Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why Kobani matters (Patrick Cockburn)

The veteran Middle East correspondent correspondent Patrick Cockburn is someone whose assessments are always worth taking seriously. Taken in combination, three of his most recent pieces deliver a strong argument for the proposition that the fall of Kobani to ISIS, which now looks imminent, is likely to be an event of great significance, with important direct and indirect consequences. (It's worth noting that Cockburn's ardently Kurdophile perspective shapes his analysis, but there's no reason to think that it distorts the analysis.)

Cockburn argues that Erdogan sees the meteoric rise of ISIS not as a serious threat, but primarily as an opportunity to maneuver the US and NATO into helping overthrow the Assad regime. That reading of Erdogan's priorities seems to be clearly on-target. The main question is whether, from Erdogan's perspective, allowing ISIS to capture Kobani and slaughter its defenders is unimportant collateral damage or a valuable fringe benefit. Cockburn and others argue that the latter is the case, and there are reasons to find that plausible. Cockburn also suggests that Erdogan may be overplaying his hand. That remains to be seen. Time will tell whether, in retrospect, the strategy being pursued by Erdogan and his government looks like brilliant realpolitik or disastrous political and geopolitical short-sightedness. What is beyond question is that it looks morally reprehensible.

From the US perspective: "The US's failure to save Kobani, if it falls, will be a political as well as military disaster."

Why? I recommend reading all three pieces in full, but here are some highlights:

Isis on the verge of victory in Kobani as US strategy lies in ruins: Jihadists close to taking city near Turkish border in Syria (Tuesday, October 7)
Isis is close to capturing the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, just a short distance from the Turkish border, after a three-week siege in which US air strikes turned out to be ineffective in preventing Isis winning an important victory.

With Isis fighters also making advances into western Baghdad, which may allow them to close the city’s airport with artillery fire, President Obama’s strategy of containing the Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria is in ruins.

Kurdish militiamen are battling to stop Isis capturing Kobani, but a Kurdish spokesman in the city was quoted as saying that the town “will certainly fall soon”. Fighting has reached the eastern outskirts of Kobani where Isis fighters raised their black flag over one building at the entrance to the town.

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.

Isis is using tanks and artillery it seized from the Iraqi and Syrian armies when it overran their bases during the summer. [....]

The fall of Kobani would be a bad blow to the US and its anti-Isis coalition which has been bombing Isis positions in Syria since 23 September and in Iraq since 8 August.

But in both countries Isis is still on the offensive and is making gains in Anbar province in western Iraq and in towns close to Baghdad. Isis fighters have responded to air attacks by spreading out so they are difficult to find and target. [....]

Kobani is one of three Kurdish cantons on the Syrian side of the Turkish border where many of Syria’s two-and-a-half million Kurds live.

President Bashar al-Assad withdrew his forces from these enclaves earlier in the war, leaving them in the hands of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) whose militia is the YPG. Both are effectively the Syrian branch of the PKK that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

The long-running peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government could be one casualty of the fall of Kobani. Turkish forces have done nothing to help the Syrian Kurds hold the town and there is no sign of powerful Turkish military forces along the border intervening. [....]
Isis in Kobani: Turkey ignores Kurdish fury as militants close in on capturing the town (Thursday, October 9)
President Erdogan sees the jihadists as an opportunity to target Assad rather than a threat

If Kobani falls to the fighters of Isis there will be a surge of violence across Turkey. The 15 million Turkish Kurds will blame the Turkish government for enabling Isis to capture the Kurdish enclave by denying its defenders reinforcements, weapons and ammunition.

he faltering peace process between the Turkish Kurd militants and Ankara may finally collapse. A Kurdish politician was quoted as saying that “you can’t expect to break the backs of the Kurds in Syria and win their hearts in Turkey”.

All this week there have been protests and riots in every Turkish city where there are a significant number of Kurds. Twenty-two people have been killed in the fiercest street clashes that Turkey has seen for years.

Smoke rises from bonfires in the streets with the police generally relying on pepper spray and water cannon while angry Kurds hurl stones and Molotov cocktails.

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.

Six provinces in south-east Turkey have been placed under curfew. There are signs of an anti-Kurdish and pro-Islamist backlash with Turkish police shouting Isis slogans as they charge Kurdish demonstrators. Antagonisms have spread beyond Turkey into Europe with a pro-Isis crowd in Hamburg attacking Kurdish protesters with knives.

The Turkish general staff stirred nationalist passions by claiming that Kurds have burnt Turkish flags. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said openly that Isis and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish movement that has fought for Kurdish self-rule since 1984, are much the same. He said: “It is wrong to deal with them differently, we need to deal with them jointly.” [....]

This is a return to demonisation of the PKK and all Kurdish dissidents at the height of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey in 1990s. The PYD, the political representative of the Syrian Kurds and a branch of the PKK, was denounced in a tweet by a senior member of the ruling AKP party, Emrullah Isler, saying it is worse than Isis because, while the latter killed, they did not torture.

The Turkish government has so far been outwardly uncaring over the turmoil in the streets unleashed by its role in allowing Isis to come close to capturing Kobani. It may be that Mr Erdogan has had sufficient success in muzzling the Turkish media that the authorities themselves may underestimate the gravity of what is going on and its potential for getting a great deal worse. [....]

