Kobane, also called Kobani or Ayn al-Arab, is a town along the Syrian-Turkish border. In recent weeks, this town of around 45,000 people has gained international notoriety as Islamic State (IS) terrorists have become embroiled in an increasingly fierce battle with Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces for its control. Many analysts believe that an IS takeover of the town will result in the murder or enslavement of most civilians left in the city.
For Turkey, a NATO member, the stakes of this battle are extremely high. An Islamic State victory would give the group not only a foothold in a highly strategic border area, but would also firmly entrench IS right on Turkey’s doorstep. Despite this, Turkey has so far been reluctant to involve itself in the conflict, preferring to station its tank batallions at a safe distance in the hills above the conflict area, keeping an eye out for any signs of incursion.
The reason for Turkey’s reluctance to enter into battle against IS can be found in the country’s domestic politics. Since 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—classified by the U.S. as a terrorist group—has been involved in an armed independence struggle against the Turkish government. This conflict ebbed and flowed over the years until 2013, when a ceasefire was agreed. This agreement was clearly never a strong one, however, as evidenced by the fact that fighting has since resumed between the two parties in the past month. In any case, any assistance to the YPG would require some level of cooperation with the PKK—a step Turkey is unwilling to take—as many of its fighters are working hand in hand with the YPG in Syria to fight ISIS. This lack of cooperation has prevented resupplying operations from Turkish Kurds to Syrian Kurds, which has impeded the YPG’s ability to successfully push back against IS forces.
On the American side, airstrikes have targeted IS around Kobane. While these strikes have been successful in holding back IS to some extent, IS’ siege of the town continues. The Pentagon freely admits it is unlikely that the siege can be lifted without ground troops.
As the situation in Kobane grows more urgent, the pressure on the US, Turkey, and other players in the conflict such as Australia, Britain, and France to play a greater role in fighting IS is mounting. However, officials in Washington and Ankara seem to have little will to do so. Secretary of State John Kerry had this to say about the Kobane situation:
“Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to [ISIL]. Kobane is one community and it is a tragedy what is happening there. And we do not diminish that. But we have said from day one that it is going to take a period of time to bring the coalition thoroughly to the table to rebuild some of the morale and capacity of the Iraqi army. And to begin the focus of where we ought to be focusing first which is in Iraq. That is the current strategy.”
The appetite among the American public for further involvement in the conflict is also low, given the trend in past conflicts for small-scale interventions to turn into full-scale ones lasting years, if not decades.
As situations like those in Kobane become more prevalent, however, governments around the world must consider new options. In the US, President Obama should allow for a rethinking of our current role in the conflict, and consider using certain ground capabilities in Iraq and Syria in order to better combat IS advances and entrenchments. It could be months or even years before local allies are trained and equipped to adequately combat the extremist threat, and the world cannot wait that long.