Arming The Enemy

An ISIS video released yesterday shows that one of the 28 bundles of arms the US airdropped to Kurdish fighters in Kobani early Monday fell into the militants’ hands:

Video footage released by Isis shows what appears to be one of its fighters for in desert scrubland with a stack of boxes attached to a parachute. The boxes are opened to show an array of weapons, some rusty, some new. A canister is broken out to reveal a hand grenade. … The seemingly bungled airdrop comes against a steady stream of US-supplied weapons being lost to Isis forces, mainly from the dysfunctional Iraqi army. Isis is reported to have stolen seven American M1 Abrams tanks from three Iraqi army bases in Anbar province last week.

Today, the Pentagon confirmed the story but downplayed its importance, saying that the accidental delivery would not give ISIS an advantage. Either way, the revelation prompted digs at the US from Moscow and Ankara, with Erdogan saying it proved that the airdrop operation had been a mistake. And weapons aren’t the only thing the US is unintentionally delivering to ISIS.

Earlier this week, Jamie Dettmer warned that humanitarian aid meant for displaced and starving Syrian civilians in ISIS-held territory ends up benefiting the jihadists themselves:

“The convoys have to be approved by ISIS and you have to pay them: The bribes are disguised and itemized as transportation costs,” says an aid coordinator who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition he not be identified in this article. The kickbacks are either paid by foreign or local nongovernmental organizations tasked with distributing the aid, or by the Turkish or Syrian transportation companies contracted to deliver it. And there are fears the aid itself isn’t carefully monitored enough, with some sold off on the black market or used by ISIS to win hearts and minds by feeding its fighters and its subjects. At a minimum, the aid means ISIS doesn’t have to divert cash from its war budget to help feed the local population or the displaced persons, allowing it to focus its resources exclusively on fighters and war-making, say critics of the aid.

Kobani: A Battle In Multiples Wars

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Despite recent gains by Kurdish fighters in and around Kobani, aided by the delivery of small arms and other supplies yesterday, Kiran Nazish reports that the situation in the area remains tenuous:

Firas Kharaba, the leader of a Kurdish group, has been coordinating and managing the return of many wounded fighters from Kobani into Turkey. With the help of spies that, he says, infiltrated ISIS, “we found the power hub. … After the U.S. hit that building, they [ISIS] suffered a full blow.” More than 30 top fighters and commanders were killed, he said. Recently the Islamic State has been bringing in new fighters, but many of themaccording to Firas’s sourcesare not professionally trained fighters, but mere managers, organizers, and account keepers, with little experience in the battle field.

The main concern for YPG fighters now, is their on-the-ground force. What they need even more than manpower, says Kobani government official Idris Nassan, are “weapons on the ground.”

U.S. intelligence has assisted them, says Nassan, but it is not a substitute for weaponry and ammunition. Despite this weekend’s air drop, “the coalition is not ready to send weapons on the ground,” says Tarek Doglu, a foreign affairs analyst based in Ankara. “No one wants to intervene the matters between Turkey and PKK. That is the basic complexity.”

Dettmer talks to some of the town’s few remaining doctors, who paint a harrowing picture of the humanitarian conditions:

Dr. Kurdo Abdi, gave me a first-hand account of the extraordinary demands that have been placed on the 15 doctors and nurses who remained in Kobani throughout the siege. They have struggled to provide rudimentary care for wounded fighters and civilians while dodging bombs, rockets and bullets. “The main hospital was destroyed ten days ago by rockets,” says Abdi. The ISIS militants bombed the hospital on purpose. “Since then we have been treating people in makeshift clinics in different parts of Kobani, mainly in apartments. We have very little medicines. We got a few re-supplies from some fighters and civilians who smuggled it across the border, but very little. The situation is very bad.”

ISIS’s recent retreat, he adds, has been oversold in the press:

Despite widespread media reports that the Islamic militants have left the town and are now just on the outskirts, that is not accurate. Both doctors say the jihadists have been pushed back on the West of the town but they are still inside parts of the center and that there is street fighting in the east and south.

Yusuf Sayman defends Turkey’s actions, pointing to its massive refugee relief effort, and laments that “refugees running from the war in Syria are stuck in the political war in Turkey”, between the government and Kurdish activists:

While the Turkish government wants to play the good guys by helping the refugees, the opposition — including the HDP, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party — refuses to allow them to reap the political benefits of this goodwill gesture. Some refugees now stay in camps run by the office of Suruc’s mayor, who is from the HDP, which act as a sort of Kurdish counterpoint to the camps run by AFAD [the Turkish government’s humanitarian relief agency].

Thus, the refugees find themselves on the front line in a propaganda battle. Hazal, a 24-year-old activist from Kobani volunteering as a health worker, speaks negatively about life in the HDP camps: She says their sanitary conditions are very bad, water-borne illnesses are widespread, and there is constant YPG propaganda. People are forced to refer to each other as “heval,” or comrade — a term used by both PKK and YPG fighters. She even recalls a YPG member telling her, “If you visit your relatives staying in the AFAD camp, we will consider you a traitor.”

