As Kobani teeters, Turkey steps up the fight against ISIL

Shi'ite fighters are aiding the Iraqi army battle against ISIL militants. Photo: Alaa Al-Marjani / Reuters
Shi'ite fighters are aiding the Iraqi army battle against ISIL militants. Photo: Alaa Al-Marjani / Reuters

The fight for Kobani, a Syrian-Kurdish border town under ISIL siege for nearly three weeks, was over almost before it started. Poorly armed forces loyal to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) never stood a chance of defeating ISIL’s increasingly sophisticated military machine. Through sheer grit and determination, not to mention US-led coalition air strikes, Kurdish fighters have managed to hold on to the town long enough to allow hundreds of thousands of civilians time to flee to neighbouring Turkey.

When the dust finally settles, Kobani will be remembered as a turning point for Turkey in the expanding US-led coalition’s war on ISIL. Despite appearances to the contrary, Kobani’s impending fall marks the moment when Turkey became an active member in the coalition to defeat ISIL. But this has nothing to do with whether or not Turkey will intervene on behalf of the Kurds.

While Kobani has been hung out to dry by the international community, like countless other towns and villages in Syria, the media attention on the plight of the Kurdish town has provided the necessary pressure to appear to secure a major Turkish concession in the ongoing fight against ISIL: coalition use of airbases in southern Turkey.

Turkey’s perceived unwillingness to intervene on behalf of the Kurds of Kobani and help a regional alliance against ISIL has been a constant theme of the news coverage. Now, however, the country is about to take a leading albeit quiet role in the regional fight.

To be sure, the photos of idle Turkish tanks poised over a town clearly under siege by thuggish militants is enough for anyone to question how Turkey could simply watch the slaughter unfold.

To make matters more complicated, the Turkish parliament has authorised the use of ground troops in Syria and Iraq. The Turkish political establishment, however, laid out a series of unrealistic demands that call for nothing less than a full Turkish military occupation of northern Syria’s Kurdish areas.

Turkey finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In order to “save” Kobani with a ground invasion, Turkey would need to break international law and invade its neighbour. The ensuing chaos could include ISIL attacks on key Turkish cities. Iran and Russia, who have strongly backed the Assad regime in Damascus, would certainly respond with anger. A variety of groups could initiate attacks along Turkey’s nearly 800km-long border with Syria. The scenarios are endless, and none bode well for Turkey’s future.

This is not to mention the unfolding domestic crisis between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been waging a guerrilla war against Turkey for nearly three decades. The Syrian Kurdish fighters battling to save Kobani from ISIL have exceptionally close links to the PKK. If the town is left to fall to ISIL, PKK leaders have said, there will be serious ramifications for the nine-year-old peace process between the Kurdish group and Turkey.

We are already seeing how a breakdown in peace talks plays out on the streets of Turkish cities. Week-long riots by Kurds and their supporters angry at Turkish inaction in Kobani have resulted in the deaths of dozens of people. Multiple Turkish provinces in the south-east and eastern parts of the country have been placed under curfew. The dirty war between the PKK and Turkey appears to be creeping back into urban areas when just months ago a breakthrough in the reconciliation process appeared on the horizon.

On the surface, these factors point to a Turkey that is unwilling or unable to take a larger role in the fight against ISIL. Yet, the debate about whether Turkey will intervene to save Kobani has overshadowed the fact that Ankara quietly authorised the use of its bases for coalition forces this past weekend, according to American defence officials.

Since the beginning of US-led air strikes against ISIL in Syria, the Obama administration has pressured Turkey to open up its southern airfields and bases for coalition use.

In a profound way, opening these bases is the most devastating and explicit blow that Turkey could deliver ISIL save for closing its border with Syria and sending in ground troops. The lack of initial confirmation of the move from Ankara is understandable given what is at stake here.

The bases, including key installations within 150 kilometres of the Syrian border, are strategically important for the American-led coalition. Far from ignoring the demands of its allies, the Turkish government is about to take a major role as a primary enabler of coalition attacks in northern Syria.

Turkey is in the least enviable position in the region. Bursting at the seams with Syrian refugees, crawling with foreign and local jihadis, and on the receiving end of increasingly unrealistic demands from the West, the country is facing renewed internal violence from Kurds throughout the country.

Certainly, the Turkish leadership has made several mistakes in its quest to see the Assad regime removed. But by allowing the US and coalition partners access to its southern bases, Turkey is demonstrating that it remains a vital ally in the fight against ISIL, even if the government is slow to acknowledge its participation. Given the particular pressures currently facing the country, the international community must remain careful of imposing too much burden on Turkey for fighting ISIL. Turkey is clearly stepping up its efforts as subtly and quietly as it can in what will be a long fight against ISIL.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Istanbul

On Twitter: @ibnezra

Published: October 13, 2014 04:00 AM


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