Monday, October 20, 2014

The US is now airlifting supplies to Kobani's defenders

(Kobani is the small yellow dot in the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border, at the top of the map.)

I have seen some accusations that Turkey's AKP government is still actively supplying, advising, and otherwise supporting. ISIS. My non-expert impression is that such charges are incorrect and unsupported by any actual evidence. On the other hand, the claim that Erdogan and his government would be happy to see ISIS forces conquer Kobani and crush the Kurdish PYD fighters defending the city, because they see Kurdish nationalism as a greater threat than ISIS, is highly plausible.

It's not just that the Turkish army has been sitting inactive on the hills overlooking Kobani watching ISIS pound the city—when the Turkish government responds to criticism by saying that it's unfair to ask Turkey to send ground forces into Syria while no one else is willing to do so, that rejoinder isn't entirely unreasonable. But it's also disingenuous, because Turkey has been preventing reinforcements and supplies from reaching Kobani's defenders and has tried to discourage other countries, including the US, from helping them. In case there was any doubt about this last point, Prime Minister Erdogan confirmed it explicitly this weekend.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has objected to arms transfers to a Syrian Kurdish group defending the border town of Kobani in the face of an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) onslaught, saying it is a terrorist group that is no different from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The president's remark followed a US statement last week saying that it has directly met for the first time with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), widely considered to be the PKK's Syrian arm. The PYD's armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), has been battling to stop ISIL advances on Kobani for more than a month. The US-led international coalition has been helping Kobani's defense by hitting ISIL targets in the town.

“There has been talk about forming a front against ISIL by giving the PYD arms. But the PYD, for us, is equal to the PKK; it is a terrorist organization,” Erdoğan said, criticizing the West for not supporting other groups in Syria who also have been fighting against ISIL.

“It would be very wrong for the US, a NATO ally, to openly talk of such support [to the PYD] and expect us to agree,” he said in remarks published on Sunday. [....]
Despite the objections of the Turkish government (and its refusal to allow US planes to use the Incirlik air base for missions supporting Kobani's defenders), the US recently intensified its bombing of ISIS forces in and around Kobani. This US air support probably played a critical role in helping Kobani's defenders, who are heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the ISIS forces, prevent the city from being overrun

Yesterday the US took the next step and began airlifting supplies to Kobani's defenders, who have been effectively under siege by the Turkish Army as well as ISIS. Today, in an even more intriguing development,Turkey's Foreign Minister hinted that Turkey might change its policy and loosen its efforts to isolate Kobani's defenders. Here's a round-up from Foreign Policy:
Along with continued coalition airstrikes, the U.S. military has airdropped supplies to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants in the Syrian town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab). Three U.S. transport planes dropped 27 bundles of supplies, provided by Iraqi Kurdish authorities, including ammunition, small arms, and medical supplies. The move has come amid intensified fighting in the town, near the border with Turkey. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Islamic State militants fired 44 mortars at Kurdish controlled areas of the town on Saturday. On Monday, in a shift, Turkey said it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross the Syrian border to reinforce Kurdish forces defending Kobani. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was facilitating the passage of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces across its territory into Syria.
There's clearly a complicated political and diplomatic game going on here. It's interesting, for example, that the US has been careful to announce (or pretend) that the arms and other supplies it's airlifting to Kobani come from Iraqi Kurds, not directly from the US. I suspect that further supplies may get doled out in minimal amounts, and will certainly not include heavy weapons—which ISIS has but Kobani's defenders don't.

And why would the Turkey's Prime Minister and its Foreign Minister be talking so directly at cross-purposes? One possibility is that Erdogan's latest remarks were intended to appeal to his domestic constituency among (non-Kurdish) Turkish voters, and to camouflage a shift in Turkish policy. Another possibility is that Foreign Minister's Cavusoglu's remarks are a public-relations exercise intended to deflect foreign criticism of Turkey's (indefensible) policies, but there won't be any actual changes. Or one could spin out various other complex interpretations (some of them involving deals between the Turkish government and the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq)..

But one way or another, these look like potentially significant developments.

 => Meanwhile, whether Kobani stands or falls in the end, the desperate struggle for Kobani over the past month has already had some important consequences. As Patrick Cockburn and Henri Barkey and others have argued, the battle for Kobani "has united Kurds across the region" and may prove to be "a defining moment of nationhood and identity for Syrian and Turkish Kurds". The role played by the Turkish government in this drama may also have important political consequences within Turkey, since it has outraged much of Turkey's Kurdish population. Ironically, as David Gardner pointed out in a recent Financial Times column, during the past decade Erdogan
has done more than any [other] Turkish leader to end this enmity with Turkey’s Kurds, ignoring hardline nationalists and opening a dialogue with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader.

The idea was to give Kurds in south-east Turkey a measure of self-government and cultural freedom, while drawing Iraqi Kurdistan and the liberated Kurdish cantons of northern Syria into a Sunni Turko-sphere that would serve as a buffer against Iran’s Shia axis to the south, which stretches across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. President Erdogan is now putting all this at risk, and has put tanks on the streets of Turkey’s Kurdish cities while Turkish tanks idle alongside Kobani, which if or when it falls will become an Isis hub smack on Turkey’s 500-mile border with Syria. [....]

Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu, who lead an increasingly Sunni supremacist party whose dog-whistle sectarianism is coming out into the open, give the impression they regard Isis as a lesser evil than either the PYD/PKK or Assad. [....]

Allowing for difference in scale, the Erdogan policy looks as cynical as Stalin halting his Red Army on the east bank of the Vistula in 1944 while the Nazis butchered the survivors of the Warsaw uprising. [....]
Furthermore, to borrow a nice formulation from an e-mail message Art Goldhammer sent this morning, the heroic defense of Kobani by the heavily outnumbered fighters of  the Syrian Kurdish PYD militia "has clearly demonstrated that ISIS is anything but an invincible juggernaut." The image of unstoppability created by the meteoric rise of ISIS and its string of astonishing victories is an important source of its strength—inspiring its fighters, attracting supporters, terrifying and intimidating its opponents. The struggle for Kobani has already dented that image significantly. A major ISIS assault has been fought to a standstill, and not by the army of a major power, but by a small and heavily outnumbered force of Kurdish guerrillas—many of whom, to add to the embarrassment, are women.

ISIS leaders are undoubtedly aware of this, so my guess is that they will continue and intensify their efforts to conquer Kobani, even at very heavy cost. We should all stay tuned.

—Jeff Weintraub