Mr. Anarchist, we need to have a chat about colonialism

By Petar Stanchev On April 1, 2015

Post image for Mr. Anarchist, we need to have a chat about colonialismThe dogmatic criticism of popular struggles for autonomy in Chiapas and Rojava reveals a colonial mentality that should be stamped out of our movement.Photo: comrades from the Revolutionary Anarchist Action (DAF) in Turkey express their solidarity with the Kurdish defenders of Kobani at the Turkish-Syrian border. DAF has consistently called on anarchist groups elsewhere to support the Rojava revolution.

Dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god.

– Abdullah Öcalan

Back in 2002, the US journal Green Anarchy published a critical article of the Zapatista movement, including a judgment that seemed to express the author’s worst fears: “The EZLN are not anarchist!” In the piece, the Zapatistas were depicted as “vanguard nationalists” and “reformists” who were denied the privilege of calling themselves anarchist by the anarchist license commission — even if the indigenous rebels never asked to be called such.

The EZLN responded to the article — although, as Subcomandante Marcos made clear, few Zapatistas are willing to engage in arguments with “insignificant elements along an ideological fringe” and even fewer of the EZLN’s militiamen and -women are concerned with the judgments of “people whose greatest virtue is spreading their lack of understanding and knowledge around in newspapers and magazines.” But Marcos decided to reply to the article anyway as it was a clear example of “good old colonialism”:

This attitude, though hidden behind thin veils of objectivity, is the same attitude that we have been dealing with for 500 years, where someone else in some other country from some other culture thinks they know what is best for us, more than we do ourselves.

Positions as the one taken by Green Anarchy are neither an exception nor a thing of the past. Certain elements in the “anarchist” milieu still like to criticize in a similarly short-sighted, poorly informed, dogmatic and sectarian manner the struggles of the peoples in the Global South, wittingly or unwittingly reproducing the logic of colonialism in the process.

I am writing this piece in response to a recent article by Gilles Dauvé, who slanders the Kurdish movement in Rojava in much the same way. A similar piece, based on equally dubious ethical and logical grounds, was published by the Anarchist Federation in London. It is important to emphasize that, although I will be responding specifically to the poorly informed critiques of the aforementioned articles, the issues I am raising here are far more important for the anarchist movement in the West than for the Kurdish or Zapatista movements themselves, which do not need any judgment or approval from some privileged ideological purists elsewhere.

My main concern in writing this article is that the colonial mentality and profound dogmatism of certain individuals and groups in Western anarchist circles are symptomatic of a deeper crisis in the organizational and imaginative capacities of parts of our movement. This issue should therefore be a matter of serious debate. If we fail to have such a conversation, we risk marginalizing ourselves and transforming our movement into a self-centered subculture that is incapable of connecting to the outside world. This, in turn, would make Western anarchism fade away as a historical relic that proved to be mostly impotent in its efforts to challenge the status quo.

Not to judge, not to lose our heads

This is the presumption Dauvé’s article starts with: we are not to judge the Kurdish movement, but we should not lose our heads admiring it either. So far, so good. But despite this claim of objectivity, the author ends up doing precisely what he tells us not to do: he applies the concepts and standards of Western political thought to the Rojava revolution and rules that it does not fit into his preconceived category of a “social revolution.”

Those anarchists (and they are not just a few) who do support the struggle for democratic autonomy in Kurdistan are reminded not to “lose their heads.” Their support is depicted as a sign of “spineless” radicalism because it does not adhere to God-knows-what puritan dogma. This is an interesting form of “anarchism,” I would say, if we consider the richness and diversity of the anarchist tradition. Apart from the patronizing discourse, it’s interesting to examine the facts and claims of these supposedly righteous and clear-headed armchair revolutionaries.

Dauvé’s claims can be summarized as follows:

  1. The struggle in Rojava is being waged by a population that “does not interest anyone” and that is left by the great powers to play its game of autonomy because it doesn’t really disturb the capitalist order.
  2. The Rojava revolution, in the most generous reading, is a struggle based on the principles of Western liberalism. It is not a social revolution, it has not affected the deeper structures of society, and it is not explicitly anti-capitalist.
  3. There is no challenge to the state apparatus and the struggle is inherently nationalistic.
  4. The emancipation of women is a farce and an exaggeration, and the revolution is not a feminist one.

