As the conflict in the Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobane, which is situated very near the Turkish border, continues between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Syrian Kurds, the fight in the town has already spilled over into Turkish territory.
The crisis in Kobane has started to jeopardize Turkey’s domestic security with violent demonstrations being held in predominantly Kurdish provinces since Tuesday, causing the death of 24 people during the protests.
Frustrated with Turkey’s inaction against the plight of the Syrian Kurds in Kobane, Turkish Kurds took to the streets across the country to protest the government’s failure to help prevent Kobane from falling to ISIS.
Turkey’s inaction is due to complicated geopolitics of the region; but also the due to its ill-defined strategy towards KobaneSinem Cengiz
Turkey, which has so far taken a backseat in the fight against ISIS close to its borders, is accused by Kurdish leaders of not providing military support to the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), an affiliate based in Syria of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkish government also stands accused of supporting ISIS, something that Ankara vehemently denies.
While Turkey is on the alert, with tanks and ground forces stationed along the border within a few hundred meters of the fighting in Kobane, Ankara said on Thursday that it was not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct ground operations unilaterally in Kobane.
Indeed, Turkey’s inaction is due to complicated geopolitics of the region; but also the due to its ill-defined strategy towards Kobane in particular and Syria in general. The Middle East is a very complicated region and the conflict in Kobane is a challenging equation with multiple variables and risks being dragged into inextricable chaos. Turkey is facing a serious paradox as it fears seeing Syrian Kurds declaring independence once ISIS forces are defeated. On the other hand it does not want to be seen as a regional actor that keeps itself away from the fight against the nightmare of the region, ISIS.
Turkey’s stance brings several question marks to minds on whether Ankara believes that ISIS is a lesser evil than the PKK in Syria. Or does Ankara think that it may somehow be able to cope with ISIS later, but the priority should be the prevention of the PKK bolstering its power in the region and gaining legitimacy in the eyes of both the people of the region and of the international community?
PKK and ISIS
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently said that the PKK is no different from ISIS. However, the Turkish government seems to be more concerned with the Kurds in Syria and the changing of Syrian regime than the presence of ISIS.
Ankara has long been alarmed by the emergence of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - an offshoot of the PKK - as a powerful group in Syria as PYD found a fertile ground in the war-torn country to carry out its activities. Needless to say, due to the conflict, the PYD became stronger in northwestern Syria and started to build its dominance in Kobane, Afrin and Jazira. Kobane, which became a symbol of Kurdish resistance, is critical for Kurds strategically as the fall of the town would deal a severe blow to Kurdish hopes towards autonomy.
Turkey considers an autonomous Kurdish region along the Turkish border a security threat as such a situation could lead to unrest among its own Kurdish population.
Turkey has stated previously that it expects the PYD not to engage in activities that could harm the ongoing settlement process aimed at ending the decades-old Kurdish conflict and not to cooperate with the Syrian regime, which allowed PKK to take shelter within its borders for several years.
Indeed, the war in Kobane is posing a serious threat to Turkey’s already fragile peace process as Kurdish leaders threaten that the peace talks with the Turkish government will come to an end if Turkey continues its inaction against the situation in Kobane. According to Ankara, the recent protests are aimed at sabotaging the settlement process.
Currently, Turkey faces security risks from multiple fronts and is between two fires. Turkey is aware that neither a wait-and-see approach nor an outright intervention could help its security after all. Turkey should make strategic calculations to secure the peace process, which was initiated with great hopes, and should never intervene in the Syrian quagmire without a long-term strategy. The Kurdish issue could be a major headache for the Turkish government, especially if the Kurdish insurgency were to be revived in Turkey after these protests. Therefore, the best option for Turkey at the moment is to take a step toward the Kurdish calls. Such a step would prevent Turkey from being dragged into chaos with its Kurdish population but will also convince the Syrian Kurds to respect the current borders.
Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish Political Analyst based in Athens. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. She was also the former Diplomatic Correspondent for Today’s Zaman Newspaper, English daily in Turkey. She is currently researching on Turkish-Saudi relations to complete her MA in International Relations. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz