Staying on the sidelines: In fight for Kobani, Turkey doesn’t see any good guys
ISTANBUL — Mayhem and civil war in Syria has become a grim spectator sport on the Turkish side of the border. Turkish Kurds gather on the hilltops overlooking the smoldering Syrian town of Kobani, under siege from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. They cheer and sing patriotic songs, certain that the town’s defenders, Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units, hear them and take heart.
But they are not just there to watch. It is all part of a well-organized effort to stop the Islamic State from gaining reinforcements and new fighters from the Turkish side of the border. The simple truth is that Turkey’s Kurds do not believe their government is impartial in the fight. Many believe Turkey is actively conspiring to bring about the destruction of a “free zone” of Kurdish aspirations.
Most civilians have fled Kobani to Turkey, but there are still thousands reported trapped in the town, many of them elderly. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, has warned of an impending Srebrenica-style massacre of innocents. This is not a view shared by the Turkish government, which sees no difference between the militant Islamists besieging Kobani and the militant Kurds defending it. “There is war between two terrorist groups. There is no tragedy in Kobani,” a deputy chair of the governing Justice and Development Party told the BBC.
The main political opposition in Turkey, the Republican People’s Party, has also accused the government of being fixated on the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and of turning a blind eye to the “enemy of its enemy,” even when that enemy is the Islamic State.
Still stung by accusations from Western allies that it is sitting on its hands, the Turkish government has passed a resolution giving it wide powers to support cross-border operations or to launch one its own. Yet so far the only place where Turkish security forces have seen action is in Turkey itself.
There were clashes last week in cities in Kurdish-majority eastern Turkey, as well as Kurdish neighborhoods in the western part of the country. Demonstrators were enraged that Turkish soldiers are keeping the Syrian border sealed, preventing Turkey’s Kurds from supplying Kobani with men and material. In some places, the confrontations were between Kurds and Turkey’s ultra-religious nationalists, who see the Kurdish parties as a godless force. In all, some 35 people died.
That violence reinforces the threat that the fall of Kobani will bring to a halt nearly a decade of on-again, off-again peace talks between Turkey and Kurdish insurgents, as well as the ceasefire that has been in place since March 2013.
No one should pretend that a decision for Turkey to become involved militarily in Syria is easy or even wise. Public opinion has little tolerance for foreign adventures and breaching an international border without a U.N. mandate is a precedent Turkish diplomats are loath to set. The current Turkish leadership shocked the Bush administration back in 2003 when it refused to provide support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Most in Turkey feel history more than vindicated that choice.
Ankara suspects, with some reason, it is being made the fall guy for the United States not having a coherent Syrian policy. Deputy Foreign Minister Yalçın Akdoğan was more than blunt when he said Turkey was not prepared to act as a mercenary for the West.
So the most likely expectation is that Ankara will continue to procrastinate.
There is also a growing perception in Turkey that President Recep Yayyip Erdogan is happy to call the Kurdish bluff, and that he does not believe the Kurdistan Workers’ Party can resume its insurgency while its Syrian brethren face the Islamic State not just in Kobani but also possibly in other enclaves nearby. He is a politician who thrives on confrontation and has already promised to take off the gloves should there be fresh outbreaks of urban unrest. The police, he said, would be using more than just riot shields.
All this is disturbing. Much gentler protests in Turkish cities the summer before last to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park led, for example, to scores of journalists being fired from their jobs and a concerted effort to rein in freedom of the press. A campaign of civil disobedience by Turkey’s Kurds, let alone a resumption of the 1990s-style terror campaign, could lead to an even greater crackdown.
It is an axiom of Near Eastern politics that Turkey can never become a regional power as long as the quarrel with its Kurdish population goes unresolved. The other truism is that Turkey’s Kurdish question is not just a question of minority rights but of good governance and democratic reform.
TOP PHOTO: Turkish Kurds watch the Syrian town of Kobani from near the Mursitpinar border crossing, on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 13, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
INSET PHOTO: Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani, as Turkish army tanks take up position on the Turkish side of the border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, as seen from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border October 8, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas