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Kobane Offensive Adds Obstacles to Kurdish-Turkish Peace Process

Just 18 months after the Kurdish Worker's Party in Turkey announced a ceasefire, the siege in Kobane could put the fragile peace process between the government and Kurds at risk.
Image by John Beck

Turkey's "Kurdish problem," as it is known, is largely self-inflicted. Successive governments have systematically marginalized the country's estimated 15 million Kurds, outlawed their language, and at times, denied they even existed. In response, the outlawed Marxist-turned-Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) launched a three decade long insurgency against Turkish armed forces that left 40,000 dead.


But the PKK announced a ceasefire 18 months ago and Turkish President Tayipp Erdogan - then the prime minister - began talks with the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, working on a peace plan that would see Turkey's southeastern Kurdish regions granted a degree of autonomy. Language bans have been relaxed since then and political progress has continued. Pro-Kurdish parties used to be regularly dissolved by the Constitutional Court for failing to adhere to vague definitions of "Turkishness," but the People's Democratic Party (HDP) co-leader Selahattin Demirtas netted almost 10 percent of the vote in this year's presidential elections.

Now, this fragile peace may be at risk.

Kobane is the immediate cause. Islamic State (IS) jihadists launched a major offensive on the Syrian Kurdish border enclave in September and  -  with the help of modern weaponry plundered from the US trained and equipped Iraqi army - quickly encircled and advanced upon the lightly armed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) defending the area. And if the town fell, a massacre seemed inevitable.

Kobane doesn't look like much; a dusty clump of buildings sloping up a hill just past the lines of barbed wire and Turkish Gendarmerie marking the frontier. But the town, also known as Ayn al-Arab, would be a prize for IS, albeit one that arguably now has more symbolic than strategic value. For Turkey's Kurds, it has become symbolic too - of Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) perceived hostility toward Kurds on both sides of the border and reluctance to intervene against the extremists on their doorstep.


Al Qaeda seems to want to be best friends with the Islamic State again. Read more here.

Onlookers watch from the Turkish side of the border as smoke rises from the battle for Kobane. Photo by John Beck.

Ankara seemed happy to stand by while the outgunned YPG were pushed further and further back. It reinforced its perimeter with battalions of tanks, blocked Syrian Kurds from crossing into Kobane to defend the town, and denied repeated requests for a land corridor to transport supplies and weapons inside. Instead, Erdogan and others suggested plans - like a proposed "buffer zone" - that were both impractical and unpopular with allies, and seemingly offered up on that basis only.

This hesitation likely stems from the YPG's affiliation with the PKK. Lawmakers would likely prefer not to have an armed Kurdish force with links to a group they consider terrorists on their southern border.

Inaction convinced Kurds in Kobane, and around Turkey, that Ankara and IS are not enemies, but collaborators. In late September, during a Kobane solidarity demonstration in the fields where onlookers gather every day to watch the battle, it was regarded as common knowledge that Turkey was directly arming the jihadists with heavy weapons.

Mehmet Karaylan, the HDP co-chairman of Gaziantep province in southeastern Turkey, told VICE News after protesters had been scattered by riot police that he had talked to a number of eyewitnesses who had seen Turkish tanks being delivered by train to IS-controlled areas of Syria. Kobane's defense minister Ismet Sekh Hesen subsequently told VICE News that he too believed Erdogan was directly supporting his opponents.


It's an accusation that Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's Arms and Military Expenditure Program, told VICE News was "outlandish," especially in respect to the easily traceable tanks. Turkish heavy weapons in Islamic State hands would be quickly detected by Syria watchers and cause massive damage its standing as a NATO member.

But IS has benefitted from Turkey. The militant group has been able to bring weapons and fighters in, and oil out, from its Syrian territory across Turkish borders. The volumes involved in these transactions mean that a level of customs and military collusion is inevitable, Chatham House associate fellow Valerie Marcel told VICE News, although she added that this is likely confined to individual opportunism.

"This is not an official policy of permitting contraband and smuggling, but it's more than just oil - it's people and weapons and equipment - and I just don't think that it can be happening on that scale without someone turning a blind eye," she explained.

The Islamic State. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

A child fetches water at a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. Photo by John Beck.

