October 6, 2014
As heavy fighting rages with savagery all around, the fastest refugee exodus of the 3-year Syrian war has Kurdish families (and most probably Christian families) scrambling across the Turkish border just miles from their hometown of Kobane and 300 surrounding villages. Turkey is using water canons to keep the Kurdish (and probably Christian) fighters from returning to the battle, although reports are that Kurdish fighters are making their way back and that fighting is now close quarters.
ISIS forces began converging on 3 sides of the town over two weeks ago, using tanks and missiles reportedly supplied by the US and Qatar and stolen from Iraqi forces. From across the border Turkish soldiers are watching the battle but not helping despite vows by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutogul on Thursday, after the Turkish parliament authorized military operations against militants in Iraq and Syria, as well as the use of Turkish bases by foreign forces. Still the Turks just watch. Additionally, journalists on the ground report the few US coalition air strikes are not hitting ISIS as they should, rather they are just missing. Three tanks remain intact.
Clearly ISIS is the threat. So what is the blind spot? First one must understand that Turkey fears the Kurds wanting independence more than it fears ISIS, which specializes in beheadings, rape, torture, home burning, enslaving and other horrors. The Kurds seem to pose an existential threat to the Turks. And what is it about this town on the Turkish border that has ISIS going all out to take it?
I have spent much of the past 18 months on a cultural project about the Kurds spearheaded by my friend Pamela Baker. We have traveled extensively in the Kurdish territories. We have met the rich and poor, urban and rural, intellectuals and artists.
The Kurds, along with the Armenians, are the native peoples of Mesopotamia. They are a large ethnic group of about 25 million people who have always lived in the same place. As scholars Matthew Hand and Mark Brockman wrote in 2004, the Kurds trace their origins back more than 2500 years to the Medes of ancient Persia. The three wise men who journeyed from the East, led by a star to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Christ child, are believed to have been Zoroastrian priests, the ancestors of the modern Kurds.
The Kurds are still a tribal people who, until the Turkish government forced them to vacate some 4,000 villages, lived in the mountainous regions of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. As Hand and Brockmen write, “Their refuge has always been the mountains with their steep pastures and fertile valleys.”
When the Ottomans took over Turkey, they tried to wipe out the Kurds (much as the Armenians were destroyed), but the Kurds, women as well as men, are legendry fighters. And while the Ottomans succeeded in decimating the Kurdish nobility, they were not successful in wiping out the highland Kurds.
After WWI, the Kurds were denied their homeland. Instead it was divided among others — mostly Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, all of which tried unsuccessfully to integrate the Kurds into their mainstream populations. The Kurds do not want integration, they want autonomy. With the recent chaos in Iraq they managed to get a measure of autonomy with the Kurdish territory of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region with its own president and is under attack by ISIS. It is an oil-rich area full of international oil companies and several luxury hotels in Erbil.
As a result of the war in Syria, the Kurds carved out an autonomous region known as Rojava, Western Kurdistan. The autonomous self-governing republic gave a voice and value to Syriac Christians, Arabs, Armenians, and even women. This budding democracy apparently is a major threat to ISIS. Journalist Derek Wall wrote on September 29 2014, “A victory for Kurds and their allies in Syria is a victory for all who want a future that is dictated neither by fundamentalists nor imperialists.”
“The Rojava Charter, a kind of constitution, is a remarkable document. It states, “[w]e the peoples of the democratic self-administration areas; Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians (Assyrian Chaldeans, Arameans Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens, by our free will, announce this to ensure justice, freedom, democracy, and the rights of women and children in accordance with the principles of ecological balance, freedom of religions and beliefs, and equality without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, creed, doctrine or gender, to achieve the political and moral fabric of a democratic society in order to function with mutual understanding and coexistence within diversity and respect for the principle of self-determination and self-defense of the peoples…”
That’s quite a threat! It fundamentally challenges oppressive religious communities and provides a blueprint for coexistence for all. ISIS must destroy it before other areas realize they too can get along, worship and live in peace. ISIS and other fundamental Islamic groups survive through division, hatred and excessive taxation of those who choose to still live in areas the fanatics control, if they are allowed to live at all.
Additionally, if ISIS can take Kobane, according to the British Home Secretary Theresa May, speaking last week at the annual British Conservative conference, it would give rise to the world’s first truly terrorist state. And if they get that territory she said, “With the capacity of a state behind them the terrorists will acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to attack us.”
Turkey fought a 30-year guerilla war with the Kurds. Some 40,000 people, both Kurds and Turks, were killed. The Kurds, representing at least 15% (most probably more) of the Turkish population and living mostly in the mountains in their own villages, wanted the right to name their children Kurdish names, speak their language, get justice in Turkish courtrooms by having Kurdish interpreters, end job discrimination, etc. Both sides committed atrocities. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds are ghettoized from being moved off their lands “for their safety.” Thousands of Turkish families lost loved ones to senseless killings.
A mantra of sorts that we in West hear so often about the Middle East is, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Is that not the case with Turkey concerning the Kurds? Isn’t ISIS everyone’s enemy? If not, what are we all missing? Is Turkey waiting for ISIS to wipe out the Kurdish fighters in both Syria and Iraq and then sweep in as the saviors? Is that how they get into the EU? But I digress.
Speculation aside, it is time for the Turks and the US to realize that a major change has taken place and that change is called ISIS. They are the terrorists, not the Kurds. Time to take the blinders off, see the real threat and arm and support the Kurds.