Intra-Kurdish politics, Hannes Cerny observes, add another dimension of complexity:

[President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud] Barzani is playing a long game, as he benefited for years from his status as the main Kurdish leader that the West could do business with. Dialogue now between the U.S. and the PYD/YPG threatens his position; the YPG could even become as indispensable in the war against IS in Syria as Barzani’s peshmerga are in Iraq. Furthermore, if the PYD holds off IS in Kobani and becomes the West’s new Syria partner in the process, it would strengthen the form of local autonomy that the PYD has been exercising in northeastern Syria over the past two years. This political model, an anarchist communalism of Kurdish confederations, poses a direct ideological challenge to the KRG.

(Image: a UN satellite photo shows details of the street fights between Islamic State militants and Kurdish fighters in Kobani. Via Rick Noack.)

Kobani: ISIS’s Stalingrad?

Syrian Kurds Battle IS To Retain Control Of Kobani

Last night, American military transport planes delivered weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies to the Kurdish fighters still holding the northern Syrian border town of Kobani against a lengthy siege by ISIS militants:

The supplies were not provided by the U.S., but instead came from other Kurdish forces outside of Kobani, the official told FP. U.S. aircraft merely facilitated the airdrops. American warplanes have been bombing Islamic State targets in and around the city for weeks, but the airdrops escalate that effort and mean that the U.S. is now facilitating direct assistance to the Kurdish fighters defending the city.

The defenders of Kobani welcomed the aid but warned that it would not be enough to decide the battle. Much still depends on how much help Turkey will allow across its border. Obama reportedly gave Erdogan advance notice of the drop on Saturday night, but Juan Cole interprets it as defiant of the Turks’ wishes. Since then, Ankara has been sending its usual mixed signals:

In comments published by Turkish media on Monday, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan equated the main Syrian Kurdish group, the PYD, with the PKK. “It is also a terrorist organization.

It will be very wrong for America with whom we are allied and who we are together with in NATO to expect us to say ‘yes’ (to supporting the PYD) after openly announcing such support for a terrorist organization,” Erdogan said. Also on Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey was facilitating the passage of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters to Kobani to aid Syrian Kurds defending the town against Islamic State militants. Cavusoglu, speaking at a news conference, did not provide details on the transfer of the fighters.

Looking at the big picture, Henri Barkey considers the battle of Kobani a seminal moment in the national history of the Kurds:

Kobani will have two different effects on the region. First and foremost, it will be an important marker in the construction and consolidation of Kurdish nationhood. The exploits of Kobani’s defenders are quickly joining the lore of Kurdish fighting prowess. After all, the Iraqi Kurdish forces, not to mention the Iraqi army, folded in the face of a determined IS onslaught only a couple of months ago. The longer the city resists, the greater will be the reputational impact (although it is already assuming mythic proportions).

There is another, rather unique aspect of the resistance that is adding to its mythic character: the role of women in the fight. The juxtaposition of an Islamic State, which enslaves women or covers them from head to toe, with the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has large numbers of women fighting and dying alongside men, is particularly striking. Social and other media outlets have brimmed with stories of the heroism and sacrifice of these women. The fighting in Kobani, and especially the emergence of women fighters, has now entered the Kurdish lore and imagination.

Paul Iddon also grasps the battle’s symbolic significance. He hopes it will prove to be the Islamic State’s Stalingrad:

The reason I stress the symbolic importance of this is because as was the case during the Battle of Stalingrad the name was of great significance to the invading Third Reich whose ruler saw destroying that city and killing all of those who resisted to be of great symbolic and psychological importance given the fact it was named after the dictator of the country they were attempting to conquer. Kobani for similar reasons has become a symbol of Kurdish defiance to IS and is the reason that group is pouring more resources into in order to try and break that towns spirit and the Syrian Kurds ability to resist and repel its advances. And like Stalingrad the locals there have shown they will fight building-to-building to the death before they let IS overrun their town.

(Photo: Heavy smoke from an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition planes rises in Kobani, Syria, October 20, 2014 as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. By Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

The Syrian-Turkish-Kurdish Clusterfuck, Ctd

Adam Chandler narrates the latest diplomatic twist in the Mideast turducken:

On Thursday, things got a little stranger. The State Department announced that it had held direct talks with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.), a Syrian Kurdish group that is linked to the P.K.K. In other words, American diplomats met with the Syrian affiliate of a group that Turkey had just bombed and that the United States has listed as a terrorist organization since 1997. …

During Thursday’s press conference, [State Dept. spokesperson Jen] Psaki offered that the United States is “certainly aware of the connection” between the P.K.K. and the P.Y.D., but tempered word of the meeting by saying that it “does not represent coordination — it represents one conversation.” Nevertheless, the news comes as the United States appears to be in the market for new ground forces in Syria. As Hannah Allam reports, the U.S. announced it plans to scrap its affiliation with the Free Syrian Army to recruit and train its own moderate force to do battle in Syria.

