Deniz Çifçi, Researcher, London — Special to Ekurd.net
The outbreak of the Arab spring in the Middle East gave rise to hope in many. They believed that dictatorship regimes in the region could finally be removed. It was almost the first time Arab people raised their voices on the streets against the authoritarian political figures. However, neither opposition groups nor majority of the people who challenged existed authoritarian systems could successfully manage this process. Previous authoritarian regimes were either replaced by new anti-democratic systems or the existed political gap was filled by radical Islamic groups, such as Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). The Arab spring, thus, turned into chaos and conflict.
On the other hand, despite such turmoil in the Arab World, Kurds benefitted from this progression. Their continuous struggle subsequent to the re-shaping of the Middle East after the First World War, but principally the PKK’s struggle and political strategy, have been essential components in shaping the Kurds’ political vision and have also played vital roles in Kurds’ political achievements. The Kurds’ in Syria, namely Rojava or West Kurdistan political achievements are result of this struggle.
Rojava: As a Lab for Democratic Autonomy Model
The Kurds in Syria, Rojava, formed their own autonomous region in 2012, soon after conflict between Bashar Al-Assad regime and Syrian Opposition groups erupted. Although Rojava initially planned to join Syrian opposition group(s) on the condition that their political status would be recognized, Arab nationalism and some Islamist groups outright refused Kurds’ status claim. Two further significant points that impacted on the refusal of Kurds’ demands were also Turkey’s tough reactions to Rojava’s political organization, Democratic Union Party (Partîya Yekîtîya Demokratik-PYD),www.Ekurd.net and the opposition groups’ fear of losing Turkey’s support respectively. Upon rejection of their claims, PYD sided neither with Bashar Al Assad regime nor Syrian Opposition groups but took to their own approach, third way. In addition, soon after regime forces withdrew from Kurdish enclaves PYD constructed a Kurdish Autonomous Region. Along with its formation, the key to differing Rojava’s autonomy form existed autonomy models is designing of it around Abdullah Öcalan’s Democratic Autonomy Model understanding. Democratic autonomy is also proposed for other Kurdish regions. Presently it has been implemented in the Kurdish region in Turkey through a de-facto way.
In order to develop a relationship between all democratic autonomies in the Kurdish regions, Öcalan proposed democratic confederalism as a roof understanding. Thus, with a democratic autonomy model each Kurdish part will have their own political status; and with democratic confederalism there is potential for social, cultural, economic and political affiliations between the all Kurdish regions. To put simply, democratic confederalism will function as a supra-Identity. Öcalan’s strategy is a consequential motive behind Turkey’s tough reaction against Rojava’s Democratic Autonomy Formation. With further institutionalization of the Democratic Autonomy Model, Rojava region was administratively re-structured by forming three cantons; Jazira, Afrin and Kobanê. Each canton has its own local assembly, ministries, and almost all sub-government apparatus. Rojava in that sense was the exploratory region for practicing Democratic Autonomy Model and it is fair to note that it has been implemented successfully. Due to its democratic and decentralist character Democratic Autonomy is not only feared by Turkey. Other Arab countries, including Iran, also challenge this model because they are apprehensive that it will provoke ethnic and religious minorities in their regions to act for their own status. To prevent this outcome anti-Kurdish front initially sieged Rojava economically and politically and then enforced the Al-Nusra militarily over the area.
With construction and application of Democratic Autonomy Model in Rojava, in the context of democratic confederalism, Turkey and other members of anti-Kurdish bloc initiated immoral plans to destroy it. Turkey openly threatened the Kurds by saying she will not accept creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Rojava. Accordingly, Turkey aimed to prepare a buffer zone plan in Rojava. However, this had to be postponed, firstly because of the Kurds’ persistence, and secondly due to some reluctant Arab countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and Qatar and International powers. Although Turkey still maintains this desire, the anti-Kurdish front focused on creating alternative plans to destroy Rojava.
