By Robert Olson
July 14, 2015
A Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in the
Syrian city of Ain al-Arab, also known as Kobani, in this Jan. 30, 2015 file
On June 24, the
Kurdish city of Kobani astride the Syrian-Turkish border was once again
attacked by forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as
the Islamic State (IS).
In September 2014 it
was also attacked and endured a six-month siege in which the city of 200,000
was largely emptied, except for a few thousand brave Kurdish forces that remained
and continued to fight, despite the virtual destruction of the city.
Fortunately, by the time of the second siege, Kurdish defenders were well
prepared and able to expelled IS forces.
The two sieges of
Kobani are good examples of what historians' term “meta-history.” Meta-history
occurs when a situation developed in a localized context subsequently comes to
epitomize larger, macro historical developments.
The battle for Kobani
fits well into such a historical pattern.
It must be recalled
that the first battle of Kobani was fought largely between Syrian Kurdish
forces called People's Protection Units (YPG), the strongest Kurdish
nationalist force in Syria, and the IS. The YPG has assisted by the Kurdistan
Workers' Party (PKK), with whom it is affiliated and which sent several
thousand fighters from Turkey to fight alongside the YPG. During the conflict,
these two forces were also assisted by several hundred fighters (peshmerga)
from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.
It is important to note
several thousand Kurdish fighters from Iran also serve in the ranks of the YPG
and the PKK. Thus, in the battle for Kobani, Kurds from the four most heavily
populated Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria fought in the battle
of the first siege of Kobani. These fighters represented much of the 35 million
Kurds living in the Middle East. It is important to note as well that these
fighters do not politically represent, perhaps, even a majority of the 35
million Kurds of the Middle East. But they do represent much of the Kurdish
populations who do have strong sentiments in favor of Kurdish nationalism and
the rights of Kurds to have political autonomy, and some want independence.
The siege of Kobani in
the fall of 2014 also foreshadows the changes in the “War on Terrorism” by a
US-led coalition. Even as the YPG and PKK were fighting off brutal attacks by
IS, the US State Department noted that the PKK was a terrorist organization.
This is because the PKK has carried out terrorist attacks on the Turkish state
during the 31 years of conflict between the two antagonists. Turkey is an
important ally in NATO and a strategic partner of the US. As a result of the
battle for Kobani, the US felt that it could no longer consider the YPG and its
political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as a terrorist organization
largely because of their courageous battle against IS -- the terrorist bete
noir of the US-led war on terror.
Even as the battle of
Kobani raged, it became clear in the media in Turkey as well as in
international media that Turkey was supporting IS with logistical, medical and
weapons aid. It became clear that Turkey supported at least some of the
objectives of IS and was reluctant to be a viable member of the US-led war on
This relationship in
and of itself demonstrates the contradictions of the war on terror and its
ineffectualness both in Iraq and in Syria. Turkey perceived the YPG and PKK as
much more threatening to its perceived national security than the IS -- a
supposed global threat but not perceived as such by Turkey's decision makers.
By late June and early
July 2015, after YPG and PKK forces with aid from Arab Sunni tribes and
elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces were successful in driving IS
forces from the strategic town of Tel Abyad, situated along the Turkish-Syrian
border about 40 miles north of IS's capital city of ar-Raqqa. Turkey then
responded that it might invade Syria and establish a no-fly zone up to six to
nine miles deep, or more, to be occupied by Turkish troops and that would also
serve as a refugee-holding region for some of the estimated 1.8 million
refugees in Turkey resulting from the civil war in Syria.
It is estimated in the
Turkish press that it would probably take a force of 12,000 to 18,000 troops, depending
on the scale of the planned battle, to achieve the abovementioned goals.
Recep Tayyib Erdoğan announced on June 27: “I am addressing the whole world: we
will never allow a state to be formed in Syria south of our border.”
The conundrum for the
US is whether to oppose, approve or acquiesce to such a proposed Turkish
invasion of northern Syria and do so in spite of its announced unhappiness with
Turkey's lackadaisical support for the war against IS. Turkey argues that such
a war is legitimate because the YPG and PKK are both terrorist organizations.
The situation becomes
more complicated because the US is a major arms and weapons supplier to Turkey.
It also has US military personnel stationed at the NATO İncirlik Air Base,
where the US-led coalition and Turkey are training forces to fight Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad. The US also supplies weapons to the YPG, which
shares them with the PKK. It is also is the source of most of the air strikes,
around 7,000 to 10,000 so far, depending on how one counts.
The predicament of the
US and others engaged in the War on Terror in Iraq and Syria is who to support,
especially when all of the parties involved stress strongly that they, too, are
fighting against terrorists. Why should the US object, at least very
strenuously, when Washington claims that it is leading the war against
The battle of Kobani
and Tel Abyad are vivid examples -- meta-histories -- embedded in the
contradictions and dilemmas of a global war on terror and the nationalist
demands of regional and local forces who also stress that they too are fighting
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst.