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”.

Our Allies Have Their Own Ideas


Mohammed Ghanem urges the US to coordinate more closely with Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS, arguing that doing so would help defeat the group in Iraq as well:

Airstrikes alone will not defeat the Islamic State. Despite nearly two months of strikes in Iraq, Islamic State fighters attacked Iraqi army checkpoints close to Baghdad last weekend, and reports this week indicate a strong Islamic State presence just a mile west of the city. Although Obama administration officials are correct that the anti-Islamic State campaign will take time, they need to accelerate and significantly modify the effort to prevent further advances toward Baghdad. Close coordination with Syrian rebels would accomplish this. By enabling rebels to escalate ground attacks on the Islamic State’s western front, coordination would force the group to divert resources from Baghdad. And unlike the Iraqi army, moderate Syrian rebels have a proven record of rolling back Islamic State forces. But no coordination of any significance is occurring.

But Shane Harris questions Ghanem’s premise that Baghdad is at risk:

But if Baghdad were to fall, it would effectively put the Islamic State in control of Iraq and spell political disaster for the White House. That the Syrian rebels are connecting the fate of Iraq with their fight next door underscores how desperately they want help from the United States, and how unsuccessful they’ve been in securing it.

Dettmer attributes the Free Syrian Army’s growing disillusionment with the US to a clash of priorities:

While the Kurds see the American intervention as one that can be parlayed into their independence, the Sunni Muslims of northern Syria express deep anger towards America. They see themselves being set up as a sacrifice for a U.S. policy meant to prop up Iraq. They are furious with what they view as the cynical U.S. decision to enter this war not with President Bashar Assad as the target—not to help topple a dictator whose refusal to permit reforms triggered a conflict that has left nearly 200,000 dead—but to focus instead on ISIS alone. Across the dizzying, fragmented spectrum of rebel factions—from moderates to Islamists—commanders insist that since the start of the U.S.-led coalition’s air offensive on September 23 Assad has increased the tempo of his own airstrikes on rebel positions, reassured that he is not the butt of American rage and is now free to let the U.S. deal with ISIS.

The rebels aren’t the only ones quibbling with our choice of targets. In Sinan Ülgen’s view, Turkey’s hesitation in joining the anti-ISIS coalition owes partly to a belief that Syria’s problems can’t be solved without getting rid of Assad:

Turkey’s leaders believe that the international community’s response to the Islamic State should be far more ambitious, seeking to redress the underlying causes of the current disorder. Such a strategy would have to include efforts to compel Iraq’s new government to break with the sectarianism of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while supporting the new leadership’s efforts to provide basic health, educational, and municipal services to all of Iraq’s citizens. As for Syria, the only plausible route to normalcy begins with forcing President Bashar al-Assad to cede power. To this end, the US and its allies should consider striking Assad’s strongholds in Syria, while establishing safe havens for the moderate opposition under the protective cloak of a no-fly zone.

Juan Cole sees Ankara’s recent moves in a similar light:

Turkey has gotten enormous pressure from President Obama, French president Francois Hollande and UK PM David Cameron to join. For their part, they need the region’s largest Sunni Arab country on their side to avoid having the campaign against ISIL look like a Christian-Shiite Jihad against Sunnis. Turkey values its NATO membership and will want to fulfill obligations to other NATO members. President Tayyip Erdogan also very much wants Turkey to be accepted into the European Union, and may figure that proving Turkey’s worth in fighting a Muslim extremism that seems threatening to Europe may gain him some good will in the EU. Also, Turkey fears that if the West does manage to inflict attrition on ISIL, the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad might benefit, but Turkey wants to see it overthrown. Being in the coalition allows Turkey to demand that pressure be kept on al-Assad to step down.

Discussing the potential pitfalls of military coalitions, Micah Zenko identifies such conflicting agendas as a major concern and concludes with an important question:

In the months after 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often pointed out how 90 countries were participating in “the largest coalition in human history” in the global war on terrorism. That initial level of commitment dissipated as time passed and as the United States pursued its war on terrorism in a manner that many former coalition members fundamentally opposed. Rumsfeld also liked to say, “The mission determines the coalition; the coalition must not determine the mission.”