In fact, Turkey has helped Kobane's residents, just not consistently enough to convince Kurds. It allowed entry to at least 180,000 refugees from the town and surrounding area. And even when borders were officially closed, some guards were still allowing entry. At one of six recently established refugee camps in Suruc - the nearest Turkish town to Kobane - a middle-aged former elementary teacher who asked that his name not be used told VICE News that he and his family had attempted to reach Turkey via a smuggling route. Gendarmerie intercepted and surrounded the group, but officers let them in anyway.


However, treatment of refugees has provoked anger too. In late September, at the now closed Yumurtalik border crossing just west of Kobane, security forces repeatedly tear gassed large groups waiting to enter Turkey when they got too close to the perimeter.

On one afternoon, guards launched CS canisters into a restless crowd of families in no mans land, some of whom had been waiting for more than five days. The shells arced up above the razor wired fence leaving acrid trails that mixed with a mounting dust storm. Shortly afterwards, two young children were rushed to a medical tent to be treated for gas exposure. One desperately rubbed at his stinging eyes, the other lay almost unconscious on a fold-out bed with a too-big oxygen mask over her face.

Another two boys were admitted around the same time with fragmentation injuries. Doctors said they had triggered a land mine while attempting to sneak into Turkey.

Kurdish Fighters Deny Claims of Syrian Rebel Assistance in Kobane. Read more here.

A woman and her child who fled the IS assault on Kobane pick up some of their possessions after crossing into Turkey. Photo by John Beck.

Turkish authorities have also allowed wounded from Kobane to receive medical care in state facilities. The parking lot at Suruc hospital is full of ambulances drafted in from all over the region to pick up cases from the border. Two large tents filled with stretcher beds have been erected by the canteen to provide extra room.

Treatment isn't provided openly to combatants, but if it isn't too obvious, it is sometimes allowed. A YPG fighter recovering in the hospital told VICE News that after his shin was shattered by an Islamic State sniper bullet he received emergency first aid in Kobane and was then stripped of his uniform and transported across the border to a waiting ambulance.


Again, there are complaints. Ambulance crews told VICE News that they had been held up at the border and that injured civilians had died as a result. Shukra, a cheerful medic from Batman said Gendarmerie typically stopped the ambulances to take names and pictures of their patients. Mustafa, a medical assistant from Adana, said that border guards checked IDs and sometimes removed anyone they suspected of being a fighter and took them elsewhere.

These delays have  been fatal, he added, recalling a day when wounded were streaming over the border as a result of particularly heavy fighting and medical teams and the casualties they treated were kept waiting at checkpoints for hours to get back to Suruc. According to Mustafa, three people died waiting in ambulances.

"There is no free pass for us in getting to and from the border. On one call we were kept waiting eight hours," he said. A number of other medical teams told similar stories.

Onlookers watch as coalition aircraft launch strikes on IS targets in Kobane. Photo by John Beck.

It now looks as if Kobane may not be overrun by IS thanks to a series of airstrikes by the US-led coalition and Turkey's belated decision to allow heavily armed peshmerga troops from Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government passage to help the YPG.

Earlier this month, however, when the Islamic State first entered the town proper, every day brought dire predictions of its imminent fall. The  defending YPG blamed their northern neighbors and vowed collective revenge if they were beaten.


"If Kobane is captured, and if IS burn Kobane, then we will burn all of Turkey." Dalil Boras, a 19-year-old fighter, told VICE News.

"If Kobane falls then the peace process will be ended forever."

On October 7, when the situation looked particularly desperate, Boras's threat looked worryingly prescient. Protests and riots erupted in Turkey's southeast. At least 34 were killed before Ocalan appealed for calm. The majority of deaths occurred in clashes between PKK sympathizers and supporters of the Free Cause Party (Hüda Par) - a mainly Kurdish Islamist political organization affiliated with the Sunni militant Turkish Hezbollah - which separatists see as being linked with the government and backing IS.

Diyarbakir, Turkey's biggest Kurdish city, saw the worst of the violence. At least 10 died in a single night, and a Gendarmerie-enforced curfew was subsequently declared.

