Battle for Kobani As the World Watches, Turkey Looks Away
For weeks now, the world has grown worried as Islamic State jihadists have tried to take the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria. As the US has stepped up airstrikes, Turkey's actions have revealed that it is pursuing its own contradictory political agenda.
Just a few kilometers away from the Turkish border, the war is raging. In the Kurdish city of Kobani, US jets bomb Islamic State positions while the town's last defenders, equipped with more grit than guns, fight the jihadists on the ground .
As the Turkish army impassively watches the deadly battle from its side of the boundary with Syria, it has opened its own mini-front on the outskirts of Suruç, a Turkish border city. A young policeman, his finger on the trigger of his automatic weapon, stands in front of the town's sports club, a second officer next to him holding a grenade launcher for tear-gas cartridges. Behind them are two dozen soldiers and policemen, and armored vehicles bearing mounted machine guns and crates of ammunition.
Since Oct. 6, the jittery unit has been detaining a number of Kurdish civilians who fled across the border from Kobani. In the beginning, they numbered 160 -- most of them were young men, though there were also women and children. The guards in front of the gate are not allowed to say why the civilians are being held and they point their weapons at everyone who approaches.
Suddenly, a group of boys from a local team appears. A boy of about 10 explains that they're arriving for weekly soccer practice, held on the field next to the gymnasium. A man in uniform searches through their gym bags, one after the other, while the others look on nervously.
The scene is prosaic and absurd. But it is, for that very reason, symbolic of what is taking place on the Turkish side of the border these days. The fight for Kobani -- which, thanks to its proximity to the border, is being filmed and watched around the world in real time -- is no longer exclusively about control of the city. The desperate defense mounted by the Kurds embodies their decades-long struggle for an independent country.
Kobani was a city where a Kurdish government sprouted and flourished, a fulfillment of dreams in miniature. Now that the city is being threatened with destruction by Islamic State Ankara is doing nothing to prevent it, and thus putting the future of Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation in danger -- and domestic peace along with it.
The fight for Kobani also of outsized importance for the jihadists. Should Islamic State win despite US airstrikes, it would be an incomparable triumph.
From a geopolitical perspective, the town's strategic importance is limited. But because camera teams can easily monitor Islamic State advances -- machine-gun bursts and mortar strikes can be heard from across the border, and the clouds of dust and smoke from the airstrikes are easily visible -- Kobani has become a stage and the entire world its frightened audience.
Turkey, however, is primarily concerned with chasing away onlookers. Last Wednesday afternoon, a column of army vehicles sped to the top of a hill west of Kobani where residents and journalists were watching events unfold across the border. The first Jeep came to a halt at the summit and a man clambered through the rooftop opening, cocking his teargas launcher like a shotgun. The soldiers then proceeded to chase everybody off the hill.
The security personnel behave like manic town sheriffs. On Wednesday evening, 15 armored vehicles rolled into Mahasir, a border town populated by Turkish Kurds. The soldiers announced via loudspeaker that the village was being cleared and that all residents had 10 minutes to leave their homes. Those who refused would be fired at with teargas. After an hour, the soldiers left.
The high-strung behavior of Turkish security personnel stands in direct contrast to their moderate approach to Islamic State, which is on display 60 km east of Suruç, at the next border crossing in Akçakale.
Two years ago, the town on the Syrian side, Tell Abiad, was home to a functioning town council comprised of opposition leaders and representatives of several rebel groups. But now the black flag of the Islamic State is flying on the Syrian side of the border. The Islamist fanatics have controlled Tell Abiad for almost a year and have murdered or driven out all of their opponents. The town council is gone, replaced by a dictatorship that keeps the population in its place by way of spies and capriciousness.
'They Won't Pay Any Attention'
Turkey seems to prefer a neighbor like Islamic State to the Kurds. The border gate to the sleepy town opens at 9 a.m. "Syrians may come and go," says the Turkish official manning the guard house. For everyone else, there is a trafficker standing in plain sight a few meters away. "How many? Two men? Three? No problem," he says, without inquiring about nationality. "They won't pay any attention."
There isn't much going on at this particular entrance to the caliphate, just a couple of women fiddling inexpertly with the required face veil as they prepare to cross the border. But after about half an hour, a truck arrives and unloads some pallets loaded with first-aid supplies: bandages, rubber gloves, disposable drape sheets and collapsible wheelchairs.
An elderly man with a long beard monitors the reloading operation as the supplies are packed onto handcarts. Just before he crosses the border with his cargo, a young man rushes up to him, hands him a Saudi Arabian passport and asks him to take it across for a friend, who will be waiting. The older man takes it and, together with his four companions, pushes his load of medical supplies across the border into the caliphate.
Such a delivery would be a godsend for the Kurds of Kobani. They have been begging the Turkish authorities to open the border crossing near the town and to allow medical supplies to pass, with no success. Here in Akçakale, however, those kinds of crossings are no problem whatsoever.
That is one of several reasons Kurdish distrust of the Turkish state is growing. The almost 100,000 refugees from Kobani and surrounding villages have thus far been almost exclusively provided for by private aid organizations, which have set up tent camps in and near Suruç. The municipality, led by the Kurdish party BDP, has transformed the community center into an emergency shelter. One aid worker from Diyarbakir says that the state is doing almost nothing compared to agencies from Kurdish-governed cities. Indeed, many Kurds, including parliamentarians and city officials, firmly believe that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is working together with Islamic State.