As the same criticisms are often leveraged at other movements of similar character, including the Zapatistas, challenging these particular points has a relevance that extends far beyond Rojava.

The dignity of the nobodies

“Never again a Mexico without us,” is one of the slogans marking the ideological essence of the EZLN. The indigenous people in Chiapas were unknown, unimportant and forgotten, left by the wayside for hunger and disease to finish them off. This is why the Zapatista uprising of 1994 is often referred to as “a war against oblivion.” This oblivion was never and still isn’t an accidental one: it is a deliberate product of racism and colonialism, both external and internal, which devalues the life and the suffering of the people of the Global South to the extent that they often do not exist for the rest of the world.

When this silence was broken in 1994, the Mexican government and the mass media realized the power of information and imposed a media blockade that was relatively successful in erasing the presence and achievements of the Zapatistas from mass consciousness in Mexico and abroad. In a similar vein, the revolutionary struggle of the Kurds was largely omitted from the global media (at least until the iconic struggle for Kobani), and the repression and aggression they face from powers other than ISIS continues to go unmentioned.

Both the Zapatistas and the Kurdish movement are a threat to the status quo because they offer and put into practice alternatives that are actually working. The danger that stems from the very existence of such successful examples has led to their persistent elimination from the mainstream media and the public debate — and, indeed, to a constant assault by reactionary forces on the ground. To claim that these movements exist by the grace of greater powers simply because they do not bother anyone is ludicrous.

Moreover, to state that these movements are left to do what they want because they are not a threat to state and capital is extremely offensive to the memory of all those who have been killed, prosecuted and dispossessed by the Mexican, Turkish or Syrian governments over the years. Both movements have been vigorously persecuted and remain so. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Dirty warfare and direct military confrontation were and continue to be used against them. Since both Rojava and Chiapas are rich in natural resources, Dauvé’s claim that they do not really interest capital and that this is why they are left to themselves is directly contradicted by the facts on the ground.

Image by Devrimci Anarsist Faaliyet (Revolutionary Anarchist Action), showing comrades from the DAF marching in Kobani holding a banner that reads: “We are all Kawa in the fight against Dehak,” referring to the Kurdish legend about the uprising of the oppressed.

The revolution that reinvents itself

“Walking and asking questions” is the core principle that the Zapatistas defined in their effort to move beyond predetermined and narrow conceptualizations of revolutionary struggle. The Zapatistas see revolution as a process in which the people build their freedom from below and learn to govern themselves in the process.

This principle rejects the traditional Marxist-Leninist notion of the historical vanguard and immunizes the revolutionary process from authoritarian tendencies “in the name of the revolution” — a contamination that was all too common in the state-socialist regimes of the 20th century. In the very same way, the revolution in Rojava is construed as a process, not an application of ready-made formulas.

The eager use of Western terminology and the attempt to classify the Rojava revolution accordingly end up giving the impression that the real reason why these supposedly critical “anarchists” are skeptical is simply because some unknown brown people are refusing to follow the instructions of their Cookbook. Of course, all this is done without any practical evidence because it turns out that these “anarchists” might have read the Cookbook but are somehow awful cooks.

To take just one important example, Dauvé’s analysis of what he calls the “liberal” structure of the Rojava cantons is based purely on his narrow reading of the Social Contract — the framework law of the cantons — but fails delve deeper into the parallel system of direct participation that accompanies it. Interestingly enough, he claims that the social structure in the Kurdish cantons has not changed, which contradicts all factual evidence and direct observation by journalists, scholars and activists who have actually visited the cantons.

Without any doubt, these structures of democratic self-governance are under development, with many issues still to be addressed and plenty to learn. However, they do reaffirm the basic principle that true liberation can only be lived and applied here and now through the self-organization of the people.

State, nationalism and capitalism

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), as the leading force in the Rojava revolution, has recognized the integrity of the Syrian state and proposed democratic confederalism as a preferable model for the country as a whole after the overthrow of the regime and the defeat of ISIS. This is a reflection of the ideological shift that has taken place within the Kurdish movement over the years, away from its initial emphasis on the creation of an independent Kurdish state. In Öcalan’s own words:

The call for a separate nation state results from the interests of the ruling class or the interests of the bourgeoisie, but does not reflect the interests of the people, since another state would only involve the creation of additional injustice and would curtail the right to freedom even more.

