ISIS, the Kurds, & the Fight For Kobani

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ISIS, the Kurds, & the Fight For Kobani
| published October 20, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

The U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida, says it has now carried out at least 140 airstrikes against ISIS forces near Kobani, in northern Syria—all within the last ten days. The explosions can be heard for miles, the ground shakes like it would during a major earthquake, the plumes of smoke have been so tall that they can be seen easily from nearby Turkey. But that’s not as amazing as it seems, especially considering how close Kobani is to Turkey.

The fighting between the Kurds and ISIS militants has in some cases been so close to the low hills and ridges along the Turkish border with Syria that enclaves of refugees—Kurds, Christian, other ethnic and religious minorities—have been able to witness the battles unfold as if they were watching from grandstands in a giant arena. From the safety of the Turkish side of the border, print and television have been able to report on the fighting firsthand, sometimes watching from only a few hundred yards away.

Refugees have been videotaped cheering each time Kurdish forces open fire upon ISIS positions along the idyllic ridgelines and hilltops, and those same refugees applaud each time U.S. warplanes drop ordnance on ISIS positions.

Turkish soldiers and security forces have also watched, often nervously, as these sometime intense battles unfold. The heavily-armed Turks, supplied in many cases with NATO weapons, are caught in the middle—literally—of what may be the most dangerous situation that the predominantly Muslim country has faced in decades.

Tens of thousands of refugees, mostly civilians, have fled on foot from the battle-torn areas of Syria. They have trekked north in trickles and streams for three years, fleeing the bloody carnage wrought by the Syrian civil war. But in recent months—as people flee in the path of the approaching ISIS radicals—the numbers have increased, fostering a terrible humanitarian crisis for the Turks and international authorities, but also straining the already tense situation along the long border which separates northern Syria from Turkey. To add to the complexity and the violence, many Kurdish men already in Turkey (and some who have travelled from as far away as Chechnya, Armenia and Georgia—have been pressing along the border, answering the call by their fellow Kurds now besieged in the Syrian town of Kobani, where the fight between ISIS militants and Kurdish soldiers has reached a fever pitch.

U.S. military commanders and Pentagon spokespersons had, it seemed for weeks, been reluctant to engage in direct airstrikes on ISIS forces in and around Kobani. But that changed last week as it began to appear that Kobani, one of the last strongholds of non-ISIS urban areas in northern Syria, might fall to ISIS. The U.S. air power may have turned the tide on the battle, and now some observers say that ISIS units may be engaged in selective retreat from Kobani.

But more importantly—and perhaps of greater concern amidst an already difficult quandary for the Turkish government—the Pentagon has begun a complex operation in which weapons, ammunition, and even medical supplies are being airdropped into the hands of Kurdish fighters in Kobani and in other pockets of resistance near the Turkish border. Using C-130 cargo planes, U.S. military teams dropped tons of supplies into Kurdish-held areas of Kobani in the dark of night Sunday. More air drops are planned for this week. Among the supplies now in the hands of Kurdish commanders on the ground: hundreds of M16 rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition…all packed into enormous wooden crates sealed with bubble wrap and plastic.

Turkey has officially said that it opposes any outside efforts—by the United States, the United Kingdom, or others—to provide additional arms, weapons, or supplies to rebel groups, on either side of the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey has also been generally opposed to allowing more Kurds to enter (or re-enter) northern Syria to fight alongside the Kurdish forces now battling ISIS militants. Turkish police and military units have used tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and rubber bullets to repel hundreds of Kurds who have been attempting to cross the fence-line into Syria.

So, despite Turkey’s tacit, guarded support for the U.S.-led coalition air attacks against ISIS forces, this latest escalation may cause political grief for some Turks back in the capital city of Ankara. Intense, sometimes rancorous debate in Ankara has meant that all-out support for Kurdish resistance is not possible, at least not in the current context. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has publicly called the Kurdish rebels “terrorists,” and despite a number of cordial conversations between U.S. President Barack Obama and Erdogan, the Turkish chief exec regards the Kurdish fighters as being equivalent to the ISIS militants. Not all elected and appointed officials in Turkey agree with Erdogan’s assessment, and some have quietly backed both U.S. efforts and the efforts of some to arm the Kurds to fight ISIS.

