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.

Desperately Seeking Moderates, Ctd

In a column from last week, Fareed Zakaria recommends limiting our Syria strategy to containment, emphasizing the unlikelihood that American power can resolve the country’s civil war. He stresses the difficulty of finding reliable partners among the Syrian rebels, a topic the Dish has covered repeatedly. Fareed concludes:

The crucial, underlying reason for the violence in Iraq and Syria is a Sunni revolt against governments in Baghdad and Damascus that they view as hostile, apostate regimes. That revolt, in turn, has been fueled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, each supporting its own favorite Sunni groups, which has only added to the complexity. On the other side, Iran has supported the Shiite and Alawite regimes, ensuring that this sectarian struggle is also regional. The political solution, presumably, is some kind of power-sharing arrangement in those two capitals. But this is not something that the United States can engineer in Syria. It tried in Iraq, but despite 170,000 troops, tens of billions of dollars and David Petraeus’s skillful leadership, the deals Petraeus brokered started unraveling within months of his departure, well before American troops had left.

Pushing back on Fareed’s claims, Michael Weiss and Faysal Itani make a forceful argument for greater engagement with the Free Syrian Army, pointing out that containment is what the Obama administration is already doing – and it isn’t working. They contest the “longstanding and intellectually disingenuous complaint” that the Syrian opposition has been taken over by al-Qaeda affiliates, leaving few “moderates” for the US to support:

All too often, observers of the Syria conflict employ a shallow, decontextualized approach to appraising fighters on the ground. YouTube video proclamations designed to drum up badly needed funds from Gulf Arab states, to pressure or blackmail the West into offering adequate support, or to triangulate between and amongst competitive rebel interests, are given to be copper-bottom proof of a brigade or battalion’s permanent ideological coloration. In reality, fighters migrate fluidly to and from ideologically divergent camps; we have spoken with rebels who have gone from nationalist to Islamist to outright jihadist alignments, all based on the need for ammunition, food or money. ISIL, for instance, pays its fighters $400 per month; most FSA units pay theirs around $100, according to FSA spokesman Hussam al-Marie. As a matter of simple economy, this disparity could be altered overnight. The perception, too, of who is “winning” versus who is “losing” on the battlefield also drives recruitment efforts, which is why, following ISIL’s seizure of Mosul last June, its numbers skyrocketed.

David Kenner focuses on the Syrian opposition coalition in exile in Turkey, which in theory would take responsibility for governing areas freed from both ISIS and the Assad regime. It’s currently having trouble holding itself together:

While the United States continues to describe the exiled Syrian opposition as a partner in its war against the Islamic State, former U.S. officials are more candid about the limits of its influence. Robert Ford, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said that his experience as a U.S. diplomat during the Iraq war made him skeptical of the exiled opposition body’s weight on the ground. “They need to get themselves out of Istanbul, and instead get themselves installed in Syria, with or without a no-fly zone,” he said. “And we’ve raised that with them.”

Other former U.S. officials, however, suggest the opposition’s ineffectiveness should have been expected after Syria’s long bout of authoritarianism. “Look, Syria and Syrians were coming out of a 50-plus-year political coma [when the opposition bodies were formed],” said Fred Hof, a former special advisor on Syria at the State Department and currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Did we really expect opposition politics to be characterized by trust, openness, loyalty, and selfless teamwork?”

Kobani: A Battle In Multiples Wars

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 11.41.05 AM

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.

WTF, Turkey?

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.

It is understandable that the Turkish government doesn’t want to bear the brunt of a ground war in Syria, since there has long been strong opposition in Turkey to the government’s Syria policy and even greater opposition to Turkish involvement in the war, so the administration would be wise not to expect a large Turkish commitment to the war in any case. Turkey is trying to use the war against ISIS to keep pursuing the misguided goal of regime change in Syria that it has pursued for the last three years without success, and the U.S. would be irresponsible to indulge them in this any more than it already has.

Max Fisher explains why Ankara’s demand for a buffer zone won’t fly:

Here is what makes buffer zones, or safe zones, or humanitarian corridors so dangerous: once you have American/British/French/Turkish troops occupying a little sliver of Syria that’s surrounded by ISIS or by Assad forces, it’s all but inevitable that those troops will come under attack. The war in Syria is deeply chaotic and the factions disorganized; it would only be a matter of time. Open fighting between the foreign occupation forces and ISIS or Assad forces could spiral out of control all-too-easily, possibly leading to all-out war. The odds are just very low that we could put American (or British or French or Turkish) troops in the middle of the Syrian civil war and somehow keep the mission contained to protecting a tiny buffer zone.

This may well be why the Pentagon is saying that the buffer zone option is not “on the table.” The exposure to risk and to mission creep is likely just too high.