"It was the first time in 34 years that going out on the street was forbidden, there was fighting all around us," Ozan Kilinc, a local journalist and head of Diyabrakir's Free Media Asociation, told VICE News in the association's headquarters shortly afterwards. "It only stopped once Ocalan felt the message had been given: 'If Kobane falls then the peace process will be ended forever.'"

Turkish soldiers help an elderly Kobane resident cross the Syrian border. Photo by John Beck.

Brutality was meted out by both sides, and each blame the other for the violence. PKK-sympathetic Kobane solidarity protesters say that Hüda Par supporters attacked their peaceful demonstrations with guns, cleavers and other weapons supplied by the government. The Islamists claim they had to defend themselves after militants went after their offices and businesses.


Two days after the curfew was lifted, the city was still restless. Police in body armor roamed the streets, posted between burned-out cars and shattered buildings on main thoroughfares. That night, a group of YDG-H - the PKK's youth wing - gathered down backstreets of the old city. Young children and teenagers hammered on shop shutters and chanted: "Viva the resistance of the YPG," "Everywhere is Kobane, everywhere is revolution!," "IS and AKP are collaborators!." Older resident hung out of their apartment blocks rattling metal plates off window bars.

The group was led by "Emrah," a diminutive teenager with a scar on his cheek who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Police know him well, he said, and he's the only one of four brothers not currently in jail on political charges.

"We are here for Kobane, and we won't stop until Kobane is free," he shouted. "There are thousands of our people fighting IS in Kobane and we are doing our small part to support them."

The recent protests had been different, he told VICE News, more violent. Usually his group just threw stones at the police. This time, he said weapons had been used by all sides: rubber bullets, tear gas, and isolated live rounds from security forces, as well as knives, swords, and even AK-type assault rifles by Hüda Par members. At first he said the YDG-H had only used rocks, molotov cocktails, and fireworks, although later he showed off pictures of pistols belonging to the group with obvious pride.


Despite the toll taken by the fight against the Islamists, most of his anger was directed at Erdogan and the AKP, who he said use Hüda Par as a militia and play them off against other Kurds to avoid unity. "It's very hard for me as I have three brothers in jail…. I don't want to do this, but I have no choice, they [the government] forced me to do this."

A woman runs after riot police fire tear gas at Kurdish protesters close to the Kobane border crossing. Photo by John Beck.

Two days later, sitting in the internet café that serves as an unofficial YDG-H base, he sounded fatalistic and defiant, describing himself as being born into struggle and knowing nothing but.

"If they want to kill us, they have killed thousands of people already. I am no better than those people who have been," he said. "We might or might not die but is it better to stay in our house and do nothing? We have to fight until we get our rights."

A few miles away in a Hüda Par building, deputy chairman M. Bahattin Temel told VICE News from his flag-bedecked office that he opposed violence.

"We want to build a good life for everybody with love and peace," he said. "In our hands, there are no weapons."

Temel, who is well-dressed, bald, and bearded then admitted that during the recent unrest supporters picked up guns. Although he described them as "simple weapons, rifles" and said that it was a necessary self defense measure. He claimed that Hüda Par offices had been under constant attack for the last two weeks by the PKK, which he said had brought guerrilla fighters from its mountain strongholds.


Temel denied links with the government or security services and allegations that Hüda Par sympathized with IS. However, he also described himself as fully against the coalition airstrikes and said that a diplomatic solution should be sought with the extremists instead.

"Whatever IS is doing or has done, we think it can be solved with diplomacy," he said. "Military action never solves problems." He added that he thought IS was dedicated to fighting the Syrian regime and had only attacked the YPG because it was used by President Bashar al-Assad as a proxy.

A man at the border fence between Turkey and Kobane. Photo by John Beck.

Between the two sides in Diyarbakir: the human cost. Mahsun Coban, 21, was one of the many killed in the October 7 clashes. Eight days later his mother Fatmah and father Ahmed sat surrounded by relatives in their family appartment. Both were sun-beaten, silently distraught, and sunk into identical brown armchairs. Two portraits of their son - a handsome, dark haired young man - watched over the room from a sideboard. Further up the wall was a picture of Fatmah's brother, a PKK member who was killed in 2006.

