Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Kobani and Tel Abyad: Meta-Histories of the ‘War on Terrorism’

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 photo.(Photo: AP)

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 terror.
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.
Turkish President 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 terrorism?
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 terrorism.
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst.

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