Turkish jets launched their heaviest assault on Kurdish militants in northern Iraq overnight since air strikes were launched last week. The latest strikes come just hours after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan stated that a peace process had become impossible.
A statement released by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office indicated that the strikes hit Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets, including shelters, depots and caves in six areas. A source has reported that this was the largest assault since the campaign began. Iraq has condemned the air strikes, stating that they are a “dangerous escalation and an assault on Iraqi sovereignty.” It further indicated that it was committed to ensuring that militant attacks on Turkey were not carried out from within its territory.
Last Friday, Turkey launched near-simultaneous strikes against PKK camps in Iraq and against Islamic State (IS) fighters in neighbouring Syria. At the time, the country’s prime minister indicated that the strikes were a “synchronized fight against terror.” The strikes came just days after the NATO member opened up its air base to the US-led coalition against IS, in a move that effectively see’s Turkey join the front-line in the battle against the jihadist group after years of reluctance. However Turkey’s air strikes on the PKK have so far been far heavier than those against IS, which have fuelled suspicions that its real agenda is keeping Kurdish political and territorial ambitions in check. This has been denied by the Turkish government, who has made it clear that its operations against IS militants in Syria will not include air cover for Syrian Kurdish fighters who are also battling the jihadists. The Turkish government has indicated that the air strikes against the PKK are in response to increased militant violence in recent weeks, including a series of targeted killings of police officers and soldiers blamed on the Kurdish militant group. On Tuesday, Turkish fighter jets bombed PKK targets in the southeastern Turkish province of Sirnak, which borders Iraq. The bombings came after an attack on a group of gendarmes.
The battle in Kobane (also spelled ‘Kobani’) is being called “the most decisive battle” in the campaign against ISIS, yet help has been slow to arrive. For weeks the town’s residents have been under siege as ISIS has battles to take control of the region, causing thousands of Syrian refugees to flee into Turkey.
Despite the increasing humanitarian crisis and the consequence of letting Kobanefall into ISIS hands, the town has been omitted from US and coalition strategy. Fighting began in the town on 16 September, and while the US has conducted air-strikes around the town, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Mid October that “Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to [ISIL].” It was only on Sunday that the US began to air-drop weapons and supplies to Kurdish fighters. Earlier today, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had been informed that agreement was reached for 200 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga reinforcements to pass through Turkey to help defend Kobane. It is expected that ISIS will take heavy losses numbering into several hundreds, yet they are prepared to do so.
Kobane’s Importance to ISIS
The fall of Kobane would result in a major strategic win for ISIS for a number of reasons. First, it is a heavily agricultural region. A large percentage of the residents are farmers, and there is significant grain and wheat production. Access to this agricultural resource would be a boon for ISIS, in terms of supporting the population within its own territory and providing another avenue of income.
Second, Kobane sits on the Turkish border with Syria. If ISIS were to capture the town, they would gain a significant and strategic expansion of their territory along the Turkish border. Capture of the region would give ISIS control over a main road that connects Raqqa, the city which headquarters ISIS operations, with Aleppo. Further, it would add an additional border crossing for weapons, supplies, and radicalised fighters to enter into ISIS controlled territory.
Finally, the predominant strategic value of Kobane is that is a majority Kurdish town. An ISIS win at Kobane would weaken the Kurdish resistance. Kobane is one of three administrative cantons of the Syrian Kurds. If it Kobane falls, it will weaken the other cantons which secure Syria’s 1,200 kilometre border with Syria. Effectively, a win in Kobane could potentially allow ISIS to capture full control of the Turkish Border.
Kobane’s Importance to the Kurds
Kobane has become a symbol of Kurdish aspirations for an autonomous state. One analyst states, “Kobane symbolises the Kurdish resistance, not only in Syria but in other parts of the Middle East. Its loss would translate into a defeat for the entire Kurdish nation.”
The Turkish and Syrian Kurdish community remains close in culture, language and proximity. In the early 1900s, Kobane stretched across both Turkey and Syria. In 1921, a border was put in place by Mustafa Kemal, dividing the Kurdish village in two. The demarcation is a railroad that has served as the border between the two nations. Since the siege on the town, over 100,000 refugees from Kobane and other nearby towns have fled to the Turkish side, now called Mursitpinar.
This closeness of Syrian and Turkish Kurds has remained in place. The current crisis has gelled efforts to keep Kobane standing. Over several weeks of fighting, Kobane has resisted falling to ISIS occupation, creating a symbol of resilience against ISIS and hope in the face of others who have denied Kurdish autonomy. Mostafa Minawi, director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative at Cornell University.”Kobane [now] lies at the heart of a Kurdish dream. It is less connected with history and more connected with future ambitions. Kobane was phase one of the implementation of a wider local-rule model [for both Syria’s and Turkey’s Kurds].”
Kobane’s Importance to Turkey
Despite the threat of an ISIS capture of Kobane and the imminent threat on his border, President Erdogan has appeared slow and reluctant to provide aid to Kurdish fighters. “For Turkey,” one analyst says, “Kobane is essentially a PKK issue.” Erdogan has long opposed the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan, and Ankara has deemed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a terrorist organization.