An easy prediction is that at some point, some members of this coalition will want to redirect their airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. When that becomes the mission, what becomes of the coalition?

(Photo: Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) pose with their weapons in a location on the outskirts of Idlib in northwestern Syria on June 18, 2012. By D. Leal Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey’s Stake In The ISIS War


As expected, Turkey’s parliament today authorized the government to take military action against jihadists in both Syria and Iraq, but Ankara has yet to say what, if anything, that action will be. With ISIS on its border, though, we might find out soon:

Kurdish fighters backed by US-led air strikes were locked in fierce fighting Wednesday to prevent the besieged border town of Ain al-Arab from falling to the Islamic State group fighters. “There are real fears that the IS may be able to advance into the town… very soon,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights warned, with the jihadists within three kilometres (two miles) of the strategic town.

Or an attack on the tomb of Suleiman Shah, a Turkish enclave in northern Syria, might be what finally draws Ankara into the war:

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Tuesday that the militants were advancing on the white stone mausoleum, guarded by several dozen Turkish soldiers and perched on a manicured lawn under a Turkish flag on the banks of the Euphrates. The tomb was made Turkish under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when France ruled Syria. Ankara regards it as sovereign territory and has made clear that it will defend the mausoleum if it is attacked.

Jamie Dettmer relays the suspicions of diplomats in Ankara that “Turkey will limit its military role—doing a bare minimum as a NATO member to avoid embarrassing the Western alliance but not enough to undermine the anti-Western narrative that thrills Erdogan’s Islamist supporters and other religious conservatives in the country”:

“As much as Turkey enjoys the protection of NATO’s Patriot missiles against the Syrian regime, Ankara is perhaps not willing to appear an active member of a war operation against what was initially a Sunni insurgency movement in Syria,” according to Marc Pierini, a former ambassador of the European Union in Ankara. “Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has never wanted to appear to be aligning itself with Western policies.”

Erdogan’s domestic critics say he has to some degree helped the rise of ISIS, as well as other Islamic militants. At the very least Turkey has turned a blind eye to them as they emerged in the Syrian civil war and increasingly formed the vanguard in the fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some critics argue that Turkey’s intelligence agencies have gone farther and actively channeled arms supplies to the jihadists.

Koplow also explores how the spillover effects of the conflict in Syria stand to influence Turkey’s domestic politics. For one thing, the government’s non-response is alienating the country’s Kurdish population, threatening to undo what had been a fairly successful rapprochement:

Many Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even for empowering the group through its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy. The more half-hearted the Turkish government has been about getting rid of ISIS, the harder it is to successfully conclude the Kurdish peace process. In southeastern Turkey, funerals for Kurdish fighters who have been killed fighting ISIS across the border are a regular occurrence, and they contribute to growing discord between a naturally restive population and the Turkish government. The ongoing battle between ISIS and Kurdish fighters for the town of Kobane on the Syria-Turkey border — and Turkey’s apparent reluctance to get involved for fear of empowering Kurdish militants in Turkey — is inflaming passions and contributing to antigovernment rhetoric in ways that will reverberate well beyond this particular fight. …

An economy burdened by refugees, renewed unrest among Turkish Kurds, resurgent nationalism, and policy run by unaccountable intelligence services makes for an unstable brew. ISIS has presented the United States and the entire Middle East with a new set of problems, but its immediate legacy may be an end to what has been a remarkable period of Turkish domestic stability.

