North Africa, West Asia

Battle for Kobane puts Kurdish peace process on knife's edge

Kurdish protestors could hold the promise of a new chapter in their history: in which people refuse to be part of a state-constructed artificial dichotomy between the Kurds and the Turks.

Joris Leverink
12 November 2014
Twin explosion in southeastern Kobane

Twin explosion in southeastern Kobane. Flickr/Karl-Ludwig Poggemann (some rights reserved)

On November 1, tens of thousands of Kurds and sympathisers in Turkey and across the world from Turin to Tokyo, and from Berlin to Buenos Aires took to the streets to express their solidarity with the people of Kobane, whose town has been under siege from ISIS since mid-September. The protestors moreover demanded an end to Turkey's covert support for the Islamist militants and to open its border to allow for aid and supplies to reach the Kurdish resistance fighters of the YPG/YPJ (People's/Women's Defence Units).

The peaceful character of the majority of the rallies stood in stark contrast with the events of early October, when dark clouds rising up from burning barricades and the occasional municipal office hovered above dozens of cities in the Kurdish heartland in south-eastern Turkey after heavy clashes between pro-Kurdish protestors and police rocked the country. For many Kurds in Turkey the battle for Kobane is perceived as a domestic issue, inherently linked to the peace process between the AKP-led government and the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

On October 7, conflict inevitably spilled across the border into Turkey, drawing crowds of indignant youths and activists to the streets, leading to prolonged clashes with the security forces and eventually to a 24-hour curfew in Diyarbakir, Mardin, Van and a few other cities in the south-east. When the smoke finally cleared after days of unrest, more than three dozen people were left dead, hundreds were injured and more than 1,000 people were detained in what would turn out to be the biggest threat to peace in north Kurdistan for years.

Kobane and the Kurdish peace process

The battle for Kobane has been waging for almost two months—much to the dismay of ISIS who anticipated capturing the town in a matter of days after the start of their assault on September 16. Despite being surrounded on all sides – by ISIS on the western, southern and eastern fronts, and by Turkey, which has hermetically sealed its border, in the north—the Kurdish resistance managed not only to stall ISIS' advance, but even forced them to retreat on some fronts. Airstrikes by the US-led coalition on ISIS positions have helped significantly, but these are by no means sufficient to deal the militants the decisive blow that would force them to retreat from the region.

Kurdish activists, both from the resistance in Kobane and solidarity groups in Turkey, have called upon the Turkish government to open a corridor to allow volunteers, military and medical aid to reach the besieged town. But pointing to the relations between the PYD (Democratic Union Party), the political wing of the YPG/YPJ, and the PKK the government has bluntly refused to support the resistance in any way. The sole exception—allowing 150 Peshmergas from Iraqi Kurdistan to pass through Turkey and cross the border to Kobane—only came about after alleged pressure from the White House on Turkey's president Erdoğan.

The close relations between the PYD and the PKK, coupled with the fact that three cantons in the Kurdish-dominated Syrian northern region (‘Rojava' in Kurdish) declared their autonomy from the central government in mid-2012, has had the effect of making many Kurds in Turkey feel closely related to the events unfolding south of the artificial border which has carved up their historical homeland.

Since their self-declared autonomy, the Syrian Kurds have been organizing themselves on the principles of horizontal democracy, gender equality and ecological sustainability, inspired by the political theories of the jailed PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan. The social revolution of Rojava is a direct result of the PKK's struggle for Kurdish rights across the border in Turkey, and as such, the battle for Kobane and the Kurdish peace process are related in more ways than one.

False hopes of peace

For thirty years a low-intensity civil war has been waging in Turkey between the PKK and the Turkish government. Although listed as a terrorist group by NATO, the US and the EU, the PKK has always been primarily a political organization rather than a military one. From its inception in the late 1970s, the PKK has been fighting on both political and military fronts for the right to self-determination for the Kurdish people living within the borders of the Turkish state.

Over the course of the conflict—from 1984 to the present—approximately 40,000 people lost their lives. Waves of arrests landed tens of thousands of Kurds in prison for crimes as minor as attending pro-democracy rallies or organizing private education in the Kurdish language. In the last five years alone more than 8,000 political activists have been arrested, the majority of them on suspicion of links with the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), a political umbrella organization connected with the PKK.