The Kurdish liberation movement now considers the state to be a patriarchal, hierarchical and exclusionary set of institutions. There can be no better evidence for the PYD’s real intentions than the granting of equal rights to all ethnic groups in the three cantons, as well as their representation on all levels of government and their active participation in grassroots democratic structures. As the Kurdish activist and scholar Dilar Dirik explained in her speech at the New World Summit in Brussels last year, the solution of the Kurdish issue was not to set up a new state, as the state was the very problem to begin with.

Dauvé argues that, secretly, the Kurdish movement has not abandoned the idea of a nation state at all, but simply rephrased it to sound less authoritarian. Yet a strange paradox remains at the heart of this argument: it is not at all clear why the Kurdish movement would adopt a libertarian anti-statist disguise in order to achieve the secret objective of founding an independent Kurdish state — taking on the extremely difficult task of organizing popular power while it would probably have been much more easier to acquire recognition from the international community as an actual nation state than as a decentralized system of confederated communes.

As for the anti-capitalist nature of the Rojava revolution, the economic system of the cantons is based on three main pillars: the cooperative economy, the open economy, and the private economy. The cooperative economy, which focuses mainly on agriculture and small-scale production, is central. It is based on communal ownership and self-management and often operates outside the monetary economy. Some of the lands were collectivized after the big land-owners left the region following the PYD takeover. Private companies are allowed, but they have to work together with the administration and abide by the social principles of the revolution.

The so-called open economy is based on foreign investment, which unfortunately remains necessary for the development of the region’s scarce infrastructure. There are, for example, no oil refineries in Rojava, even though the Cizire canton has large reserves of petrol. The idea is to attract foreign investment — but only at the price of respecting the social nature of the cantons. The local economy will be developed on the terms set by the inhabitants of Rojava and their assemblies, not by Western capitalists. The industry that will eventually be developed in Rojava should be under direct workers’ control, or at least this is the expressed intention of the PYD officials.

According to Dauvé, the revolution in Rojava is not anti-capitalist because the “proletarians” have not seized the means of production and private property is still allowed. This is a laughable statement, considering that the “proletariat” in the classical Western sense does not exist in Rojava. Here the author once again illustrates the limitations of a purist class analysis based solely on the outdated and inapplicable realities of 19th century industrial Europe.

Not a women’s revolution?

“The subversive nature of a movement or organization cannot be measured by the number of armed women — nor its feminist character,” states Dauvé, who goes on to claim that the whole idea that the revolution in Rojava is also a women’s revolution is based purely on the image of the all-female YPJ militias that became famous during the heroic defense of Kobani.

Of course it is true that we cannot measure the feminist character of a movement simply by the participation of women in armed conflict. Yet this is precisely why Dauvé should have done more research before slandering the Rojava revolution for not being feminist enough. He briefly mentions that women are guaranteed 40% participation in the communes and that all public positions have a dual character — one man and one woman. But what the author misses is the social analysis that is actively transforming gender relations in the whole of Kurdistan.

In his book, Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution, Abdullah Öcalan emphasizes patriarchy as the central element of oppression that has produced all forms of hierarchy and domination. He argues that our civilization is based on three forms of domination over women: through ideology, through force and through the seizure of the economy: “From this relationship stem all forms of relationship that foster inequality, slavery, despotism and militarism.”

The practical expressions of these ideas in Rojava are numerous, and they include the ban on forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence and discrimination, and most importantly, putting women’s issues solely in women’s hands. Women have their own assemblies that have power over women’s issues and that can impose their decisions on those of mixed assemblies if they believe they concern or negatively impact women.

The international human rights lawyer and advocate for women’s rights in conflict, Margaret Owen, describes the developments in gender rights under the PYD administration in a very positive light. She highlights the all-woman party Star Union and the guaranteed equal participation of women in all spheres of public life, including “associations, political, educational, medical, military, police, social and financial services.” With the so-called Women’s Houses, the movement has also developed a system of protection against male violence.

