The battle for Kobane raged once more this week after Islamic State fighters launched an assault on the Syrian border town, which had been firmly in the control of Kurdish militias ever since they chased out the jihadist organization in January. Initial reports suggested dozens died in the fighting, including numerous civilians, with Syrian Kurdish militias forces either killing, capturing, or cornering most of the Islamic State militants.
Significantly, tensions also flared in neighboring Turkey, where roughly 15 million Kurds live. Some Kurdish groups, as they often do, accused the Turkish government of tacitly enabling the Islamic State assault. These conspiratorial claims were angrily dismissed on Thursday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as "slander and black propaganda." But the hostile mood underscores the precariousness of the moment.
The plight of Kobane, a predominantly Kurdish town right on the border with Turkey, is a lightning rod for many Kurds in Turkey. It's adjacent to the Turkish town of Suruc, where many residents have direct ties of kinship and clan to those living in Kobane. Last year, as Kobane was besieged by jihadist forces, hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurdish refugees sought sanctuary across the border.
Kurds living in Turkey grew impatient with their government, which they believed was, at best, not doing enough to save Kurdish lives and, at worst, actively colluding with the extremist Islamic State in order to quash Kurdish separatism. That led to days of protests and unrest in October, and triggered violence that claimed some 50 lives.
Turkey warily eyes the main Syrian Kurdish militia fighting the Islamic State. Its political parent is directly tied to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, the principal Kurdish separatist organization that was locked in a three-decade-long war with the Turkish state. Some 40,000 people died in the conflict, which technically ended in a ceasefire in 2013. The organization is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States.
Erdogan has done more for Turkey's Kurds than any other leader in the history of the modern Turkish republic, which for decades refused to recognize the existence of Kurds as a distinct ethnic group and restricted their ability to learn, speak and write their language. But Turkey's ambivalent role in the Syrian conflict, combined with frustrations over a stalled peace process with the PKK, steadily turned the tide of Kurdish opinion against the country's president.
Earlier this month, the shadow of Kobane fell over Turkey's parliamentary elections. Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party lost a considerable segment of its Kurdish support to the leftist Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, a party that many say is an extension of the PKK and whose candidates included relatives of slain or jailed PKK leaders. Yet the HDP won 80 seats in the Grand National Assembly in Ankara by pitching itself as a progressive, inclusive party for Turks of all ethnicities and creeds.
That dramatic success ensured that the Erdogan's party did not win a parliamentary majority, and appears to have scrapped Erdogan's mooted plans to transform Turkey's political structure into a presidential system that would have given him more executive powers. Turkey's four main political parties are currently wrangling over the formation of a coalition government.
The HDP's gains remain fragile, especially if Turkey has to stage early elections. Their rainbow-nation embrace of Turkey's vast diversity also to a certain extent belies a real groundswell of Kurdish nationalism that's emerged recently in the region. The election results were celebrated not just by Kurds in Turkey, but their compatriots across the borders in Syria and Iraq as well, areas where semi-autonomous Kurdish territories are gaining strength and confidence.
In early June ahead of the elections, I was in Diyarbakir, the center of Kurdish cultural and political life in southeastern Turkey. On a hot week day, I attended the funeral of two young fighters — one still a teenager — from the city who had been killed while fighting the Islamic State alongside Syrian Kurdish units. Hundreds gathered, chanting Kurdish nationalist slogans that celebrated the PKK and denounced both the Islamic State and the "fascists," presumably a slur directed at Ankara.
Though they were all Turkish nationals, they considered the fight against the Islamic State in Syria to be their own, inextricably linked from the long struggle for greater Kurdish rights and freedoms within the Turkish state.
"We have been fighting for 30 years for this time," said Lokman Bakr, father of one of the slain fighters. He was referring to the HDP's surge in the polls.
But he didn't seem to see Kurdish victories in the electoral arena in all that different a light than those on the battlefield.
His son and the other young "martyr," both local lads, were buried in a cemetery lined with the graves of dozens of other Diyarbakir men who had gone across the border to Kobane and elsewhere to combat the jihadists.
"If my other children want to go," said Bakr, "I will not stop them."