(Photo: A Turkish soldier stands on a hill in Suruc, Turkey on October 2, 2014, facing the Islamic State (IS) fighters’ new position, 10km west of the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab (Kobani). By Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

A Hundred Thousand Displaced


The Guardian explains how this state of affairs came to be:

The border region of Kobani, home to half a million people, has held out for months against an onslaught by Islamists seeking to consolidate their hold over swaths of northern Syria. But in recent days, Isis extremists have seized a series of settlements close to the town of Kobani itself, sending as many as 100,000 mostly Kurdish refugees streaming across the border into Turkey. “I don’t think in the last three and a half years we have seen 100,000 cross in two days,” the representative for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Turkey, Carol Batchelor, told Reuters. “So this is a bit of a measure of how this situation is unfolding, and the very deep fear people have about the circumstances inside Syria and, for that matter, Iraq.”

A Kurdish commander on the ground said Isis had advanced to within 9 miles (15km) of Kobani. A Kurdish politician from Turkey who visited Kobani on Saturday said locals told him Isis fighters were beheading people as they went from village to village. “Rather than a war this is a genocide operation … They are going into the villages and cutting the heads of one or two people and showing them to the villagers,” Ibrahim Binici, a deputy for Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP), told Reuters.

Juan Cole marvels, “I lived to see the day when thousands of Kurds take refuge in Turkey”:

For anyone who knows the history of the Turkish government’s dirty war against Kurdish separatists in the 1970s and 1980s, it is a startling reversal to see Syrian Kurds flooding for refuge into Turkey. The influx was not smooth and Turkish security did at points try to stem it. But actually Turkey has something like a million Syrian refugees already.

The Kurds have since halted ISIS’s advance, it seems. Meanwhile, Aki Peritz doubts the US has the political will to defeat ISIS:

[I]t remains unclear whether America has the popular stamina to take on this group for what clearly will be a years-long struggle. The latest polling from the New York Times and CBS News show clear majorities approving airstrikes against ISIL fighters in both Iraq and Syria, but only 48 percent of Americans are in favor of training and providing military equipment to rebels in Syria—the fighters who would actually have to hold the ground presumably vacated by ISIL. Congress may have given President Obama the green light to arm the rebels, but it’s not clear the American people are behind him.

As the United States expands its air campaign and put more “advisers” on the ground in and around Iraq, will Americans continue to support this effort – and probable casualties? After all, without sustained public support, any extended military campaign is doomed to fail. And people are anxious about the lengthy time horizon: Some 83 percent of Americans are either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” with a long and costly involvement in Iraq and Syria.

Josh Rogin and Eli Lake examine the administration’s “mission to build an ISIS-killing army in Syria”:

Many lawmakers don’t see how training 5,000 Syrian rebels a year, assuming trustworthy, vetted brigades can be found, can defeat an ISIS army that the CIA estimates may already have 31,000 fighters and growing. “The goal is not to achieve numerical parity with ISIL, but to ensure that moderate Syrian forces are superior fighters trained by units,” Hagel said.

Even some lawmakers who support the plan don’t believe the administration’s claims that the Syrian rebels will only fight ISIS after being trained by the U.S., rather than focusing on their real enemy, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After all, that’s what the FSA is saying openly it plans to do.

Larison rolls his eyes:

No one seriously thinks that arming and training a few thousand rebels will make much of a difference or do much good, but it is the relatively risk-free option (for Americans) that provides a temporary sop to insatiable hawks while also providing cover for fence-sitters that want to be considered “serious” on foreign policy without having to take big political risks by backing more aggressive measures. Finally, many members of Congress endorsed this policy just so that they could get it off the agenda before the elections, so majority support in Congress for arming Syrian rebels may be shown to be illusory much sooner than we might have guessed.

(Photo: Syrian Kurds wait near Syria’s border at the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, on September 20, 2014. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds flooded into Turkey on Saturday, fleeing an onslaught by the jihadist Islamic State group that prompted an appeal for international intervention. By Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Is The Anti-ISIS Coalition Coalescing? Ctd


Ali Murat Yel defends Turkey’s reluctance to join the war coalition against ISIS:

Public opinion in Turkey holds that a Muslim cannot be a terrorist and any terrorist cannot be a Muslim. In other words, terrorism and Islam cannot be reconciled. This public conviction is certainly the real attitude of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has formed the Alliance of Civilizations with Spain against the expectation in some quarters of a “clash of civilizations” and has been trying to restore peace with different ethnic groups in Turkey. The President himself and the majority of Turkish people believe that terrorism could be defeated intellectually not through waging war on them.