And the quicksand deepens. Alia Malek observes that the PKK is gaining a following among Iraqi Kurds as well, making the Kurdistan Regional Government nervous:

In the past, the PKK did not count many Iraqi Kurds among its members, nor was the separatist group a critical player in Kurdistan’s internal affairs. But since ISIL fighters swept through northern Iraq this summer, that has changed. Increasingly, Iraqi Kurds are embracing the PKK fighters as heroes, lauding them for recapturing the northern Iraqi town of Makhmour and its surrounding villages and for rescuing thousands of members of the Yazidi ethnic group who were trapped in nearby Sinjar. …

The PKK’s newfound popularity in Iraq’s semiautonomous region of Kurdistan has been watched warily by the government here. Not only could the group’s rise upset internal politics; it could also destabilize the region’s relations with other nations. The Kurdistan regional government, or KRG, has long maintained good relations with Turkey, which has for 30 years been locked in a violent struggle with the PKK.

Matthias Christensen criticizes the haphazard way in which weapons have poured over Turkey’s border to various Syrian rebel groups since the start of the conflict. He urges NATO to step in and start directing traffic:

Turkey’s laissez-faire policy on weapons flows has failed miserably. Studies show that there are currently around 1,500 different opposition groups in Syria – and that number relates directly to the way weapons are distributed. A policy guided by strategy and implemented with the help of other NATO members would beget a coherent Syrian opposition – an absolutely central component to bringing the war to an end. This streamlining of supplies would be a top-down process, but it would be effective, since Syrian fighters are quite naturally drawn to groups that can supply them with weapons, training, food and a basic living standard. Military coherence, in other words, will result in a politically legitimate opposition movement.

And in coalition news, as it is, Lake and Rogin report that the Turkish government has agreed to let the US launch drones, but not manned planes, from its key airbase at Incirlik:

“They are letting us do a ton of signals work,” a U.S. official working the issue said, using military jargon for the interception of hostile communications. “They have not objected to just about anything on the surveillance side. The fights have been about manned aircraft coming in and out.” …  One U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast that overall Turkey has been willing to allow the United States to fly drones out of Incirlik but has not allowed the United States to fly manned aircraft. Instead, those missions have been flown from other locations and from aircraft carriers stationed in the region.

The Syrian-Turkish-Kurdish Clusterfuck, Ctd

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin has come out in favor of establishing a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, along with a no-fly zone, to protect civilians against both ISIS and the Assad regime:

“We should seek to establish a delineated buffer zone along the Turkish border in order to protect civilians, a zone which would be secured by Turkish boots on the ground, if Turkey is willing, protected by a coalition no-fly zone,” Levin said Wednesday morning at the United States Institute of Peace. “Both things will be necessary, for Turkey to consider Turkish boots on the ground inside Syria along that border, there must be a no-fly zone to protect that buffer zone… and we should seek to do that.”

This is not the first time Levin has called for a no-fly zone in Syria. In March of 2013, Levin endorsed the idea of a no-fly zone and airstrikes against the Assad regime. But that was before the Obama administration made a deal with Assad promising no airstrikes against his forces in exchange for Syria turning over its chemical weapons stockpiles.

Levin’s proposal would fulfill some of Turkey’s conditions for participating in the fight against ISIS in Syria. However, Kate Brannen points out, it would also be an expensive, risky undertaking that could draw us much deeper into the Syrian civil war than we’d like to get (which, in turn, would sort of fulfill Turkey’s other main condition):

Creating a no-fly zone along the Syrian-Turkish border that could serve as a refuge for civilians fleeing the Islamic State and a training ground for members of the Syrian opposition would most likely mean taking out Syrian air defense systems and possibly taking on its air force. That could result in significant numbers of Syrian military fatalities — and potentially American ones.

That type of fight would also run the risk of setting back the fight against the Islamic State, as the United States and its coalition members would essentially be fighting a war on two fronts. The Syrian military has not interfered with U.S. airstrikes against terrorist targets in eastern and northern Syria, but that could change if U.S. airplanes also start bombing Syrian targets.

As for Ankara’s surprising behavior of late, Totten stresses that it shouldn’t be surprising at all:

When [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] looks at the map he sees dominoes. Kurdish independence in Iraq could lead to Kurdish independence in Syria which could lead to Kurdish independence in Iran which could lead to Kurdish independence in Turkey. Every time a new independent Kurdish entity pops up in the Middle East, the liklihood that Turkey will lose an enormous swath of its territory increases. His analysis is correct. So he’ll bomb the Kurds but not the Islamic State. He’d be against Kurdish independence in Syria even if the PKK didn’t exist.

Turkish animosity against Kurds is hardly a secret, so I’m not sure why so many in Washington can’t understand this guy. Maybe it’s because he lets girls go to school and doesn’t stone anybody to death.

Derek Davison seconds that:

The fact that Turkey would apparently rather let Daesh slaughter and enslave the Kurdish defenders of Kobani than do anything that might benefit long-term Kurdish political aims may be immoral, unconscionable, even indefensible on a humanitarian level, and it’s fine to condemn Turkey on those grounds, but as a pure calculation of national interest, what Turkey is doing shouldn’t surprise anybody. It’s not as though America hasn’t greatly wronged the Kurds in the past, when it was in US interests to do so. It’s also worth noting that the UK and Germany have also opted out of direct military involvement in Syria, but nobody seems to be talking about expelling them from NATO or moving American military hardware to other countries in Europe.

