Will the Blood of Kobani’s Kurds Be on Turkey’s Hands?

Turkey’s leaders seem more concerned to elicit a groveling American apology than assisting the Kurds fighting for their lives against an Islamic State attack right on its border.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Turkish Kurds watch a mortar shelling being landed as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State in Kobani, October 4, 2014.
Turkish Kurds watch a mortar shelling being landed as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State in Kobani, October 4, 2014.Credit: AP
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

What a catastrophe is shaping up at the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobani, which is under siege from the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s black flag is now flying from atop nearby hills and from some buildings on the edge of a town that was once home to 45,000 people. Kobani is facing the kind of slaughter that the Islamic state has made its trademark. All the while Turkish tanks sit across the border, their guns silent.

This Haaretz column echoes an editorial issued late Monday by the New York Sun, which I edit. But the story strikes me as pressing. If Turkey allows Kobani to be put to the sword, it will be one of the great defaults by a NATO country. The inaction of the Turks calls to mind Warsaw in 1944, when tanks of the Red Army stood in their tracks on the east side of the Vistula, their guns silent, while the Free Polish Army rose up and fought the Nazis until the Nazis destroyed Free Poland’s hope. That’s how the Soviets came to seize what was left of Poland.

The scale of what is happening at Kobani is not, today, the same as that of Warsaw in 1944, when the Polish capital had more than a million people. But the strategic consequences of an Islamic State conquest of Kobani could nonetheless be enormous. American airstrikes have proven to be ineffectual against the Islamic State advance. A-10 “Warhogs,” a slower warplane that maneuvers at lower altitude, would be more useful, but Turkey won’t allow the use of American airbases in its territory (Incirlik airbase, the Sun notes, is fewer than 500 miles from Kobani).

The Turkish cynicism is just something to behold. On the one hand, according to CNN, Turkey was preventing Kurds from crossing into Turkey from Kobani. CNN described refugees pressing up against a border fence, chanting, “We want to go across.” On the other hand, Turkey was reportedly preventing Kurdish volunteers inside Turkey from crossing into Syria to help with the defense of Kobani.

Kobani is run and defended by the Kurdish-dominated Democratic Union Party, whose militia is affiliated with Turkey’s nemesis, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, known as the PKK and which, for 30 years until recently, had been levying war in southwestern Turkey. America, as well as Turkey, considers the PKK a terrorist group. But that doesn’t lessen the explosiveness of the situation. There are 30 million Kurds spread through Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

No doubt, the Sun noted, Turkey is hoping that the fall of Kobani would crush Kurdish aspirations. The paper predicted the opposite is more likely, noting that Kurds and their friends have been “fixated on the fight, regardless of their ideologies.” Stories of Kobani heroes are coursing through the Internet, where Arin Mirkan was transformed into a hero — a martyr — after she blew herself up rather than retreat Sunday from a mountain overlooking the city.

The “Kurdish Alamo” is how the Sun described Kobani’s fate if it falls to the Islamic State. If it falls, Kurdish restraint could be over. It is not hard to imagine the PKK’s ceasefire coming to an end and even moves beginning for an independent Kurdistan. This could lead to an unraveling of Iraq and the era of Sykes-Picot. Which is full of ironies, since ending the 1916 agreement is one of the announced goals of the Islamic State. That might be getting ahead of things, but it’s easy to see all this escalating.

Just for starters, imagine were an independent Kurdistan to be pressed by its people to absorb the Kurdish population of northeastern Syria and even reconquer Rojava. Or new life being put into the Kurdish secession movement in southeastern Turkey. “America’s strategy of airstrikes without infantry would quickly be exposed as ineffectual, precipitating Washington deeper into its own political crisis,” the Sun noted.

Vice President Joe Biden is in the midst of what the Wall Street Journal called his “apology tour.” Biden apologized to President Erdogan of Turkey for naming him and other allies as being the “largest problem in Syria,” along with the UAE, Saudia Arabia, and Qatar. The Turkish leader and the Arabs were furious, Biden was on the phone groveling.

“The jester speaks the darnedest truths,” the Journal quipped, noting that the Arab Gulf States and Turkey did help create the problem. It suggested Biden apologize to the Syrian and American people, given that the Obama administration “sat on its hands” for three years. That’s what Turkey is doing now as Kobani fights for its life. If Kobani falls, who will make the apologies to the Kurds?

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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