Fatmah said her Mahsun became obsessed with the situation in Kobane. "He couldn't sleep, he was watching videos about IS's barbarism…he couldn't do his usual things. Kobane took up all his time and attention. It really got to him," she remembered, speaking softly, but defiantly. Ahmed silently stared at the coffee table in front of him, his hands clasped to his stomach.


They had both demonstrated on the day Mahsun died. "There was so much anger inside us we couldn't keep it inside any more," Fatmah recalled. Mahsun stayed out later. When he didn't come home, his 17-year-old sister Sevnur called to find out where he was. A woman answered. Sevnur screamed at her, demanding to know why she had Mahsun's phone. The woman answered that she was in the hospital and he was there too.

When they arrived, doctors told Fatmah that Mahsun was badly injured, his stomach slashed open. They couldn't save him and shortly afterwards, she watched him die.

"Suddenly the door of the operation room opened and I saw that people were coming out and the nurses were giving him chest compressions," she said. "There was an oxygen mask on his face and his eyes were closed."

Back in the apartment she showed VICE News his last Facebook post on her smartphone. It's about Kobane and ends with reference to the prophet Muhammed's teachings on brotherhood. "Mahsun was a real Muslim, he prayed five times a day" she said proudly.

Later, she passed her phone around again. This time a video of Mahsun playing with a younger sister two days before he died. He throws her on a bed while she screams in playful protest, both laughing uncontrollably.

Fatmah and Ahmed Coban in their Diyarbakir home eight days after their son Mahsun, 21, was killed in clashes between rival political groups. Photo by John Beck.

Kurdish leaders still stress that they wish to see an end to the killings. Ocalan said on October 21 that he was increasingly hopeful that a successful peace deal could be reached, while Demirtas said the HDP would help work alongside the government to quell any future violence.


Zübeyde Zümrüt, Diyarbakir's provincial chair of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (formerly BDP) also tried to downplay the unrest, telling VICE News, "Usually Kurdish people don't have problems with Hüda Par… Violence doesn't represent us."

Many, especially the older generation, seem tired of fighting. The father of "Emrah," the YDG-H leader, told VICE News that it was a mistake for Kobane solidarity protesters to attack property and burn cars.

In an unnamed café in a Diyarbakir backstreet Fadil, a middle aged and impressively mustachioed businessman, told VICE News that the future of the region depended on a successful conclusion to the talks.

"We don't want to fight. The best thing is for this to end," he said. "A political situation would save the blood of the people. Otherwise it will be war and all sides will suffer."

Erdogan has been less conciliatory. He has repeatedly equated the YPG with the PKK and even IS and described US airdrops of weapons and supplies to Kobane as an "error." On October 13, Turkish aircraft bombed PKK positions in Hakkari, southeast Turkey, the first strikes of their kind since the peace process began.

Hassan Amrak in his Diyarbakir barbershop. Photo by John Beck. 

On the streets, there is still anger too. And despite widespread support for Ocalan, some radicals are showing less desire obey his wishes. Kilic said that in Diyarbakir, a hard core wanted to keep protesting and encouraged further violence. Attacks on Turkish military targets by groups suspected to have links with the PKK have continued too.

Some of Turkey's Kurds are losing patience. After the Hakkari airstrikes, Hassan Amrak, 64 - a barber who was arrested and brutally beaten by security forces in 1999 for possessing a Kurdish newspaper - told VICE News that it was time for change. "Dermitas is our president, not Erdogan. Erdogan supports IS, so of course he's not ours, we want a new country, a new president," he said.

Sevnur Coban said her brother's death has destroyed her faith in the government. "There is nothing in Turkey but barbarism; Erdogan's barbarism, the lying media and the barbaric attacks of the police."

The Turkish president is increasingly intolerant of dissent, however, which has created a paradoxical position with regards to the peace talks. A successful outcome necessitates democratization - something Kurds in Turkey have demanded from the beginning, but is increasingly incompatible with Erdogan's authoritarian tendencies. Failure to reach an agreement, however, will ensure that Turkey's Kurdish problem gets much, much worse.

Sunset at a graveyard close to the Kobane border crossing. Photo by John Beck.