdogan is truly visceral only when it comes to the Syrian government.  Supposedly it is the root of all evil and he remains determined to destroy it.  Why does he want a no-fly zone across the border when the Islamic State has no aircraft?  The reason is obvious and hardly needs stating: to protect the armed groups Turkey and other governments have been sponsoring from destruction at the hands of the Syrian army and air force.  The Syrian military has been comprehensively grinding them down and is now closing in on Aleppo, which was intended to be set up as the capital of a ‘liberated’ northern Syria.   It has been clear for a long time that without direct intervention, either on the ground or through the imposition of a no-fly zone, the armed groups have no hope of bringing down the ‘regime.’  Thus and very clearly, Erdogan’s revived claim for a buffer/no-fly zone to be set up across the border is not simply dictated by the appearance of the Islamic State.  The strategy would be switch and bait:  cross-border intervention in the name of taking on the Islamic State would be the pretext for shoring up the floundering  ‘rebel’ front against the Syrian government.  The UN Security Council could not put its seal on approval on direct intervention three years ago because of Russian and Chinese opposition and the position of these two governments is unlikely to have changed.

Neither is it likely that the US wants it:  Obama prefers an air war and the administration has made it plain that its prime enemy in Iraq and Syria is the Islamic State, even if it still hopes to bring down the Syrian government.   How it is going to suppress the Islamic State without putting ‘boots on the ground’ is a known unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, and while some American boots are already there, in Iraq, Obama has repeatedly ruled out a large-scale American presence.  It remains to be seen whether events will overwhelm him.   The US is fully aware that ground intervention without UNSC approval would have to be met with a Russian riposte.  Syria is a red line, which the US and its allies have crossed despite all warnings, bringing the central lands of the Middle East since 1990 to the brink of implosion and the world closer to a major war.

Kobani is now seared into the Kurdish consciousness.  Erdogan has used the town’s fate as a bargaining chip, in the same way that he is using participation in the campaign against the Islamic State as a bargaining chip for continuation of the war against the Syrian government. These ploys have not worked.  Even in the unlikely event of backing  direct intervention under the aegis of NAT0, the US  would never hand military control over the operation to Turkey, as the Turkish government is reported to have requested.  In the Kurdish context, negotiating from a position of strength means limiting the bargaining power of the Kurds, who have gained greatly from the destruction of Iraq as a unitary state and the attempted destruction of Syria.  They have to be controlled and hence the studied inaction in the face of the assault on Kobani, where the strongest political group is the PYD (the Kurdish Unity Party) which is affiliated with the PKK.   The setting for the speech in which Erdogan said Kobani was on the brink of falling – news to absolutely no-one – and that the situation across the border could only be redeemed by setting up a no-fly zone and sending in ground troops was the Islahiye refugee camp in Gaziantep.  His audience was not Kurdish but Syrian Sunni Muslim Arabs and Turkmen. Of course, they cheered when he went for their enemy, the Syrian government:  one newspaper described his reference to Kobani as ‘token sympathy’ for its defenders.

Combined with the background of the crushing of the Gezi park protests across the country last year, the prima facie evidence of massive corruption within government circles and the suppression of all charges against those implicated, a slipping economic situation (a slipping currency and predictions for increased inflation and a decline in growth) and the development of a support network inside the country for the Islamic State, the crisis on the Syrian border  brings disparate but connected elements together in what has the makings of a perfect storm.

Panton Echthiston is a writer living and working in Turkey. 

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