The fate of the town of Kobani, under intense siege for several weeks, is in the balance. Sarah Parker explains the background.
The representatives of the people of Kobani have been demanding that Nato members / EU countries restrain Turkey and supply the People’s Protection Units (YPG) with heavy weapons. They have also been saying that a corridor through Turkey is needed, to make sure ISIS do not capture the border crossing, and for fighters, ammunition and humanitarian supplies to be able to come into Kobani. We should support these demands.
These demands are necessary because the Turkish state is directly assisting ISIS by re-supplying it, allowing the passage of ISIS fighters through Turkey, treating ISIS wounded in special hospitals in Turkey, and using the Turkish army to block, fortunately not completely, the fourth (northern) border of the Kobani canton. Turkey also has close relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, and the KDP has been at best dragging its heels on support for Kobani.
There has been some debate on the left on the issues of arms for Kobani, and many people have pointed out that imperialism is unlikely to give weapons to Kobani. This may well be true, but the defenders of Kobani, mostly Kurdish but including some Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, rarely mentioned in the media, are entitled to demand it, and people can draw conclusions from the refusal so far. This week Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim, who has been visiting European politicians, said they have refused even to sell weapons, never mind give them.
In any case the Kurdish movement is not waiting for western help. The defenders are inflicting heavy losses on ISIS, who have started press-ganging Arab youths from local villages under their control. Since the siege tightened thousands of Kurdish people have come from other parts of and have been contesting the border with the Turkish police and army, scrambling over high walls, cutting down rolls of barbed wire and pulling up fence posts, in order to keep the border open. Many people have gone in to join the resistance. It was reported last week that 35 fighters from Aleppo had arrived in Kobani to participate in the defence – presumably they came over an unwatched stretch of the border. This week the PUK, in South Kurdistan, said they have been sending ammunition and will continue to do so – if this is true, then again it must be being smuggled across the border. YPG fighters are trying to clear ISIS out of a couple of towns separating Kobani from the Jazira canton to the east, which has a border with Kurdistan Iraq. If this area were cleared and the obstacles of the KDP overcome, fighters would be able to pass through directly from Jazira to Kobani. A few days ago there were clashes between PKK guerrillas and the Turkish army in an area near the Turkish-Iraqi border, probably also part of the attempts to link up Kurdish forces in this whole area.
So while the situation is very precarious, given the fact that ISIS have heavier weapons and can resupply themselves from Turkey, Iraq and Syria, the YPG and other inhabitants of the city are still mounting a heroic defence, and the outcome is not a foregone conclusion as many media reports would have it. The best outcome would be for Turkey to formally accept that reinforcements can come through Jazira and then through Turkey to the Kobani border crossing, thus allowing the opening of a corridor, and if the UN and EU are working on anything it is probably this (they all know the Kurds do not want Turkish army occupation, and it seems that the US has refused so far Turkey’s suggestion of a no-fly zone and buffer zone). Turkey’s permission is unlikely so the best hope is that the Kurdish masses can keep stretches of border open, and that fighters with ammunition make their own way through from Turkey and hopefully soon from Jazira too.
It is still very important to write to MPs and councillors, who have been shamefully silent almost without exception, to attend demonstrations, to support Heyva Sor (Kurdish Red Crescent), and thus to contribute to the mass pressure made by the large Kurdish demonstrations occupations and hunger strikes all over Europe, Turkey, and increasingly in South Kurdistan and East Kurdistan (Iran). This pressure has already started to force a few politicians to speak – latest being the Swedish prime minister, and Staffan di Mistura, UN envoy to Syria, who has called for fighters to be allowed in through Turkey to defend Kobani. Over the weekend the EU issued a statement recognising the determination of the people of Kobani to resist, and said it is working on a “package” of measures. This shows the pressure they are under. The politicians may mostly still be silent, but they know very well that millions of people are aware of the situation and see pictures of Kobani on the news, and wonder why, at the start of a supposedly urgent war against ISIS, the Kurds’ demands for access to weapons is being refused. To their credit, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark have presented Salih Muslim with a cheque for money for weapons for YPG, and a Swedish far left organisation has announced that it is collecting money for them too. This assists the defence of Kobani, sends a message to the people of Kobani that they are not alone, and contrasts with the shameful role of the politicians, who have mostly stood idly by for weeks.
The political and military leaders of Kobani started requesting coalition airstrikes only when they feared the town would fall. While there have been reports of tension between Washington and Ankara, it is quite possible that Washington would have been quite happy for Kobani to fall, striking a blow to an ally of the PKK, and leading to a big massacre that would seem to justify further military action in Syria and Iraq. However the very public nature of the war, shown on Kurdish and other TV channels, and the Kurds’ mass demonstrations have posed a problem here, and airstrikes have been carried out in the last couple of weeks around Kobani, desultorily at first, and with slightly higher effectiveness in recent days, perhaps in response to mass concern around the world. (It should be noted in passing that the Syrian airforce has made no attempts to attack ISIS round Kobani). This week US and British military pundits have rushed to explain that airstrikes cannot save Kobani. They cannot answer the question of why no heavy weapons can be provided to Kobani, or why there is a silence over Turkey’s attempts to seal the border and their lack of moves against ISIS.
Overall implications for the situation in the Middle East
ISIS has massed most of its Syrian forces round Kobani in the last three weeks. If Kobani falls, ISIS forces will be free for huge onslaughts on remaining FSA areas, parts of Aleppo, and the two other Kurdish cantons, or free to move to join the current heavy fighting in parts of Northern Iraq and round Baghdad, where ISIS has recently consolidated control of Anbar province. The Iraqi army forces are struggling, the Kurdish forces in Iraq are just about holding their own, but suffered heavy losses on 12 October in a suicide bomb attack in the mixed Diyala province; and this is all in areas where all forces are getting “assistance” either from the coalition and/ or from Iran.
Common sense suggests it would be wise for EU and Nato members to swallow their fear of the influence of the Kurdish movement in Turkey and Syria, and to press Turkey to allow the corridor to open. Of course we cannot at all rely on this – very possibly they will remain inclined not to act.
All this shows the bankruptcy and impotence of the coalition policy – ostensibly set up to protect people of the region from ISIS, it is reluctant to allow those strongly defending themselves at Kobani to do so effectively or to allow others to join them. Two of its chosen instruments, the Iraqi army and the KDP, have shown themselves to be broken reeds as far as fighting ISIS is concerned. Socialists need to engage with the politics of what is going on, and support forces such as YPG and their allies who are fighting for survival, self-determination and religious and ethnic tolerance and gender equality, and against the cruelty, misogyny and obscurantism of ISIS. If this coalition policy is pursued it will lead mainly to deepening disaster for the already traumatised peoples of Iraq and Syria, and probably for those of Turkey and Lebanon; it cannot work
 For example it has taken a hunger strike outside the Kurdistan Regional /Parliament to get the Parliament to meet and condemn the actions of Turkey, and the Parliament, which has a majority of the KDP and its allies has still not voted to send military aid to Rojava; while a key border post between Kurdistan Iraq and Syria at Semalka is closed, impeding passage to the Jazira canton east of Kobani.