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Turkey treads thin line with Kurds over Kobane

AFP , Thursday 6 Nov 2014
Turkish soldiers
Turkish soldiers walk on a hillside overlooking the Syrian town of Kobane, on the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014 (Photo: AP)
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Turkey is pursuing a delicate but potentially dangerous strategy over the besieged Syrian town of Kobane, working to thwart Kurdish domination of northern Syria but also running the risk of a breakdown of its peace process with the Kurds.

While the United States and the West see the Islamic State jihadists battling Kurds for Kobane as enemy number one, Turkey is equally worried about the risks to its security from separatist Kurdish groups.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that the fighters of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) leading the battle against IS for Kobane are part of a "terror group" allied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who have fought Turkish security forces in a three decade insurgency for Kurdish self-rule.

He castigated the United States for dropping weapons to the People's Protection Units (YPG) -- the armed branch of the PYD -- bitterly accusing President Barack Obama of acting behind his back.

Analysts say Turkey's worst nightmare is the realisation of de-facto independence for Rojava -- Kurdish-populated Syrian territory -- controlled by a powerful Kurdish militia that straddles the Turkey-Syria border.

"The Turkish government keeps treating the PKK/PYD as its worst enemy -- worse than IS it seems," said David Romano, Associate Professor at Missouri State University and author of several works on the Kurdish movement.

"The predictable result is that Turkey's own Kurdish citizens feel increasingly alienated and angry at their government, and the peace process and domestic stability are indeed at risk," he told AFP.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made clear in an interview with the BBC broadcast last week that Ankara sees three "terror" groups at work in Syria -- IS, the PKK, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Erdogan inflamed sentiment among Kurds on October 7 when he baldly stated that Kobane was falling, seemingly accepting the capture of the town as a fait accompli.

Under huge Western pressure to distance himself from the jihadists, Erdogan last week allowed a modest sized contingent of 150 Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters to cross its territory to join the battle for Kobane.

Yet this represented no let up in Erdogan's uncompromising stance towards the PYD -- more a new sign of Ankara's recent record of warm ties with Iraqi Kurdistan.

"The Iraqi Kurds with their cautious foreign policy and pro-capitalist, conservative politics gave the government in Turkey an opportunity to show that it was just anti-PKK, not anti-Kurdish," said Romano.

But the dilemma for Turkey is that the Kobane crisis arose at a critical time in its own peace process to end the conflict with the PKK, which has left 40,000 dead since the group began its armed struggle in 1984.

Over 30 people were killed last month when Kurdish anger over Erdogan's softly-softly strategy against IS spilled onto the streets. The PKK has warned that a fragile ceasefire that has largely held since 2013 will be over if Kobane falls to IS.

"We cannot separate the peace process from Kobane," the chief of the PKK's armed guerrillas Cemil Bayik told Austria's Der Standard newspaper in an interview published this week.

According to a new report by the the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) the Kobane crisis is "a major setback to hopes of an imminent resolution of the broader Kurdish question in Turkey."

The situation is made even more combustible by the potential for internecine clashes within Turkey's Kurdish community involving the radical Kurdish Sunni Muslim Huda-Par group which is sympathetic to IS and abhors the PKK.

The IISS said that the crisis had made Turkey less secure at home and more isolated abroad with a policy that has "severely damaged the country's standing in the region".

But Davutoglu said the government would pursue the peace process with "absolute determination", describing it as a "success story" that was essential for Turkey's future survival.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is acutely aware of the importance of the votes of Turkey's estimated 15-20 million Kurds as it prepares for legislative elections in June.

Bayik told Der Standard the only solution for the peace process was to bring in outside mediators, possibly from the United States.

"We have been at war with Turkey for years. Neither we nor Turkey reached our goal through war. So there must be a political solution," he said.

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