While these deceitful plans were made by the anti-Kurdish front, Kurds further developed and strengthened their political status and begun to attract western public attention. Due to the decentralist and democratic structure of Democratic Autonomy Model, it has become the focus. Their economic and political sanction and siege on Rojava placed the region in a difficult situation; however, Rojava remained determined and further proved its resistance will. Consequently, this shifted the anti-Kurdish front’s morale, creating more anxiety. To prevent this from developing they actioned another plan; provoked the Al-Nusra front to fight against the Kurds. The Anti-Kurd bloc provides Al-Nursa with most of the support required to remove Rojava’s status. To execute demands Al-Nusra issued ruthless polices against the Kurds; causing destruction to Kurdish villages and hundreds of civilian killings and kidnappings. Due to Al-Nusra’s strong military power and Sunni Arab grassroots, the anti-Kurdish front was adamant that it could defeat Rojava’s Kurdish Defence Forces (YPG) and thus, ultimately annihilate Rojava. However, contrary to what they expected Rojava actively resisted. Despite Al-Nursa’s political, logistic, and military superiority, they were unable to overthrow YPG even though Rojava challenged them with limited means. Subsequent to YPG’s victory, Rojava’s political model and counteraction symbolized Kurds’ struggle and honor, which further intensified Kurds’ national feelings in four Kurdish regions. Rojava’s resistance and victory soon gained the attention of International politics, particularly from western regions.
On the other hand, Al-Nusra’s unexpected defeat disappointed the anti-Kurdish front and intensified fears, especially of Turkish and Arab nationalism and Islamism. This is primarily because Rojava’s success has triggered to change to ethnic and religious maps in the Middle East. In this regard, the anti-Kurdish front developed yet another plan; ISIS.
Of course, this research does not imply that ISIS was created by these powers to solely fight against the Kurds. Considering the cross between political affiliations in the region but most importantly the consensus on their general stance against the Kurds, the anti-Kurdish front launched ISIS attacks on the Kurds. It is also important to note that ISIS considers the creation of Kurdish Autonomous Regions or State an enormous obstruction to it’s Islamic state formation project. This further strengthened the anti-Kurdish front’s motives to use ISIS in their fight against the Kurds in all Kurdish regions but particularly in Rojava.
Thus, ISIS has savagely assaulted Rojava since 2013 to destroy Rojava’s status and to successfully build a Wahabi-Salafi Islamic state in the Middle East. It has been proactive in abolishing Rojava. However, prior to achieving this goal, the anti-Kurdish front’s initial intentions with ISIS were to threaten Iraqi Kurdistan as they became close to gaining their independence subsequent to the fall of Mosul.
Within this context, the following two sections will discuss ISIS’s attacks on the Shangal region of Iraqi Kurdistan and Kobanê canton of Rojava, respectively.
ISIS’s Attack on Shangal and Aim to Postpone KRG’s Independence
Although ISIS has been active in Iraq for the last few years and has strengthened its power in Syria since 2012, neither regional nor international powers consider it seriously. Despite Rojava’s warnings over ISIS and attempts to impede its actions, international powers remained disinterested in the issue. Attention on ISIS grew dramatically subsequent to Mosul capture. Mosul’s strategic geographic position and as Iraq’s second largest and most protected city, its capture shocked many and heightened the awareness of ISIS. Following seizing Mosul, ISIS directed majority of its powers towards Baghdad and Iraqi regime controlled Sunni areas. No one expected that ISIS would attack the KRG, particularly given the following reasons;
• Although they do not have heavy weapons, more than 200 thousand Peshmerga forces were ready to protect the KRG.
• Like Sunni Arabs, the Kurds also had problems with the Nouri Al-Maliki led regime, even arriving to the brink of war on many occasions in 2012-13. The KRG provided legal and political protection for some of the Sunni Arab leaders, for example Tariq Al-Hashemi, against the Nouri Al- Maliki’s desire to punish them.
