The Turkish Maneuver in the Kobane Crisis
By Ayoub Barzani
In a move that pleased the Kurdish nation on October 19th, 2014, the US military delivered military and medical assistance to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the besieged city of Kobani via transport planes. The development caught many political analysts by surprise, especially after more than two years of American reservation about engaging directly with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Rojava region.
While the US delivered the much-needed supplies to the fighters, this development stirred controversy within the Turkish government. The Erdogan Administration quickly granted easement for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerges to send reinforcements to Kobani through Turkey. While common sense would suggest that the Turks have indirectly recognized the KRG military force by allowing it to transit through their border, the sudden Ankara policy shift reflects Turkish anxiety on the future of the Rojava region.
Erdogan, the paramount leader of Turkey, was once labeled by the Western observers as a Muslim democrat who reconciled secularism with Islam. However, when he thinks about the future of Syria, he would like to see the Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad replaced by a Sunni supremacy government, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which would be Erdogan’s ally and would eventually curb the Kurdish cantons, steered by the PYD—the sister party of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkey is uncomfortable about the YPG’s leading military role in Kobani. After the escalation of the Kobani crisis, Erdogan resisted international pressure to send aid to the women and men YPG fighters who are combating ISIS. In fact, Erdogan made it clear that Turkey doesn’t discriminate between ISIS and the PYD. To Erdogan’s dismay though, battle footage of the female fighters of the YPG combating ISIS were widely covered by the international media and captured the sympathy of many people.
Since the summer of 2012, the Turkish diplomats were successful in keeping a distance between the Obama Administration and PYD. In fact, the co-chair of the PYD, Mr. Saleh Moslem has been repeatedly denied a visa to travel to Washington and engage with American officials. Faced by international media pressure and Erdogan’s inaction policy, the Obama Administration by-passed its Turkish ally and delivered aid directly to the YPG fighters. The sudden American airdrop to the YPG in Kobani was likely to shift the US government toward a more direct engagement with the PYD.
Erdogan had to choose between bad and worse. The decision to grant transit access to his junior KRG partner to send Peshmerge to Kobani is a symbolic move with international and domestic dimensions. While it may show the world that Erdogan is helping the Kobani fighters against ISIS, he is actually trying to isolate the Kobani crisis from international assistance. He is also maneuvering the United States away from reaching out to the PYD, which he views as a proxy of the PKK. On the domestic front, the move aims to calm down the dissatisfied Kurdish people and show that he is serious about the fragile peace process with the PKK.
Also, the Peshmerge reinforcement is by all means cosmetic and will not tip the balance against ISIS; but, if the YPG pulls off a victory, it will give him and KRG president, who views PYD as a political threat to his rule, the opportunity to claim credit for this victory at a time when the PKK is gaining international credibility in the fight against terror.
The Turkish maneuver reminds us of Saddam’s way of thinking in 1991. In order to relieve his rule from immense international pressure, he invited the Kurdish leaders to Baghdad. His media outlets widely covered the meetings, showing the hugs and kisses between Kurdish leaders and Saddam Hussein. Kurdish leaders naively accepted the invitation.
The Turkish Kobani policy must be approached cautiously. While the Peshmerge reinforcement in Kobani cements Kurdish unity, the PYD must actively approach US and EU governments for direct talks and aid. The US government must understand Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood agenda for Syria, which will bring more instability and radicalization to the region. Also, while US relations with the supreme KRG parties date back to the last century, the Obama Administration must realize that the PYD is a modern and secular party in Rojava that can be a dependable ally for Western governments, and that the YPG has proven itself to be far more resilient, capable and secular than the KRG military force.
Ayoub Barzani is a Kurdish writer, historian and critic. He is the son of Babo Barzani, Ahmed Barzani‘s nephew and the first-cousin of Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Region. He took refuge in Iran after the collapse of the Kurdish movement in 1975. He was arrested and intimidated by the Iranian secret service, the (SAVAK). He left Iran at the end of 1976 and sought asylum in the UK. Ayoub Barzani currently resides in Switzerland, where he is a co-founder of an organisation known as Kurdistan Democratic Alliance. He is very outspoken about human rights breaches and corruption in South Kurdistan and has published three books on the Kurdish Movement.
Ayoub can be followed on twitter: @ayoubbarzani