Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Kobani’s ordeal

The Syrian city of Ain Al-Arab, known as Kobani to its Kurdish inhabitants, is under attack from IS, but its plight is only part of a larger picture, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

For the past three weeks, fighting has raged between the Kurdish militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the better-armed extremists of the Islamic State (IS) in a small city in northwest Syria.

The fighting in Ain Al-Arab, or Kobani as it is known to its overwhelmingly Kurdish inhabitants, has captured the imagination of the local and international media. And with the Kurdish defenders unable to match the numbers and sophisticated weaponry of their extremist opponents, the world is watching with the same mix of compassion and helplessness that has become the hallmark of events in the country.

The fighting has forced most of the inhabitants of Kobani and 15 Arab villages in the vicinity to flee their homes, according to local sources.

While justified by the plight of this small city, the media’s focus on Kobani has nevertheless played into the hands of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, since this is still attacking many other cities in the country on the assumption that the fate of the victims will now go unreported.

For the Syrian opposition, Kobani is only one instance of the ongoing atrocities in the country, carried out either by the Al-Assad regime or by IS forces. However, for Syrian Kurds the assault on Kobani is a watershed, and it may decide the fate of Kurds living in Syria.

The Kurds are also angry at the Syrian opposition for not doing enough to help them, and they blame the international coalition announced  by US President Barack Obama for not sending planes to stop the IS extremists. They are also bitterly critical of Turkey, which has been watching events over the border in Kobani without acting to save the population. 

For the past few days, Turkish tanks have been deployed just across the border, and Turkish servicemen have watched developments in Kobani as guns have blazed and the city has gone up in smoke. Yet, instead of helping, the Turkish forces “have been gloating at our ordeal,” the Syrian Kurds say, many of whom are viewed with suspicion by their northern neighbours.

The onslaught by IS combatants has forced thousands of Kurds in the city and most of the Arab population in the nearby villages to flee their homes. Reports speak of inhabitants being killed by IS fighters when they refused to leave their homes. Other reports say that local Arab chiefs are being held captive by IS forces.

The reaction of the Syrian opposition to developments in Kobani has been mixed. According to one report, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has sent 1,000 fighters to assist in the defence of Kobani and urged other opposition groups to make common cause with the Kurds.

But old grievances have also surfaced. The Syrian opposition has long viewed the Syrian Kurdish Party the PYD, which controls Kobani and its vicinity, with suspicion, seeing it as collaborating with the Al-Assad regime and trying to carve off a Kurdish mini-state in the country’s north.

It is a fact that the PYD, led by Saleh Musallam, has good relations with Iran, a country many Syrians blame for keeping Al-Assad in power.

The eleven Kurdish parties that are members of the mainstream opposition coalition the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (NCSORF) also have little love for the PYD.

This party, they say, which has close links with Turkish Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK, has purposely excluded them from the areas under its control in an attempt to create a Kurdish mini-state at peace with the Damascus and Tehran regimes.

The PYD is said to have denied the Syrian opposition any role in running the areas it holds, including Kobani. It has also shown no interest in co-authoring an agreement on the form of the future government in Syria and the status of the country’s minorities.

Even worse, the Syrian opposition has accused PYD troops of committing ethnic cleansing in areas close to Kobani. According to the opposition, the PYD has expelled 250,000 Arabs from their homes, banned the teaching of Arabic in schools, and banned Arabs from entering its areas unless accompanied by a Kurdish minder.

Kurdish parties that are part of the NCSROF have accused the PYD of handing over several villages in the vicinity of Kobani to IS, in a bid to pressure the international coalition into sending it more weapons. The tactic backfired when IS used these new positions to attack Kobani and its people, however.

During the current crisis, the PYD asked Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran for help, but mostly refrained from demanding assistance from the Syrian opposition.

FSA officer Aiham Barakat said that fighters from the Jabal Qandil in northern Iraq were the ones defending Kobani.

“The key defenders in Kobani are PKK fighters from Jabal Qandil. They came all the way from Iraqi Kurdistan to help out their kinsmen. They are tough and trained in guerrilla warfare and are used to fighting in harsh weather conditions. Some of them are women,” Barakat told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The Kurds were not just defending a city, but also a dream of independence, Barakat said. “The issue for the Syrian Kurds is one of self-determination. If the city falls, so will their dream and identity,” he added.

For the rest of the Syrian opposition, Kobani is important, but so are many other cities. “It is curious how the world has reduced the Syrian crisis to the crisis of Kobani, which is just as dear to us as other cities. But it is only one of dozens of Syrian cities that are subjected to tragedy on a daily basis,” Barakat said.

The Turkish position on Kobani is an ambiguous one. On the one hand, Turkey could do a lot to save Kobani. But on the other, Ankara is unlikely to help Kurdish separatists on its doorstep.

Turkey has nevertheless hinted that it may intervene, but only if its terms are met. Ankara wants the international community to establish a no-fly zone in parts of Syria offering safe haven to refugees and take steps towards unseating Al-Assad before it will step in to help the Syrian Kurds.

The Turkish position has been met with satisfaction in the Syrian opposition, which has been insisting that the battle in Syria is not about IS, but about a regime that has brutalised its own people and has then opened the door for extremists to do more of the same.

Syrian opposition member Fawwaz Tallo believes that a Turkish ground intervention in Syria could help set things right. “The Obama administration knows that there will be no end to IS without ground troops. But ground troops are not something you can expect the regime or Iran to provide, as their intervention could radicalise the Sunnis and perhaps give IS more traction,” Tallo said.

“Turkey is the only answer, but it has to have its conditions met. The most important of these is the imposition of a no-fly zone, the establishment of safe havens, and the offer of real training to the FSA so to fill the vacuum after the overthrow of the regime,” he added. 

Until its terms are met, Turkey is likely to remain on the sidelines, its tanks training their guns at the Syrian border but keeping silent nonetheless. If IS overruns the Kobani separatists, Ankara will also get rid of one of its most formidable adversaries without having to fire a shot.

Fahd Al-Masri, a prominent opposition figure and head of the Strategic and Security Studies Centre on Syria, said that “Turkey is not in a hurry. With every day that passes, IS drives another nail into the Kurdish secessionist cantons that the Syrian regime helped to create in cooperation with the PKK and the PYD.”

“Turkey understands the importance of its role, and that’s why it is setting conditions. It wants to use the war on IS for its own purposes,” he added.

Meanwhile, the aerial strikes of the US-led coalition have slowed down the advance of IS. But it will be hard to dislodge the militants from the city, where fighting is now taking place from street to street, through air strikes alone.

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