It may be that Turkey will still come around to America’s position on Daesh, or at least closer to it; recent Kurdish protests aside, Ankara’s Syria policy has been consistently unpopular within Turkey, and PKK threats to break-off peace talks with the government over its inaction in Kobani may yet force Erdogan’s hand. But if Erdogan is swayed, it will be because of domestic politics, not American pressure or threats.

The Syrian-Turkish-Kurdish Clusterfuck

Turkey launched airstrikes yesterday – not against ISIS, but against Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey:

Turkish news reports said the strikes had been aimed at fighters of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, known as the P.K.K., and were in retaliation for the shelling of a Turkish military base. Such airstrikes were once common, as Turkey fought a Kurdish insurgency in a conflict that claimed almost 40,000 lives over nearly three decades. But hostilities essentially ceased two years ago when the peace process began, and both the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah and an online statement from the P.K.K. said the airstrikes on Monday were the first since then. The Turkish military also released a statement, but it did not mention airstrikes specifically, only an exchange of fire with “terrorists.”

Authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan are now pressing Ankara to let their fellow Kurds cross the border to help defend the Syrian town of Kobani, which remains under siege from ISIS:

Speaking on a visit to RFE/RL in Prague on October 13, Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister of the Kurdish regional government (KRG), said Ankara should heed calls from the international community to help the city, which has been under siege for almost four weeks.

“It’s a moral responsibility for all of us to move in order to help the besieged [city of] Kobani,” Mustafa said. “We hope that there would be an understanding by Turkey to the calls from the international community and to the needs of these people who have proven to be bravely fighting the terrorists throughout this period, from the day they have been besieged.” He said Ankara should establish a corridor between its border checkpoint of Mursitpinar and Kobani, whose northern edge is less than a kilometer from the Turkish frontier.

Today and yesterday, ISIS positions in Kobani and elsewhere in Syria came under heavy attack from US planes:

Centcom said the 21 strikes in and around Kobani destroyed two of the group’s staging locations and damaged another, destroyed one an ISIS-held building and damaged two others, damaged three ISIS-held compounds, destroyed one ISIS truck, and destroyed one ISIS armed vehicle and another ISIS vehicle. The US military also struck an additional seven ISIS staging areas, two ISIS mortar positions, three ISIS occupied buildings, and an ISIS artillery storage facility. Centcom said early indications were that these strikes were “successful.” Separately, the US military conducted an additional strike on an ISIS-held oil refinery near Dayr az Zawr. Centcom said this strike was also successful.

But the jihadists are apparently making gains in Iraq:

“The militants, they now control 80% of Anbar province,” said Faleh al-Issawi, a local politician from Anbar, detailing weeks of miserable performance on behalf of the Iraqi military. Government forces, he says, are constantly on the back foot, rarely launching offensives to regain territory. Outgunned and beleaguered, he says, Iraqi army units in Anbar are beginning to collapse. “We are renewing our call for American or International troops to come to Anbar province and begin ground operations,” he said, expressing a policy desire completely at odds with that of the central government.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is claiming that Turkey has agreed to allow US warplanes carry out strikes from its bases, but Turkish officials won’t confirm that:

[National Security Advisor Susan] Rice said Ankara had joined Saudi Arabia in agreeing to allow its bases for training moderate Syrian opposition forces and had agreed that “facilities inside Turkey can be used by the coalition forces, American and otherwise, to engage in activities inside of Iraq and Syria.” Incirlik Air Base, located about 50 kilometers inland from the Mediterranean Sea in southern Turkey, is home to the U.S. Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing and about 1,500 American military personnel and is key to protecting NATO’s southern flank.

On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied there was such an agreement on bases, according to state-run Anadolu Agency. “There is no decision at the moment concerning Incirlik or any other issue,” the agency quoted Cavusoglu as saying[.]

Meanwhile, Jamie Dettmer is dismayed at the anti-Western rhetoric Turkish President Erdogan whipped out in a speech yesterday:

About T.E. Lawrence—who is still viewed as a hero in the West and by many Arabs—the Turkish President showed nothing but disdain, then used Lawrence as a vehicle to heap opprobrium on others. Erdoğan dismissed the British officer as “an English spy disguised as an Arab.” And he told the university audience—the speech was televised—that Westerners are “making Sykes-Picot agreements hiding behind freedom of press, a war of independence or jihad.”

Erdoğan argued there are modern-day Lawrences in Turkey right now “disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists.” And the remark was especially ominous on the day five foreign journalists—three of them German—were hauled before a court for a preliminary hearing in the southeastern Turkey of Diyarbakır, following their arrests at the weekend by anti-terrorist police.

Marc Champion believes Erdogan has miscalculated:

Erdogan appears to believe he can squeeze the PKK and its affiliate in Syria, while negotiating a settlement with Turkey’s Kurdish community. If so, he would be underestimating how quickly a massacre in Kobani could push events beyond his control. Erdogan is a formidable politician and never to be underestimated, yet I suspect he is making a big mistake for Turkey.

That’s because only one of the two very risky paths for Erdogan has a chance of a positive outcome. The Turkish leader has a real prospect of building a long-term alliance with the Kurds and creating a stable buffer against the chaos of the Middle East, partly because he has already done a lot to repair relations with Kurds in Iraq and Turkey in recent years. Islamic State, however, can offer nothing but instability and fear.

