By Patrick Bahzad
In a recent turn of events, Turkey has stepped up its military operations against the "Islamic State", but also against Kurdish PKK fighters and their logistical bases in Northern Syria. The development that triggered the Turks springing into action was a suicide bombing that occurred last week in Suruç, on the Turkish side of the border to Syria, near the town of Kobane. While many observers expected Ankara to step up its efforts and rein in ISIS' freedom of action on Turkish territory, secretly hoping for stronger measures to be taken against the Jihadi militants on Syrian territory as well, the Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish groups have come as a surprize and a shock. This dual strategy however is perfectly explainable and should remind all those interested in fighting the "Islamic State" that national interests in the region are very diverse and that the US-inspired anti-ISIS coalition has to deal with a number of national agendas, making the implementation of any common plan all the more difficult. To Ankara in particular, it looks very much like the Kurds and their militant groups are just as much a part of the problem as is the "Islamic State".
Kobane, the Kurdish border-town close to where last week's bombing took place, did rise to fame last year when Kurdish "Peshmerga" fighters managed to contain and roll back an IS offensive. However, the success of the Kurdish irregulars, whose name literally means "those facing death", was largely conditioned by massive US and Coalition airstrikes. During the four month siege of Kobane, nearly 80 % off all anti-ISIS strikes in Iraq and Syria took place around Kobane. This alone should help put the Kurdish performance into context and help understand that the aura of courage and resilience of the Kurds is also an image that was carefully crafted by PR-agencies in the West.
Kurdish History Repeating Itself
In truth, the Kurds have a reputation as fearsome mountain fighters. Early converts to Islam, they have always lived in their current areas of population, but rarely – actually never – formed an independent political entity. The 19th century in particular was crucial to their dispersion and lack of unity. Confronted with an increasing political and administrative centralisation by the Ottoman State, the Kurds started an insurgency, but – just as today – their lack of internal cohesion brought their downfall and what was left of earlier semi-autonomous Kurdish emirates gradually disappeared, as Ottoman armies put an end to local leadership.
However, the "Sheikhs" that the Ottoman Sultans designated to replace earlier feudal leaders would prove almost as difficult to manage as their predecessors and insurgency practically became the normal state of play in Kurdish populated areas of the Empire. While these insurgencies played a crucial role in shaping the feeling of a Kurdish identity and fed the Kurds' longing for autonomy and independence, they also fostered a fractured political landscape, with clans and families – often the offspring of the "Sheikhs" who had been put in place by the Sublime Porte – fighting for legitimacy as representatives of the Kurdish people.