Will Nobody Rescue Syria's Kurds?
Islamic State forces have moved into parts of the Syrian town of Kobani, suggesting that a desperate defense by mainly Kurdish fighters will soon collapse. The town has been Islamic State's primary focus in Syria for weeks, yet the coalition has carried out few airstrikes to stop its advance. Why not?
The Pentagon says it is carrying out some airstrikes against Islamic State there, but that "the focus in Syria has really been about the sanctuary and safe haven they enjoy. In Iraq, it's really been much more focused on supporting Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish forces on the ground."
The most obvious point to make about this policy is that if in Iraq the coalition is working with Kurdish "boots on the ground" to contain Islamic State, and if in Syria the U.S. is spending $500 million to train and equip a friendly force they'll one day be able to work with there -- why not use Syria's Kurds now? And why not arm them for the defense of Kobani?
A second point is that there is a reason Islamic State has attacked here: Kobani is the main town in the Westernmost of three areas that make up the self-proclaimed Kurdish-run autonomous region of Rojava. Kobani sits across the main road that runs along the Turkish-Syria border, and if Islamic State can take it, the group can pass through it to get directly from Aleppo in the West to other territories it holds in the east. Plus, the area controls a border crossing. So Islamic State wants to take Kobani, followed by the other parts of Rojava, to make their safe haven safer. Denying Islamic State this victory should therefore be important to the coalition's goals.
Finally, there is every reason to think that mass killings are coming -- similar to the threat against the Yazidi and Kurdish populations of Northern Iraq that motivated the first U.S. airstrikes. By the end of last week, about 170,000 Syrian Kurds had fled across the border from the Kobani area into Turkey. When Islamic State captured 10 people earlier in the week -- two male and three female Kurdish fighters, four Arab fighters and a Kurdish civilian -- they were beheaded, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Of course, the coalition is struggling to stop Islamic State with its airstrikes-only strategy in Iraq. Islamic State fighters have adapted their tactics and are concealing their hardware, according to the Pentagon. And without U.S. special forces on the ground in Kobani to spot for the pilots, airstrikes have limited potential. Yet this cannot be the whole story.
For one thing, watching the fight in Kobani has become a spectator sport for Kurds and journalists on the Turkish side of the border, who can often see the attacking armored vehicles and individual Islamic State fighters. If Turkey were willing, the U.S. could if it wanted get spotters to Kobani very quickly.
The Kurds believe Turkey, their old nemesis, is the impediment. Turkish tanks are lined up along the border, their barrels facing Kobani, yet the only thing Turkish forces have shot is tear gas cannisters -- aimed at the young ethnic Kurds on their own side of the border who want to cross to Kobani to fight.
Turkey is reluctant to help Kobani, because it is being defended by the People's Protection Units. These are aligned with the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which for decades fought a guerrilla war in Turkey. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization not only by Turkey but also the U.S. and the European Union. The Turkish government has been alarmed by the way the Kurds have put Rojava forward as a prototype for the kind of autonomous state the PKK might like to build for Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
Turkey wants to impose a buffer zone along its Syrian border to end the Kurds' "revolution" in Rojava. When Turkish leaders say the coalition strategy must be to crush all terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, not just Islamic State, they have the PKK and its branches in mind.
Negotiations appear to have taken place -- the Kurdish leader from Rojava, Salih Muslim, visited Turkey last week. His main comment afterwards, however, was that the Kurds would consider any Turkish buffer zone to be an occupation.
Muslim has been convinced for at least a year that Turkey's goal is to eliminate Kurdish rule in Rojava, and social media and Kurdish news sites are rife with conspiracy theories alleging that Turkey continues to arm Islamic State to that end. The timing of Islamic State's assault on Kobani -- immediately after Turkey secured the release of 49 hostages, in a deal with Islamic State that remains poorly explained -- only fueled the Kurds' speculations.
Turkey probably isn't arming Islamic State, but it is playing hardball. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government are nominally in peace talks with the PKK, but PKK leaders are now threatening to resume their war over Turkish inaction in Kobani. Erdogan appears to be holding the town, and the coalition, hostage to his broader fights with the PKK and with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
I'm not sure what the answer is for the Kurds of Kobani. They deserve sympathy for their plight, but their leaders are making a choice, too: To fight and die rather than give up their dream of Kurdish self-rule in a pocket of Syria. It seems clear that without Turkish support, the coalition can't or won't unleash its full air power to save Kobani, and that this support won't materialize until the Kurds agree to a buffer zone. That, surely, is by now Rojava's least bad option.