Battle for Syrian town could have wide regional repercussions

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As the Islamic State continues to push into the majority Kurdish town of Kobani in northern Syria, broad regional battles start to surface and geopolitics looks like it will prevent international assistance beyond limited airstrikes by coalition forces.

Artillery and mortar shelling, suicide bombings, military tanks, aircraft bombardment and Apache strikes — who would have imagined that Kobani would go through all this, and for what?

The answer to this question, raised by Mustafa Abdi, who is an activist hailing from Kobani [Ayn al-Arab], is not easy. Yet, attempting to give an answer will shed light on a place whose story is only known by its residents. This place is almost socially self-managed as the state has a minimal presence in all aspects of life, except for security.

The passengers aboard public and private transportation heading from Aleppo to Ayn al-Arab would rarely include tourists or people who came to discover the wider region, located far northeast of Aleppo [next to the Turkish border], extending over 300 villages and including 350,000 inhabitants. This is not a tourist area and does not offer entertainment facilities as is the case with the Afrin district, northwest of Aleppo. Kobani is affiliated to Aleppo governorate even if they are separated by the Euphrates River, and even if it is closer to Raqqa than to Aleppo. The largest category of Syrian [visitors] to this region were teachers, as Syrians who were recruited for military service would be assigned to teach in schools far away from urban centers, such as Tadmur and Kobani.

Those teachers would go back home with memories of the simplicity of Kobani and how the residents took turns to take care of all of the teachers' meals, since in rural areas the teaching profession still enjoys a high standing. This was before the [improvement of transport and technology shrank the distances] separating the region from the large urban center [of Aleppo] at the end of the '90s, as was the general case of social communication at the level of the country as a whole. Yet, the assignment of teachers or policemen to Kobani and its villages was still seen as a kind of exile, as the assigned persons were often from the center, the south and the coastal governorates.

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Despite the growth of [industrial] production over the last two decades, the agricultural character [of this region] remained. This was reinforced by the tribal nature of society. At the Kurdish level, Kobani remained the only region that maintained active horizontal tribal characteristics after the weakening of the standing of tribal elders [in other areas]. Tribal obligations were preserved and Kurds and Arabs in Aleppo tell numerous stories of fights involving parties from Kobani, where in only a few hours vehicles loaded with young men ready to fight would come to the rescue of groups from Kobani. Kobani residents carried this manifestation of solidarity with them wherever they went. This leads us to make another observation about the role of this pattern of coherence that led to a unique political outcome. Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab, survived the projects of Arabization, and no non-Kurdish social group was able to reside in this region except in some of the villages on the southern and western peripheries.

The people of Kobani recount that the Baath regime brought a group of people whose land was flooded by the Euphrates Dam and wanted to settle them in Kobani. However, the residents of Kobani took action. Those who survived [from among these people] ran for their lives and others were killed in mysterious circumstances. The regime never tried this again. Ethnically, Kobani is the oldest Kurdish region in terms of Kurdish presence. Its ethnic combination has remained unchanged, with the lowest percentage of Arab presence. The region is a tribal, agricultural and pastoral extension of the Suruj plains located in Urfa in Turkey. Together, they constitute the historic stronghold of the Union of Barazi tribes. All tribes from outside Kobani are Barazi tribes, but inside Kobani there is a special local division. There are three major blocs: the Barazi tribe in the east and center of the city; the Ketekan tribe in the west; and the Sheikhan tribe in the south.

Most of Kobani’s residents were known to have one profession that they engaged in, roaming all parts of Syria and beyond. Over the years, thousands of well diggers hailed from Kobani. They spread from the north to the south of Syria on mobile drilling rigs, and they even reached as far as the Maghreb countries such as Algeria. Industrial cities in Aleppo governorate attracted a large number of young workers from Kobani to fill arduous jobs that Aleppan youth would only choose when they had no other option, such as the brick industry and other construction industries.

The conflict of the east and the west in Kobani almost broke its back. The Islamic State (IS) is only the latest episode of the series of huge local, regional and international conflicts, similar to the conflict between Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Mohammed Morsi [in Egypt] . These conflicts led to tensions intersecting with the battle on the ground.

A series of conflicts

As IS fighters planted their flag on a hill in Kobani, Turkish soldiers on the border turned their backs to the flag under the shade of a military vehicle.

This scene represents the Turkish position expressed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in an interview with CNN at the same time as this symbolic event happened. “We will not interfere on the ground as long as the US strategy does not include intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

This position directly indicates that the airstrikes [launched by the international coalition] are incapable of defeating IS in the vicinity of Kobani, and that the need for Turkey is inevitable. But this also means that the contradiction between the international and Turkish visions is not limited to the details, but rather covers the core US empirical strategy that seeks first to eliminate the enemy slaughtering Western hostages without specifying its allies on the ground. The matter is not limited to this; this contradiction is not serious, and Kobani, a small city, will not be the key factor determining Assad’s survival or not.