From sectarian impotence to revolutionary creativity

Blinded by frustration with their own marginality and isolated by the incapacity to adapt their ideas to reality and to build a social force that is actually capable of challenging capitalist modernity and the nation state, some Western anarchists still prefer to retreat into their own ideological ivory towers and claim superior knowledge and righteousness through empty statements about the “spineless” radicalism of other people — especially those in the Global South.

Clearly, such sectarian positions negatively affect the ability of “anarchist” groups in the West to actually produce radical and meaningful alternatives to capitalism and the state. It ends up restraining the revolutionary anarchist ideal in the chains of an arrogant self-serving dogma that ultimately renders these groupuscules impotent in their supposed ideological purity.

This is the crisis we face in the West — and it does not promise a better future if sectarian elements in our movement remain incapable of reinventing themselves and finding new and creative forms of struggle and organization. The latter, I believe, is much more important than the flamboyant “revolutionary” rhetoric that, in some Western anarchist circles, seems so sadly separated from practice.

Petar Stanchev is finishing a degree in Latin American Studies and Human Rights at the University of Essex. He has previously lived and studied in Mexico and has been involved in the Zapatista solidarity movement for four years.


Rojava: only chance for a just peace in the Middle East?

By Jeff Miley On March 3, 2015

Post image for Rojava: only chance for a just peace in the Middle East?The democratic confederalism of Rojava is an attempt to transcend borders and build a participatory alternative to the tyrannical states of the region.

By Jeff Miley and Johanna Riha. Photo by Erin Trieb.

Since the descent into civil war in Syria, revolutionary forces have seized control of the Kurdish region of Rojava. The mainstream media has been quick to publicize who the revolutionary forces in Rojava are fighting against — the brutality of Islamic State (IS) — but what they are fighting for is often neglected. In December 2014, we had the chance to visit the region as part of an academic delegation. The purpose of our trip was to assess the strengths, challenges and vulnerabilities of the revolutionary project under way.

Rojava is the de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. It consists of three cantons: Afrîn in the west, Kobani in the centre, and Cizîre in the east. It is, for the most part, isolated and surrounded by hostile forces. However — despite the brutal war with IS, the painful embargo of Turkey and the even more painful embargo of Barzani and his Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq — systems of self-governance and democratic autonomous rule have been established in Rojava, and are radically transforming social and political relations in an emancipatory direction.

As Saleh Muslim, co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) representing the independent communities of Rojava, explained in an interview in November 2014:

[We are engaged in the construction of] radical democracy: to mobilize people to organize themselves and to defend themselves by means of peoples armies like the Peoples Defense Unit (YPG) and Women’s Defense Unit (YPJ). We are practicing this model of self-rule and self-organization without the state as we speak. Democratic autonomy is about the long term. It is about people understanding and exercising their rights. To get society to become politicized: that is the core of building democratic autonomy.

At the forefront of this politicization is gender equality and women’s empowerment, with equal representation and active participation of women in all political and social circles. “We [have] established a model of co-presidency — each political entity always has both a female and a male president — and a quota of 40% gender representation in order to enforce gender equality throughout all forms of public life and political representation,” explains Saleh Muslim.

The revolutionary forces in Rojava are not fighting for an independent nation state, but advocating a system they call democratic confederalism: one of citizenry-led self-governance through the formation of neighborhood-level people’s councils, town councils, open assemblies, and cooperatives. These self-governing instruments allow for the participation of diverse political, ethnic, and religious groups, promoting consensus-led decision-making. Combined with local academies aimed at politicizing and educating the population, these structures of self-governance give the populace the ability to raise and solve their own problems.

During our nine day trip to Cizîre canton, we visited rural towns as well as cities, where we met with representatives and members of schools, cooperatives, women’s academies, security forces, political parties, and the self-government in charge of economic development, healthcare, and foreign affairs.

Throughout the visit, we witnessed discipline, revolutionary commitment and impressive collective mobilization of the population in Cizîre. Despite the isolation and difficult conditions, a perseverance and even confidence seemed to dominate the collective mood among representatives and members of all the diverse groups we met. This collective optimism and willingness to sacrifice was in the pursuit of an admirable ideological program and genuine steps towards collective emancipation. We were particularly struck by the emphasis on education, politicization, and a consciousness-raising of the general population in accordance with a grassroots democratic transformation of social and property relations.

