An Interview With Kurdish Guerrilla Leader Cemil Bayik

Kobani cannot now be captured by the fighters of Isis but a million people in another Kurdish enclave in Syria are facing a mounting threat of being massacred or forced to flee by advancing jihadis, according to the Kurdish guerrilla leader overseeing the defence of Syrian Kurds.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent in his headquarters in the Kandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, Cemil Bayik, the top field commander of the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla organisation in Turkey, and also of its Syrian affiliate, says: “Kobani will not fall. We are advancing on the eastern and southern fronts.”

He said that the Syrian Kurdish fighters had succeeded in “taking back the municipal building and Isis was forced to blow up a mosque it held”.

He added that US jets were regularly bombing the top of the strategic hill overlooking Kobani through which Isis fighters first entered the city. But the fighters “disappear into houses on the hillside when the bombing is going on and reoccupy their positions later.” Other reports suggest that Isis holds half the city after a siege of 63 days.

Mr Bayik says there is a growing danger to the Kurdish enclave or canton of Afrin, 120 miles to the west of Kobani which has a population of one million people, including 200,000 refugees. The Syrian al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, after defeating more moderate Syrian rebels in recent weeks, is moving towards Afrin.

“They are approaching its borders,” says Mr Bayik. “They are calling villagers by telephone, saying, ‘Runaway or we will kill you’. Like Isis they use psychological war, first creating panic among the people and then attacking.”

Mr Bayik accuses Turkey of having covert links with Jabhat al-Nusra and encouraging the jihadis to threaten Afrin. It is one of three Syrian Kurdish enclaves, all strung along Syria’s border with Turkey, and all of which have come under attack from jihadis.

He says that if Kobani falls or Jabhat al-Nusra attacks then “it will no longer be possible for the peace process to go on with Turkey”, and the 18-month-old ceasefire which started in March 2013 may end. He believes that Turkey has sufficient influence over Jabhat al-Nusra to prevent it attacking Afrin. “Kurds will not accept Kobani and Afrin being under threat of genocide and massacre.”

Even if the ceasefire does not end, the siege of Kobani has provoked anger among the 15 million Turkish Kurds against their government whom they accuse of aiding Isis. Protests and rioting provoked by fear that Kobani was about to fall in early October left some 44 people dead. A similar threat to Afrin would probably lead to outbursts of rage from the 30 million Kurds in the region who live mostly in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said that Isis is no worse than the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) or PYD (the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party), though on 20 October Turkey agreed under American pressure to allow Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga forces to reinforce Kobani.

While international attention has been focused on the fate of Kobani, the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar by Isis, whose fate helped fuel public support for US air strikes in August, are under renewed pressure. The jihadis have once more cut all roads leading to their mountain.

Mr Bayik, who has guerrilla fighters on the mountain, agreed that there was a greater danger of Sinjar falling to Isis than Kobani.

“There are 10,000 people on the mountain and they are in need of everything from food to medical care,” said Mr Bayik. “Winter is coming and Isis is attacking once more.”

He added that Sinjar is strategically important because it is close to important road links: “If you hold this area, you can control the roads between Iraq and Syria and cut Isis’s communications between the two countries.” He said the Yazidis trapped on the mountain, which they regard as holy, needed to be resupplied by plane or helicopter or a corridor should be driven through Isis positions so the Yazidis could be reinforced or evacuated.

Mr Bayik is careful to stress that the PYD and the YPG, the People’s Defence Units, are not directly controlled by him, though he heads the PKK umbrella organisation, the KCK, which unites PKK affiliates in different countries. All follow the same leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in prison in Turkey for 15 years, and they are organised along similar lines. A further reason for Mr Bayik to put distance between himself and the PYD is that the US has labelled the PKK, but not its Syrian affiliate, a “terrorist” organisation. Mr Bayik says: “The PKK is not in touch with the Americans directly but the YPG and PYD are.”

The battle for Kobani and the PKK’s role in helping the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar resist Isis has increased the movement’s popularity and prestige among Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere. The determination of their fighters to resist Isis successfully is in contrast to the failure of the Iraqi army, Syrian army, Syrian rebels and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, all of whom had been routed over the last five months by the jihadis. Although the number of male and female fighters in Kandil has been put at only between 3,000 and 5,000, they are having a significant impact on the politics of the region.

The Kurds complain that they are the nation which was the prime victim of the Sykes-Picot agreement that left them without a state. But they have been playing an increasing role in the region. The defeat of Saddam Hussein by a US-led coalition in 1991 and again in 2003 allowed the Iraqi Kurds to create a quasi-independent state more powerful than many members of the United Nations.

The PKK has fought an on-off guerrilla war with the Turkish army since 1984 and, while it has failed to create liberated zones, the Turkish state has failed to eliminate it. The 2.2 million Syrian Kurds were a persecuted and largely invisible minority, 10 per cent of the Syrian population, until the Syrian civil war. In July 2012 the Syrian army pulled out of Kurdish areas in northern Syria, allowing the creation of three autonomous enclaves centred on the towns of Qamishli, Kobani and Afrin. Somewhat to their own surprise the Syrian Kurds became important players in the Syrian civil war. When Isis attacked the Iraqi Kurds this August, they too began to play a central role in the US-led campaign against Isis.

There are some signs that the US campaign is beginning to have some impact, with the Iraqi army fighting its way into the refinery town of Baiji today. This is still some way from the refinery itself, which is the largest in Iraq and has been fought over since the first Isis onslaught in June. Isis may be feeling the strain of fighting on too many fronts in Syria and Iraq and having diverted many of its fighters to Kobani where they are vulnerable to US air strikes.

Mr Bayik confirmed that Kurds in Kobani are in direct contact with the US air force in order to call in air strikes: “If there were no contacts or people on the ground to give co-ordinates then the US would not be able to send arms and ammunition or carry out bombing missions.”

He says that the US air drop of arms and ammunition on 19 October was of immense value to the defenders because of its effect on their morale. Other sources say the Kurds were close to running out of ammunition.

Mr Bayik sees much of what happens in the region through the prism of Turkish-Kurd relations and is convinced Turkey has a strong influence over Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra and has been able to manipulate them against the Kurds. This may be overstated, though Turkey’s tolerance of jihadis crossing from Turkey into Syria between 2011 and 2013 was a factor in strengthening Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra. Mystery also reigns over why 46 Turkish diplomats stayed in the Turkish consulate in Mosul when Isis captured it on 10 June and were later released by Isis in exchange for Isis prisoners held in Turkey.

But regardless of the real level of complicity between the jihadis and Turkey, the long struggle for Kobani has created a wave of feeling against the Turkish government among Kurds everywhere. Small though the siege is it compares to other sieges in history from Londonderry to Stalingrad which have acquired significance as symbols of courage and determination. The Kurdish belief that they won despite the best efforts of Ankara will not create a conciliatory mood in which Turkish Kurds might negotiate a measure of self-rule. A study just published by the International Crisis Group called Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process says that the process is at a turning point: “It will either collapse as the sides squander years of work, or it will accelerate as they commit to real convergences.”

The furious rhetoric on both Turkish and Kurdish sides because of Kobani makes real negotiations more necessary but less likely. The PKK accuses the Turkish state of being hand-in-glove with Isis, something Mr Erdogan roundly denies. When a Turkish flag was taken down by demonstrators during the funeral of two young Kurdish protesters in Diyarbakir, President Erdogan said: “The fact that [the demonstrator] was a child does not concern us. He will pay the same price as those who sent him there.”

Whatever happens the Kurds have become the latest victims in the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).