Thousands of mainly Kurdish protesters thronged a busy pedestrian shopping street in central Istanbul on Saturday — accusing Turkey’s ruling AK Party of being complicit with ISIS. The militant Sunni group has been laying siege to the Syrian city of Kobane, heavily Kurdish, since September.
“Crimes against humanity are taking place in Kobane,” said 40-year-old Kurdish protestor Dilek Ozer of Istanbul. “The whole world is silent about it. So we are here as human beings to raise awareness, to raise our voices.”
Similar scenes were repeated in cities across the country as Kurdish leaders and Turkish leftists called for mass demonstrations in solidarity with Kobane.
This weekend's protests do not bode well for the Turkish government. In addition to supporting Kobane, many protesters chanted slogans in support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both Turkey and the United States have declared a terrorist organization. Riot police stood by ready with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas launchers, but ultimately did not intervene.
Regional analysts say Turkey has been in a tough spot for months, ever since ISIS began conquering towns and villages along its border. Their rapid advance has divided the Syrian opposition and strengthened the Syrian regime.
“Turkey clearly gives priority to the overthrow of the Assad regime. Actually this is turning into an obsession,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Ankara.
That belief played out in Turkey's policy toward Syria. For example, Turkey was loathe to allow pro-PKK militias to provide direct armed support in Kobane. But that strict prohibition was coming at a cost: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his governing AK Party were alienating a large chunk of the electorate as Kobane burned.
But Unluhisarcikli said Erdogan may have dodged a bullet, recently, when Iraqi peshmerga fighters went to help Syrian Kurds in Kobane drive back ISIS.
“The peshmerga is neither related to the PKK, nor an ally of the Assad regime, so it seems like a very good method for Turkey to help Kobane without supporting the separatists,” he said.
Years of fighting between the Turkish army and the PKK killed hundreds on both sides as recently as 2012 and had only recently been halted by a cease fire. That cease fire, though, was threatened by Kurdish unrest over Kobane — and no one wants that. Yet Erdoğan’s long-promised constitutional reforms giving Kurds more rights have also stalled.
And President Erdoğan poured more fuel on the fire Monday. In a speech in Istanbul, he rehashed familiar charges that the PKK sets fires to bulldozers and threatens contractors working on public works projects in the predominately Kurdish southeast.
In other words, the war of words continues.
For their part, Kurdish leaders say they’re not making headway with the current government and they can’t wait forever for promised reforms. In an interview with the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, PKK commander Cemil Bayik suggested moving forward with mediation either from the United States or some international delegation.
“We have now reached the point where there has to be movement. That is why we are suggesting a third power observe this process,” Bayik told the newspaper.
That could be awkward for the US because it calls the PKK a terrorist organization. But it does underline the sense of impasse between the parties.
Unluhisarcikli said both sides agree fighting is counterproductive — but that’s about as much agreement as you get.
“If you ask me if the peace process will get us anywhere, I don’t see the positions of the PKK and the Turkish government as reconcilable,” he said.
With the heavily-armed peshmerga in Kobane, there’s renewed hope that the town won’t fall to ISIS. That removes at least one flashpoint in the simmering hostilities between Turkey and the region’s Kurds.