For two years, the Kurds have been warning the world about the Islamic State.
Accusations by the Kurds that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar support jihadists in Syria were dismissed as conspiracy theories until Joe Biden confirmed them. The son of Salih Muslim, the co-president of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, in Rojava — the Kurdish region in northern Syria — was killed fighting ISIS in 2013, nearly a year before the rest of the world even heard about the militant group. Muslim tried to spread word to international actors, but was denied meetings, even visas.
Adding to the sense of cynicism, the same states that previously supported the Islamic State are now part of the coalition against it. And yet again, though the airstrikes finally started to have an effect on the ground a few days ago, it has been the Kurds fighting alone in Kobani. While American officials openly admit that Kobani is “not a priority” and suggest that there are no groups on the ground to cooperate with, the entire city of Kobani armed itself, from teenagers to senior citizens. In the anticipation of genocide, they defend Kobani with Kalashnikovs. For the same reasons why they were excluded from peace negotiations in Geneva, the Kurds are abandoned in Kobani today: the lack of genuine interest of the international community in resolving the crisis, and an instinct to appease NATO member Turkey.
In order to weaken Kurdish autonomy in Syria, Turkey financially, militarily, and logistically supported jihadists against Rojava. Right now, the Turkish army can literally see Islamic State fighters but does nothing to repel them. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set conditions for support for Kobani: A buffer zone in northern Syria — basically a Turkish occupation of Rojava — should be created. The Kurds should join the Syrian-Arab opposition, and The PYD should distance itself from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK.
These terms are unacceptable to Kurds. They are also an immoral abuse of the desperate situation of Kobani. Salih Muslim has responded as much, saying Kurds fought the Syrian regime in Rojava and have been opposing it since 2004: “We were being tortured while you dined with Assad.”
Turkey portrays itself as the victim and refuses to carry the burden in the fight against the militants. But Turkey is not a victim but an active perpetrator in this war. Erdogan has been pushing this buffer zone for a long time, previously “to fight Assad” — it is clear that his priority is to destroy Rojava, not the Islamic State.
This is obvious through his actions. Through support for Kobani, Erdogan had the chance to show that he is genuine about the peace process with the PKK. Instead he has authorized attacks against the Kurds, who crossed the border to defend Kobani, and bombed the PKK, which has allied with the Kurdish forces in Syria that have gained an international reputation as the Islamic State’s strongest enemy. With these actions, Erdogan not only facilitates further attacks on Kobani but uses its siege as his golden moment to weaken the Kurds, dramatically exposing his complete lack of interest in peace with the PKK.
Government officials in Turkey have stated that the PKK and the Islamic State are the same to them. Yet, in his refusal to support Rojava, Erdogan suggests that the self-governing, gender-egalitarian, inclusive, grass-roots democratic project of the region are a bigger “terrorist” threat to him than ISIS, which beheads, crucifies, and systematically rapes people and sells them as sex slaves.
Clashes between the Kurds and racist and Islamist groups as well as the police in Turkey have already killed more than 40 people. The Kurds do not want the Turkish army to intervene. Rather they want Turkey to stop supporting the Islamic State, to dump the buffer zone plan, and to let people and aid cross the border into Kobani.
No one should expect the Kurds to tolerate the preventable fall of Kobani. Already, they have started popular uprisings, removed border fences, replaced state flags at border posts with Kurdish flags, and occupied streets, parliaments, press headquarters, embassies, and airports across the world within hours. This is only a small glimpse of the mobilization capabilities of the PKK-affiliated Kurdish movement.
For one month, the world has been predicting that “Kobani will fall any minute.” But, without arms or outside support, Kobani still stands thanks to Kurdish resistance. This fortitude should reignite hope in the Middle East, torn by unjust wars, ethnic tensions, and sectarianism, that independent democracy and sustainable peace are possible. That freedom is no utopia. They do not have to pick between evils.
It can even give the international community a chance to save face by averting another genocide. Kobani needs arms, and Rojava needs political recognition. If the peace process ends, if the Islamic State commits a massacre in Kobani, if more people die in clashes in Turkish streets, the Kurds will rightfully blame Erdogan and his government — but also the inaction of the United States and its allies, which appeased a Turkish state that supported jihadists. It is time for the world to pick which side of history to be on.
Dilar Dirik is a Kurdish activist and a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.