Mr Erdogan’s unconcern about Kurdish fury is curious since progress in de-escalating Turkish-Kurd violence has been one of the achievements of his AKP party’s years in office. Mr Erdogan had looked to Kurdish support to increase the powers of his office. Writing in al-Monitor Amberin Zaman says that the reason why the authorities are so unconcerned is because “Erdogan and his AKP disciples view Kobani as an opportunity rather than a threat”. This opportunity is not to win popularity among the Kurds by rescuing Kobani, but to exploit a moment of maximum Kurdish weakness when they are under threat from Isis. [....]

In using the Isis threat to extract concessions from the Kurds and the Americans, Mr Erdogan may be overplaying his hand. He has made clear that his price for acting against Isis is a buffer zone inside Syria run by Turkey to be used as a sanctuary by refugees and anti-Assad rebels; a no-fly zone; and a commitment by the US to overthrow the government in Damascus.

All Mr Erdogan’s demands show that his target is Mr Assad as the source of all evil in Syria who ruthlessly kills his own people. He evidently sees no hypocrisy in accusing the Syrian government of such crimes while protesters are being shot down in cities across Turkey in numbers that may increase tragically if Kobani falls.
War against Isis: US strategy in tatters as militants march on (Sunday, October 9)
America's plans to fight Islamic State are in ruins as the militant group's fighters come close to capturing Kobani and have inflicted a heavy defeat on the Iraqi army west of Baghdad.

The US-led air attacks launched against Islamic State (also known as Isis) on 8 August in Iraq and 23 September in Syria have not worked. President Obama's plan to "degrade and destroy" Islamic State has not even begun to achieve success. In both Syria and Iraq, Isis is expanding its control rather than contracting.

Isis reinforcements have been rushing towards Kobani in the past few days to ensure that they win a decisive victory over the Syrian Kurdish town's remaining defenders. The group is willing to take heavy casualties in street fighting and from air attacks in order to add to the string of victories it has won in the four months since its forces captured Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, on 10 June. Part of the strength of the fundamentalist movement is a sense that there is something inevitable and divinely inspired about its victories, whether it is against superior numbers in Mosul or US airpower at Kobani.

The US's failure to save Kobani, if it falls, will be a political as well as military disaster. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding the loss of the beleaguered town are even more significant than the inability so far of air strikes to stop Isis taking 40 per cent of it. At the start of the bombing in Syria, President Obama boasted of putting together a coalition of Sunni powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to oppose Isis, but these all have different agendas to the US in which destroying IS is not the first priority. The Sunni Arab monarchies may not like Isis, which threatens the political status quo, but, as one Iraqi observer put it, "they like the fact that Isis creates more problems for the Shia than it does for them".

Of the countries supposedly uniting against Isis, by the far most important is Turkey because it shares a 510-mile border with Syria across which rebels of all sorts, including Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, have previously passed with ease. This year the Turks have tightened border security, but since its successes in the summer Isis no longer needs sanctuary, supplies and volunteers from outside to the degree it once did.

In the course of the past week it has become clear that Turkey considers the Syrian Kurd political and military organisations, the PYD and YPG, as posing a greater threat to it than the Islamic fundamentalists. Moreover, the PYD is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

Ever since Syrian government forces withdrew from the Syrian Kurdish enclaves or cantons on the border with Turkey in July 2012, Ankara has feared the impact of self-governing Syrian Kurds on its own 15 million-strong Kurdish population.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would prefer Isis to control Kobani, not the PYD. [....]

Turkey is demanding a high price from the US for its co-operation in attacking Isis, such as a Turkish-controlled buffer zone inside Syria where Syrian refugees are to live and anti-Assad rebels are to be trained. Mr Erdogan would like a no-fly zone which will also be directed against the government in Damascus since Isis has no air force. If implemented the plan would mean Turkey, backed by the US, would enter the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels, though the anti-Assad forces are dominated by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate.

It is worth keeping in mind that Turkey's actions in Syria since 2011 have been a self-defeating blend of hubris and miscalculation. At the start of the uprising, it could have held the balance between the government and its opponents. Instead, it supported the militarisation of the crisis, backed the jihadis and assumed Assad would soon be defeated. This did not happen and what had been a popular uprising became dominated by sectarian warlords who flourished in conditions created by Turkey. Mr Erdogan is assuming he can disregard the rage of the Turkish Kurds at what they see as his complicity with Isis against the Syrian Kurds. This fury is already deep, with 33 dead, and is likely to get a great deal worse if Kobani falls.

Why doesn't Ankara worry more about the collapse of the peace process with the PKK that has maintained a ceasefire since 2013? It may believe that the PKK is too heavily involved in fighting Isis in Syria that it cannot go back to war with the government in Turkey. On the other hand, if Turkey does join the civil war in Syria against Assad, a crucial ally of Iran, then Iranian leaders have said that "Turkey will pay a price". This probably means that Iran will covertly support an armed Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. [....]
Too alarmist? We may know soon.

—Jeff Weintraub