Turkish foreign policy has been formed on the principle of “zero problems with neighbors” because we believe that stability in the region would only bring more peace and wealth. … Instead of an external military operation the local politicians and people should come together and find their own solution according to their own realities and circumstances. Outsiders cannot understand all the local realities like the ethnic origins, sectarian divisions, or the political or ideological power structures of these peoples. Turkey, finally, does not want to be in the position of going to war in another, neighboring Muslim country.

Sanity! But we, thousands of miles away, know better. Amos Harel takes a look at the background role Israel is playing:

Despite the growing concern, it should not come as a surprise that the Netanyahu government has not yet taken any immediate steps against IS. The government has only announced that the organization would be considered illegal in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and decided to focus intelligence-gathering on the group’s activities in Syria and Lebanon. But while IS might not present an imminent threat at home, Netanyahu has been extremely eager to aid the Arab world in the battle against the group. Last week, the prime minister confirmed media reports that Israel was supplying intelligence to the new anti-IS international coalition. Jerusalem no doubt has useful information to contribute: For decades, it focused on acquiring first-rate intelligence about events in Syria, which it considered its toughest enemy.

Michael Crowley turns to Saudi Arabia, the linchpin of the coalition, and what King Abdullah al-Saud brings to the table:

While Saudi money has long helped nurture a fundamentalist Sunni doctrine that inspires groups from al Qaeda to Boko Haram, Islamic radicalism has come to threaten the king as well. … ISIS seems to have raised the king’s anxiety another notch, however. He has banned Saudis from traveling to join the fight in Syria, lest they return to threaten his regime. Last month Saudi authorities arrested dozens of suspects linked to ISIS — including members of an alleged cell plotting attacks within the country. But Abdullah wields a potent weapon in his defense: his influence over Saudi Arabia’s religious leaders. The king has a symbiotic relationship with his kingdom’s hardline clerics, whose words hold sway far across the Muslim world.

But Simon Henderson suspects that the Saudis will prefer to play both sides:

Despite the diplomacy of recent days, which suggests an emerging coalition that includes Saudi Arabia and will take on the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and perhaps Syria, the House of Saud will likely continue to try to balance the threat of the head-chopping jihadists, while also trying to deliver a strategic setback to Iran by overthrowing the regime in Damascus. From a Saudi point of view, the move of IS forces into Iraq contributed to the removal of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, whom they regarded as a stooge of Tehran. Despite official support by Riyadh for the new Baghdad government, many Saudis who despise Shiites probably regard IS as doing God’s work.

Which is why this really is whack-a-mole. The administration, meanwhile, is engaging in linguistic contortions to explain how we’re not “coordinating” with Iran or Syria even if we’re talking to them and perhaps sharing intelligence:

“Coordinating means we talk directly to [the] Syrian Air Force and coordinate our attacks against ISIS with their operations against ISIS,” Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy, using one of the Islamic State’s acronyms. “That’s not happening, won’t happen.” But “deconflicting,” Harmer explained, means that the United States will monitor where the Syrian aircraft are flying and stay out of their way, thus avoiding any potential skirmishes. “That way we don’t accidentally intrude on their operations, or they on ours,” he said.

Harmer said the United States and Iran followed this protocol during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The U.S. did not coordinate with Iran, but Iran definitely deconflicted their normal military operations to avoid any unwanted interaction with the U.S., particularly in the Persian Gulf,” he said. In that case, Harmer said, the Iranian Navy held back patrol boats that had often harassed U.S. Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz. “They backed way down off of their normal operations in order to deconflict with the U.S. operations,” Harmer said.

