North Africa, West Asia

Kobane, transforming the regional dynamic

The fight for Kobane is not limited to a local struggle against IS militants, but reverberates politically and strategically across the region.

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel
4 November 2014
Thousands rally in London in solidarity with Kobane. Demotix/Gemma Short. All rights reserved.

Thousands rally in London in solidarity with Kobane. Demotix/Gemma Short. All rights reserved.

"I don't understand why Kobane is so strategic for the US, there are no civilians left there”, complained Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after the US conducted multiple airdrops of military and medical supplies to the Syrian Kurdish YPG forces.

Turkey has downplayed the significance of the small town, but Kobane has become a symbol of the international fight against the Islamic State (IS).

Kobane has already had a profound effect on the regional dynamic. Turkey had resisted international pressure to intervene in Kobane or allow Kurdish volunteers from Turkey to enter. It labels the Democratic Union Party (PYD) a "terrorist organisation," as indeed it does the PKK or IS.

Turkey has maintained this position even as US measures have contradicted it. The US has rapidly increased military assistance and communication channels with Syrian Kurds, and clearly sees them as key allies in the battle against IS rather than a terrorist force.

At the same time, Turkey has tried to strike an agreement with the Kurds to allow the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to enter Kobane, even though it continues to prevent hundreds of Kurdish volunteers from joining the fight.

By supporting the FSA in a more official capacity in Kobane, Turkey hopes to dilute the Kurdish nationalist aspect of the struggle for Kobane and Rojava, and to counterbalance the rising stock of the PKK.

Turkey has worked hard to pressure the PYD to join the FSA, to frame the battle as a Syrian national struggle with the wider goal of ousting Bashar al-Assad. However, any Kurdish-dominated win in Kobane will boost Kurdish nationalism, autonomy, and the standing of the PKK–not to mention the pivotal role of the Syrian Kurds in the battle against IS across Syria. This is the same fate that Ankara is trying to avoid.

As the US grows closer to the Syrian Kurds, Ankara, under intense international pressure, allowed Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces a passage through Turkey to support Kobane. 

This week the Kurdistan regional parliament approved the deployment of up to 200 fighters. These fighters will provide key support to strained YPG forces, but it is also a symbolic move by the Kurdish leadership to bolster cross-border Kurdish unity.

For Turkey, having the FSA and Peshmerga forces on the ground saves it the embarrassment of having to provide de facto assistance to the Syrian Kurdish forces while they are officially labelled a terrorist organisation. 

A key move on the back of the decision to deploy Peshmerga fighters this week was the unity agreement negotiated in Dohuk, between the PYD and rival Syrian Kurdish factions. The split between pro-PKK and pro-KRG Kurdish parties in Syria had severely handicapped the Kurdish struggle and their newfound autonomy. 

Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani, hailed the agreement, saying, "This agreement brings us together and is itself a significant answer to enemies who did not intend the Kurds to be united." PYD leader Salih Muslim agreed: “All Kurdish people are under attack, so they should be united.” 

Previous unity agreements have quickly broken down. If this one lasts, it will serve as a major boost for the Syrian Kurdish cantons and may change the way Ankara approaches the region. 

Kobane is so symbolic in the fight against IS, and international focus on it so intense, that even the Syrian government has been quick to stake their part in the struggle, alleging military and logistical support to Kurds in Kobane.

Who would have thought that a small dusty town, unknown to much of the wider world, would bring together the Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, IS, FSA, Assad, the US, Saudi Arabia and numerous other international and regional players? 

This article appeared in print in the Kurdish Globe on 3 November, 2014.

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