Michael Crowley returns to our other big problem in Syria – Assad, with whom Erdogan and the Syrian rebels would like us to go to war as well:

Obama may find it increasingly difficult to battle ISIS without coming into conflict with Assad’s forces. “Sooner or later the linkage is going to be forced,” said Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute. Salem wonders how Obama would react if American-trained rebels come under aerial bombardment by Assad’s air force: Would U.S. forces pounding ISIS targets elsewhere in the country refuse to intervene? (That would hardly inspire goodwill among the rebels.) How should the U.S. respond [if] Assad’s forces move to claim territory cleared by ISIS after coalition attacks? And will Obama tolerate Assad’s infamously brutal attacks on civilian populations now that U.S. fighter-bombers are mere minutes away from the scene of such crimes?

Larison sure hopes we don’t take the bait:

It is unreasonable to expect anti-regime forces to do Washington’s bidding against other enemies of the regime when their overriding concern is to fight regime forces. However, that isn’t an argument for doing what the rebels want. It draws our attention back to why the war has been misguided and unlikely to succeed from the start, especially once it expanded into Syria. If both Turkey and the “moderate” opposition refuse to cooperate unless the U.S. attacks the Syrian government, that tells us that the war against ISIS cannot be fought effectively at an acceptable cost. That should be a clear warning to the administration to stop now before it gets in any deeper. Warring against both sides in the same civil war not only appears absurd, but it greatly increases the chances of costly failure.

Max Fisher, on the other hand, asserts that an alliance with Assad is the only logical outcome of Obama’s Syria policy:

Obama doesn’t want to build up the rebels enough to defeat ISIS, he doesn’t want to invade and occupy Syria (rightly), and he doesn’t trust Turkey enough to sponsor a Turkish invasion. With those options off the table, only Assad is left as someone who is able to re-conquer ISIS-held territory and occupy it for many years, which is what it would take to end the ISIS threat. So it looks increasingly likely that Obama will come to view Assad as his only real option if he wants to defeat ISIS.

The Battle For Kobani, Ctd

Air strikes on ISIS in and around the besieged Syrian border town continued to escalate today. Local Kurdish forces are still holding out against the militants, though there are conflicting reports of how much of the town ISIS currently controls:

The U.S. Central Command said five airstrikes south of Kobani since Wednesday had destroyed an Islamic State group support building and two vehicles, and damaged a training camp. The strikes also struck two groups of Islamic State fighters, it said in a statement. “Indications are that Kurdish militia there continue to control most of the city and are holding out against ISIL,” it said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group, which controls large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. …

The [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights] said the militants had seized more than third of Kobani, but Kurdish officials disputed that, saying their forces had recaptured several parts of the town. “I can confirm that they don’t control a third of the city. There is only a small part of Kobani under the control of Daesh,” said local Kurdish official Idriss Nassan, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State group.

Turkey’s foreign minister stressed in a press conference that Ankara would not launch a unilateral ground operation to rescue Kobani. The government’s refusal to act has sparked protests among Turkey’s Kurdish community, leading in many cases to violence. Piotr Zalewski provides an update on the clashes, which by his count have left at least 21 dead:

In Diyarbakir, about 60 miles north of the border with Syria, members of Hizbullah, a local Islamist group allegedly sympathetic to ISIS, traded gunfire with Kurdish protesters, including PKK militants. Ten people were found dead by the morning. More clashes have been reported in a number of other cities across the southeast, as well as in Kurdish neighborhoods in Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul, with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails. A curfew was imposed in six provinces, with soldiers patrolling the streets of several cities on Wednesday.

Tulin Daloglu analyzes the situation from the perspective of Turkish politics:

Turkey is going through a decade of polarization to an extent never seen before in its republican history. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies have divided the public and his decision to put imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan at the center of the peace process created serious controversy. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader, blamed Erdogan again Oct. 8 for having wrong-headed policies. …

Despite such serious disagreements about the country’s direction between Turkey’s ruling and opposition parties, all the legislators seem to agree that Turkey should use caution before ordering its ground forces to intervene in Kobani. Moreover, all agree that pro-PKK voices exaggerate linking the fall of Kobani to the fall of Ankara. Yet, they all believe that if IS captures Kobani, its jihadists will control a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border and that would pose a threat to the country’s national security. In sum, the situation is in a dire mess.

At yesterday’s Pentagon briefing, Rear Adm. John Kirby acknowledged that Kobani might still fall to the jihadists:

“We all need to prepare ourselves for the reality that other towns and villages, and perhaps Kobani, will be taken by ISIL.” Kirby reiterated a point he has emphasized before, which is that the U.S. military is fully aware that airstrikes alone will not be sufficient to roll back the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq and Syria. To do that, the United States, along with its partners, is going to have to retrain the Iraqi security forces, bolster the Kurdish Peshmerga, and build a ground force in Syria out of vetted and trained members of the Syrian opposition.