Earlier this week, the US delivered air-dropped weapons and medical supplies in Kobane, which were provided by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Erdogan criticized the move. In a statement today, Erdogan criticised the move. In a phone call between Erdogan and US President Barack Obama, Erdogan said, “America did this in spite of Turkey, and I told him Kobani is not currently a strategic place for you. If anything it is strategic for us.”
Several analysts, as well as the Kurdish population have become critical of Erdogan’s intentions. They believe that the Turkish government has purposefully delayed the allowance assistance to Kurdish fighters, allowing ISIS to ‘do the dirty work’ of reducing the gains that Syrian Kurds have made in the power vacuum of the Syrian war. Critics use as evidence Erdogan’s call for the establishment of a buffer zone in Syria, citing it as an attempt to occupy the region.
In fact, Erdogan has used Kobane as a negotiating chip with the PKK. In order for Iraqi Kurds to supply Syrian Kurds with weapons or fighters, their options are to cross through ISIS controlled territory, or go through Turkey. The former is unrealistic; the latter requires permission from the Turkish government, which has been slow coming as Turkey has sought to bolster their position against a Kurdish nation. To this end, peace talks between Kurdish leaders and Turkey have been jeopardised as Kurdish leaders interpret Erdogan’s stance as tacit support for ISIS. Leaders in Ankara deny supporting ISIS but it has become apparent to some analysts that they are using the situation as an opportunity to gain an upper hand with the Kurds.
As a result, Turkey finds itself pressured by the coalition and forced to work in tandem with a group that it opposes. The outcome in Kobane will not only be significant to ISIS, but will have longstanding ramifications for the Kurds in the diaspora and their relationship with Turkey.
The battle against ISIS has created strange bedfellows. Most recently, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has joined the fight against the militants. The PKK is formally classified as terrorists due decades of fighting against Turkey for an independent Kurdistan. The conflict killed over 40,000 people between 1984 and 2013. Today, the PKK is working on the same side as Turkey to stop the advance of ISIS, while simultaneously lobbying the international community to remove their terrorist designation. The group has claimed their determination to work with other governments and groups to see the elimination of ISIS. One PKK fighter said, “This war will continue until we finish off [ISIS).” Another stated, “ISIS is a danger to everyone, so we must fight them everywhere.” The PKK’s role in battling ISIS presents a mixed bag for Turkey and the international community. While the group is still considered a terrorist threat, and the PKK has accused Turkey of funding fighters against the Kurds in Syria; an allegation that the Turkish government denies. Yet, they are the ‘lesser’ threat in the face of ISIS. PKKs efforts have been successful in fending ISIS off from Erbil, and have sent forces to Kirkuk and Jalawla. Their armed sister group, the People’s Defence Units (YPG) have successfully protected their autonomous region in Syria, and assisted in evacuating thousands of Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, where they had fled from ISIS. The evacuees had been trapped out the mountain with minimal food or water, relying on airdrops for supplies. However, PKK members are not fighting for Turkey, Syria, Iran or Iraq; they are fighting for Kurdistan, a state which is seeking autonomy for lands that cross each of these nations. Further, the PKK represents a threat to the existing Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which is a long time competitor of the PKK. For now, however, Kurdish Peshmerga, under the KDP umbrella, are working with the PKK and national forces against ISIS, which is heavily armed with weapons from abandoned stockpiles in their captured zones. However KDP leaders fear that PKK involvement in engagement against ISIS will hinder opportunities to gain national autonomy in the long run. In the short run, PKK involvement could prevent nations from sending much needed weaponry to the Peshmerga. Turkish officials have resisted addressing the significance of a resurgent PKK, or the possibility that their involvement will reignite tensions in Turkey, or between Turkey and Kurdistan. One official said, “There is no fear of a division in Turkey or a fear of unification of the Kurdish population outside of Turkey. Since there are no demands through armed conflict or violence from the PKK in Turkey, there is no need to panic.” Currently the PKK is opting for slowly decreasing national powers in the Kurdish region, eventually gaining their autonomy. Further their actions in the fight against ISIS are perceived to be a push toward persuading the international community to remove their terrorist designation. The EU, for its part, will not act without Turkish approval, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. Meanwhile in Syria, ISIS has clashed with Assad’s forces in Aleppo, and Raqqah. ISIS considers Raqqah the ‘capital’ of their state; weapons confiscated in Iraq have been steadily making their way into the city. Raqaa approximately 25 miles from a Syrian-controlled airbase at al Tabaqa, the last remaining government forces in the ISIS controlled zone. Assad’s military has carried out at least a dozen airstrikes, reportedly killing tens of ISIS fighters, and has also sent reinforcements to al Tabaqa. Analysts have differed as to the size of territory ISIS holds. Some believe ISIS has control of approximately 11,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of Belgium. Others believe ISIS has influence in as much as 35,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of Jordan. It is believed that 6,300 fighters joined ISIS in July. Among that number, an estimated 5,000 are Syrian, and the remaining are Arab, European, Caucasian, East Asian and Kurdish. It is believed that as many as 1,100 of the 1,300 foreign fighters entered Syria via Turkey. Among ISIS’ most recent recruits, many joined from other radicalised groups such as the al-Qaeda backed Al Nusrah Front, and the Islamic Front. Al Nusrah, the Islamic Front, and Ansar al Din are fighting a battle on two fronts: they are opposed to ISIS and opposed to Bashar al Assad, and clash with both.