• ISIS was already heavily embroiled in conflict at many fronts - fighting at a new front would cost them too much on several counts.
• There was no previous conflict or tension between ISIS and the KRG
• Although ISIS was battling with the Kurdish forces in Rojava, the KRG were not involved in this war. Due to the tension between two Kurdish fronts, KDP and PYD-PKK, the KRG did not comment on ISIS’ attacks on Rojava.
• Finally, ISIS stated that they do not have any intention to attack the KRG after seizing Mosul.
The list of motives is not exhaustive, however, provided sufficient reasons for many predicting ISIS would detain from attacking the KRG. Despite these conditions, ISIS unexpectedly took offense on the KRG and occupied Yezidi’s (Kurdish origin religious minority) historical holly region, Shangal, as well as KRG’s Makmur town. The KRG forces were caught unprepared and consequently were forced leave Shangal, highly unusual in the history of Peshmerge. ISIS incursion shocked large numbers of the Kurds and resulted in many tragic events; hundreds of Yezidis were killed, more than 500 Yezidi women were abducted, and their entire region was destroyed. Shangal still remains under occupation of ISIS. Discontented with this alone, ISIS started to move towards and planned to siege the KRG’s capital, Erbil (Hewlêr). Now, we must address the key questions; despite the reasons mentioned, why did ISIS unexpectedly and savagely attack the Kurdish region and with what power did they dare do this? Given the close economic and political relations between some of the anti-Kurdish front members, such as Turkey and the KRG, most can presume that the anti-Kurdish front had no reason to be involved in ISIS’s assault. At first stance this argument seems justifiable, even right. However, a key point that has to be clarified herein is to what extent was the anti-Kurdish front ready to internalize development of the KRG’s political status (Independence), even though they have close economic relations.
The slow collapse of Iraq, resulted in greater interest of Western powers in the KRG. This then ultimately forced the anti-Kurdish front to recognize Kurds’ federal status. This didn’t worry the front because they knew the federal Kurdish region would be dependent on Central state (Baghdad) and will not have insufficient weapons, therefore, they can easily take control. Thus, as highlighted, although not at their own will the anti-Kurdish front acknowledged the KRG’s federal status. Aware of this, the KRG put their independence demands to one side. However, ISIS’s capture of Mosul, fall of Kirkuk and other disputed enclaves into the hands of the Kurds and de-facto division of Iraq (between Sunni, Shia, and Kurds), the KRG’s independence came to the forefront of International politics. The KRG’s political authorities clearly highlighted that they would declare their independence. They even formed a referendum ministry exclusively for this matter. Furthermore, many western countries as well as Israel started to discuss the creation of a Kurdish state in Iraq. However, this was not acceptable for the anti-Kurdish front because they never internalized creation of a Kurdish state.
The anti-Kurdish front used the ISIS offensive, in particular the collapse of the Yezidi region Shangal and for a while Makmur, as a message to KRG that they will deny creation of an Independent Kurdish nation state. Going even a step further, they threaten the Kurds to remind them that even if a Kurdish state is found they have the power and means to find subcontractors to destabilize it, as they currently do.
Following ISIS’s attack, although many of the states, especially USA, UK, Germany, and France promised to provide the Kurds with heavy weapons, most claimed that protection from ISIS could only be achieved by re-constructing a coalition between Kurds, and Shia and Sunni Arabs in unity of Iraq. As a result, following ISIS invasion over the Kurdish region almost all who struggled for declaration of and independence for Kurdistan (KRG) were silenced. ISIS offensives on Iraqi Kurdistan stopped as international collation led strikes were launched. However, the anti-Kurdish front reached its aim since Kurdistan’s independence declaration has now been considerably removed from the agenda of International politics.