The heightened suspicion means that the peace process between Turkey and the Kurds -- which aims to resolve the decades of violent animosity between the two groups -- could very well have come to an end.
Another source of the intensifying tension between Kurds and Ankara: the Kurdish media's tendency to exaggerate Turkey's dubious behavior. Police buses, which often have tinted windows and lack license plates, are filmed from afar and described as "Islamic State transports."
In Kobani itself, the war against Islamic State is being waged by just over 1,000 guerilla fighters and the most powerful air force in the world. The US planes fly more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from bases in the Persian Gulf and are refueled mid-air before they arrive in Kobani. According to Kurdish claims, target coordinates are then radioed in by Kurdish commanders on the ground. Indeed, the fact that the Kurds have been able to hold out, and even to win back some territory, is entirely due to these US airstrikes.
US strikes in Kobani have thus far largely focused on the thousands of Islamic State foot soldiers in the city, and not on the Islamist convoys in the surrounding countryside or their approaching tanks. In recent days, columns of smoke have been rising from strikes on the heart of the dense city center. The fact that US strikes last Wednesday night hit a position held by Kobani's defenders, apparently killing several Kurdish fighters, was as tragic as it was inevitable.
By the end of last week, the defenders of Kobani were lacking ammunition for almost all of their weapons. "We are now sharing a single Kalashnikov, each person fights for two hours and then it is the next fighter's turn," one Kurdish fighter said over the phone. "We have pushed our Dushka" -- a heavy machine gun -- "into a garage and hidden our anti-tank weapons. We don't have any more ammunition for them. We only have shells for the Kalashnikovs." The situation was so dire that the US began air-dropping weapons, ammunitions and medical supplies for Kurdish fighters over the weekend.
Turkey, though, continues to prevent the Americans from using their nearby base in Incirlik for airstrikes. Last week, Ankara and Washington arrived at a bizarre compromise instead, permitting the US to only use the base as a take-off and landing site for drone flights. It was only on Monday of this week that a fisrt shipment of weapons, ammunition and other supplies was dropped from US planes and that Ankara saw fit to budge slightly from its increasingly untenable position, announcing that it would allow Iraqi Kurds to cross into Syria to help defend Kobani.
Turkey also wants to help the US arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight against forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. But Ankara remains opposed to any move that could strengthen PKK, which it continues to see as its primary enemy in the region, alongside the Syrian president.
It is doubtful that Kobani can be saved with airstrikes alone and even more unlikely that the Islamic State can be defeated from above. Exhibit one remains the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq, where tens of thousands of Yazidis sought safety fromthe Islamic State onslaught in August before being rescued there by troops from YPG, the Syrian offshoot of PKK. Today, hardly anyone is paying much attention to Sinjar, where Islamic State managed to take control of the last access road two weeks ago, despite occasional airstrikes. Now, the jihadist group is besieging well over 1,000 fighters -- a group made up of troops from YPG as well as the recently-formed Yazidi militia "Angel Peacock" and the Peshmerga, the fighting force of Iraqi Kurds -- there.
As the world looks to Kobani, the jihadists in Iraq have been able to advance toward the western Iraqi towns of Hit and Ramadi. Iraqi informants also say Islamic State is currently gathering fighters for a possible assault on Kirkuk, the oil rich city in northern Iraq under Kurdish control.
Islamic State now controls an area stretching to within 25 kilometers of Baghdad and the Sunni group is also responsible for a series of attacks that killed more than 70 people in the city's Shiite quarters last week. A political solution to the conflict remains remote. Indeed, instead of making concessions to the Sunnis, new Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has nominated a leader of the Shiite militia Badr Corps for the post of interior minister.
The sparse US airstrikes have thus far had minimal effect, to the point that top US military officials have reportedly been pressuring US President Barack Obama to increase the number of sorties flown from the current five to seven per day to 150 or more. Some also say that Special Forces are needed on the ground to assist with targeting. But so far the US has only significantly increased its engagement in Kobani itself, partly due to massive international pressure.
Significant assistance from the Turkish side, though, remains unlikely. On the contrary: Last week, the Turkish military flew airstrikes against PKK positions in southeastern Turkey, the first such attacks in some time. It seemed to be sending a clear message as to who Turkey sees as being the worse terrorists.
Last week, a group of fathers gathered in front of the sports club in Suruç. Some of them were the fathers of those being held inside, and all of them, aging farmers with deeply furrowed faces, had the same story to tell: At first, Turkish officials had told them they would be able to bring their cars, tractors and other vehicles across the border when they fled Kobani. Aside from their land, these vehicles were their most important possessions.
But at the border crossing, they were told they could only come across by walking, so their sons stayed behind to keep an eye on the vehicles. Ultimately, though, they too had to flee on foot -- and were arrested when they arrived in Turkey.
"We are farmers, damn it. What do they want from us?" implores Salih Nuri, who is standing together with his two youngest sons. "Why are they tormenting us like this? They should at least give us a reason why they are holding my son and the others. One reason."
Nuri isn't alone in waiting for an explanation from Turkey. The rest of the world is too.