IN August 1944, the Red Army was close to Warsaw after having pushed the invading German army back from Russia in a series of titanic battles. The Polish underground resistance, thinking help was at hand, rose against Nazi occupation forces. Some historians assert they had been encouraged by Polish Communists at the Kremlin’s behest.
But as the desperate fighting continued for weeks, and the partisans were crushed by vastly superior German forces, the Red Army remained outside Warsaw. Only after resistance had ceased did the Soviets engage with German forces and evict them. The reason for this callous indifference to Polish suffering was that the Soviets did not want nationalist freedom fighters to seize power in Warsaw, preferring to see them eliminated so that the Communists could take over.
Something similar happened to Iraqi Shias in the south and to the Kurds in the north of the country in 1990. After routing Saddam Hussein’s forces in the first Gulf War, American forces halted and encouraged Saddam’s non-Sunni opponents to rise. Even though the Americans imposed a no-fly zone, the Iraqi dictator sent in his troops to put down the rebellion ruthlessly. Against the Kurds, Saddam used poison gas, killing thousands.
Turkey is playing a similar waiting game while the Islamic State besieges the Syrian border town of Kobani. As the militants threaten a bloodbath, the Kurds are holding on heroically, vastly outgunned and outnumbered. Meanwhile, Turkish tanks and soldiers look on at the unequal battle from a couple of kilometres away.
Despite international pressure to intervene and prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of Kurdish fighters and civilians, Recep Teyyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, is equivocating in an attempt to use the plight of the Kurds to impose his agenda on the anti-IS coalition. Basically, he is demanding a buffer zone on Syrian soil to house refugees fleeing the fighting, as well as a commitment from the coalition to topple Bashar al-Assad.
The Kurds are not interested in these goals: all they are asking for is a corridor for their Iraqi cousins to send men and arms to help them fight off IS. They see the Syrian dictator as their ally in the fight against extremists, and fear that his fall would produce a vacuum in which the jihadi forces would be strengthened.
The Americans, meanwhile, are pressing the Turks to allow them to use their bases close to the border so their planes would have a shorter distance to fly to Kobani, and operate for longer over the besieged town. Erdogan is caught in the middle as he tries to push his own agenda in the face of international criticism and the growing anger of his own Kurdish citizens.
In the last few days, at least 24 people have been killed in riots in predominantly Kurdish towns in Turkey. Rampaging crowds have torched buses and attacked government buildings. Erdogan has criticised these violent protests as a plot to derail ongoing reconciliation talks between the government and the separatist PKK.
But the reality is that Turkish Kurds are understandably furious at what they see is Erdogan’s complicity with IS. This impression was reinforced when, talking to journalists about IS and the Kobani Kurds, he was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “It is wrong to view them differently, we need to deal with them jointly.”
Day after day, Kurds fleeing the jihadi fighters from in and around Kobani have crossed the border with gruesome stories of terrible atrocities. Reports of hundreds of women and young girls raped, and children slaughtered, have infuriated Kurds everywhere.
Another reason Erdogan is not anxious to save Kobani is that before the IS onslaught, Syrian Kurds had taken advantage of the civil war to establish a largely autonomous region. After decades of fighting Kurdish separatists in the east of the country, the Turkish government was inching towards a deal over the degree of independence that would be acceptable to both sides. Erdogan fears that the success of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds in securing self-rule will encourage their Turkish cousins to raise their demands.
Beyond his domestic political concerns, Erdogan would like to save what he can of Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy. In the first few years of his AK Party’s long stint in power, he successfully projected Turkey’s influence in the region. The West saw Turkey as a bridge to Central Asia and the Middle East. Dreams of an Ottoman sphere of influence were kindled in Ankara. But with the increasing bloodshed in Syria, Erdogan has been shaken by his inability to influence events there, or elsewhere in the region.
The Americans, while maintaining their anti-Assad rhetoric in public, have come around to accept that the Islamic State’s enemy is — if not a friend — at least an ally. In the same vein, Stalin was acceptable as an ally to Roosevelt and Churchill in the war against Nazi Germany. There is thus little enthusiasm in Washington, London and Paris for regime change in Damascus.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE — states that have sent a few aircraft to bomb IS targets — want to topple Assad at all cost. They see the civil war in Syria as a regional, Shia-Sunni conflict.
However, the West perceives the larger danger of allowing a rogue extremist state to emerge in a crucial part of the world. Apart from the permanent threat IS would pose to Western allies (and oil exporters) in the region, the state would also act as a magnet to zealous young Muslims in the West.
These, then, are some of the considerations and concerns shaping policies in Washington, Ankara and Riyadh. While politicians weigh up their gains and losses, the people of Kobani face terrible danger from some of the most ruthless militants on the face of the earth.
Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2014