But Jacob Siegel rightly worries that Iran could become our shadow enemy in Syria:

As Iran showed in the last war in Iraq, when it armed and backed insurgent groups fighting U.S. forces, having a common enemy, as Saddam Hussein once was, won’t prevent Tehran from trying to counter American influence in the Middle East. For Iran, the question is what comes after ISIS. In Iraq there is already a Shia-led government in Baghdad broadly aligned with Tehran. But in Syria, where Shia are a minority, a post-ISIS future threatens to freeze Iran out.

To defeat ISIS, the U.S. is relying heavily on Sunni coalition partners to give its aims local legitimacy and ensure that constructing the post-ISIS political order won’t fall solely to America. Fearing the loss of its power, Iran could try to destabilize U.S.-led efforts in Syria, causing a protracted conflict that would weaken the allied participants. Alternately, if Tehran resigns itself to Assad’s ouster, it may seek other means to maintain its influence in Syria. One option would be controlling the political transfer of power from Assad, to ensure that the new government installed in Damascus remains receptive to Iranian interests. Then there’s the real long shot: that Iran reaches a détente with its Sunni rivals and accepts a power-sharing arrangement rather than a client state in Syria.

(Chart of Middle Eastern relationships via The Economist)

The Problem With Partners, Ctd

John Kerry - Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Thomas Seibert scrutinizes Turkey’s reluctance to commit to anything beyond a “passive role” in the war on ISIS:

Officially, Turkey argues it has to keep its operations low-key because a more active posture would endanger the life of 46 of its citizens held hostage by ISIS. The jihadists kidnapped the Turks and three of their Iraqi colleagues when they overran the Turkish consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June. Ankara says it is trying to secure the hostages’ release, but has ordered a news blackout that makes it difficult to assess where those efforts stand. …

Even without the hostage situation, Ankara would face difficult options. Turkey could take part in Western strikes against ISIS and risk a backlash from the jihadists themselves and other Islamist groups in the region. Or Turkey could refuse to have anything to do with the strikes, angering its Western allies and being a mere spectator despite its ambition to become a regional leader. Faced with that choice, Ankara appears to have decided to muddle through, officially joining the alliance against ISIS, but keeping out militarily.

Shane Harris expects the US to depend heavily on Jordan, particularly its intelligence service:

Jordanian intelligence “is known to have networks in Iraq which date from 2003 [the year of the U.S. invasion] forward,” said Robert Blecher, the acting program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. “The Jordanians have good connections and have tapped them before,” Blecher added. They’ll have to do so again. But it’s not just Jordan’s spying prowess that the United States needs. Jordanian intelligence also has ins with Iraqi Sunni tribes aligned with the Islamic State. …

The Jordanians are also likely to provide logistical support to the American air campaign, which has so far launched more than 150 strikes against Islamic State fighters, vehicles, and artillery using drones and manned aircraft. (The CIA now says that the militant group has recruited as many as 31,500 fighters, up from an earlier estimate of 10,000.) Blecher said that Jordan has allowed the U.S. military to use its air bases throughout the past decade, though Jordanian officials are reluctant to acknowledge that. [Former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan] Muasher said the country will likely lend logistical support but that he didn’t envision a role in direct military operations.

Adam Taylor and Rick Noack round up some international reax to Obama’s speech. They notice that Egypt is also toeing the noncommittal line:

Perhaps in response to Obama’s speech, Egypt’s Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri called Thursday for a global strategy for dealing with extremists. However, when a diplomat was asked whether Egypt would cooperate with Obama’s strategy against Islamic State, they offered a vague reassurance. “Cairo will discuss every effort which can be made by the alliance to eradicate the phenomenon of extremist groups in the region,” the unnamed diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Ed Krayewski is dismayed to see our allies abandon their own national security commitments and let America do most of the work:

Countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have given varying degrees of support to the virulent strains of Islam that feed extremists like those in ISIS. Yet ISIS is hardly a puppet. Whether they decide to move north to Turkey or south to Saudi Arabia will be a decision over which those two countries will likely have no influence. But why bother treating ISIS like a national security threat when the United States is doing it for you?