Kobani, in Ben Wallace-Wells’ view, “suggests one risk of the plan: that in the interim there may be atrocities on the ground that these forces are helpless to stop”:

The smart line in Washington ever since Obama took office, both from the administration and from foreign-policy thinkers, has been that the Bush adventures revealed some of the limits of what the United States could accomplish overseas, that we could no longer be everywhere at once. That is a sensible posture to take; it may be the only possible posture. But the cost of that posture is that there will be some very grim events that the United States allows to unfold, because they are not taking place at strategically important spots like “command and control centers,” because our allies aren’t ready, because we can’t be there and everywhere else, too. There will be some things that are unpleasant to stomach. Right now, it looks like Kobani may be one.

Morrissey doesn’t see how this ends well without someone sending in ground forces:

Air strikes may have bought a little more time for Kobani, but without any troops to bolster its defenses, those airstrikes are only delaying the inevitable. If Obama really wants to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, he’ll need to convince the Turks and other regional players to get on the ground, or he’ll have to send American troops to do it.

To Drum, the renewed calls for us to do something are fairly predictable:

Some of this will just be partisan opportunism, but most will be perfectly sincere protests from people with the memory span of a gnat. What they want is a magic wand: some way for Obama to inspire all our allies to want exactly what the United States wants and then to sweep ISIS aside without the loss of a single American life. Anything less is unacceptable.

But guess what? The Iraqi army is still incompetent. America’s allies still have their own agendas and don’t care about ours. Air campaigns still aren’t enough on their own to stop a concerted ground attack. This is the way things are. There are no magic wands. If you want quick results against ISIS, then speak up and tell us you want to send in 100,000 troops. If you’re not willing to do that, then you have to accept that lots of innocent people are going to die without the United States being able to offer much help. Make your choice now.

The Battle For Kobani, Ctd

US-led coalition strikes ISIL in Kobane

Stepped-up air strikes have apparently begun to drive back ISIS fighters from the Syrian Kurdish border town, which they had all but captured as of yesterday, though it’s not clear whether this will be enough to turn the tide in the battle:

“They are now outside the entrances of the city of Kobani. The shelling and bombardment was very effective and as a result of it, IS have been pushed from many positions,” Idris Nassan, deputy foreign minister of Kobani district, told Reuters by phone. “This is their biggest retreat since their entry into the city and we can consider this as the beginning of the countdown of their retreat from the area.” Islamic State had been advancing on the strategically important town from three sides and pounding it with artillery despite fierce resistance from heavily outgunned Kurdish forces. Defense experts said it was unlikely that the advance could be halted by air power alone.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, is getting fed up with Turkey:

“There’s growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre less than a mile from its border,” a senior administration official said. “After all the fulminating about Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, they’re inventing reasons not to act to avoid another catastrophe. “This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to avoid publicly criticizing an ally.

Steven Cook turns a critical eye on Ankara’s reasoning here:

The Turkish analysis of the situation is different from that of the United States and the Europeans. Ankara believes that IS emerged as a result of the Syrian civil war, which in turn is the result of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s intransigence and brutality. The Turks thus insist that getting rid of Assad is the only way to get rid of IS. This is both simplistic and self-serving: Given that Ankara has been vocal in its support for regime change in Syria, anything less would be a profound embarrassment to Erdogan and Davutoglu. Inasmuch as Erdogan does not believe that the United States is going to do in Assad and may even sometime down the road tacitly agree to some sort of deal that leaves the Syrian dictator in place, the Turks remain cool to taking part in the anti-IS coalition.

Finally, though it may be hard to believe, there are elements of the AKP’s constituency that regard IS as a legitimate group seeking to protect Sunni interests in Syria and Iraq amid ongoing sectarian bloodshed.

Semih Idiz solicits some expert views, which all coalesce around the notion that Erdogan wants the coalition war to be against Assad rather than ISIS:

“Davutoglu is saying in effect that IS is the product of rage and if the source of that rage, namely the Syrian regime, goes, then such groups will also go. I don’t know if he believes this himself, though,” [lecturer on international politics at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, Soli] Ozel told Al-Monitor. Ozel also wonders if there is an ulterior motive to Ankara’s insistence on a no-fly zone and buffer zone in Syria even though there is no international support for them. “If IS engages in a massacre in northern Syria this will provide an excuse for Ankara doing little to prevent it. It can say, ‘I warned the international community, but it refused to act.'”

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security expert at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey and a columnist for Milliyet, believes the real problem for the Turkish military in Syria is that it cannot decide who the enemy is. “If the target is Assad, the answer to this question is simple,” Ozcan argued in his Oct. 7 column. “Otherwise it is not clear who and where the enemy is. It wears no uniform and is a part of the civilian population.”

Larison reminds us, again, of how dangerous it would be for the US to start a two-front war in Syria:

If “destroying” ISIS is already an unrealistic goal, and it is, setting out to defeat both ISIS and the Assad regime at the same time is even more fanciful. Destroying the latter would probably be relatively easier, and we know that the U.S. is capable of overthrowing established foreign governments by force, but in doing so the U.S. would plunge all of Syria into even greater chaos. If the war against ISIS also requires the U.S. to go to war with the Syrian government now or later, there is no way that the outcome will be worth the costs to the U.S., and those costs continue to grow with each new goal that hawks want to tack on to the ever-expanding war.