An obvious and striking strength of the revolution clearly on display throughout our trip were the strides towards gender emancipation. Our meetings with government representatives, members of academies, women’s militias, and people’s councils all demonstrated that women’s empowerment is not mere programmatic window-dressing but is in fact being implemented. This, in the context of the Middle East and in sharp contrast to both the IS as well as the KRG, was most impressive.

Another feature of the programmatic agenda we found admirable was the insistence by the revolutionary government in Rojava that it is committed to a broader struggle for a democratic Syria, and in fact a democratic Middle East, capable of accommodating cultural, ethnic and religious diversity through democratic confederalism. In this vein, we witnessed proactive attempts by the revolutionary forces to include ethnic and religious minorities into the struggle underway in Rojava, including the institutionalization of positive discrimination, quotas, and self-organization of minority groups, such as the Syriac community, which even formed their own militias.

Listen to Jeff Miley’s talk on Rojava and the Kurdish revolutionary movement

That said, the integration of the local Arab population into the revolutionary project remains a critical challenge, as does coordination and the formation of alliances with groups outside of the three cantons. Extra-Kurdish coordination and alliances are certainly prerequisites for ensuring the survival of the revolution in the medium and long term and are especially critical if democratic confederalism is to spread across Syria and the Middle East.

Such a task is as difficult as it is urgent. It is crucial that the revolutionary authorities do everything in their power to assuage Arab fears of a Greater Kurdistan agenda, and include them in this struggle. Avoiding a Kurdish-centric version of history, literature and even the temptation to push for a Kurdish-only language educational system will help prevent the alienation of ethnic and religious minorities.

Revolutionary symbols like flags, maps and posters are particularly important when it comes to integrating ethnic and religious minorities, as well as publicizing the revolution across the world. More inclusive imagery would certainly facilitate the task of winning support and sympathy — both in the Middle East and more globally. References beyond the Kurdish movement were strikingly absent from the symbols we saw. The positive side of the Kurdish revolutionary symbols cannot be ignored and certainly plays a significant role in facilitating the mobilization of the Kurdish population. However, at the same time it is likely to alienate non-Kurds and Kurds who might misidentify the struggle as one for a Greater Kurdistan.

Our biggest concern is that the revolution will be compromised — if not sacrificed — by broader geopolitical games. The current close alliance between the KRG and the United States, and the recent US-led airstrikes in Syria, fuel the suspicions of many, especially Sunni Arabs, that the Kurds are but pawns to yet another imperialist intervention in the region in pursuit of oil.

The politics of divide and conquer employed by the imperialist powers have a long, bloody and effective history in the Middle East and beyond. This sad reality reinforces how crucial it is to build alliances, and to transcend the Kurdish nationalist imaginary within the ranks of the movement. Indeed, one of the principal strengths of IS has been its ability to mobilize militants both locally and globally in seemingly implacable opposition to imperialist powers.

It is especially important for the Kurdish revolution to appeal to the Turkish left, and to encourage them to denounce and fight against the crippling embargo enforced by the Turkish state on Rojava. The effects of and challenges created by the embargo were all too evident with respect to the basic health needs of the population we encountered. Unexpectedly, it was not a lack of medical expertise but rather a lack of medicine and medical equipment that most threatens population health.

The effects of the embargo also reach beyond the immediate needs of the population in Rojava. The environmental toll was evident, most notably in the oil-seeped soil around the rigs. Given the circumstances, it is certainly understandable and indeed inevitable that the revolutionary authorities are nearly exclusively preoccupied with the tasks of providing for immediate energy and food needs of the population while searching for financial assistance to keep the revolutionary project afloat. Nevertheless, the revolution offers a unique opportunity to carefully establish an environmentally sustainable and democratically managed economy.

In the broader context of tyranny, violence and political upheaval rocking many countries in the Middle East, it is highly unlikely that problems can be understood in isolation or solved on a country-by-country basis. One of the best things about the model of democratic confederalism institutionalized in Rojava is that it is potentially applicable to the entire region — a region, it should be recalled, the borders of which were largely drawn in illegitimate fashion by imperialist forces a century ago. The sins of imperialism have yet to be forgotten in the region.

