Sunday, October 19, 2014

The meaning of Kobani (Henri Barkey)

(Kobani is the small yellow dot in the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border, at the top of the map.)

Kobani is hanging on. Earlier this week ISIS fighters had  taken over parts of the city from its heavily outnumbered Kurdish defenders, and it looked as though the fall of Kobani was imminent. In the last few days, aided by intensified US air strikes, the defenders have halted and reversed the ISIS advance, pushing ISIS forces out of the city. But the ISIS assault continues.  According to the latest reports:
Syrian Kurds have fended off a new attempt by "Islamic State" militants to cut off the city of Kobani. The jihadist group reportedly suffered heavy losses in the assault.

Kurdish fighters have repulsed a fresh attempt by "Islamic State" ("IS") militants to cut the Syrian town of Kobani off from the border with Turkey, raising hopes Kurdish forces would maintain control of the city.

"IS" forces reportedly launched a fierce attack from the east toward the border gate with Turkey before being pushed back. The jihadist group suffered heavy losses and was forced to send in reinforcements, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The news comes as the besieged city suffered its heaviest round of shelling by "IS" forces in days, with mortar shells hitting the town center and landing inside of Turkey in Mursitpinar. [....]
=> Before this month, Kobani was just a fairly small provincial city in northern Syria that never turned up in international news reports. But now, to borrow Yeats's line about the impact of the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Dublin, this is "all changed, changed utterly". The battle for Kobani has taken on tremendous symbolic importance for Kurds across the Middle East and beyond—which may also make it, in the long run, politically important for Kurdish nationalism and for countries with significant Kurdish minorities, especially Turkey.

The veteran Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn has been making these points for weeks:
The battle for Kobani has united Kurds across the region who see it as their version of the battle of Thermopylae, with their heroic soldiers fighting to the end against Isis forces superior in numbers and armed with heavier weapons. [....]

The month-long siege of Kobani has become part of the Kurdish national legend like the killing of 5,000 Kurds with poison gas at Halabja by Saddam Hussein in 1988. [....]
And yesterday Henri Barkey, whose analyses of Turkish society and politics and of Middle Eastern geopolitics more generally always need to be taken very seriously, argues that "whether Kobani falls or stands, it has become a defining moment of nationhood and identity for Syrian and Turkish Kurds." Barkey's piece is worth reading in full, but here are some highlights:
The Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani has been under a relentless siege by the Islamic State (IS) for the past few weeks. Surprisingly its defenders have endured, defying the long odds. Whether it falls or survives, Kobani is likely to become for Syrian and Turkish Kurds what Halabja became for Iraqi Kurds in 1988: a defining moment of nationhood and identity.

Halabja helped propel and shape the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, now called the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In 1988, in the midst of the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the sleepy Iraqi Kurdish town near the Iranian border, killing some 5,000, mostly civilians. Unnoticed at the time, Halabja became for much of the world a symbol of the larger campaign of mass extermination against the Kurds, as well as a quintessential example of a crime against humanity.

For the Kurds, it marked yet another time the world stood by and watched silently; theirs was an inconvenient predicament, a sacrifice at the altar of grander strategic purposes. Saddam Hussein enjoyed the support of the West precisely because he was locked in a duel with Iran, then a larger threat.

Fast forward to today: Until the U.S. Air Force began a systematic bombing campaign against IS positions around Kobani, the city had been left largely to fend for itself. Skittish and worried about Turkey’s reaction to support for Syrian Kurds, the Obama Administration initially hesitated but then committed itself to bombing the besieging IS forces after they had penetrated the city’s outer defenses.

Kobani will have two different effects on the region. First and foremost, it will be an important marker in the construction and consolidation of Kurdish nationhood. The exploits of Kobani’s defenders are quickly joining the lore of Kurdish fighting prowess. After all, the Iraqi Kurdish forces, not to mention the Iraqi army, folded in the face of a determined IS onslaught only a couple of months ago. The longer the city resists, the greater will be the reputational impact (although it is already assuming mythic proportions).

There is another, rather unique aspect of the resistance that is adding to its mythic character: the role of women in the fight.  [JW: This is not the second effect, but one more aspect of the first effect.]  The juxtaposition of an Islamic State, which enslaves women or covers them from head to toe with the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has large numbers of women fighting and dying alongside men, is particularly striking. Social and other media outlets have brimmed with stories of the heroism and sacrifice of these women. The fighting in Kobani, and especially the emergence of women fighters, has now entered the Kurdish lore and imagination.
The second effect, as Barkey sees it, involves the political implications for Turkey, both at home and internationally.
Resistance in Kobani has also mobilized Kurds across the world, but especially in Turkey—notwithstanding the [AKP] government’s earlier courageous attempt to initiate a peace process with its own Kurdish insurgent movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Turkish government faces a dilemma, however: a victory for the PYD, which is an ally, if not the creation, of the PKK, will not only strengthen the PKK’s bargaining position but will also potentially enable the Kurds to construct another Kurdish autonomous region on its borders after the KRG. That, in Ankara’s view, would be a strategic disaster, because it would naturally embolden Turkish Kurds to demand the same. In Turkey alone, some 36 people have already died in Kobani-related demonstrations.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s blandishments to the contrary, Turkey prefers to see a PYD defeat in Kobani, even if this, in the medium term, causes a spike in refugees streaming across the border. For Turkey, this was a Faustian choice. They lost. Moreover, by attempting to drive a hard if not impossible bargain with Washington, which demanded that it target Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as much as it was targeting IS, the Turks first and foremost alienated the Obama administration. This in turn has enabled the White House to finally ignore Ankara’s preferences and cooperate (at least in order to conduct bombing runs) with the PYD, an organization Turkey despises and sees as an enemy. [....]
The complex drama centered on Kobani is still unfolding, so we should all stay tuned.