Kurds in southeast Turkey are protesting the government’s inaction. Some of the protests have turned violent:

Nineteen people have been killed in fighting between supporters of the Kurdish PKK party and police and local Islamist groups, according to media reports. Turkey’s Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker said ten were killed and 45 injured in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish southeast. The city of Diyarbakir is “calm” as citizens “generally abide by the curfew,” imposed last night, Eker said today at a televised press conference.

Jamie Dettmer channels more outrage from the Kurdish refugees and fighters amassed on the Turkish side of the border:

“There will be consequences for this,” an activist with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, tells me. “We aren’t going to forget,” the curly-haired woman, who declines to give a name, says sitting cross-legged on a blanket pulled up under Pistachio trees. PKK activists and defenders in Kobani claim the course of battle could have been changed with just some modest assistance: if they could have gotten anti-tank missiles the Americans have been handing out to rebel battalions in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, and if Turkey had allowed Kurdish reinforcements to cross the border.

Cale Salih examines how the US has dealt with the Kurds differently in Syria and Iraq, which she argues “is reflective of Washington’s general mistaken tendency to presume distinctions between the two countries that do not actually exist”:

In Iraq, the US not only carried out air strikes but also armed the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and sent military “advisors”. As a result, the peshmerga were able to provide ground intelligence to guide US air strikes, and, in conjunction with Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Syria, they followed up on the ground to retake important territories lost to Isis.

In Syria, the US has been more hesitant to develop such a bold Kurdish partnership. At first glance, the Kurdish fighting force in Syria – the People’s Defence Units (YPG), linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which the US designates as a terrorist group due to its decades-long war with Turkey – is a less natural partner than the widely recognized Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Yet it was YPG and PKK forces that provided the decisive support on the ground to the Iraqi Kurds, allowing KRG peshmerga to regain territory lost to Isis in Iraq. The US in great part owes the limited success of its airstrikes in north Iraq to the PKK and YPG.

But Jake Hess reveals that Washington has held back-channel talks with the Syrian Kurds:

The United States has rejected formal relations with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the party that is essentially the political wing of the YPG. The PYD, which has ruled Kobani and other Kurdish enclaves inside Syria since President Bashar al-Assad’s forces withdrew in July 2012, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant organization that has fought Turkey since 1984 — and has consequently been listed as a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States. But interviews with American and Kurdish diplomats show that Washington opened indirect talks with the PYD years ago, even as it tried to empower the group’s Kurdish rivals and reconcile them with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Though Washington has declined PYD requests for formal talks, the United States opened indirect talks with the group in 2012, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told Foreign Policy.

Meanwhile, Canada will be launching its own airstrikes soon, and another report suggests coalition ground troops are being discussed:

Military chiefs from more than 20 countries — many already involved in the fight against the Islamic State and some who are considering joining the group — will meet in Washington early next week to discuss progress on airstrikes in Iraq and Syria as well as plans to create a ground force to consolidate gains against the group.

(Photo: A photograph taken from Suruc district of Sanliurfa, Turkey, shows that Turkish army forces patrol while smoke rising from the Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) after US-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on October 8, 2014. By Emin Menguarslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The Battle For Kobani, Ctd

Since yesterday, ISIS militants in northern Syria have penetrated farther into the town of Kobani (also known as Ain al-Arab) on the Turkish border, driving back the Kurdish militias defending it and sending thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives to safe havens in Turkey:

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for Kurds in Kobane, told Agence France-Presse that 2,000 civilians were evacuated on Monday and that all civilians were ordered to leave. More than 180,000 refugees from around Kobane have already poured over the border into Turkey since the siege on the city started three weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reports. IS fighters have already captured more than 300 Kurdish villages around Kobane, but the street-to-street fighting on Monday put them within a mile of the city center. They now surround the city on three sides.

New coalition air strikes reportedly launched today may not be enough to turn the battle against the jihadists, but there are signs that Turkey is preparing to act:

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey suggested Tuesday afternoon that the strikes may have come too late, telling Syrian refugees at a camp in Gaziantep Province, near the border, that Kobani was about to fall, The Associated Press reported. “There has to be cooperation with those who are fighting on the ground,” he was quoted as saying, while adding that airstrikes might not be enough. The latest fighting is taking place in full view of Turkish forces who have massed tanks with their cannons pointing toward Syria but who have not opened fire or otherwise intervened.

Marc Champion urges more support and arms for the Syrian Kurds:

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.

But an effective defense would require assistance from Ankara, and “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.

Goldblog fears a massacre in Kobani if ISIS is not beaten back:

I just got off the phone with a desperate-sounding Kurdish intelligence official, Rooz Bahjat, who said he fears that Kobani could fall to ISIS within the next 24 hours. If it does, he predicts that ISIS will murder thousands in the city, which is crammed with refugees—Kurdish, Turkmen, Christian, and Arab—from other parts of the Syrian charnel house. As many as 50,000 civilians remain in the town, Bahjat said.

“A terrible slaughter is coming. If they take the city, we should expect to have 5,000 dead within 24 or 36 hours,” he told me. “It will be worse than Sinjar,” the site of a recent ISIS massacre that helped prompt President Obama to fight ISIS. There have been reports of airstrikes on ISIS vehicles, but so far, Bahjat said that these strikes have been modest in scope and notably ineffective.

