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Fight for Kobani Reveals Boiling Cauldron of Regional Tensions

As the US continues to target ISIS positions with aerial bombardments, clashes overnight in cities across Turkey left at least a dozen people dead

Jon Queally

 Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani, which is less than a mile from the Turkish border. (Photo: Murad Sezer/Reuters)
Ethnic Kurds across Turkey, human rights organizations inside Syria, and others (including the U.S. government) are calling for the Turkish government to more forcefully intervene in the fight against ISIS militants now taking place in the city of Kobani, a Kurdish stronghold that sits on the border between the two countries.

As the U.S. continued to target ISIS positions with aerial bombardments on Wednesday, clashes overnight in cities across Turkey left at least a dozen people dead as members of Turkey's Kurdish community angry with the government for not acting to save their fellow Kurds in Kobani, clashed with police and security forces.

As Agence France-Presse reports:

Some of the deadliest demonstrations erupted in Diyarbakir, the largest town in Turkey's majority-Kurdish southeast region, with Turkey's private Dogan news agency reporting eight killed and many wounded as police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesters who burned cars and damaged businesses.

At least 14 people were killed in violent demonstrations in several Turkish towns and cities, primarily in the southeastern region, including three killed in Mardin, two in Siirt, one in Batman and another in Mus. Violent demonstrations also broke out in Istanbul, the country’s commercial hub, where one protester was hospitalised after being hit in the head by a gas canister, Dogan reported.

Thousands of people had joined the demonstrations called by the main pro-Kurdish party, the People's Democratic Party (HDP), against Ankara's failure so far to intervene militarily against Islamic State group jihadists fighting for the Syrian border town of Kobane.

Though the U.S. has been criticized for the counter-productive nature of its military action in the region, Syrian rights groups afraid of ISIS capturing additional territory called on the international community to do more.

According to the Associated Press:

In their appeal, seven rights groups — including the Kurdish Organization for Human Rights and the Human Rights Organization in Syria — said Islamic State fighters' offensive on Kobani and their "inhuman practices and measures have taken a clear form of persecution and ethnic cleansing."

The statement also said that the fighting over Kobani has displaced nearly 280,000 people who fled fearing "killings, executions, throat slitting, beheadings, mayhem and kidnaping of women and children."

The Islamic State group has conquered vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, declaring a self-styled caliphate governed by its strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah. The militants have massacred captured Syrian and Iraqi troops, terrorized minorities and beheaded two American journalists and two British aid workers.

Last week, Islamic State fighters also beheaded nine Kurdish fighters, including three women, captured in clashes around Kobani.

With a new wave of airstrikes that were reported as "more effective" in pushing back ISIS fighters on Wednesday, the U.S. continued to press its bombing campaign as part of the solution in Syria. Reporting by the Los Angeles Times discussed both the strategic importance of Kobani and why the fight over the city has so activated the Kurdish community worldwide.

Seizing Kobani would be a major achievement for Islamic State, opening another supply and smuggling corridor to the Turkish border from the group’s de facto capital, Raqqah, 75 miles to the southeast. Taking the Kurdish stronghold despite the U.S.-led bombing campaign would also be a huge propaganda coup.

For the Kurds, the loss of Kobani would be catastrophic, a death knell for one of the three semiautonomous Kurdish zones that have emerged in northern Syria since government forces left the area more than two years ago. Kurds have long been frustrated in their quest for independence for their homeland, which stretches over portions of Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Outgunned but resolute Kurdish militiamen have so far held off the militants. Much of greater Kobani’s population of about 400,000 has fled the area, most to nearby Turkey.

“Kobani will not fall,” vowed Ismat Sheik, a Kurdish political representative reached Tuesday by cell phone in the besieged city. “We will resist.... We will not leave Kobani and will not give up.”

The U.S.-led coalition carried out five airstrikes overnight in the area, destroying several Islamic State vehicles and a tank and killing combatants, the Pentagon said.

Towers of smoke and debris could be seen rising above the outskirts of Kobani in the apparent aftermath of the coalition bombardment.

And the Guardian's Ewen MacAskill reports on the pressure now being applied on Turkey by the Obama administration which is now publicly voicing concern that Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not fulfilling his nation's duty to meet its NATO obligations.

While the Turkish parliament has given the go ahead for Turkey to engage in military action, [Erdoğan] has so far refused to commit forces. Ankara is in a dilemma: it wants to remove the threat posed by Isis on its border but is concerned that a consequence of this will be to help keep the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in power.

Turkish tanks are sitting along the border watching as Isis forces move in on the mainly Kurdish city of Kobani. Ankara wants the US to help establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria before it contemplates sending in troops.

The US counters that there is already a de facto no-fly zone in place. It would like to see Turkey, as a Muslim country and Nato ally, join the international coalition against Isis and to restrict the movement of volunteers from around the world crossing the Turkish border into Syria to join Isis.

An unnamed US official, quoted in the New York Times, was explicit: “There’s growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre less than a mile from its border. After all the fulminating about Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, they’re inventing reasons not to act to avoid another catastrophe.

“This isn’t how a Nato ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border.”

Lastly, in an analysis that also appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday, the American anthropologist and political writer David Graeber—while not ignoring the disastrous role the U.S. military has played in creating the mess—makes a case for local military intervention in Kobani. Arguing that what is now occurring in northwest Syria has at least some parallels with the anti-fascist campaign that fueled the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's, Graeber writes:

Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.

The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the “YJA Star” militia (the “Union of Free Women”, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.

How can something like this happen and still be almost entirely ignored by the international community, even, largely, by the International left?

ISIS has targeted Kobani, concludes Graeber, "to take revenge against many of those same revolutionary militias in Kobane, declaring their intention to massacre and enslave – yes, literally enslave – the entire civilian population" while "the Turkish army stands at the border preventing reinforcements or ammunition from reaching the defenders."

"Is the world – and this time most scandalously of all, the international left – really going to be complicit in letting history repeat itself?"


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