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Turkish forces crackdown on Kurdish Kobane protests

More than 30 protesters demanding Turkish action against the siege of Kobane have been killed in Turkey this week
Demonstrators clash with riot police outside of the Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara on Thursday (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Fires blaze, as the heavy black smoke of burnt tyres combined with thick white clouds of tear gas in the district of Beyoglu, a neighbourhood here with a large Kurdish population. At the entrances to Kurdish-majority streets, heavily armoured police tanks and water cannon trucks hover, seemingly ever-present – a warning against the inevitable.

Protesters gather on the streets around dusk screaming for the Syrian town of Kobane, a Kurdish district on the Syrian-Turkey border, currently under Islamic State attack. They throw rocks at Turkish police and are met with high-powered streams of water and quick-release tear gas canisters.

Buses packed with Turkish police descend on the scene as the hours pass into the night. Over the past few days, rubber-coated-bullets, and in some cases live ammunition, cut through the suffocating gas.

“It’s like the [Turkish] government wants the Islamic State to win. That’s how much they hate [Syrian President] Assad,” Dilsoz, who chose to withhold his surname out of fear of repercussions, told Middle East Eye while peeking around an alley corner. As he talked, protesters ducked and then ran on.

“But,” he continued, “the people in Kobane are our brothers and sisters. There will be a massacre if Turkey doesn’t step in, it is their responsibility and we are demanding they take it.”

This protest is not unique. Up and down Turkey, young Kurds have been up-in-arms at the Turkish government’s inaction in Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish town which borders Turkey and has been under threat of Islamic State takeover for weeks.

Kobane is almost devoid of people, while nearly 400 surrounding villages, are already emptied, their residents having fled the area when the Islamic State fighters made their move on the enclave. In the Kobane canton alone, over 180,000 Kurds have fled over the border into Turkey from Rojava, the Kurdish name for the Kurd majority area in Northern Syria. The Kurdish Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) force which has staunchly stayed on to fight – aided in small part by US airstrikes ­­– continues to run up mounting casualties as they attempt to shore up the Islamic State’s advance.

Meryem Tasdemir, a Kurdish protester and activist from Istanbul has been involved in the increasingly intense and deadly protests that have become common in cities with a large Kurdish population in recent days. Tasdemir told MEE she felt that the Kurds in Turkey were being ignored and that it seemed to her the Turkish government would do anything to keep them quiet.

“It’s only been recently that we were even allowed to speak Kurdish in the streets here. The Turkish government has always hated us, that’s why they aren’t doing anything for Kobane, that’s why they try and stop our protests with such extreme violence,” Tasdemir said, straining to speak over loud speakers blaring political Kurdish music out of a van.

Inaction inspires protests

Kurds living in Turkey have been subjected to news report after news report showing Islamic State militants making advances into the town – including the raising of the ominous black flags of the self-proclaimed caliphate in an eastern district of Kobane – while also witnessing the movement of Turkish tanks to the border, and then days of inaction from the stationed soldiers there. The images have emboldened the Kurdish protests further, as more numbers have poured onto the streets in the hope of effecting change.

Turkish forces have killed more than thirty demonstrators at these Kurdish majority protests during the past week. Over the last few days, as the Islamic State has at times seemed to close in on Kobane, the violence at these demonstrations has increased significantly. On Thursday night alone, social media reported over fourteen deaths.

Most of the mainstream concern over Kobane being seized by the Islamic State lies in the fact that a fallen Kobane would create a direct line from the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqah, to the Turkish border. However, for Kurdish protesters the fall of Kobane is the end of any hopes for a Kurdish state in Syria.

“If the Islamic State won the war and located its army in Kobane, the Rojava revolution would be finished and the people of Kobane would be slain by the Islamic State fighters. So, people in Turkey know these facts and want to put pressure on the Turkish Government by protesting its politics,” Berivan Saydan, a Kurdish activist with the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) – one of the main Kurdish parties in Turkey, which is calling on Kurds to protest in the streets – told MEE.

Saydan and her fellow activists plan regular meet-ups and direct actions all around Istanbul. Some nights, simply disseminating information is a priority, as Saydan and a handful of others set up a tent with politically charged, pro-Kurdish posters and leaflets on a cold night in one of Istanbul’s busy night club districts.

“Would you like some hot tea?” the activists asked passerbys in Turkish, wrapped in coats and scarves, inviting them into their tent for politics and spiced çay.

“I want to stand with the people that don’t want to leave their homes,” Saydan explained while handing out leaflets to potential sympathisers in the Kadiköy district. “I was assigned by my political party to go down to Suruç and support the people in the villages in the border. The army has been attacking those villages, trying to get the people to leave, but if the village was empty it would make it easier for Islamic State fighters to advance further, and for ammunition to be sent to them easily.”

Joining the fight in Kobane

Saydan and other activists decided two weeks ago that protests weren’t enough. Instead, political groups out of Istanbul and Ankara started organising buses to ship volunteer fighters and activists towards the border. Despite the grueling bus journey – which can last up to 20 hours – hundreds of young Kurds have attempted to get down to the border to do what they can for the people of Kobane.

According to Saydan, if Turkey won’t send troops in to fight the Islamic State and protect Kobane, then the Kurds in Turkey will.

These buses have been packed full of volunteer fighters making their way down to the border, in the hope to get through into Syria and join the YPG to fight against the advancing militants. These mainly young Kurds have, however, faced a formidable enemy in their goal to join the frontline – the Turkish army. The army has sought to prevent Kurds from crossing the border from the Turkish border town of Suruç, into Kobane, and has resorted to firing at volunteer fighters who have attempted the trip.

Volunteers, Saydan told MEE, now try to rush the Turkish army lines in the hope that some of the volunteer fighters manage to make it through. This has been a somewhat successful tactic as several young Kurdish fighters have made it through to join the struggle for Kobane, but many others have been injured and stopped.

The main battle may be for the town of Kobane between the YPG, and Islamic State militants, but a smaller one is replaying itself every day between young Kurds and the Turkish army just a matter of kilometers away on the border.

“Everyday there is Turkish police violence at the border,” Saydan explained. “The volunteers have to rush all together to try and get in, it ends up looking like a war zone itself.”

Between classes and other responsibilities, Saydan herself makes it down to the border, although not to cross. This week Saydan has made the 20 hour journey and back twice, staying in small villages outlying Suruç. She says her organisation and fellow Kurdish activists will not slow their efforts until Kobane is no longer under attack.