The Kobani Catastrophe

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Not since the Red Army halted its tanks on the east bank of the Vistula have we seen a catastrophe shaping up as emblematic as that shaping up right now at the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobani. In the World War II tragedy, the Red Army at first broadcast the call for the Free Polish Army to begin its uprising against the Nazis. They then refused to lift a finger to help them. So the Free Poles — democrats — were wiped out. Only then did the Soviets come in to seize what was left of Poland.

Fast forward to right now, when the city of Kobani, once home to 45,000 people, is under siege from the Islamic State and facing the kind of slaughter that the Islamic State has made its trademark. More than 100,000 from surrounding villages are now refugees in Turkey. The numbers are not on the scale of Warsaw (which had a population of 1 million), but the cynicism is. Turkish tanks have looked on from across the border as the Islamic State tightens its siege of the Kurdish defenders, and they aren’t lifting so much as a trigger finger.

American airstrikes have failed to stop the Islamic State’s advance. A-10 “Warthogs” might make more of a difference, but it appears that Turkey will not allow the use of American air bases in its territory. Incirlik Air Base, former home of an A-10 squadron, is fewer than 500 miles from Kobane. Kurdish defenders lack the weapons to match the heavy armor, much of it American-made, captured by ISIS in the summer. The Turks have closed the border crossing to Kobane, even to a stream of unarmed Kurdish volunteers.

The Kurds in Kobani are just as politically inconvenient to the Turks as the Polish Home Army was to Stalin. The city is run and defended by the Kurdish-dominated Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD, for Partiya Yaktiya Demokrat. Its militia is known as the People’s Defense Units, or YPG. This group is affiliated with Turkey’s nemesis, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan. Until recently the PKK fought a 30-year guerilla war in southwestern Turkey for the national aspirations of that region’s Kurds.

Some 20% of Turkey’s population is ethnic Kurdish, an indigenous non-Arab people pre-dating the Ottoman invasion. In its historic quest for national homogeneity, Turkey in the past has denied Kurdish identity and suppressed its culture and language. Turkey and its NATO allies, including America, have listed the PKK as a terrorist group. When the PYD took over Kobani in 2012, it sharply raised the stakes of Kurdish nationalism.

It declared the border strip of northern Syria to be the autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava (West Kurdistan). Some 30 million Kurds are spread through four countries, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria; only Kurdistan in northern Iraq had any form of political autonomy. Iraqi Kurds, flourishing and pro-American, at first derided the Rojava declaration. Even though the siege of Kobani galvanized Kurdish support, tensions persisted.

Turkey might be hoping that the fall of Kobani would crush Kurdish aspirations. More likely, the opposite will happen. Kurds and their friends world-wide have been fixated on the fight, regardless of their ideologies. Stories of its heroes spread instantly in the social press; the name of Arin Mirkan is already famous. The Kurdish female fighter was defending the mountain overlooking Kobani on Sunday when she ran out of ammunition; rather than retreat, she blew herself up, taking out ISIS attackers.

Kobani is already a banner of pan-Kurdish nationals. If it falls, it will become the Kurdish Alamo. A Kobani disaster could well end a restraint in Kurdish policy. Iraqi Kurdish leaders have resisted a declaration of independence out of deference to America. They preferred to consolidate the gains of the autonomous region. The rapprochement with Ankara even extended to the PKK, which declared a cease-fire in 2013.

All this could be suddenly dashed. The PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has already sent word from prison that a massacre at Kobani would kill off the peace talks. Intensified calls for an independent Kurdish state would convulse the region. Kurdistan on its own would shatter Iraq, leaving a Shi-ite state in the south and no one knows what in the Sunni regions.

It’s not hard to see how all this could escalate. An independent Kurdistan would be pressed by its people to absorb the Kurdish population of northeastern Syria and reconquer Rojava. Kurdish secession would rekindle in southeastern Turkey. America’s strategy of airstrikes without infantry would quickly be exposed as ineffectual, precipitating Washington deeper into its own political crisis. History dealt harshly with the Red Army’s inaction, and, no doubt, will with the Turks’.

The New York Sun

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