Turkey's Troubles

Kobane Could Seal Erdogan's Destiny

Turkey's reaction to the besieged Kurds in Syria could have a huge impact on the government's standing in the Turkish Kurd community.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Turkish president is playing a dangerous game with his political future. By refusing to intervene against IS in Kobane, Syria, he may be fuelling demands for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, instead of containing these as he hoped.

  • Facts


    • Kobane in Syria has been besieged by IS militants for four weeks, and Turkish forces have rushed to the Syrian border but have gone no further.
    • Kurdish politicians in Turkey accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of letting the city be decimated in order to hamstring the Syrian Kurds’ autonomy movement.
    • Mr. Erdogan fears calls for autonomy of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, but he also needs the Kurds’ political support. He is losing this because of his tolerance of IS, the writer argues.
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From Mursitpinar in southern Turkey, it is only 400 meters to the northern neighborhoods of Kobane, a Kurdish city in Syria that has been besieged by IS militants for the past four weeks. But the shock waves reach far further, to Ankara, 800 kilometers (500 miles) away. If Kobane falls to the IS militants, it could mean the annihilation of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s high-flying political plans. For a long time, Kobane has been Mr. Erdogan’s destiny.

Up to now, Mr. Erdogan has not indicated that he will save the remaining 10,000 people in the besieged city from massacre by the militants. The Turkish parliament named him commander-in-chief of the Turkish forces and authorized military action in Syria. As the representatives voted, tanks and howitzers had already driven up to the Turkish side of the border across from Kobane – but no further.

Mr. Erdogan is sacrificing the Kurds from Kobane to IS – at least that is how it looks for many in the Turkish Kurdish provinces.

Mr. Erdogan cannot be blamed for not sending his army into Kobane. It would be a breach of human-rights law – and a military suicide mission. But he could have sent humanitarian aid over the border for those who are hemmed in, or at least weapons for the defenders. And he could have allowed the United States to use the Incirlik air base near the border. Then Americans in combat helicopters could have fought Kobane’s besiegers more effectively.

But that is just what Mr. Erdogan does not want. He fears demands for autonomy from his own Kurdish minority, and Kobane is one of three enclaves of Syrian Kurds. Turkish Kurd politicians are accusing him of letting the city be decimated by IS militants in order to hamstring the Syrian Kurds’ endeavor towards autonomy on the Turkish border.

His stance may actually inflame the situation. The Kurdish conflict is now escalating in Turkey. The Kurds are expressing their anger with protests and terror attacks in which almost 40 people have already died. On Monday, the Turkish air force bombed the camp of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK on the Iraqi border, putting the ceasefire, which began in March 2013, in danger.

The Kurdish conflict could have a much more dangerous dimension than in its previous peak in the 1990s, as the civil-war-like conditions in Southeast Turkey could make it easier for IS to bring jihad to Anatolia as well. What that would mean for the economic future of the country does not bear thinking about.

Even if it is possible to stave off such an escalation, the battle for Kobane will be a political turning point for the Turkish president. There are about 15 million Kurds in Turkey – at least a fifth of the population. In the past 12 years, Mr. Erdogan’s Islamic-conservative Justice and Development party (AKP) has been able to attract more and more moderate people from ethnic minority groups.

It is not only in the west of the country that many largely assimilated Kurds voted for AKP in the elections. In past years, the AKP also grew in the east and southeast provinces, where the Kurds make up an overwhelming majority of the population. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, they got 25 of their 312 seats from the Kurdish provinces. Kurdish voters have connected with Erdogan and his party in the hope of better economic standards. His efforts towards finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish conflict have brought him additional sympathy and votes.

Mr. Erdogan is sacrificing the Kurds from Kobane to IS – at least that is how it looks for many in the Turkish Kurdish provinces. That weakens the AKP, compromises the peace process and strengthens the militant powers of the Kurdish human-rights and autonomy movement in Turkey. In August, Mr. Erdogan was elected president for five years – thanks to many Kurdish votes. Now he wants to strengthen his position of power in Turkey with a constitutional change that would give him nearly unlimited authority as the head of state. For that, Mr. Erdogan also needs the support of moderate Kurds. However, it is exactly this support that he is now gambling away with his dangerous tolerance towards IS.


To contact the author: hoehler@handelsblatt.com.

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