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
The American Interest
October 18, 2014
THE MIDDLE EAST AFLAME
The Meaning of Kobani
By Henri J. Barkey

The Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani has been under a relentless siege by the Islamic State (IS) for the past few weeks. Surprisingly its defenders have endured, defying the long odds. Whether it falls or survives, Kobani is likely to become for Syrian and Turkish Kurds what Halabja became for Iraqi Kurds in 1988: a defining moment of nationhood and identity.

Halabja helped propel and shape the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, now called the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In 1988, in the midst of the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the sleepy Iraqi Kurdish town near the Iranian border, killing some 5,000, mostly civilians. Unnoticed at the time, Halabja became for much of the world a symbol of the larger campaign of mass extermination against the Kurds, as well as a quintessential example of a crime against humanity.

For the Kurds, it marked yet another time the world stood by and watched silently; theirs was an inconvenient predicament, a sacrifice at the altar of grander strategic purposes. Saddam Hussein enjoyed the support of the West precisely because he was locked in a duel with Iran, then a larger threat.

Fast forward to today: Until the U.S. Air Force began a systematic bombing campaign against IS positions around Kobani, the city had been left largely to fend for itself. Skittish and worried about Turkey’s reaction to support for Syrian Kurds, the Obama Administration initially hesitated but then committed itself to bombing the besieging IS forces after they had penetrated the city’s outer defenses.

Kobani will have two different effects on the region. First and foremost, it will be an important marker in the construction and consolidation of Kurdish nationhood. The exploits of Kobani’s defenders are quickly joining the lore of Kurdish fighting prowess. After all, the Iraqi Kurdish forces, not to mention the Iraqi army, folded in the face of a determined IS onslaught only a couple of months ago. The longer the city resists, the greater will be the reputational impact (although it is already assuming mythic proportions).

There is another, rather unique aspect of the resistance that is adding to its mythic character: the role of women in the fight. The juxtaposition of an Islamic State, which enslaves women or covers them from head to toe with the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has large numbers of women fighting and dying alongside men, is particularly striking. Social and other media outlets have brimmed with stories of the heroism and sacrifice of these women. The fighting in Kobani, and especially the emergence of women fighters, has now entered the Kurdish lore and imagination.

Resistance in Kobani has also mobilized Kurds across the world, but especially in Turkey—notwithstanding the government’s earlier courageous attempt to initiate a peace process with its own Kurdish insurgent movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Turkish government faces a dilemma, however: a victory for the PYD, which is an ally, if not the creation, of the PKK, will not only strengthen the PKK’s bargaining position but will also potentially enable the Kurds to construct another Kurdish autonomous region on its borders after the KRG. That, in Ankara’s view, would be a strategic disaster, because it would naturally embolden Turkish Kurds to demand the same. In Turkey alone, some 36 people have already died in Kobani-related demonstrations.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s blandishments to the contrary, Turkey prefers to see a PYD defeat in Kobani, even if this, in the medium term, causes a spike in refugees streaming across the border. For Turkey, this was a Faustian choice. They lost. Moreover, by attempting to drive a hard if not impossible bargain with Washington, which demanded that it target Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as much as it was targeting IS, the Turks first and foremost alienated the Obama administration. This in turn has enabled the White House to finally ignore Ankara’s preferences and cooperate (at least in order to conduct bombing runs) with the PYD, an organization Turkey despises and sees as an enemy.

CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin had high praise for the Kurds in Syria: “Kurdish fighters had managed to regain territory that had been lost previously, adding that they had done “a yeoman’s work in terms of standing their ground.” The American decision to help Syrian Kurds despite Turkish objections will also have serious repercussions in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the leaders had until recently closely aligned themselves with Turkey. Ankara has already gotten started on damage control: a Deputy Prime Minister disingenuously argued it was Turkey that convinced the U.S. to help the PYD in Kobani.

Fall or survive, Kobani has assumed an importance few could have anticipated, becoming the rallying cry for Syrian and Turkish Kurds as much as Halabja was for their Iraqi brethren. Moreover, Kobani’s plight has once again drawn the whole international community’s attention to the region’s Kurdish question.

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Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

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