The Levant Exclusive – by Samantha North*
Istanbul’s protestors are out in force once more. Last night, the streets erupted, with cars blazing, windows smashed, and volleys of the usual tear gas unleashed by Turkish police. But this was not just another anti-government protest. This time, much more is at stake, mainly the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The world is angry about their impending fate, and wants to make sure the powers that be know about it. Protests are happening not only in Istanbul, but in cities like New York, London and Berlin.
And the reason for all these protests? Across the country from Istanbul, just over the Syrian border, a city stands on the brink of disaster and bloodshed. Its people are sitting ducks, almost out of ammunition, trapped and awaiting the approach of a ruthless force intent on wiping them out.
The Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane is surrounded by murderous Islamic State militants. They have been moving closer for weeks, but the world has done nothing. So far, American airstrikes have not halted the advance of IS fighters on the town, which is populated by Kurdish, Christian, Turkmen, and other minority groups. They will all be slaughtered if the militants take over the city.
Kobane’s brave inhabitants are stubbornly hanging on to battle IS in the surrounding villages. But IS is powerful, and without additional support from outside, the Kurds risk being outgunned. They are uniquely brave fighters, particularly the women, who have been attracting worldwide admiration and support for their willingness to do battle alongside the men. A female Kurdish suicide bomber blew herself up yesterday, killing 27 IS fighters. The suicide bomb approach seems uncommon among Kurdish fighters and reveals a sense of great desperation. But despite all this, the key global powers still continue to hold back vital military support that could snatch Kobane at the last minute from the jaws of IS.
Turkey is attracting strong criticism as the NATO member closest to the conflict. As the nation with the most at stake, people are urging Turkey to act against IS and to support the Kurds. But so far Turkey has held back, even going so far as to use tear gas against Kurdish refugees trying to cross the border and escape IS. All this in spite of Turkey’s previously lax attitude to thousands of Syrian refugees, providing them with purpose-built camps and allowing them to live freely on the streets of Istanbul and other cities, despite potentially detrimental effects on the city’s security and overall social fabric.
But now Turkey has changed its tune, and people are wondering why. As a NATO member, its lack of action can be taken as a reflection of the entire organisation. If Kobane falls and thousands die, the world will blame NATO for standing idly by. It has been said that Turkey is reluctant to lend military support to the Kurds, who were long viewed as a terrorist force opposing the Turkish state. The Turkish president has likened IS to the Kurdish separatist group PKK – stating that both are ‘terrorist organisations’ (clearly an inane comparison). But if the alternative is having IS set up shop directly on the Turkish border, isn’t an about-face on the Kurdish issue certainly the lesser of the two evils?
This situation is serious and involves far more than just soft power, but nevertheless, Turkey’s reputation is at stake once again. Will it take the moral high road, and help the Kurds in their time of need? Or will it mis-handle the issue simply by doing nothing but ordering its police to keep dishing out their infamous tear gas, both at the Syrian border and in Taksim Square, until the people of Kobane are nothing more than a distant and bloody memory?
Samantha North is a British journalist based in Turkey.