As the week goes on, the situation in the northern Syrian city of Kobane gets worse and worse. The Kurdish city, directly on the border with Turkey, is surrounded by Islamic State forces who are pressing its defenders fiercely. IS holds the hills around Kobane, and is able to shell the city with ease. The battle rages while US warplanes circle overhead, and Turkish tanks watch from across the border. So why is Kobane so important? What are the Turks waiting for? And what does that say about Turkey’s role in the region?
The battle in Kobane is unique because it is a battle taking place directly on a NATO border, with the Turks and Western journalists watching it happen from relative safety. With the Turkish military heavily present, both IS and the Kurdish defenders are careful not to cross the border. This location also means that the dire straits Kobane is in have attracted enormous attention. If the city falls IS will be able to behead its defenders within camera distance of the world’s media. The battle has brought in support from the US air force, with some results yesterday, but IS has proved to be skillful in disguising their artillery, and their advance hasn’t let up. With airstrikes failing to get the job done, pressure is building on Turkey.
It is clear that Turkey could save Kobane if they wanted to. Their military is one of the best in the region, and with tanks massed across the border they could steamroll the IS positions around Kobane. Furthermore, President Erdogan has given assurances that Kobane will not be allowed to fall, and the Turkish parliament has given permission for forces to be used in both Syria and Iraq. So why aren’t they doing anything?
Firstly, the fact that Kobane is being defended by Kurds is difficult for Turkey. They have fought a war with the Kurds in the east of Turkey, and have an uneasy relationship with the entire Kurdish nation (despite recent support for Iraqi Kurdistan). Aiding the Kurdish defenders of Kobane would mean fighting alongside armed groups they have fought within their own borders. However, stranger things have happened so far in this conflict. The Iranian backed Shi’a militias the US is supporting with airstrikes in Iraq used to fight and kill Americans during the occupation there. There is more at stake for Turkey than “the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy”.
The Turkish government will also be wondering about its own safety. The country now shares a long border with IS. Declaring war on the group by rescuing Kobane would leave them very open to retaliation. Turkey is also a member of NATO, meaning that all other NATO countries are required to defend them if attacked. It wouldn’t surprise me if other alliance leaders were asking Turkey to wait as long as possible. Another problem the Turks will have is if any military intervention strengthens their now bitter enemy Bashar al-Assad, the man they still see as the main enemy.
The major worry for the Turks though is the same as that of all the other intervening powers – how to get out again. Once in place in Syria or Iraq, troops would only be able to leave once IS has been defeated. For IS to be defeated, the Syrian Civil War must be solved. And this will take a long, long time. Turkey would basically be committing their troops for an indefinite period on an incredibly vague mission, and nobody wants that.
Invading Syria to rescue Kobane, leaving a small force, then retreating again would leave Turkey open to attacks by IS, especially on their small Ottoman era enclave within Syria, the Tomb of Suleyman Shah. However, any effort to set up a buffer zone along the border or further conflict on the ground in Syria risks dragging Turkey into a conflict right on their border with absolutely no way out. It’s essentially the same problem I described a few weeks ago – there is no good middle path. But with time running out to save Kobane, their government has some very hard choices to make in the coming days.