Zack Beauchamp explains how the jihadists advanced on the town so rapidly:

Why did things change? Most analysts say it’s about Iraq. When ISIS swept northern Iraq beginning June 10, its militants captured enormous amounts of advanced, American-made military equipment that had been dropped by the Iraqi army, including mortars and frontline battle tanks, which they’ve brought to the fight in Syria. The Kurdish forces are now outgunned. And because they’re surrounded, they can’t resupply.

But William Gourlay believes that “the brave fight of the PYD has demonstrated the military shortcomings of ISIS”:

That local militias – with only light arms and little outside support – can hold off a major ISIS offensive, including a great deal of heavy weaponry of US and Russian origin, indicates that ISIS’s military prowess is vastly overstated. The PYD militias are tenacious and are fighting to hold their homeland, to be sure, but one can only wonder how easily ISIS may have been defeated in this arena if the might of the US-led coalition had been effectively brought to bear.

The Battle For Kobani

Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, who are desperately trying to hold off an ISIS advance on the border town of Kobani, are pleading for heavy weapons, saying US air strikes are not really helping:

The jihadis, who this weekend generated further outrage with the murder of the British hostage Alan Henning, are simply too numerous to be cowed by the air assault by US fighter jets, the Kurds say. “Air strikes alone are really not enough to defeat Isis in Kobani,” said Idris Nassan, a senior spokesman for the Kurdish fighters desperately trying to defend the important strategic redoubt from the advancing militants. “They are besieging the city on three sides, and fighter jets simply cannot hit each and every Isis fighter on the ground.”

He said Isis had adapted its tactics to military strikes from the air. “Each time a jet approaches, they leave their open positions, they scatter and hide. What we really need is ground support. We need heavy weapons and ammunition in order to fend them off and defeat them.”

Jamie Dettmer reviews the weekend’s events from his vantage point on the Turkish side of the border:

Although the weekend air raids were hardly intense, the effect of even limited U.S. bombing runs was telling. The missiles launched on Friday and Saturday night interrupted what had been salvo after salvo of tank and mortar fire from the jihadists during daylight hours and forced Islamic State militants to move half-a-mile back from the besieged town. They also emboldened the Kurdish defenders, who are lightly armed and fending off heavy armor. On both nights the Kurds counter-attacked and had some successes, destroying at least one ISIS tank.

Despite the airstrikes, the town’s fate hangs in the balance, says Ismat Sheik Hasan, a commander in the YPG Kurdish self-defense forces, whose vanguard is formed by an offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Even so, the point of American airpower was made, adding further poignancy to the Kurds’ questioning about why the U.S. is not being more forthright in assisting them to defend the town from an enemy President Barack Obama says he wants to “degrade and defeat.”

Jeremy Bender attributes the ineffectiveness of US airstrikes in Syria to a lack of intel and coordination on the ground:

The US simply doesn’t have the same kind of on-the-ground intelligence presence and capabilities in Syria that it has in neighboring Iraq, where coordination with the Kurds and the Iraqi government allowed American airstrikes to help dial back a major ISIS assault. The US lacks those kinds of partnerships in Syria, and the resulting shortage of intelligence is a major strategic shortcoming — something that may plague the coalition’s overall goal of disrupting and destroying ISIS’ network within Syria.

Liz Sly explains why Turkey hasn’t rushed to save the city:

Turkey remains ambivalent about joining the coalition against the Islamic State, despite a vote in parliament Thursday authorizing military intervention. Turkey is anxious not to take any action that would embolden its Kurdish foes on either side of the border, and the resolution named the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK — the parent organization of the Kurdish militia fighting in Kobane — as one of the targets of any future military intervention, along with the Islamic State and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signaled late Thursday that Turkey might be prepared to act. “We wouldn’t want Kobane to fall. We’ll do whatever we can to prevent this from happening,” Davutoglu told Turkish journalists. But it remains unclear what Turkey is prepared to do.

Michael Stephens worries:

Adam Chandler presents the battle over Kobani as a sign of how ISIS is adapting to the presence of American air power:

The advance of the Islamic State fighters into a strategically important Syrian city is a development that U.S.-led airstrikes were supposed to preclude. But as many are suggesting, the coalition efforts to stem the Islamic State onslaught have been ineffective. This is, at least in part, because ISIS has changed its tactics.

“In Syria and Iraq, they took down many of their trademark black flags, and camouflaged armed pickup trucks,” The Wall Street Journal wrote of ISIS. “They also took cover among civilians.” The group is also said to have decentralized some of its command structure, adjusted its movements to nighttime, and eschewed the frequent use of cellphone and radio communications.

Australian Defense Minister David Johnston also sees ISIS adapting rapidly:

Johnston acknowledged the potential for Isis extremists to adapt to the expanded air strike campaign by presenting fewer targets to the air forces. “I think that’s pretty certain that they will adapt very quickly not to be out in the open where the Iraqi security forces can call in an air strike.” The embedding of Isis militants in towns was “a much more difficult proposition and I think we’ve started to see adaptation already”, Johnston said. “It was always going to be that the Iraqi security forces would have to step up and go into these towns and clean them out,” he said. In a separate interview on Sunday, Johnston said Isis could be “extremely adaptive” and Iraq could be “quite a long campaign”.