One of the reasons why the Turks have been reluctant to rescue the Syrian border town of Kobani is that they are loath to help out fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an independence movement in Turkey. But Nick Danforth and Daphne McCurdy argue that Ankara’s goals and the PKK’s aren’t as incompatible as they seem, especially since the PKK has significantly moderated its separatist aims:

The real opportunity for the Kurds today is not, as many pundits excitedly predict, that they finally have a shot at complete independence. Instead, they finally have the good sense and intellectual foundation to pursue much more modest but pragmatic goals. While the heroic defense of Kobani has won the PKK and PYD a new wave of Western support, Kurdish leaders would do well to remember that their evolution from Stalinism to liberalism has also been crucial to this newfound legitimacy. …

The real question now is whether the AKP and PKK can find common ground. Here is where the nightmare of the Islamic State is instructive. Much has been made about how the AKP wants to replace an old-fashioned version of Turkish nationalism with that of a religious community built around the Muslim idea of the Ummah. So does IS. But when you compare the vision of post-nationalism the AKP spent the last decade promotingbreaking down regional borders through free transit, low tariffs, and trade promotionit sounds a lot more compatible with the PKK’s newly endorsed secular post-nationalism than the savagery of IS.

Berivan Orucoglu points to another reason why Turkey remains more concerned about Assad than ISIS:

Another factor that distinguishes Turkish attitudes toward the Islamic State from those of the West is the refugee crisis. Two years ago, then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu famously predicted that Assad would lose power within weeks. He also said that Turkey would be able to accept no more than 100,000 refugees before it would have to take drastic action. Today Assad is still in power, and Turkey is hosting 2 million refugees. The U.S.-led airstrikes have triggered a new influx of people fleeing the war: Almost 100,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey as of Sept. 23. The refugees are not only a huge burden on the Turkish economy, but are also tearing at the country’s social fabric. In many towns the influx of Syrian refugees has brought serious demographic changes, triggering conflicts between the locals and the refugees.

But in Sinan Ülgen’s view, Erdogan’s approach to the Syrian conflict isn’t helping to solve that problem:

By prioritizing the removal of Mr. Assad and expending a huge amount of political capital to convince its partners of the necessity of regime change, Ankara is also losing an opportunity to mobilize international support for its ballooning refugee crisis. Turkey is now host to more than 1.4 million Syrian refugees, with government spending reaching $3.5 billion. Just a week ago, 138,000 Syrian Kurds sought refuge in Turkey, a number surpassing the total number of Syrian refugees accepted by the 28 European Union member states since the beginning of the conflict in 2011.

Yet despite the growing social and material cost of hosting the refugees, Turkey has been unable to mobilize international support for a more equitable sharing of the refugee crisis burden.

Obama’s Syrian Quagmire

Clashes between ISIL and Kurdish armed groups

Fred Kaplan gets real:

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:

War has a forward motion of its own. Most of Johnson’s major steps in the escalation in Vietnam were in response to unforeseen obstacles, setbacks and shortcomings. There’s no reason the same dynamic couldn’t repeat itself in 2014.

And there is a political logic, too: Then as now, the president faced unrelenting pressure from various quarters to do more, to fight the fight, to intensify the battle. Then as now, the alarmist rhetoric by the president and senior officials served to reduce their perceived maneuverability, not least in domestic political terms. Johnson was no warmonger, and he feared, rightly, that Vietnam would be his undoing. Nonetheless, he took his nation into a protracted struggle that ended in bitter defeat.

Larison holds the president responsible for setting the self-fulfilling logic of escalation on its course:

Presidents trap themselves into pursuing unwise escalation in foreign wars because their earlier decisions and past rhetorical overkill seem to compel it. Unfortunately, the administration has repeatedly combined careless rhetoric with a tendency to yield sooner or later to hawkish pressure. By indulging in the former (e.g., talk of “destroying” ISIS or claiming it is an “imminent threat to every interest we have”), Obama and his officials give hawks the opening they need to demand more aggressive measures. Having already endorsed most of the hawks’ assumptions about the conflict, the administration makes it very difficult for itself politically not to give in to those demands. At best, Obama has created an open-ended conflict that his successor will be forced to continue. Given Washington’s bias in favor of throwing more resources at a problem when a policy hasn’t succeeded, it is quite likely that the next administration will conclude that Obama’s policy didn’t “work” because it was insufficiently aggressive.

Waldman throws up his hands at the lessons America clearly hasn’t learned from our experience in the Middle East over the past 13 years:

It would be wonderful if the current campaign renders ISIS impotent. It would also be wonderful if the Syrian civil war wrapped up soon, with the Assad regime replaced by an inclusive democracy in which everyone’s human and civil rights are honored. But realistically, chances are that in two years time Barack Obama will bequeath to his successor a situation that is still unresolved and still bad (though perhaps in ways we haven’t even yet imagined). And no matter who that successor is, the answer he or she offers to the question of Syria and Iraq — and whatever questions follow — is likely to be more military actions. That president will either be Hillary Clinton, who throughout her career has been one of the most hawkish Democrats around, or it will be a Republican who is even more hawkish.

(Photo: Smoke rises from the clashes between Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and Kurdish armed troops in Kobane (Ayn al-arab), Syria, on October 9, 2014. By Ibrahim Erikan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

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.