Saudi Arabia, Turkey, other nations in the region, Arab and otherwise, are all threatened by ISIS in a way the United States isn’t, and in a way I think their leaders intrinsically understand they’re not being threatened by other countries in the region despite the official propagandas. Though the U.S. is the worldwide leader in military spending, these countries have spent decades building their militaries. They ought to make the decision to use them or not, to work with other countries in the region or not, and not have those decisions deferred by U.S. action from afar.

Likewise, Rosa Brooks argues that we should step back and let our local “partners” fight this war themselves:

Obama says the United States will “lead” a coalition against IS, but the United States should instead step back and let other regional actors assume the lead. They have a strong incentive to combat IS (an incentive we undermine when we offer to do the job for them), and the common threat of IS may even help lead to slightly less chilly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia (though I won’t hold my breath). Other Middle East powers also have greater ability than we do to understand local dynamics, not least of which because many share a common language with IS or with other actors in the mix. The Kurds and the Jordanians may need some U.S. help to protect their own territory, and other states may need intelligence or other forms of logistical assistance. But we can provide such support to any of our allies and partners without putting ourselves front and center in the effort to combat IS.

Keating notes that other than Russia, none of our rivals seems to have a problem with us bombing Syria—even the Damascus regime itself is signaling that they’re OK with it:

Another interesting wrinkle is the ramifications of this Amerian operation for Assad’s backers in Moscow. Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said today that if the United States bombed Syrian territory “without the Syrian government’s consent,” it would “complicate international operations and will pose problems for Russia as well as for many other countries respecting international law, including China.” But Russia may be the only country bothered by Obama’s campaign. It appears the Syrian government isn’t going to object too much to the operation. China, which has concerns about its own citizens cooperating with ISIS, seems likely to offer quiet support. Even Iran seems finally to have found an American war in the Middle East it can get behind.

Judis isn’t impressed with Obama’s stated strategy for a number of reasons, one of which is that it ignores Iran:

In trying to answer IS’s challenge in Iraq, the United States needs Iran’s cooperation. Obama didn’t mention Iran at all in his speech but instead referred to “Arab” countries and even to the NATO countries that he claims are going to join the anti-IS coalition. Arab countries are imporant, and one NATO country, Turkey, also is.  But Iran is crucial. It’s the main backer of the Shiite Iraq government and of Assad.  What, at this point, is the American strategy toward working with or against Iran in the region?  And what can be done to ease relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which would be important to resolving conflicts in Iraq and Syria? How much bearing do the nuclear talks, which seem to have stalled, have on the possibility of cooperation with Iran in the region?

And the way Tom Ricks sees it, our perforce partnership with Iran is really the only news here:

I think the Iraq war is best seen as one continuous conflict since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. I remember getting on the Metro that morning, seeing the headline, and thinking, “Hey, we’re gonna go to war.” And so we did, with an air campaign followed by a short ground campaign. When that was over, we went back to several years of air campaigning, complemented by some covert operations on the ground. Then, in 2003, we had another major ground campaign. It was supposed to last a few months, but instead lasted 8 years. And now we are back to an air war, probably again supported by occasional covert ops. The biggest difference I can see is that where once some Americans said we were doing this to prevent Iran from gaining influence, now we are working alongside the Iranians in Iraq.

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) during Kerry’s official visit at Cankaya Palace in the capital Ankara, Turkey on September 12, 2014. By Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Erdogan Pulls A Putin

by Dish Staff

In yesterday’s vote, current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decisively won his election for Turkey’s presidency, a position which is which normally is “largely ceremonial.” Alexander Christie-Miller explains the situation:

Erdogan has insisted on the campaign trail that he will not overstep the role’s constitutional powers, but members of his Justice and Development Party have fallen over themselves to make clear that he will remain, in effect, the leader. … A loyal placeholder will occupy the role of prime minister, allowing Erdogan to remain in effective control, in a manner similar to Dmitry Medvedev’s one-term puppet presidency for Vladimir Putin in Russia, according to Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

“For all practical purposes, he will be trying to be both president and prime minister,” says Ulgen.

