‘Everybody Will Be Responsible if a Massacre Happens’

Kurdish officials say they have been betrayed by the Turkish government, which is preventing them from fighting the Islamic State in besieged Kobani.

Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

ISTANBUL — Salih Muslim doesn’t understand why the world is taking so long to save Kobani. The co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political party that dominates Syria’s Kurdish region, has been beating a path to capitals across Europe — but more than three weeks after the Islamic State first besieged this town in northern Syria, he says Kobani’s desperate defenders still haven’t received the support they need.

On Oct. 6, the jihadist group entered Kobani for the first time, and it is currently engaged in street fighting with the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). "The city is resisting daesh [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State]," Muslim told Foreign Policy. "And it will resist to the end."

Muslim blames the Turkish government for not living up to an agreement with him for the dire state of the town’s defenses. He visited Ankara over the weekend, and told FP that Turkish officials had committed to allowing ammunition and YPG fighters to reach Kobani by crossing the border with Turkey. However, he says that the Turks have failed to keep their promise — even as the Islamic State has pushed closer and closer to the Kurdish town.

"[Turkish officials] were in agreement that [daesh] is a threat not only to the Kurdish people, but the same for them and for all the Middle East. So we asked them to cooperate with us," Muslim said. "But until now, they actually didn’t do it." 

The acrimonious relationship between Ankara and the PYD is par for the course. The Kurdish political organization is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long guerilla war against the Turkish state. Turkish media reports also suggest that Ankara has its own conditions for the PYD: Turkish officials reportedly told Muslim that the Kurdish party must cut all ties with Bashar al-Assad and abandon all thoughts of independence or autonomy "if the PYD wants Syrian Kurds to have a good future."

Meanwhile, Muslim is pushing Washington and its allies to weigh in on the PYD’s side in its latest confrontation with Ankara. "All we want from the United States is to make some pressure on the Turkish government to do what they have promised," he said. 

Turkey is also trying to use the crisis in Kobani as leverage to get what it wants from Washington. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Oct. 7 that the town was about to fall, and that airstrikes alone would not be able to stop the jihadist advance. The only solution, he said, was a ground operation — which Turkish officials have signaled that they would be prepared to undertake, if the U.S.-led coalition also targets Assad’s regime as well as the Islamic State.

Muslim was critical of unilateral intervention by Ankara, which he said Kurdish citizens would consider a "Turkish invasion" of their homeland. However, he spoke positively of an international decision to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria, saying that he believed Kurds "will welcome any decision by the United Nations" to intervene.

For now, however, the Islamic State appears more determined to take Kobani than the group’s enemies are to defend it. Kurdish officials have claimed that the jihadist group has redirected fighters from multiple fronts to the town in recent days, so that they are now facing as many as 9,000 jihadist fighters. The Islamic State is also armed with heavy weaponry that the Kurdish fighters lack, allowing it to shell the town with impunity.

With the risk of the town falling into jihadist hands growing, the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State has recently increased its airstrikes around Kobani. But it may not be enough: Some Kurdish officials have criticized the airstrikes, saying that the jihadist fighters have learned to scatter when they hear the warplanes, only to renew their offensive once the threat has passed. "What we really need is ground support," said YPG spokesman Idris Nassan. "We need heavy weapons and ammunition in order to fend them off and defeat them."

An Islamic State victory in Kobani would echo far beyond this relatively isolated border town. Protests have already broken out in Istanbul and predominantly Kurdish regions over Turkish inaction in Kobani, which police have responded to with tear gas and water cannons. The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has also warned that a massacre in Kobani would end the peace talks between his group and the Turkish government, while the hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds who have already sought refuge in the country would be stuck there indefinitely. Meanwhile, an Islamic State victory would show that the U.S.-led coalition against the jihadist group is unwilling to weigh in decisively on the side of threatened civilians and anti-jihadist forces.  

Still, Muslim is waiting for someone to come to the rescue of the besieged town.

"If anything happens to Kobani, it will be the responsibility of everybody," he says, sounding tired. "Kobani has been besieged for 22 days, and we’ve been calling everybody to help, and everybody is seeing what’s going on. So everybody will be responsible if a massacre happens."

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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