Still, Turkey—a key member of NATO, a member of the European Union, a representative democracy, and a nation with a professional, well-trained army—seems intent on sitting this one out, despite the proximity of radical ISIS fighters to the eight-foot fence separating it from the increasingly violent civil war in Syria.

Turkey, which sits upon the gateway which divides Europe from Asia and the Middle East, also happens to have at its disposal the second largest standing army in all of the NATO alliance. This is why in the United States and the U.K., among conservatives, liberals, and moderates of all political parties, there is a growing feeling that Turkey should offer more than mere circumspect lip-service to the battle between the civilized world and the radicals who make up ISIS. Turkey’s mostly secular parliamentary democracy gives it strength to face down ISIS, but it also makes for a tempting target for the militarized radicals who have swept through much of Syria and Iraq.

ISIS, also sometimes called ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), formed out of the remnants of al Qaeda, and from the fractious components of other rebel groups opposing Syrian President Bashir al Assad. Like a half dozen Arab-speaking countries, Assad’s regime was in danger from the effects of the fast-moving, potentially transformative Arab Spring. But unlike the varying outcomes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—Assad dug in his heels, refused to yield or even share power, and then used every means at his disposal to quash Syria’s democracy movement, including heavy bombing of civilian towns and cities, and the extensive use of chemical weapons. Much of the country devolved into a brutal, bloody civil war. ISIS sprang out of this lawlessness and chaos, then, earlier this year, began its blitzkrieg military operations across northern Syria and northern Iraq. In its path, the Iraqi army collapsed, abandoning tanks, Jeeps, armed SUVs, personnel carriers, weapons, ammunition, and even uniforms. Within the short span of several weeks ISIS has swept across much of Iraq, threatening to destabilize the country.

ISIS has maintained the upper hand on the ground in much of the area it controls, especially in Syria. This despite heavy air bombardments by U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force warplanes, including the new F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, the most expensive airplane ever built. But the aerial campaign by the U.S.-led coalition (which includes the U.K., the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates) has, at least according to some military analysts, begun to turn the tables on ISIS. ISIS units have begun a slow, painstaking retreat from parts of Kobani (and some ISIS units have also left the area around Baiji, the town which is home to the largest oil refinery in Iraq).

The stakes have now been raised for the winners and losers in Kobani. For ISIS, a military defeat at the only major town in northern Syria not completely under its control would send a powerful signal to others who might oppose ISIS that the radical militant is neither invincible nor imbued with some special power. And a coalition victory would certainly bolster the arguments being made by proponents of sustained intervention that the air campaign—in an effort closely coordinated with local ground support (i.e., Kurdish fighters)—can produce measurable, demonstrable results.

ISIS will feel compelled to raise the stakes even more in its battle for Kobani, fearing that a loss there would undermine its psychological advantage, especially the key ingredients of terror mixed with inevitability. And the U.S. may be banking on exactly that sort of rationale by ISIS commanders; if ISIS feels it must up the ante in Kobani, if for no other reason than to save face within the Arab world, it may divert more of its resources to a fight which it may not be able to win, ever.

But ISIS has proven to be almost as resilient as the Kurds who have momentarily halted the militants’ advance across northern Syria. The U.S.-led air campaign has wrought much shock, awe, and dazzle, but some experts question whether air power alone can do the job. The question still remains an open one: if the Turks (and the Saudis or Jordanians, for that matter) are unwilling to send troops onto the battlefield to confront ISIS, who remains to accept that dangerous task?

Related Thursday Review articles:

Does ISIS Have Air Power Ambitions?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 17, 2014.

Turkey’s Growing Humanitarian Crisis; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 22, 2014.

You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 27, 2014.