Cenk Sidar casts doubt on whether Erdogan’s scheme will go as planned:

By far the biggest roadblock on Erdogan’s path toward the accumulation of greater power, however, is the parliamentary election next summer. In order to give the new presidential office the broad powers he wants, Erdogan will need to change the constitution — and that requires a clear majority for his coalition in parliament. The governing coalition will be able to amend the constitution outright if it has two-thirds of the seats in parliament (367); a three-fifths majority (330) will be enough to pass amendments that must then be approved in a national referendum. In Turkey’s last parliamentary election in 2011, the AKP fell just short of the two-thirds threshold. But this time, post-Gezi Park, Erdogan and his allies will be facing the legacy of an unprecedented year-long wave of national discontent. Turkish civil society has been galvanized by Erdogan’s power grab, and the effects are likely to have a discernible effect on the elections.

But, according to Piotr Zalewski, changing the constitution might not be necessary:

The current document, say some legal experts, already gives him enough power to do so. Enacted in the aftermath of an army coup, Turkey’s constitution allows the President to chair Cabinet meetings, veto laws, issue governmental decrees and decide on the internal rules of the national parliament, says Riza Turmen, an opposition lawmaker and a former judge of the European Court of Human Rights. “He can decide to call early elections, he appoints the head of the general staff, the members of the board of higher education, rectors of state universities, members of the Constitutional Court, and [some] members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors,” says Turmen.

Turkish Presidents, including Abdullah Gul, Erdogan’s predecessor, have heretofore refrained from using the full range of these powers. “But Mr. Erdogan is a different case,” says Turmen. “One difference is that he will be the first directly elected President of Turkey. The other is character. He wants to control everything.”


Halil Karaveli contends that Turkey’s business community won’t tolerate Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism:

In Turkey, the relationship between the state — the military and the bureaucracy — and the business community has been symbiotic. Business interests have been paramount; the state has looked after them since the founding of the republic. Moreover, Turkey’s integration in the global economy since the 1980s has made the state even more sensitive to the dynamics of capitalism. Over time, however, the relationship between economic political freedoms has changed. In 1980, business interests were served by an authoritarian regime. Two decades later, however, business had come to have a vested interest in democratization. Economic necessities forced the Turkish government to introduce political liberalization, in order to gain the confidence and support of the European Union.

Meanwhile, Michael Koplow and Steven Cook look at the role of religion in Turkish politics. They argue that “the secular old guard has lost the battle with the political forces that represent piety and religious conservatism”:

The AKP’s success has been built on many factors besides for an appeal to religion, including nationalism, economic growth, and regional political power. Even if a majority of AKP voters—in the last parliamentary elections AKP voters represented a majority of the country—do not vote for AKP primarily because of its religious appeal, they are nevertheless made comfortable by the religious sensibility that the party conveys. The CHP and MHP have finally bowed to the demands of the electorate and through Ihsanoglu have communicated that they understand this message. The dividing lines in the presidential race have nothing to do with religion, but rather revolve around the role of the state, Turkey’s place in the West, its treatment of minorities, and economic inequalities. Those looking for staunch defenders and guardians of a secular tradition that never really existed to begin with are fated to be eternally disappointed.

Has Erdogan Lost The Plot?

Not necessarily, Steven Cook argues, though his “Hitler fetish” and cult-of-personality stunts like the bizarre soccer match in the video above might suggest otherwise. Rather, Cook writes that what looks like erratic, blustery illiberalism to us is pitch-perfect politics in Turkey, where Erdogan is vying to become the first popularly elected president:

When it comes to anti-Semitism, Erdogan is guilty as charged, but sadly so are large numbers of Turks. It is true that Jews found refuge in Turkey during the Inquisition and have lived and prospered there ever since, but that does not mean that anti-Semitism is alien to Turkish culture. Recent events in which blood curdling hatred of Jews appeared in the pro-Erdogan press (is there any other kind these days?) and among Turkish users of social media in response to Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip demonstrate that it is decidedly not, particularly among Erdogan’s core constituency. Yet even beyond the particular strand of Turkish Islamism from which Erdogan’s worldview comes, anti-Semitism is widespread in Turkey. For Turks, Erdogan is not even necessarily an anti-Semite; more important, by calling out the Israelis for killing Palestinian innocents on a large scale, he is acting as the conscience of the Muslim world.