Local contradiction

Despite the general unity of the Kurdish position, as it appeared during the course of the battle, the political division was deep and its roots go back to over two years, after the failure of applying the [Hawler] agreement sponsored by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq. This stipulated the sharing of management between the Syrian Kurdish parties, which in the end allowed the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its affiliated institutions to remain the decision-makers, both militarily and administratively. Given that the party is ideologically linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the ones that exited the equation were the parties that orbit around the KRG of Iraq.

The tension between the two sides is reflected on the socioeconomic trend as well, as it raised the issue of the only border crossing that links the KRG to the Kurdish region in Syria [the Simalka crossing]. The division deepened to the extent that the PKK did not allow its rivals who support [KRG President] Massoud Barzani to bring military forces that have been trained in the KRG to participate in the battles, if they were not under PKK command.

Today, in light of the ordeal faced by the Kurdish forces fighting under the banner of the PKK, the other force supporting Barzani and numbering a few thousand seems ready to take on its role in the scene to "liberate Kobani." Due to the good relations between the KRG and Ankara, it is almost certain that the Turkish side would understand [the actions] of these forces, which are called "peshmerga rojava," in any action that might aim to expel Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s [IS] group out of Kobani in the event that the city falls. These forces are bound to work with the Syrian opposition’s wing, which is under the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood’s representatives. This untold contradiction by the Kurdish side is covered by Barzani’s call on Turkey to allow his troops to enter Kobani from Turkish territory. This call will not be met by Turkey, which did not even lift a finger when Erbil was on the verge of invasion by Baghdadi’s fighters.

KRG and Turkey

The ongoing peace process between Turkey and the PKK, led by the party’s leader Abdullah Ocalan, did not contribute to the alleviation of the Turkish sensitivity to the areas of the party’s influence in the Kurdish region along the border. Erdogan recently declared Ankara still considers the party a terrorist organization, and that Turkey thinks that the self-rule [of areas in Syria] announced by the PYD is a project that would have future extensions within Turkish territory.

To weaken the military wing of the KRG, Turkey overlooked the IS expansion, in some cases, and provided it with indirect support by allowing charitable organizations, such as the Muslim Youth Organization and Al-Furqan Charity Association, to assist the group to operate freely on its territory. Turkey also facilitated the group’s spread along the border, by not confronting it as it raised its flag there. This made Baghdadi’s fighters a tool to reduce the KRG’s strength in Turkey and weaken its negotiating position in the peace process as a prelude to its termination of the peace, in the event that the KRG does not have anything to bargain with. Turkey did all this without taking into account the possible humanitarian suffering that could erupt, such as the one taking place in Kobani or the protests that might spin out of control in Kurdish cities and neighborhoods in Turkey. To deprive the KRG of additional gains, Turkey entered into "a Faustian bargain," in the words of Henri Barkey, a former member of the policy planning team at the US State Department. The deal concerns Turkey’s will to receive many refugees, despite the fact that this would cost it a lot of money, if this means that the Kurds of Syria would face defeat.

If we review the details of the protests that took place in the Kurdish cities in Turkey, there was a religious group that participated in the suppression of the protests. [This group is] affiliated with Huda-Par, which was formed from the ruins of Turkish Hezbollah, which was involved in the elimination of hundreds of Kurdish forces in the '90s. The party participated in previous municipal elections in Kurdish areas, and according to its platform, ideologically falls within the crosscurrents of the Muslim Brotherhood. This has not been denied by the party’s official in [the city of] Diyarbakir and Dad Turgut.

Through Huda-Par, Erdogan hopes to gain more influence over Turkey's Kurdish population vis-a-vis the PKK. 

International contradiction

Since the first day of the airstrikes against IS sites in Syria, it became obvious how fragile and improvised the US strategy, which has no ally on the ground, is. The only party that meets the characteristics [the US stated were needed from a partner: a liberal, non-extremist, armed force that controls large areas of land] is the Kurds. However, Washington did not show any intention to work with them to avoid the Turkish wrath. This is one of US President Barack Obama’s mistakes that has caused the aggravation of the Syrian crisis. Since Turkey is a close ally of the Brotherhood in Arab countries — especially Egypt — it is keen to do everything it can to ruin the alliance, which includes Arab states that do not accept the policies of the Brotherhood.

This makes the battle in Kobani Turkey’s battle for the Brotherhood’s benefit in the region by reducing the role of its Arab rivals in the alliance. This requires ruining the effectiveness of the airstrikes, which are not helping save Kobani. This will allow Davutoglu to say that the alliance has no value without Turkey’s participation on the ground.

This participation would be under the condition of the alliance fighting the terrorist elements such as IS, Assad’s regime and the PKK all at once. In the event that Turkey becomes the alliance’s mainstay, it will try to clear the Brotherhood from the Arab terrorist organizations.

The international interest in the battle of Kobani is neither a media plan for the purpose of overshadowing the suffering of other Syrian cities, nor is it a positive international discrimination for the Kurds as Tomahawk cruise missiles are not launched according to the degree of "love." They are the contradictions faced by the city sieged [by IS on the one hand and on the other hand by] the military blockade of Turkey. [Meanwhile,] Kobani’s skies are open to the latest products of weapons companies.

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Found in: turkey, syria, kurdistan regional government, islamic state, barack obama
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