Over the past few weeks, a rural town on the Syrian-Turkish frontier has taken centre stage in the US-led war on ISIL. The Kurdish-majority town of Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobane, was, like most of the Syrian countryside, unknown to the outside world until it came under siege on September 16.
Ironically, it is now being described as the most decisive battle in the US-led campaign against ISIL’s region-wide ambitions – now that few discuss the fall of Mosul in Iraq.
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For such a “decisive” battle, the hesitant international response to the Siege of Kobane came later than hoped for by the town’s 45,000-odd inhabitants, most of whom were settled farmers. For days, Western media accused the US-led coalition of ignoring the escalating humanitarian crisis.
Neighbouring Turkey was also lambasted for failing to intervene as hundreds of civilians were killed – albeit, few eyewitness accounts corroborated the allegations. A number of hashtag campaigns were launched in support of the besieged town, including #SaveKobane and #USHearKobane in a bid to pressure the US military to take action in earnest.
Although the US did wage air strikes around the town, US officials have made it clear that Kobane is not part of US strategy. “Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to [ISIL],” said US Secretary of State John Kerry on October 13.
More substantial assistance only came on Sunday when the US began air-dropping weapons and supplies to the Kurdish fighters, begging the question “why now?” And on Monday, Turkey agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish reinforcements to enter Kobane through its border with Syria – even if Ankara considers the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) elements engaged in various battles as “terrorists”.
While the actual strategic value of Kobane remains widely mooted, what’s missing from the debate is how exactly the once-irrelevant town become a powerful symbol of Kurdish national aspirations across the four corners of the notional Greater Kurdistan – as well as an important card on the Turkish negotiating table.
Iraqi Kurds long for the oil-rich city of Kirkuk – often dubbed the “Kurdish Jerusalem“. For Syria’s Kurds, many of whom trace their arrival to Syria to the 1920s, it is less a connection to Kobane itself and more about their oppression under the Assad regime – and now ISIL – that drives their campaign for autonomy.
“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,” says Sirwan Kajjo, a Syrian-Kurdish analyst based in the US.
“The city has gained strategic importance now, partly because it is the first Syrian town to stand against ISIL for such a long time. Other Syrian towns and cities fell into ISIL hands without any resistance.”
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Kobane/Ayn al-Arab was founded as a small settlement in 1892 during the Ottoman period. Then called Arab Punar in Turkish, it became a town in 1911 with the construction of a railway station there.
It was soon populated by Armenian refugees fleeing persecution in Turkey in 1915, although many were forcefully moved further south, scattered between Qamishli and Deir el-Zor.
The Armenians were followed by Kurds from Anatolia. The Kurdish name for the town, Kobane, is supposedly a bastardized version of the word “company”, derived from the German company that built the railway. Others surmise it derived from the German word “bahn” for train.
In 1921, the town was split with the arbitrary demarcation of the border with Turkey – the Turkish side is now known as Mursitpinar, and it is there more than 100,000 refugees from Kobane and other nearby towns and villages are now camped out.
“The area of Suruc province is also called ‘the Armenian cemetery’ because of the thousands of Armenians who died there during the deportations,” says Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish political analyst and senior scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center.
“It was a terrible place when the Armenians arrived back then, and the area has a tragic history. It is being repeated now.”
For others, the symbolism of Kobane has little to do with its past.
“Kobane [now] lies at the heart of a Kurdish dream,” says Mostafa Minawi, director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative at Cornell University.
“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].”
Despite Turkey’s 11th hour assistance in allowing Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross into Kobane from its border, some analysts are pushing the theory that ISIL is basically doing Ankara’s dirty work by quashing whatever autonomy Syria’s Kurds have attempted to achieve.
“Syrian Kurds took advantage of the power vacuum in the country to set up three semi-autonomous cantons: Afrin, Jazirah and Kobane,” says Aktar. “They were experimenting already with what the Turkish Kurds have been demanding for years in Turkey. So the end of Kobane, if it happens, will mean a big blow to Turkish Kurdish aspirations. In that sense, it is extremely important.”
For Aktar, it is equally crucial not to underplay the kinship bonds between the Kurds of Turkey and Syria.
“The Turkish Kurds are much closer to the Syrian Kurds than to the Iraqi Kurds. They speak the same language – Kurmanji. Their villages were artificially divided by the borders imposed in 1921. Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk] decided the border would be the railroad because there was no other demarcation. So that meant the villages had to be divided in two.”
This is one of the reasons, Aktar says, why Syrian Kurds have always been sympathetic to the struggles of the outlawed PKK in Turkey.
“Since the very beginning of the PKK, the Syrian Kurds were heavily involved. Out of the 40,000 or so PKK fighters who have been killed since 1984, about 5,000 of them are from Syria. It’s a huge number,” he says. “And Turkish Kurds have been instrumental in lobbying for US support for their kin in Syria now.”
On September 22, one of the leaders of Turkey’s pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas flew to the US where he met with US officials to persuade them to ramp up their efforts to help Kobane. On September 30, he visited Kobane.
Yet, beyond nationalist symbols and cross-border kinship, there are compelling strategic concerns for both Turkey and the US-led coalition if Kobane were to fall to ISIL. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed the establishment of a buffer zone – albeit, critics have already panned the plan as a Turkish ploy to occupy northern Syria, much like northern Cyprus.
Kurdish pundits have emphatically warned for weeks that the fall of Kobane would mean a major strategic gain for ISIL; they say it would grant the group control over the main road connecting its stronghold, Raqqa, with Aleppo.
However, as ISIL already controls several key border crossings with Turkey, some argue that such claims are exaggerated and the real value of the acquisition lies elsewhere.
For Aktar, the threat is bigger than giving ISIL just another border crossing for weapons and supplies.
“Kobane and the other cantons that are part of the Kurdish autonomy experiment are entirely flat. If Kobane falls, the two other cantons will fall easily because they are impossible to defend. And they are integral to securing the 1,200km border with Turkey. If ISIL takes control of the Kurdish enclave, they will have taken full control of the Turkish border.”
Furthermore, an ISIL takeover of Kobane would mean defeating the forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (YPG) – and by proxy, deal a major blow to its sister organisation, the PKK.
Some pundits have gone so far as pointing out that ISIL’s attack on Kobane roughly coincided with the release of the 46 Turkish hostages in Mosul. Questions have been raised over what deals may have been struck to secure the handover.
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“For Turkey, [Kobane] is essentially a PKK issue,” says Aktar.
Also at stake are Ankara’s peace talks with the PKK.
“Ankara has taken advantage of events in Syria to toughen its [negotiating] position,” says Minawi. “PKK wants to send fighters and weapons to their cousins in Syria, and for that they need the permission and help of the Turkish state. Ankara, in effect, is using ISIL to bolster its negotiating position with PKK.”
There have already been reverberations from Kobane in Turkey, says Kajjo.
“The peace talks have already been jeopardised, because Turkey’s Kurds believe that Ankara is supporting ISIL, whether directly or indirectly,” he says. Albeit, it’s a charge Turkish officials have repeatedly denied.
Or, as Aktar puts it: “Ankara does not support ISIL, but they are certainly using the situation to their advantage. Let’s just say, they are not unhappy to see ISIL overrun the [Kurdish] areas.”