It would be unfair to a political talent like Erdogan, however, to suggest that he has been successful because of Turks’ dislike of the United States, Israel and Jews, let alone his ability to move around a soccer field relatively well. Erdogan’s repeated electoral victories are attributable to his many achievements.

Since he became prime minister in March 2003, Turkey has made important strides in health care, redeveloped significant portions of its transportation infrastructure, put money in the pockets of the middle class, and become a regional power. … For many Turks, only Erdogan—the strong, unapologetic, tough guy—could have transformed Turkey in the way the prime minister has, even if from the perspective of outside observers these achievements have come at the cost of what was once promising political reform. Erdogan’s rule has become fundamentally illiberal, which seems just fine with his constituents.

But maybe not with Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities, who find some of Erdogan’s campaign rhetoric discomfiting:

Erdogan has been criticized for repeatedly talking about ethnic and religious differences in what appears to be a bid to shore up his support among his Sunni Islam base. Earlier this week, he had called on his rivals to be clear about their backgrounds. “I am a Sunni, Kemal [Kılıcdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP] is an Alevi [a branch of Shiite Islam], Selahattin [Demirtas, presidential candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party] is Zaza [a type of Kurdish people],” he said, according to Hurriyet Daily News, later adding. “I respect Alevis. Just as I make my sect public, so should he.” 70,000 or so Armenians still call Turkey home, and many in that community felt marginalized or even threatened before the comments. Erdogan often uses “extremely aggressive and bellicose language when referring to the Armenians or Armenian issue,” Richard Giragosian, an American-born Armenian analyst, told Today’s Zaman in July.

And as for anti-Semitism, he maintains that Israel is to blame for it:

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has some advice for his strongest supporters in the U.S. Congress: If you don’t like the rise of anti-Semitism that has accompanied Israel’s latest war, then you should pressure Israel to stop killing Palestinians. An August 5 letter written by one of Erdogan’s top advisers on behalf of the prime minister and obtained by The Daily Beast disputes accusations that his recent statements about Israel were anti-Semitic. Those statements include an assertion on July 19 that Israel’s actions in Gaza “surpassed what Hitler did to them.” A few days earlier, a top newspaper in Turkey affiliated with Erdogan called on Turkish Jews to apologize for the actions of Israel’s military in Gaza.

“Each Israeli attack undermines the peace and tranquility of Jews living all around the world and turns them into targets of hate speech,” wrote Volkan Bozkir, a former Turkish ambassador to the European Union and now an Erdogan adviser and legislator who serves as the chairman of the Turkey-USA Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Caucus and the Turkish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Why Doesn’t Turkey Fear ISIS?

Turkey is less alarmed than its neighbors by Syria’s extremist groups:

Extremist Groups

Mustafa Akyol largely credits conspiracy theories for Turkey’s relative calm:

Many Turkish opinion leaders, especially those in the pro-government media, cannot accept ISIS, or its ilk, as extremist Islamist actors with genuinely held beliefs and self-defined goals. Rather they take it for granted that these terror groups are merely the pawns of a great game designed by none other than the Western powers.

For example, Abdulkadir Selvi, a senior journalist who has been quite vocal in the press and on television generally espousing a pro-government stance, wrote a piece last week titled “Who is ISIS working for?” This was his answer: “Al-Qaeda was a useful instrument for the US. To put it in an analogy, ISIS was born from al-Qaeda’s relationship with [the] CIA. The West gave its manners to al-Qaeda and now it designs our region through the hands of ISIS.” In short, al-Qaeda and its offshoot ISIS are both creations of the US Central Intelligence Agency and serve American interests.

Recent Dish on Turkey’s unsuccessful Syria policy here.