In the final days of 2012, then-prime minister and current president Erdoğan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), announced that his government had entered into negotiations with Öcalan. For many in Turkey, Kurds and Turks alike, this development brought about the hope for an end to the violence and more rights and recognition for the country's Kurdish population. However after almost two years, much of this hope has faded. Despite the fact that the PKK has kept its side of the bargain, declared a ceasefire and withdrawn the majority of its troops from Turkish soil to their bases in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains - as agreed upon in the peace process - the Turkish government has thus far failed to live up to its promises, most importantly its promises to release political prisoners.

Fighting in the streets

When tens of thousands of Kurds took to the streets across Turkey in early October, it was not to demand a military intervention from Turkey, as has been falsely suggested by some western media outlets. First and foremost it was to express their solidarity with the resistance fighters in Kobane, and besides that to condemn Turkey's role in the on-going conflict between ISIS and the Syrian Kurds.

In the eyes of many supporters of the Kurdish cause, the Turkish government has helped ISIS in its advance on Kobane. Some believe that Turkey has shown its support for the Islamist militants by refusing to intervene in the conflict, while others go so far as to claim that the government has actively provided military and logistical support by allowing aspiring jihadists to cross the border into Syria and even treated wounded ISIS-fighters in Turkish hospitals.

The disproportionate use of force by the Turkish security forces in cracking down on the pro-Kurdish protests that rocked the country for days, proved once again the government's antagonistic disposition towards the Kurdish cause. The initial outburst of violence on 7 October was immediately followed by a 24-hour curfew In half a dozen predominantly Kurdish cities in the country's south-east, a security measure unprecedented since the height of the civil war in the early nineties.

The clashes between PKK youths and sympathisers with local Islamist groups are reminiscent of fights between the PKK and the government, where milions of Kurds were forced to leave their mountain homes to escape extrajudicial punishment by the military forces, and where hundreds of Turkish citizens lost their lives in PKK-bombings across the country.

About a dozen people died in street fights between pro-Kobane protestors and alleged supporters of the outlawed Hizbullah, which was founded by elements of the Turkish military in the 1980s as a counterforce to the PKK and is now represented by the Hüda-Par political party.

Empowering of the Kurds

For many Kurds in Turkey tired of waiting for the government to act upon the promises it made during the peace process, the conflict in and around Kobane has come to play a decisive role. "Without Kobane there will be no more peace process" is a much-heard sentiment expressed among Kurdish activists.

The Turkish government might have gravely underestimated the importance of Kobane for its domestic Kurdish population and the risks its inaction in regards to the humanitarian disaster unfolding at its doorstep would pose for the continuation of the peace process. For the AKP-led government—whose actions are guided by the ideology of neoliberal capitalism—the peace process means much more than a possibility to end the decades-long civil war.

The Kurds and their historical homelands play a key role in the short-term development plans for the country: the Kurds as voters and consumers, and their homelands as sources of natural wealth and its potential to provide for alternative sources of energy. For this reason, Erdoğan refuses to allow any other parties, be they civil or political, to take part in a solution to the Kurdish question. The president aspires to maintain his monopoly on the negotiations with the PKK, and by cracking down hard on any organization that hopes to find alternative, non-political solutions to the problem.

It is also in this light that the AKP's stance towards the social revolution in Rojava has to be viewed. The successful self-organisation of the Syrian Kurds after they declared their autonomy from the state could possibly inspire their comrades in Turkey to pursue a similar goal. Rather than waiting for a government to grant them permission to educate themselves in their native tongue or to recognize the full equality of women and men, Turkey's Kurds could decide to take matters into their own hands. Some of these processes have already been put in place, exemplified by the Kurdish communities’ 'Democratic Autonomy' project.

The Kurdish protestors who clashed with security forces and local Islamists during the October riots could be a challenging precursor to a new chapter in the history of Turkey's Kurdish population; one in which the people refuse to be part of a state-constructed artificial dichotomy between the Kurds and the Turks, and rather choose to take control over their own lives, and communities and start organizing themselves as they see fit.

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