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Kurds sole ‘boots on ground’ against Islamic State

Sandhya Jain is Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. The current Essay is part of her ongoing research on Balochistan province of Pakistan. The views expressed are personal.
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  • October 09, 2014

    US President Obama’s decision to fight the Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham (Daesh) by air has come under fire as the heroic Kurdish resistance in Kobane (Kurdish for Ain al-Arab) threatens to crumble with mercenaries storming the northern Syrian city, across the Turkish border. Istanbul’s role in the humanitarian crisis – which could result in mass slaughter of the local populace on a scale far worse than the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in August – has begun to agitate its own Kurd citizenry. Daesh, meanwhile, got a morale booster when the Pakistani Taliban (October 4) offered allegiance and asked militants across the region to help establish a global Islamic caliphate.

    Bitter last ditch battles are being fought by Kurdish men and women, including boys and girls barely out of their teens, who are the sole ‘boots on the ground’ against the Daesh. Observers feel Western air cover is ineffective; California Republican Representative Ed Royce, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, calls it inadequate. In Turkey angry crowds are protesting against Ankara’s inaction; police used teargas and water cannon to disperse mobs. Turkish media reported that 14 persons died and dozens wounded across several cities, five provinces are under curfew.

    Turkish President Recep Erdogan insists that only ground operations can defeat Daesh. But even with the imminent fall of Kobane, and despite authorisation from Parliament, he has not deployed his army across the border. Instead, Turkey remains the main transit route for foreigners intending to join the Daesh, and it is to Urfa (Turkey) that injured Daesh fighters go to hospitals for free medical care!

    Erdogan has refused to answer charges that he was not allowing Turkish Kurds (PKK or Kurdistan Workers’ Party) to help the beleaguered Syrian Kurds (Yekîneyên Parastina Ge or YPG). He is adamant that the West act against both Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and Daesh, an impossible demand. Washington has urged Turkey to fight Daesh and leave Assad for the present.

    Kobane’s fall will give the Daesh control over vast stretches of the Turkish-Syrian border and provide a direct route to its units in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa (headquarters of Daesh). It is to achieve this goal that Chechen commander Abu Omar al-Shishani has made the conquest of Kobane a personal mission, especially as US air power and ground action by Iraqis has made further progress in Iraq difficult.

    Soner Cagaptay, analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, feels Erdogan is holding Kobane Kurds ‘hostage’ to weaken PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is negotiating with the regime from prison. The PKK has been outlawed by Turkey and the United States. Erdogan wants Kurdish fighters to join the Syrian rebels against President Assad, another unrealistic demand.

    Some analysts feel that to succeed, Washington must cooperate with the Syrian Kurds (YPG) as Kurdish fighters alone have proved willing and capable of taking on the Daesh. But that seems unlikely as Turkey (a NATO member) is unwilling to strengthen the YPG or the PKK. Interestingly, Erdogan recently forced US vice-president Joe Biden to apologise for his remark that he (Erdogan) had admitted to him (Biden) that Turkey had made mistakes by allowing foreign fighters to cross into Syria, which helped the Daesh militia.

    As Daesh flags began to flutter in parts of Kobane from October 6, reports came in of female soldiers committing suicide to escape humiliation and torture at their hands. On October 3, the German magazine BILD reported that 19-year-old Ceylan Özalp shot herself after running out of ammunition on the outskirts of Kobane. The Kurds are heavily outnumbered – Daesh has about 9,000 terrorists armed with tanks and rocket launchers – while Kurds have no heavy weaponry and are running out of ammunition.

    The Daesh is reportedly posting pictures of beheaded Kurdish fighters, including women, captured near Kobane. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that nine Kurdish soldiers, including three women, were captured in the city and beheaded, and pictures posted on social networking sites. Since September, the Daesh has captured dozens of Kurdish villages near Turkey and displaced over three lakh Kurds. However, as its own villages began to be hit by Daesh shelling, and given that only a railway line separates Kobane from Turkey, Istanbul has now deployed tanks at the border to protect its territory.

    For months, until the Daesh’s superior fire power and numbers threatened to overwhelm it, the YPG of the Rojava de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria held the fort across five frontlines across northern Syria. The Iraqi peshmerga (Kurdistan Regional Government or KRG) receives military aid from the US, UK, France and Germany, but the YPG has been ignored due to suspicions that it is close to President Assad, Iran, and the PKK of Abdullah Ocalan. The YPG is so under equipped that it lacks even body armour and helmets, and depends upon the black market to buy arms and ammunition.

    Despite this, when the KRG was beaten back from Mount Sinjar and the Yazidi began to be persecuted, the YPG moved into Iraq and protected the Yazidi and provided them safe passage for asylum in Turkey. It even trained a thousand Yazidis and sent them back to Sinjar as local defence units under YPG and PKK supervision. This has caused tension between the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, though both sides have set aside their differences for the time being.

    So far, the Syrian Kurds have tenaciously held three enclaves on the Syrian-Turkish border despite severe pressure. But since September 18th, Daesh has launched a punishing offensive against the ill-equipped YPG, concentrating on the strategic Kobane which is vital to a supply route used by foreign fighters joining Daesh.

    The Daesh offensive coincides suspiciously with its mysterious release of 49 Turkish consulate employees. Many Kurds, including Turkey’s PKK, suspect that Istanbul helped Daesh’s sudden progress against the Kurds in Syria by releasing prisoners and allowing foreign fighters to cross its border. Other sources say Turkey may be unwilling to oppose the Daesh due to its indirect threats against “Constantinople” (the old name of Istanbul) in a statement of September 22, which urged followers to kill Americans, Australians, Frenchmen and others by any available means.

    Another consideration is the safety of Turkish soldiers guarding the tomb of Suleiman Shah, grandfather of the first Ottoman Sultan, Osman I. The tomb, closely identified with Turkish identity and culture, lies in Syria, in territory now controlled by Daesh. Under the Treaty of Ankara, 1921, which created the new nation of Syria, the Ottoman tomb remained a Turkish exclave, flying the Turkish flag and protected by a guard of honour of Turkish soldiers.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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