Democratic confederalism, however, is not about dissolving state borders, but transcending them. At the same time, it allows for the construction of a local, participatory democratic alternative to tyrannical states. Indeed, the model of democratic confederalism promises to help foster peace throughout the region, from the Israeli-Palestine conflict, through Turkey, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, etc. If only this democratic revolution could spread.

The long siege on Kobani, facilitated by the criminal complicity of the Turkish state, constituted not just an assault on the Kurdish people but on a revolutionary democratic project. The region is being torn asunder in a destructive process protagonized by a variety of reactionary brands of political Islam. The revolutionary project of Rojava, based on democratic participation, gender emancipation, and multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and even multi-national accommodation, represents a third way — perhaps the only way — for achieving a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

For these reasons the recent liberation of Kobani should be hailed by progressives, indeed, by all advocates of peace, freedom and democracy around the world.

Thomas Jeffrey Miley is Lecturer of Political Sociology in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge. His research interests include comparative nationalisms, the politics of migration, and democratic theory.

Johanna Riha is an epidemiologist who recently finished her PhD at the University of Cambridge. Johanna was part of an academic delegation that visited Rojava in December 2014. 

This article was originally published at the website of the University of Cambridge, and has been republished here with the authors’ permission.

Latest ISIS attack on Kobanê implicates Turkey once more

by Iskender Doğu on December 2, 2014

Post image for Latest ISIS attack on Kobanê implicates Turkey once moreThis weekend ISIS attacked Kobanê from Turkish soil. While Turkish complicity in the attack is hard to prove, the events raises some important questions.

In the early hours of Saturday, November 29, on the 75th day of the resistance of Kobanê, the militants of the Islamic State launched yet another attack against the city. In the 2.5 months that ISIS has been besieging the predominantly Kurdish city at the border with Turkey it launched numerous attacks — ranging from indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas with tanks, mortars and heavy artillery to suicide attacks by individuals and car bombs (VBIEDs) — but never before did it attack the city from the north, from the Turkish side of the border.

For many international observers and Kurdish activists this fact confirmed once again that the Turkish state is in bed with the Islamist militants, and that the two are collaborating closely in their fight against the region’s Kurdish population. Despite many clues pointing in this direction, one has to be careful in drawing too many conclusions from Saturday’s attack.

At this point it is a well-established fact that ISIS launched its latest attack on Kobanê from Turkish soil, but the extent to which the Turkish military and/or state has been complicit in this event remains impossible to determine. Aaron Stein’s Open Source Analysis of the attack presents the possibility that ISIS entered Turkey without the latter’s knowledge, crossing the border from Kobanê just a few hundred meters to the east of the border crossing before looping south and attacking the border gate from the north.

However, plausible as this might look on a map, when taking into consideration the heavy military presence at the border, with Turkish troops continuously patrolling the area with tanks and APCs, it seems highly unlikely — if not outright impossible — that two bomb-laden vehicles and a few dozen fighters could pass the border into Turkey unnoticed.

Moreover, according to reports by the YPG, the fighting between the city’s defense forces and the ISIS militants ensued for the better part of the afternoon and for most of the time took place on Turkish soil. This means that even if the military wasn’t complicit in ISIS’ attack, at the very least they failed (or refused?) to engage with the militants when it became clear that they were armed and present inside Turkey’s borders.

Turkish Support for ISIS

Ever since ISIS commenced its attack on Kobanê the town has been cut off from the outside world. ISIS controlled the western, southern and eastern fronts and the hermetically sealed border with Turkey formed an unsurpassable border in the north. The Turkish armed forces (TSK) have maintained a heavy military presence at the border, with dozens of tanks stationed on hills overlooking Kobanê, regular patrols along the border fence and watch towers and outposts every few kilometers.

Nonetheless, despite the ubiquity of the Turkish armed forces in the border region, aspiring jihadists have been managing to cross the border from Turkey into Syria in large numbers — in some cases even in broad daylight. Reports and rumors of Turkish support for ISIS have been doing their rounds for months, but have become more persistent since Kobanê came under attack from ISIS in late September.