ISIS Kobani Siege
Subsequent to successfully removing or at least postponing the KRG’s independence declaration, it was time for the anti-Kurds front to weaken if not eliminate, Rojava status. ISIS since 15th September, with heavy weapons obtained from the Iraqi army after the collapse of Mosul, has surrounded Rojava’s Kobanê canton through three separate fronts. Since its appearance in Syria, ISIS has attempted numerous times to invade Rojava, particularly the Kobanê canton, however, it is the first time it lashed out with a main force and from three fronts. Following strikes against its bases in Iraq, ISIS withdrew a substantial number of its militant from Iraq and deployed them around Kobanê. Therefore, ISIS, was determinant to seize full control of Kobanê, cut geographical connection between other autonomous cantons-Jazira and Efrin - and then occupy them as well. In line with this aim, it brutally attacked settlements around Kobanê causing more than one hundred thousands Kurds, majority of whom were children, women and elders, to leave their settlements and cross over into Turkey, while almost all Kurdish males who were able to take gun were sent back to fronts. Cognizant of ISIS barbarity, many of the Kurdish villages were evacuated but Rojava forces deployed all their available powers in and around Kobanê to prevent ISIS from seizing transition ways. Despite lacking heavy weapons and political and logistical siege, YPG forces heroically resisted against the ISIS gangs. However, with massive military equipment, thousands of militants, and support from the anti-Kurdish front, ISIS continues its approach to Kobanê and continues to maintain its siege. The brutal incursion of ISIS has caused huge outrage in Kurds and in the western public to some extent. On the other hand, despite the brutality of ISIS attacks and evacuation of thousands of people around Kobanê, majority of the Muslim World either kept silent or avoided the term Kurds when discussing the issue. Therefore, Kurds do not expect any help from majority of the Muslim countries or powers because they believe these countries are involved with ISIS and provoke this gang to fight the Kurds. For instance, majority of the Kurdish public and international powers consider Turkey to be one of the main powers who provide ISIS logistic support and tolerate its activities within its borders. Moreover, contrary to their Muslim neighbours, Kurds anticipated support and weapons from Internationalism powers. Despite ISIS massacre, a USA led International coalition launched a strike around Rakka, Deyr El Zor and other ISIS controlled oil rich regions in Syria. It did not strike ISIS forces deployed around Kobanê. Despite large public awareness and ISIS’s savage attacks, International coalitions’ reluctance to strike ISIS bases around Kobanê raised suspicions as to whether it sacrifices Kobanê, if not compatible with their interests. To obtain Turkey’s alliance they also sacrifice Rojava.
Another point that needs to be elucidated concerns Turkey’s approach to ISIS’s savage blockade of Rojava. As previously noted, Turkey has always has been uncomfortable with Rojava and has not shied away from preparing plans to abolish it. For a long time Turkey used the kidnapping of its 48 citizens by ISIS to excuse their lax approach against this gang. Moreover, Turkey applied a soft approach to tackle ISIS and avoided relating the term terrorist with this gang. The release of the Turkish hostages altered Turkey’s stance on ISIS to some extent, however it still has not taken serious steps to stop ISIS militants crossing its borders. Analyzing Turkey’s strategy through a wide perspective, this is of course not the case, the country wants to be a neighbour with a gang organizations which obtained a huge rage from the World. However, with ISIS’s hold on Kobanê, Turkey wants achieve two goals; to eradicate a Kurdish autonomous region and secondly use its new neighbor, ISIS, to justify creating a buffer zone in Rojava. To give pretexts; conglomeration of people on its borders and seizing of Syria borders side by a terrorist organization, ISIS, Turkey plans to create a buffer zone. However, this demand may not get a positive response from the Arab World and International politics if Kobanê does not fall. But, ISIS occupation of Kobanê could create the grounds or excuse for Turkey to reach its aim. The latter is a favorable project in Turkey’s foreign policy due to Rojava’s achievements. Creation of a buffer zone in Syria, with the rights words in Rojava, which Turkey has many times expressed, is a powerful alternative in its negotiation with the International collation. This, on the other hand, provides a powerful ground to explain why the International collation is unwilling to strike ISIS forces deployed around Kobanê.
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