What is the story?
The Kurds are the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. They find themselves at the centre of a major international and regional crisis. Fighters from Islamic State (Isis) have laid siege to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Some 180,000 Kurds have fled across the Turkish border in recent weeks.
A US-led military coalition has been pounding Isis positions. But air strikes have not stopped the jihadis, who are on the brink of seizing the town and establishing an armed fiefdom next door to Turkey, a Nato member. So far Turkey has refused to intervene. The crisis poses a political dilemma for Ankara, with its own restive Kurdish population. There have been violent clashes inside Turkey involving Kurdish protesters who want the Ankara government to do more.
How this happened
The 2011 uprising against Syria’s autocratic president, Bashar al-Assad, had many consequences. One was that Syrian Kurds, who live predominantly in the north of the country, seized control of their towns and villages. Fighters from the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish opposition party, took over. In summer 2012 they set up checkpoints and raised the PYD’s banned flag.
Some believe Assad deliberately allowed the Syrian Kurds to establish a degree of self-government. His goal was to punish Turkey’s then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who supported the rebels. The moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) dominated the early stages of the anti-Assad revolt. There were local skirmishes between Arab FSA and Kurdish PYD fighters. Subsequently extremist militias supplanted the FSA and grew powerful. In June, Isis staged a series of stunning military advances in Iraq, effectively erasing the border with Syria. Isis now threatens to engulf Syrian Kurdish areas held by the PYD, right on Turkey’s doorstep.
How does Turkey view Syria?
Turkey’s policy towards Syria is key. From autumn 2011 Erdoğan supported the uprising, condemning Assad’s “savagery” and calling on the Syrian president to heed the lessons of the Arab spring and quit.
More broadly, Ankara’s Islamist government backed the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded groups across the Middle East. On Syria, Erdoğan called for international intervention – a no-fly zone, humanitarian corridor and so on, which no one else was prepared to enforce.
But Assad’s survival has confounded Turkey’s calculations: analysts say Erdoğan over-committed to the Syrian rebels and underestimated the impact on Turkey of the humanitarian crisis caused by the war. As the Isis threat has become clearer, Turkey has faced criticism from the US for allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Syria. The battle for Kobani has also raised the vexed question of the spillover into Turkey’s Kurdish minority, who want to help their embattled kinfolk inside Syria.
What is Turkey’s role in the anti-Isis coalition?
Turkey, Nato’s only Muslim member, has been lukewarm about the strategy of the anti-jihadi coalition assembled by Barack Obama after the Isis advances in Iraq. It has refused to allow its air bases to be used for attacks in either Syria or Iraq. Ankara insists, in the words of one senior figure, that “the anti-Isis strategy will fail without targeting the Assad regime”, but the US, Britain and others are not prepared to do this, preferring instead to use military pressure to force a political solution on Damascus.
Turkey fears that attacking Isis may end up strengthening Assad and wants to see greater efforts to train and arm non-jihadi rebel units. Turkey’s critics accuse it of exploiting the Kobani crisis for its own domestic purposes. Erdoğan claims there is no difference between Isis and the PKK, the Kurdish armed movement, which has effectively been at war with the Turkish state for 30 years. The PKK’s allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the military wing of the PYD – are defending Kobani.
What is happening on the ground?
Kobani holds a symbolic role as the first Syrian town captured by Kurdish forces in July 2012. Now the Kurds are cut off from supply lines and surrounded by Isis forces on three sides. The fourth, the Turkish border, is guarded by the Turkish army. The Turks have allowed Syrian Kurds to escape from the Isis advance and flee to Turkey, but they have also prevented Turkish and Syrian Kurds from joining the fight.
“This confusing combination of offering help on the one hand but enforcing isolation on the other has led to anger and frustration among Kurds all over the region,” one commentator noted. In recent days there have been clashes and killings across a dozen towns in Turkey’s south-east, and in Istanbul and Ankara, leaving at least 24 dead. Countless buildings have been torched and curfews imposed, including in Diyarbakir, the biggest city in the south-east. The stalled peace process between Ankara and the PKK has indirectly fuelled tensions.
What are the prospects for Kurdish statehood?
Over the summer the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, announced moves towards Kurdish statehood. It coincided with a major military advance by Kurdish peshmerga fighters, who seized the oil-rich town of Kirkuk and other areas when the Iraqi army fled. Since then Isis has clawed back some of this territory.
Barzani has mooted a referendum on whether these new areas – home to Kurds, but to other groups too – should become a part of Kurdistan. The drive to independence has slowed following the departure in August of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s unpopular Shia prime minister. Kurdistan has been locked in a bitter dispute with Baghdad since 2003 over how to divvy up the country’s oil revenues, and over the Kurds’ status in a federal Iraq. Turkey’s relations with Irbil, meanwhile, have dramatically improved in recent years.
Internal Kurdish politics
Intra-Kurdish politics is notoriously complex. Most Kurds agree they want greater autonomy. And many would like statehood too. But there are numerous parties dotting the Kurdish political landscape, with Turkey’s role also crucial. In Iraqi Kurdistan, two rival dynastic blocs – the Barzani and Talibani families – run the show. The Barzani-dominated Kurdish Democratic party, or KDP, has its capital in Irbil. The Talibani-founded Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) controls Sulimaniyah. The two parties fought a war in the mid-1990s, but are now part of autonomous Kurdistan’s regional government.
In Syria, meanwhile, the PYD has established an informal “capital” in the north-east Syrian frontier town of Qamishli. There is also a rival political bloc of 12 Kurdish political parties, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), backed by Turkey and the KDP. Ankara views the KNC alliance as less of a threat than the PYD. There are signs of collaboration. In 2012 all Kurdish political groups met in Irbil for a peace conference.
Where can I read more?
The International Crisis Group provides useful analysis of the situation in Syria and Turkey, with regular reports and updates. Turkey’s Today’s Zaman newspaper is a helpful English-language resource, with a good Twitter account. Hurriyet Daily News provides an alternative view. The Iraqi Kurdish TV channel Rudaw has a team of reporters – one of whom made a valiant attempt to secure an interview with Isis fighters on the frontline.
Bianet is the English language site of an independent Turkish press agency.
Michael M Gunter’s well-received book Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War analyses the development of Kurdish autonomy in Syria as a result of the civil war.
• The map in this article was amended on Friday 10 October 2014 to correct the mislabelling of Iraq.
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