A selection of trustworthy reports on Turkish aid to the jihadists reveals that the Turkish government has been providing logistical, medical, financial and military support by allowing ISIS fighters to ‘travel through Turkish territory to reinforce fighters battling Kurdish forces’; shipments of construction goods and materials to cross the border into ISIS-controlled territory; that it has treated injured ISIS fighters and commanders free of charge in Turkish hospitals; that it facilitates the smuggling of oil across the border into Turkey from ISIS-controlled territory; and that it even has been sending arms to the Islamist radicals and provided them with intelligence in the form of satellite imagery and other data (more here, here, and here).

Other examples of links between ISIS and the Turkish political establishment — such as details on the release of 180 ISIS members in exchange for 49 Turkish hostages; the impunity with which ISIS supporters attack and intimidate students at Istanbul University; and the ease with which ISIS is able to draw a steady stream of recruits from the country’s poorer neighborhoods — point towards at least some level of ideological agreement, if not outright cooperation, between the two parties.

ISIS as a Necessary Evil

Turkey’s close relations with ISIS should be understood in the context of the difficult relationship with its domestic Kurdish population and its deep hatred for the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Not taking the full complexity of the region’s political power play into account — which would would require a separate and more extensive treatment — but looking merely at Turkey’s disposition towards the conflict in Syria, one has to realize that from the perspective of the Turkish government ISIS is one of the lesser evils active in the region.

From the start of the Syrian revolution-turned-civil-war Turkey has been actively supporting anyone fighting against Assad, from the moderate revolutionaries of the Free Syrian Army to Islamist radicals such as the Al Nusra Front and ISIS. Turkey perceives these latter organizations not as a big threat to its own domestic security and at the same time believes that these parties have the best chance of overthrowing the Syrian dictator. Turkey’s perception of the Islamist militants can best be described as a ‘necessary evil’ — good enough to fight against Assad and other groups in the region, and not bad enough to actively endanger Turkish security.

Turkey’s alleged support for ISIS in the battle for Kobanê — or at the very least its refusal to support the Kurdish defenders of the city — stems from the fact that it views the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a sister organization of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which for more than thirty years has been leading an insurgency against the Turkish state. An autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, led by a close ally of the PKK and based upon the principles of horizontal democracy, gender equality and environmental sustainability — the same values that also guide the Kurdish struggle in Turkey — might very well inspire Turkey’s Kurdish population to voice similar demands and pursue similar goals, posing a possible threat to the territorial integrity of the Turkish state. This is why the Turkish government has been reluctant to support Kobanê’s Kurds in their battle against ISIS.

ISIS Suffers Setbacks

Back to the border.

The clashes started around 5:00am, Saturday morning, when ISIS launched its attack on the Mursitpinar border crossing. The advance of ISIS ground forces was preceded by the deployment of one VBIED and two suicide bombers, who attacked the border crossing from the north. This was the first time since the start of the conflict in Kobanê that the border crossing had come under direct attack from ISIS.

As a key strategic position for whoever wants to control the city, the border crossing had been subject to many attacks from ISIS already. Thus far, ISIS had been prevented from reaching the crossing as every attack was successfully repelled by the People’s/Women’s Defense Forces (YPG/YPJ) who have been defending the city alongside small contingents of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and 150 Peshmergas troops from Iraqi Kurdistan. However, where all previous attacks were launched from either the east or the south, where ISIS formerly controlled large parts of the city, Saturday’s attack came from the north, from the Turkish side of the border.

Videos of the fighting show YPG forces engaged in a fight with ISIS members (who can’t be seen in the video). The location of the fighters can’t easily be determined, but around 1:20am a Turkish flag is visible, indicating that the clashes are taking place inside Turkey — at the train station close to the border, to be precise. The YPG fighters are firing towards the grain silos which are also in Turkey from where ISIS is shooting back at the defenders, as can clearly be seen in another video.

A third video shows the damaged border gate which was allegedly blown-up when the VBIED detonated in its vicinity. This specific gate is situated on the Turkish side of the border, thus providing proof for the fact that the attackers actually entered from Turkey, and did not attack the border crossing from the east, as has been suggested by some analysts of Saturday’s attack.

Throughout the day clashes continued, not only at the border, but also on the eastern and southern fronts where the YPG/YPJ successfully repelled several attacks by ISIS and where a number of tanks were destroyed. According to a statement from the YPG Media Center the fighting at the border continued throughout the day, and for a large part took place on Turkish soil. The defense forces pushed back ISIS into Turkey — from there they are believed to have crossed the border back into Kobanê.

