The Meaning of Kobani Henri J. Barkey

Published on October 18, 2014

Whether Kobani falls or stands, it has become a defining moment of nationhood and identity for Syrian and Turkish Kurds.

The Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani has been under a relentless siege by the Islamic State (IS) for the past few weeks. Surprisingly its defenders have endured, defying the long odds. Whether it falls or survives, Kobani is likely to become for Syrian and Turkish Kurds what Halabja became for Iraqi Kurds in 1988: a defining moment of nationhood and identity.

Halabja helped propel and shape the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, now called the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In 1988, in the midst of the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the sleepy Iraqi Kurdish town near the Iranian border, killing some 5,000, mostly civilians. Unnoticed at the time, Halabja became for much of the world a symbol of the larger campaign of mass extermination against the Kurds, as well as a quintessential example of a crime against humanity.

For the Kurds, it marked yet another time the world stood by and watched silently; theirs was an inconvenient predicament, a sacrifice at the altar of grander strategic purposes. Saddam Hussein enjoyed the support of the West precisely because he was locked in a duel with Iran, then a larger threat.

Fast forward to today: Until the U.S. Air Force began a systematic bombing campaign against IS positions around Kobani, the city had been left largely to fend for itself. Skittish and worried about Turkey’s reaction to support for Syrian Kurds, the Obama Administration initially hesitated but then committed itself to bombing the besieging IS forces after they had penetrated the city’s outer defenses.

Kobani will have two different effects on the region. First and foremost, it will be an important marker in the construction and consolidation of Kurdish nationhood. The exploits of Kobani’s defenders are quickly joining the lore of Kurdish fighting prowess. After all, the Iraqi Kurdish forces, not to mention the Iraqi army, folded in the face of a determined IS onslaught only a couple of months ago. The longer the city resists, the greater will be the reputational impact (although it is already assuming mythic proportions).

There is another, rather unique aspect of the resistance that is adding to its mythic character: the role of women in the fight. The juxtaposition of an Islamic State, which enslaves women or covers them from head to toe, with the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has large numbers of women fighting and dying alongside men, is particularly striking. Social and other media outlets have brimmed with stories of the heroism and sacrifice of these women. The fighting in Kobani, and especially the emergence of women fighters, has now entered the Kurdish lore and imagination.

Resistance in Kobani has also mobilized Kurds across the world, but especially in Turkey—notwithstanding the government’s earlier courageous attempt to initiate a peace process with its own Kurdish insurgent movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Turkish government faces a dilemma, however: a victory for the PYD, which is an ally, if not the creation, of the PKK, will not only strengthen the PKK’s bargaining position but will also potentially enable the Kurds to construct another Kurdish autonomous region on its borders after the KRG. That, in Ankara’s view, would be a strategic disaster, because it would naturally embolden Turkish Kurds to demand the same. In Turkey alone, some 36 people have already died in Kobani-related demonstrations.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s blandishments to the contrary, Turkey prefers to see a PYD defeat in Kobani, even if this, in the medium term, causes a spike in refugees streaming across the border. For Turkey, this was a Faustian choice. They lost. Moreover, by attempting to drive a hard if not impossible bargain with Washington, which demanded that it target Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as much as it was targeting IS, the Turks first and foremost alienated the Obama administration. This in turn has enabled the White House to finally ignore Ankara’s preferences and cooperate (at least in order to conduct bombing runs) with the PYD, an organization Turkey despises and sees as an enemy.

CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin had high praise for the Kurds in Syria: “Kurdish fighters had managed to regain territory that had been lost previously, adding that they had done “a yeoman’s work in terms of standing their ground.” The American decision to help Syrian Kurds despite Turkish objections will also have serious repercussions in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the leaders had until recently closely aligned themselves with Turkey. Ankara has already gotten started on damage control: a Deputy Prime Minister disingenuously argued it was Turkey that convinced the U.S. to help the PYD in Kobani.

Fall or survive, Kobani has assumed an importance few could have anticipated, becoming the rallying cry for Syrian and Turkish Kurds as much as Halabja was for their Iraqi brethren. Moreover, Kobani’s plight has once again drawn the whole international community’s attention to the region’s Kurdish question.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.