At 40 million, Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state. In Turkey, Northern Kurdistan to the Kurds, they are 15-20 million, almost one-quarter of the population. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the main Kurdish resistance group in Turkey, has been engaged in an intermittently violent struggle in Turkey for basic civil and human rights since 1978.
Initially, the US, Turkey, and other powers chose to dismiss the defense of Kobani in northern Syria as a merely incidental conflict and distraction in an as yet ill-defined, US-led coalition strategy to defeat the Assad regime. However, the heroic resistance of Kobani’s defenders and widespread agitation by Kurds and their allies in cities across the world have changed the equation. Kobani is no longer “incidental.” The international community is slowly acknowledging that the Kurds of Syria are asking not for US, Turkish or coalition troops, but for modern weapons, access to Kobani through the Turkish-Syrian border for those who will join them voluntarily, and a corridor for humanitarian assistance for those injured or displaced by the fighting.
The battle for Kobani has also begun to reveal to the world that in Rojava, or Western Kurdistan in northern Syria, Kurds have created a cantonal democratic autonomous zone. Kobani is one of three such cantons along with Afrin and Cezire. The international community is learning that Rojava is the only enclave in the entire Middle East that practices what democracies preach – gender equality (women must have at least 40% of official positions in the three cantons), pluralism for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and the rejection of the idea of the nation as a racial or religiously based entity – practices in which Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic State are remarkably deficient.
Nevertheless, the global community is to be reminded of the stakes in the blood-letting at Kobani. After all, the fight for Kobani has given new meaning to the phrase, “the whole world is watching.” Posed as inquiries, many of the issues can be framed as follows:
(1) Has the defense of Kobani demonstrated to the US and Turkey that their deadly pas de deux will not lead to the elusive alignment of their own national interests in the near future?
(2) Have Turkey’s own imperial designs lead to a misplaced confidence in its ability to “control” or appease IS?
(3) Are Turkey, IS, and US war-mongers gambling that Kobani is the bait that will draw Iran into war in Syria unleashing the armed terror of Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel in a fight against their non-coalition nemesis and the most powerful Shia majority state?
(4) Will the west and Turkey conclude correctly that the cantonal, democratic autonomous zone in Rojava is the product of an historic opportunity created when the long-term wish of Kurds to be their own masters – a human right – coincided with Assad’s preoccupation elsewhere with various “rebel” groups – in time to properly support the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish Peoples’ Defense Units (YPG), the Kurdish Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) and select Sunni, Shiite, and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters engaged in house-to-house combat against IS?
(5) Does Rojava’s example represent a promising, world-class experiment in the type of society that Kurds, if autonomous, will construct – a secular society based on human dignity, universal suffrage, and democratic cooperation, the direction the global community must take to solve problems of war, oppression, inequality, climate change, disease, and famine?
(6) Will Turkey become more repressive against the Kurds and therefore increasingly internally destabilized when abandoning the peace process with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey in order to deprive them of the added leverage from the gains of their comrades, the YPG/YPJ in Syria?
We can only conclude that the defense of Kobani must not fail and that the development of Rojava’s cantons must proceed in peace and security. These are keys to preserving and supporting Rojava’s concrete examples of progressive societal organization. Accordingly, international political recognition of the Democratic Autonomy of Rojava is a definitive first step toward a democratic, pluralist future for Syria. Such recognition would also lead to a defeat of the apparent, joint strategic initiative of attacks on Kobani by IS and its geographic isolation by Turkey, respectively. The choice is stark in the struggle in Kobani against IS, do we move civilization forward or do we go backwards?
*Samuel Jordan is a former Director of the Program to Abolish the Death Penalty at Amnesty International USA, and conducted a “Human Rights Solidarity Tour” in Turkey in 1999 to address human rights abuses for Amnesty International and to plead for the life of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader and co-founder of the outlawed, Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) who had been imprisoned and sentenced to death. Ocalan was spared, but continues to lead from an inhumane incarceration. This campaign and others throughout the EU led to Turkey’s abolition of capital punishment.