Cry for help from Kobane: Why it is necessary to prevent another Srebrenica

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Kurdish solidarity demo. Berlin, 11 September. [Montecruz Foto/Flickr]

For more than a month, a bitter struggle has ensued between Kurds and Islamists in Kobane (Arabic: Ain al-Arab). If the Syrian Kurdish town, on the border with Turkey, falls into the hands of the IS, this will be more than just another military victory for the “Islamic State”, writes Gülistan Gürbey. If the international community continues just watching, Kobane may soon be mentioned in the same breath as Srebrenica and Rwanda, as a synonym for the failure of the international community.

Associate Prof. Dr. Gülistan Gürbey is a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin.

UN special envoy to Syria Staffan Mistura warned of a massacre as in Srebrenica. Mistura appealed to Turkey to allow the Kurdish refugees across the border and hundreds of volunteers to cross into Syria, who want to help the Kurds and support  Kurdish self-defense operations in Kobane. Up to 13,000 civilians remain stranded in the border area between Syria and Turkey ,and up to 700 civilians, mostly old people, in Kobane.

Why Kurdish resistance against Islamists in Kobane concerns us

Although the UN’s warnings seem to impress neither the international community nor Turkey, the possibility of a new Srebrenica massacre taking place in Kobane is entirely plausible. A conquest by the Islamists must be prevented by all available means. Since then, the air operations of the US-led military alliance have also extended to IS positions in Kobane, the United States has led the first official talks with the PYD, and even supplied Kurds from the air with arms, ammunition and medicines, offering a glimmer of hope. Yet the struggle for Kobane continues unabated. Its output affects not only the bereaved Kurds, but also concerns us all, for two main reasons:

First, the Kurds (Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga, PKK, PYD) provide the only effective resistance force against the Islamists in Syria and Iraq. Their fight against the global Islamist threat is an essential contribution to our security, even if the geographical distance of Kobane can only apparently recede in the distance. The Kurds must not be abandoned, not even the PYD and PKK. Kobane has become a symbol of Kurdish resistance and Kurdish aspirations for autonomy, not only for the PYD and PKK, but across party lines. The threat of massacre by the Islamists, and the impotence of the Kurds, who have been let down once again in their struggle against the Islamists of the international world, has brought the Kurds closer together, and made them stronger.

The historical experience in Halabja, where several thousand Kurds were murdered in a poison gas attack by Saddam Hussein in March 1988, is deeply rooted in the collective memory of the Kurds. Kobane arouses those memories, deeply. It is already impossible to see that Kobane is, like Halabja, a historic turning point in the collective consciousness of the Kurds, regardless of whether Kobane falls. The failure of the international community in Halabja must not be repeated in Kobane.

Secondly, the EU should ask why it still supported the Iraqi Kurds with weapons and trainers, but not the Syrians who defend Kobane. This is a question to which there is no reasonable answer, while the terrorism argument, and the disproportionate consideration given to Turkish interests in the face of the threat situation, goes nowhere. Last but not least, Kobane is part of the EU, because of the size of the Kurdish population in many EU countries. They have close ties to their peers in Syria, and in Iraq, but also in Turkey, and Iran. The aftershocks of the war are therefore clearly felt here. Good governance does not remove, but constructively addresses the requirements of this community.

Defeat in Kobane has far-reaching implications

The defeat of Kobane would be more than just a propaganda success for the IS. It would extend their caliphate’s physical and political border to Turkey. The IS would have defeated the Syrian Kurdish YPG, the United States and its Arab allies, the European Union and Turkey. The IS would gain more sympathy among militant Islamists around the world, and win more recruits to the military expansion of its “caliphate”.

Politically and militarily, Turkey would be able to permanently stop the IS, and help the Kurds in Kobane. They do not, though. Instead, Turkey has stationed tank formations along its southern boder, in sight of Kobane and watches as the Islamists advance. Turkish security forces prevent hundreds of volunteers crossing into Syria, who want to help the Kurds in Kobane. President Erdogan has repeatedly compared the PKK with the IS, while other decision-makers express that in Kobane not civilians, but only the militants of two terrorist groups – the PKK and IS – are fighting each other.

For Ankara, the fall of the Assad regime is part of the international strategy against the IS. The Turkish government wants above all a weakened PYD and PKK. This includes the destruction of the banner of the PYD, Kurdish self-ruled cantons in Kobane, and in two other places in northern Syria. Help for the Kurdish fighters of the PYD in Kobane came from Turkey, thus supporting a terrorist organization all the same. In do doing so, the AKP government endangers the peace process with the PKK  in Turkey. Even with the demands for a corridor for Kurdish fighters through Turkey to Kobane, Ankara has not relented. Recent changes in the Turkish attitude cannot be excluded due to increased internal and external pressure, as is currently the view of Turkey’s willingness to allow the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga passage to Kobane.

Urgent action and support for the Syrian Kurds

The cry for help from Kobane seems to be heard. According to the UN, it is the USA that is providing the most assistance. But the EU and Germany have a responsibility to contribute effectively, in order that Kobane does not become a new Srebrenica. Urgent action is needed, especially with regard to the demands of the Kurds, to establish a corridor under the supervision of the UN, and for humanitarian and military aid to defend Kobane. Turkey’s demand to build a security zone along the border with Syria, to receive refugees and to secure its own borders, is looked at suspiciously by the Kurds. They views this as an attempt to crush Kurdish self-governing cantons, and to control the Kurds. The EU and Germany could help inspire Turkey to a adopt more constructive attitude towards Kobane.

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