Kobanê, a small Kurdish town on the Syrian-Turkish border, has now become the ultimate test of Turkey’s ambivalence on how to engage the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the rapidly worsening situation in Syria and Iraq.
The town is under siege from IS and fighters from the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) are desperately holding on. It is not likely that the ongoing US air strikes will be effective in preventing Kobanê from falling into IS hands and it is not yet clear whether Turkey is really ready to intervene militarily.
That hesitancy has already stirred trouble in Turkey’s anxious Kurdish population, with unrest and demonstrations spreading across several cities and reports of multiple clashes with police.
Considering what is at stake here for Turkey’s domestic politics and regional security interests though, it is perhaps not surprising that Turkey is having trouble making up its mind.
From allies to enemies
This is largely because of the hugely complex web of relationships between the five main actors – IS, PYD, PKK (the Kurdish armed group that has been waging a bloody conflict against the Turkish state since the early 1980s), the Assad government in Syria and the Free Syrian Army (the main opposition group against Assad).
And aside from the intractably fraught relationships they have with each other, these five all present deep individual problems for Turkey.
Let’s start with the Syrian regime, which was one of the main supporters of the PKK in the region until the capture of Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. It also played a key role in turning IS into the rich and strong armed group it is today, apparently buying its oil through middlemen and releasing radical Islamist militants as far back as 2011 from Syrian prisons.
Turkey has long since burned all its diplomatic bridges with Damascus and it now sees no option to protect its long-term interests but the full removal of the Assad regime. This is largely why Turkey has been insisting on the creation of a no-fly zone (most likely to be the 36th Parallel again, as was the case for the protection of Kurds in Iraq during the 1990s), as this would be the only way to stop Bashar al-Assad bombing the Free Syrian Army.
The problem is that Turkey seems to be more or less the only state demanding that. And even if it was granted its wish, it still would not trust its Western allies’ intentions for Syria’s future.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s relationships with the PYD are even more murky. Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the party, was in Ankara only days before the Kobanê offensive came to a head asking for logistical and military support.
In return for its support, Turkey demanded that the PYD join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army against the Assad regime, which it has no intention of doing. Until now, the PYD has been quite content in its relationship with Damascus; Bashar al-Assad seems hardly bothered by the possibility of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria and is more concerned with retaining a hold on power. With its relative security assured for now, the PYD has no reason to make such a major tactical switch.
Unlike Syria, Turkey is highly sensitive about the PYD’s possible demand for an autonomous presence in northern Syria, which could have major implications for its own domestic Kurdish crisis – forcing Ankara’s hand in negotiations over possible Kurdish territories in Turkey.
The war at home
Turkey is under massive pressure from the PKK and Kurdish political groups to resume a formal peace process no later than the Kurds’ October 15 deadline. The Kurdish pressure to intervene militarily is also mounting largely because the IS has been inflicting huge damages on both PYD and PKK.
IS therefore has not just become a major security threat for Turkey across its borders with Syria and Iraq, but has also thrown off the delicately calibrated power balance between Ankara and the PKK just before the start of full peace talks.
But even so, ever since securing the release of 49 diplomats and their families from the hands of IS in late September, Turkey is in a better position to consider a military intervention. The US-led alliance also recognises that without the deployment of ground forces, air strikes cannot fully destroy IS.
All this puts Turkey is in a strong position to argue that the increasingly likely full-blown military intervention in Syria should not only target IS, but should also remove the Assad regime once and for all. And it may just get its wish.
As an early signal of support for that strategy, NATO has recently declared that it will not hesitate to protect Turkey, while the Turkish parliament has already approved a motion allowing cross-border military incursions into both Iraq and Syria.
One way or another
The Turkish government is in a bind. On the one hand, it needs to respond to Kurdish demands to help Kobanê – if it doesn’t there is a real risk that the entire peace process in the country could collapse. On the other hand, the general public is highly sceptical about direct military intervention, fearing that Turkey would find itself in a deep quagmire.
This is indeed a major risk. After all, the West’s attempts to deal with the civil war in Syria and previously with the basket case that is Iraq have been highly patchy, largely ad hoc and more confusing than anything else. The fight against IS might be a priority for Barack Obama today, but Turkish fears of being left to pick up the pieces for decades to come are very real.
Even so, to reassure their erstwhile partners in the region that this is a sincere campaign, American politicians are trotting out the old mantra that “this is a campaign that will take months and years, not days and weeks”. That is good to know, as far as it can be trusted.
But in Middle Eastern politics, as in world affairs in general, even a day is long enough for priorities, interests and alliances to shift beyond recognition. The Kurds, and the residents of Kobanê, know that all too well.