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.
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:
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):
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.
Jonathan Schanzer wonders if it isn’t time to review Turkey’s NATO membership in light of its lackluster support for the coalition war against ISIS:
Turkey’s stock as a Western ally is plummeting. Ankara stubbornly resists joining the coalition unless it broadens its fight to topple Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s 200 or more F-16 fighter jets sit idle as the Islamic State makes alarming gains across Syria and Iraq. This stands in sharp contrast to other Muslim world allies – including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and even Jordan – that have taken part in the aerial campaign against the Islamic State. Turkey’s absence is conspicuous. It’s the only NATO ally among these Muslim world partners. To be clear, the fight against the Islamic State is not a NATO mission, but it serves as a reminder of how little Erdogan’s regime has done to help preserve order in the Middle East.
Larison rejects Turkey’s conditions for participation, particularly its demand that the war’s objectives expand to include regime change:
If Turkish support comes at the price of having to fight both sides in Syria, the price is far too high.
The Syrian part of Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy was always a deferral. He seems not to have thought it through, perhaps because he didn’t think he’d have to. It would be hard, and take long, enough to “degrade and destroy” ISIS before he’d have to deal once more with Assad. He didn’t count on two factors. First, ISIS-in-Iraq and ISIS-in-Syria turn out to be inseparable; it’s hard to fight one without contending with the other. Second, America’s allies in the region—on whom Obama’s strategy depends—have interests that are at times at odds with American interests. This becomes a problem in coalition warfare. ISIS, in fact, gains much of its strength from the fact that the countries arrayed against it—which, together, could win in short order—can’t get their act together; they have too many conflicting interests tearing them apart.
He zooms out to conclude:
The international system in which we all grew up, the system of the Cold War, has shattered, and nothing has taken its place. There are no real power centers. Nations, even small and medium-sized ones, are freer to pursue their own interests, which often collide with ours. Large nations have less leverage than they once did, and it’s harder to coerce or persuade other nations to put our interests above their own. Obama is in a tight position (and future presidents should take note, because they will be, too): He may have to succumb to mission creep—or slowly, carefully, creep away.
I hope it’s the latter. There’s no way this clusterfuck can do anything coherent over the longer term. The Turks’ ambivalence – even with ISIS controlling a hefty chunk of their border with Syria – tells you everything you need to know. I agree with this reader:
1) In 1983, antecedents of Hezbollah bombed the shit out of military barracks in Lebanon, murdering over 200 US Marines. US officials made a bunch of noise about how they won’t be deterred. Less than 6 months later, Reagan had us get the fuck out of Lebanon. The Lebanese proceeded to murder each other for another 7 years before they got tired of it and stopped.
2) In 2014, two American journalists are murdered by a bunch of guys in the desert. Obama responds by having us get the fuck inside Iraq and Syria, two countries mired in slow burning civil wars.
And by publicly engaging with these idiots on the battlefield, Obama and every other US politician raises ISIS’s profile, drawing more recruits and terrorist funding to their cause.
I despair at how few Americans understand the psychology of power and lose their collective shit and demand engagement when a group — that is so self-destructive it would otherwise burn out on its own — cuts off a couple American heads. I also despair at the American politicians who understand the psychology of power intimately well, but (a) are too ignorant to understand it applies to foreigners as well, or (b) are too singleminded in their power games against Obama to care.
And finally, I despair at Obama, who I assume knows better.
I know it would have been tough to counter the politics of hysteria and fear this summer. But Obama should have been tougher in pushing back an unreconstructed neocon narrative that has now taken hold. God knows the Democrats are useless in articulating a policy of minimalism in confronting this kind of terror – but without a president leading with the case, actually proudly defending his reluctance to get mired in quag again, there’s no hope at all. He was just too weak.
Fredrik Logevall and Gordon Goldstein fear that Syria will become for Obama what Vietnam was for Lyndon Johnson:
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:
Mr. Panetta, who was C.I.A. director before taking over the Pentagon, recounted decisions that he disagreed with, including the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq in 2011, the failure to intervene in Syria’s civil war by arming rebels and the abrupt reversal of Mr. Obama’s decision to strike Syria in retaliation for using chemical weapons on civilians. Mr. Obama “vacillated” over the Syria strike and “by failing to respond, it sent the wrong message to the world,” he wrote. Had the president followed different courses, Mr. Panetta said in the interview, the United States would be in a stronger position as it now tries to counter the rise of the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He added that he believed the president has turned a corner and “is going a long way in terms of repairing some of the damage I think took place as a result of the credibility issue that was raised on Syria.”
Beinart finds the “credibility” argument about Syria silly:
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.
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: