As the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) tightened the noose around the predominantly Kurdish Syrian city of Kobane in recent weeks, Turkey has remained conspicuously missing in action. Despite its professed opposition to the brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign mounted by the Sunni Arab Islamist extremists of the Islamic State, Ankara has done precious little to aid Syrian Kurds fighting for their lives in Kobane, and has even prevented Kurdish fighters in Turkey from crossing the border to help them.
Turkish tank crews placidly observe the carnage in nearby Kobane from a ridge along the border; some of the tanks even point their guns away from Syria. This behavior is puzzling, given the repeated statements of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stressing that his country firmly opposes the Islamic State.
In the Middle East, a page of history is worth a pound of logic.
The sad truth is that the Turkish government perceives the Islamic State to be a lesser evil than the prospect of a united Kurdish coalition that could fuel Kurdish separatism in eastern Turkey. Ankara has fought a counterinsurgency campaign against the Marxist Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people since 1984. Although both sides accepted a truce in 2013 to enter negotiations, tensions are growing between Ankara and Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which resents the lack of help for their Syrian Kurdish cousins.
Turkish Foreign minister Cavusoglu insists that Turkey will take action once certain conditions are met. He promised that “Once there is a (common) decision, Turkey will not be reluctant to do its part,” but added that “It is not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct a ground operation on its own.”
In other words, “What’s in it for Turkey?”
President Erdogan has repeatedly called for the creation of a humanitarian sanctuary in northern Syria, a no-fly zone, and the overthrow of the Assad regime and he wants America to do the heavy lifting. The White House already has ruled out all three demands, a rejection that continues to rankle President Erdogan.
The Turkish president also was highly critical of President Obama’s 2013 failure to follow through on his threats to launch airstrikes in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. Erdogan distrusts Obama’s staying power and wants public guarantees that Washington will support Syrian rebels against Assad, not just against the Islamic State.
Erdogan also is in no hurry to intervene in Syria as two potential threats to Turkey battle each other. He is playing hardball with the Syrian Kurds, insisting that they break permanently with their former patrons in the Assad regime, commit to pursuing autonomy rather than an independent state, and abjure support for Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues to advance toward the suburbs of Baghdad despite the increased use of U.S. helicopter gunships, air strikes, and drone strikes. Anbar province, a hotbed of popular support for the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist organizations, is gradually succumbing to Islamic State control. The Islamic State may soon be in a position to launch commando-style attacks against targets inside Baghdad. Islamic State terror cells in the city have conducted a constant barrage of car bomb attacks for many years.
The Obama Administration, caught off guard by the rise of the Islamic State, now must recalibrate its strategy against the still-expanding movement. U.S. air strikes near Kobane appear to be intensifying, but it is a tactical response that will not yield strategic benefits unless it is backed up by ground operations.
While Washington is pressing Ankara for more help in fighting the Islamic State, Turkey appears to be holding out for more U.S. military pressure on Assad and influence with the Kurds. In a perfect world, these differences would be worked out quickly, in time to save Kobane.
But this is the Middle East, where power politics, ethnic cleansing, sectarian hatred, and apocalyptic death cults are the facts of life.