Erdogan fiddles while Kobani burns

The sense of betrayal is palpable. The Kurds on Turkey’s southern border with Syria are embittered as the tragedy of Kobani unfolds before their eyes on the other side of a wire fence.

In Syria, Kurdish fighters of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) militias are beleaguered. They were unaided, apart from the pinpricks of occasional Western air strikes, until Tuesday when the United States-led allies started to bomb Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) positions during the day, slowing their advance.

Many now fear that, without a more substantial ground offensive, the YPG forces will be unable to prevent the fall of Kobani.

The forces might also be in the terminal stages of failing to prevent a massacre but Ankara refuses to allow Kurdish fighters to cross into Syria to relieve the neighbouring city.

As Turkish troops and tanks stand guard at the border, many Kurds are desperate and angry, assaulted by Turkish teargas, water cannon and police.

Protecting Turkey
“Isis are inhuman, they are the terrorists. The YPG is fighting not only for the Kurds and their land but for all of humanity,” said Nesrattin from the border town of Siirt. “We’re protecting Turkey, too. Why can’t they see that? We are Turkey’s friends.”

He is surrounded by a throng of other Kurds from Siirt who have come to the border “to make sure that Turkey does not support Isis”.

The rancour on the border is giving way to recrimination across Turkey as an incipient Kurdish insurrection gathers steam, as much against Islamist extremism in Syria as against the Turkish authorities, in what appears to be payback for years of Turkish blundering in its policies concerning the region.

Turkey’s perceived inaction vis-à-vis the situation in Kobani and the conviction of many Kurds that Ankara directly supports Islamic State militants against Kurdish fighters seem to be the final straw.

“Why do they use so much force against us?” asked Hatice (38). “Many of our friends were hurt in clashes with the police on this side of the border. They use teargas and water cannons. Some of our cars were damaged. We’re not doing anything bad, we just want to stand here to support the YPG fighters in Kobani.”

Watershed moment
More than three years into the Syrian war, the Kobani crisis has all the makings of a watershed moment for Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated national politics for more than a decade.

Turkey’s aloofness just a few kilometres from Kobani has outraged the Kurds. There have been clashes and killings in a dozen towns across the southeast in recent days, in Istanbul and Ankara, as well as in Western Europe, leaving at least 19 dead. Countless buildings are being torched and curfews imposed, including in Diyarbakir, the biggest city in the southeast.

The fall of Kobani to the Isis extremists would represent a huge threat to Erdogan, not just from the Sunni militants increasingly controlling his border points but also from Turkey’s Kurds, who make up about 20% of the population, and their outlawed army, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which, until a few years ago, had in effect been at war with the Turkish state for 30 years.

“Erdogan hates the Syrian Kurds. He thinks they’re worse than Isis. Turkey has many problems with this and has always been ambiguous,” said a European diplomat involved in the effort to build an anti-Isis coalition.

That view appeared to be vindicated this week when Erdogan equated the Kurds of Kobani and their defenders with the jihadi assailants. “It is wrong to view them differently. We need to deal with them jointly,” he told journalists.

European security issue
European Union officials and diplomats say that, when the West presses Erdogan to get a grip on his borders and stem the flow of foreign fighters to Isis, Ankara angrily dismisses the complaints, arguing that the foreign fighters are a European security issue and that the West refuses to share intelligence on the problem.

Washington and Europe governments are exasperated by what they regard to be Ankara’s cynical calculations in seeking to play one enemy, Isis, off against another, the PKK.

Demir Çelik, an MP for the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party in Mus province, has accused the government of fraudulent double-dealing. “We have been very patient for a long time but the government in Ankara did very little. They raised our hopes but never fulfilled them.”

In Çelik’s home province on Tuesday evening, Hakan Buksur (25) was reportedly shot by the police during anti-Isis protests. Kurdish protesters then torched several government buildings. Ankara imposed a curfew on Mus and five other cities, including Diyarbakir.

“This state of emergency will not produce a solution,” said Çelik. “It did not work in the past and it will not work now.”

The key request of the Kurdish fighters in Kobani is that arms, equipment and PKK reinforcements be allowed across the Turkish border to relieve the plight of the encircled town.

But the Kurdish fighters of the YPG are a satellite of the PKK and Erdogan shows no inclination to arm the guerrillas the Turks have been fighting for 30 years.

Collapse in trust
The outcome is a collapse in the Kurds’ trust of Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, which has been mirrored in recent days in intra-Kurdish clashes recalling the dark times of the 1990s.

The violence in Diyarbakir was notable for the fighting between PKK loyalists and Islamist Kurds, with five of eight people killed being from the Free Cause Party, or Hüda Par, according to local police.

Very conservative Hüda Par has emerged as a rival to the more secular PKK in the Kurdish southeast. Many Kurds see Isis and Hüda Par as representing an identical threat of extremism and view Ankara as their sponsors.

In cities such as Adiyaman and Diyarbakir, residents have been accusing Hüda Par of recruiting young, mostly Kurdish men to fight for al-Qaeda in Syria while the Turkish government looks the other way.

On the Turkish side of the border, the overwhelming view among the Kurds is that Erdogan is less concerned about the extremists attacking Kobani than with the Syrian Kurds struggling to defend it.

“We will be here to stand watch that they don’t help Isis but every day [the police] uses violence against us,” said Rahman (40) from Siirt. “Why do they do that if not to cover up their actions?” – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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