Henri J Barkey writes: The Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani has been under a relentless siege by the Islamic State (IS) for the past few weeks. Surprisingly its defenders have endured, defying the long odds. Whether it falls or survives, Kobani is likely to become for Syrian and Turkish Kurds what Halabja became for Iraqi Kurds in 1988: a defining moment of nationhood and identity.
Halabja helped propel and shape the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, now called the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In 1988, in the midst of the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the sleepy Iraqi Kurdish town near the Iranian border, killing some 5,000, mostly civilians. Unnoticed at the time, Halabja became for much of the world a symbol of the larger campaign of mass extermination against the Kurds, as well as a quintessential example of a crime against humanity.
For the Kurds, it marked yet another time the world stood by and watched silently; theirs was an inconvenient predicament, a sacrifice at the altar of grander strategic purposes. Saddam Hussein enjoyed the support of the West precisely because he was locked in a duel with Iran, then a larger threat.
Fast forward to today: Until the U.S. Air Force began a systematic bombing campaign against IS positions around Kobani, the city had been left largely to fend for itself. Skittish and worried about Turkey’s reaction to support for Syrian Kurds, the Obama Administration initially hesitated but then committed itself to bombing the besieging IS forces after they had penetrated the city’s outer defenses.
Kobani will have two different effects on the region. First and foremost, it will be an important marker in the construction and consolidation of Kurdish nationhood. The exploits of Kobani’s defenders are quickly joining the lore of Kurdish fighting prowess. After all, the Iraqi Kurdish forces, not to mention the Iraqi army, folded in the face of a determined IS onslaught only a couple of months ago. The longer the city resists, the greater will be the reputational impact (although it is already assuming mythic proportions).
There is another, rather unique aspect of the resistance that is adding to its mythic character: the role of women in the fight. The juxtaposition of an Islamic State, which enslaves women or covers them from head to toe, with the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has large numbers of women fighting and dying alongside men, is particularly striking. Social and other media outlets have brimmed with stories of the heroism and sacrifice of these women. The fighting in Kobani, and especially the emergence of women fighters, has now entered the Kurdish lore and imagination. [Continue reading…]