Many of us are living through the agony of the Kurds in Kobane as the forces of ISIS surround them and gradually chip away at their defenses. It’s like the fall of Constantinople in 1453, except we can watch it on a 24-hour news cycle. For those who have forgotten the siege of Constantinople, I’m convinced Tolkien used it as his model for the siege of Gondor, where the defenders watched grimly as their enemies tightened the noose, until that glorious moment where the riders of Rohan came thundering across the plain to save the day. But there is no cavalry to come to the rescue of Kobane: our vaunted airstrikes don’t seem to be doing much to stop the advance, showing the limits of air power in the face of a determined enemy. There was no rescue for Constantinople either—after a siege of two months the Turks broke through the defenses, slaughtering, raping, pillaging at will, sending 30,000 people to the slave markets.
The Turks could play the Rohan-role. They are there, poised and threatening, but just watching the defenders lose ground, and the refugees swelling their border crossing—200,000 Syrians have crossed at this point. The fall of the city seems inevitable—but what will the Turks have gained? They obviously think they will be better off with the Kurds crushed: a diminished threat from the radical Kurds who have been causing problems for Turkey for years. But the decision to stand idly by is going to haunt them forever. The Kurds are going to be so angry that they will vow to avenge themselves on the Turks for their indifference. Their struggle for autonomy will get an enormous shot in the arm and they will make life miserable for Turkey.
The Turks should recognize that this is an opportunity to change the dynamic. This is a major turning point in world history—not just at the Turkish-Syria border, but all around the world. This is like the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s—where will ISIS stop? Turkey should start sending the Kurds whatever assistance they need to fight ISIS and pave the way to a whole new relationship with this minority group within their borders. The Kurds were given a raw deal throughout the 20th century. There should be an acknowledgement that self-determination is an important–dare I say sacred–tenet of our modern age. If a group like the Kurds, or the Scots, or the Eastern Ukrainians, or the French-Canadians wants to break away, there should be a vote and they should be allowed to go. Then the neighboring countries can get on with the job of making trade agreements and improving the standard of living for everyone. As I’ve said before in this space, partition is not a dirty word. We need to try something new, and breaking countries up, though messy, is worth a try.