‘I do not want to be called a Turkish Kurd’
Simmering anger among Turkish Kurds may prove difficult for either Ankara or Kurdish political leaders to control.
Suruc, Turkey – In the busy parking lot of Istanbul’s Emniyet bus station, a young man sits quietly to the side, a backpack at his feet. His dark, round eyes reflect a sense of purposeful determination, but his desperate drags of a cigarette reveal his uncertainty.
“I don’t know what I could do in Kobane; I have never held a gun in my life,” Huseyin Toprak, 26, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t know if I need to hold a gun, but I want to join the struggle. I feel I have no choice but to go there.”
Over the last month, thousands of Turkish Kurds have arrived at Kurdish-dominated provinces along the border region between Turkey and Syria in a show of solidarity for their ethnic brethren fighting in Syria’s Kobane.
Like Toprak, hundreds of Turkish Kurds have crossed into Kobane to join the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces, which have been engaged in fierce clashes with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters who laid siege over three weeks ago.
For many of Turkey’s Kurds, the battle of Kobane is more than just another terrifying gain in ISIL’s advance across the region. It is an acid test for their own government, which has promised to end a 30-year Kurdish insurgency in Turkey through peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the broad expansion of Kurdish civil rights.
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Many Kurds, however, express cynicism rather than hope for the peace process, which is moving at an anaemic pace two years after its unveiling. Simmering anger has exploded as Kobane lays besieged, with Kurds decrying Turkey’s inaction against ISIL as a reason for the group’s stubborn military advance.
That feeling of abandonment, according to Toprak, has left Kurds believing: “If we do not protect our brothers, nobody else in the world will. This is something every Kurd feels, regardless of their politics or national origin.”
This week, as Kurdish frustration escalated, peaceful demonstrations gave way to street battles that have – so far – seen 21 deaths, the worst round of ethnic violence since a ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK began in March of 2013.
“The fate of Kobane is our fate,” Serbulent Yaman, a Turkish Kurdish activist who travelled to Suruc from the southeastern city of Van, told Al Jazeera. “As Kurds, we are not separate from the reality in Kobane. Northern [Turkish] Kurds are dependent on Kobane. What happens in Kobane will happen here.”
Kobane is very important because it is so symbolic. Even if you hate the PKK, what the Kurds have created in that space is remarkable.
Throughout the three-year war in Syria, Kurdish Syrian forces led by the YPG have succeeded in staking out an autonomous domain divided into the three cantons of Jezira, Kobane and Afrin.
Turkey’s Kurds, eager for their own brand of regional autonomy in the southeast, have demanded a similar federalist system as part of the peace process. There has been several protests calling for more autonomy since local elections were held earlier this year.
But as Ankara negotiated this month with Salih Mosalem, leader of the three Syrian Kurdish cantons, it demanded the dissolution of the cantons and a promise that Syrian Kurds would not seek regional autonomy in a future Syrian government.
Turkish unease with regional autonomy in Syria has galvanised 27-year-old Botan Dag, a native of the predominantly Turkish Kurdish city of Siirt, who said Ankara’s policies were a sign that the government would not tolerate a similar arrangement in Turkey. “Kobane is very important because it is so symbolic. Even if you hate the PKK, what the Kurds have created in that space is remarkable,” he said.
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Turkish Kurds say they have paid dearly to help safeguard the hard-won, but precarious Kurdish self-rule in Syria. From the dimly lit living room of her home in Suruc, only 10km north of Kobane, Emine Arslan sits in dismay.
|‘Our anger is not with ISIL,’ Arslan said [Al Jazeera]|
Her son Mustafa left to join the YPG forces in Kobane late last year and was killed two months ago when ISIL fighters first began attacking the city. “He did it for the love of the struggle,” Arslan said. “He never said he was going to fight, but sometimes he wouldn’t come home for days and I knew he had joined the YPG.”
As the battle drags on and anger among Turkish Kurds mounts, another front in the fight has begun to materialise at home. “Our anger is not with ISIL, it is with those who support ISIL,” Arslan said.
Turkey, a NATO member, dismisses Kurdish accusations that its neutrality in Kobane has aided ISIL, or that poor policing of its 900km border with Syria has allowed the group to thrive.
The country is under growing pressure to join an anti-ISIL coalition following the release of 49 Turkish hostages during a prisoner swap with ISIL last month.
But while Turkey says it is resolved to fight ISIL, many Kurds believe that Turkey has put pressure on its allies within the coalition to withhold strikes in Kobane. The US-led campaign failed to deliver any strategic blows to ISIL targets in the first 25 days of YPG-ISIL clashes.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan harbours little affection for Kobane’s defenders, the PKK-linked YPG. “Whatever ISIL is, the PKK is that to us as well,” he declared last week.
That equivalence, however, is already having dramatic consequences in Turkey. Imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has warned that the fall of Kobane would end the peace process in Turkey.
Taking stock of the recent developments from his home in Istanbul, Dag says he feels helpless as he watches his own country allow his ethnic brothers in Syria to be slaughtered at the hands of ISIL. When asked if he would ever consider joining the armed resistance, he answers quietly: “I am not a fighter, but I would fight. If my time came, I wouldn’t resist that.”
These sentiments are echoed by many young Turkish Kurds who once saw a glimmer of hope in the peace process and the AKP’s democratic reforms package. But unrest in Turkey and the siege in Kobane has increasingly undermined the most basic tenet of the process: the demilitarisation of Turkey’s Kurdish youth.
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“Turkey’s government feels like it needs to take sides. We need to take sides immediately too,” said Deran Yilmaz, a 23-year-old Suruc native who has worked in the city’s hospital to keep up with the flow of wounded arriving daily from Kobane. “Sometimes I think I should be there, fighting with our brothers in Kobane.”
Kurdish political leaders have urged restraint on Turkey’s streets, with pro-Kurdish HDP party co-chair Selahattin Demirtas calling for calm.
“But with every funeral for fighters who have died in Syria, Kurdish nationalism and the sense of collective anger are growing,” said Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
As such political calculations spill onto the street, spiralling anger may prove difficult for either Ankara or Kurdish political leaders to control. For activists such as Dag, the anger has sparked something deeper than violence – an overwhelming cynicism about the Kurdish-Turkish identity.
“I used to call myself a Turkish Kurd, but I no longer want to be called that. I am a human being and a Kurd. I am nothing Turkish,” he said.