Ironically, what was supposed to be a shift in the balance in the battle for Kobanê in favor of ISIS, who has been losing a lot of ground in recent weeks after the arrival of some contingents of the FSA and Peshmergas in support of the YPG/YPJ, turned out to be one of its most disastrous defeats. By the end of the weekend more than 80 ISIS fighters had lost their lives in and around Kobanê.

Allegations and Denials

If ISIS’ attack was actually launched from Turkish soil — and this is in fact what the available evidence points towards — it raises a number of important questions that as of yet remain unanswered. To what extent was Turkey involved in the attack? If the TSK were not involved, how was it possible for ISIS to cross the border into Turkey with at least one vehicle filled with explosives and several dozens of fighters without being spotted? If ISIS was indeed fighting on Turkish soil, as the footage of the clashes implies, what action will Turkey take to prevent the Islamist militants from entering the sovereign territory of one of NATO’s key allies in the future?

For Asya Abdullah, co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Rojava, there is little doubt that the attack was launched from Turkish soil. “All three directions are under YPG control. We are 100 percent certain that the ISIS suicide vehicle entered Kobanê through Turkey,” she stated in a phone interview, commenting on the attacks.

“After all failed attempts to attacks from within Kobanê, ISIS thugs tried to carry out attacks from outside, from the border gate with Turkey,” Asya Adbullah added. “We always wanted good relations with Turkey but they need to clarify their position. If they are against ISIS why are they allowing them to use their soil to carry out attacks against us?”

Referring to the significance of ISIS attacking Kobanê from the north, Nawaf Khalil, spokesperson for the PYD stated that: “[ISIS] used to attack the town from three sides. Today, they are attacking from four sides.”

A statement by the government press office at the border town of Suruç acknowledged that the Mursitpinar border crossing had come under attack, but denied that the attack was launched from Turkey. “The allegation that the vehicle in the mentioned attack reached the border gate through Turkish land is definitely a lie,” the statement reads. It also denied claims that some unspecified Turkish officials had made a statement admitting that “the bomb-laden vehicle has passed the border from Turkey.”

Unsurprisingly, the Turkish military denied that ISIS had been present in Turkey for an extended period of time: “A few ISIL militants entered Turkish soil during the clashes. While armored units rushed toward that region, ISIL militants left Turkish soil,” anonymous military sources told Hurriyet Daily. “The total duration of the time they stayed in Turkey has been measured as 1 minute and 39 seconds. Everything can be seen in the recordings.”

What’s Next?

For many observers Saturday’s attacks have proven once again that in the battle for Kobanê Turkey has sided with the Islamist militants. Where Turkey’s logistical, financial and military support for ISIS remains hard to prove, the fact that the country’s government has refused to lend any kind of support to the defenders of Kobanê and have prevented military and humanitarian aid from reaching the city on numerous occasions, shows that it cares very little whether Kobanê stands or falls.

As stated above, the extent to which Turkey was involved in Saturday’s attack remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that ISIS launched its attack on the border post from Turkish soil, and even though there might be ways the militants could have crossed the border secretly, this is highly unlikely in the light of the TSK’s close monitoring of the border and the heavy military presence in the region.

Consequently, the most likely explanation is that the Turkish military was to a certain extent aware of ISIS’ intentions to cross the border and attack Kobanê from the north, but it might have misjudged the situation as they did not expect ISIS to cross with two VBIEDs and several dozen fighters.

Since the attack was successfully repelled, Saturday’s attack can in fact be considered a victory for the defenders of the city. The most profound effects will probably be felt by the Turkish military and political establishment who were thoroughly embarrassed when mainstream media across the globe headlined that ISIS had launched its attack from Turkish soil. Turkey’s NATO allies will undoubtedly demand some explanations as to how this could happen, and what they are going to do about it. As the battle rages on inside Kobanê, Saturday’s events could eventually work out in favor of the defenders as more political pressure might be exerted on Turkey to start actively opposing ISIS.

Iskender Doğu is an Istanbul-based freelance writer, activist and an editor for ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter via @Le_Frique.