The future of the Syrian town of Kobane hung in the balance Tuesday as the Islamic State’s three-week assault on the Kurdish-held enclave appeared to enter its endgame.
Its last hope likely hinges on Ankara, whose armed forces remain poised on the border only hundreds of yards from the battle, resisting mounting pressure from Turkey’s own Kurdish minority to assist Kobane's defenders.
Despite a range of strategic and ideological factors inclining Ankara against direct intervention, increasingly angry protests both in Turkey and abroad are creating mounting pressure for it to act.
“Kobane is about to fall,” acknowledged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an interview with Turkish television as he toured a refugee camp in southern Turkey early Tuesday.
Turkish involvement in its fate, however, would only come as part of an allied strategy to address the broader problem of Syria’s festering civil war, Mr. Erdogan insisted.
“We need a no-fly zone, safe havens, and to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria,” he added.
Another of Ankara’s demands in return for playing a more active role against IS is a more direct strategy against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whom Turkish leaders regard as the ultimate author of the country’s unrest.
For Western powers focused solely on the threat posed by IS, and deeply wary of becoming embroiled in the conflict in Syria, such concessions remain a faint prospect.
Meanwhile, any unilateral action against IS involving Turkish troops in Syria could leave the country badly exposed if it was not done without explicit NATO backing, says Hugh Pope, International Crisis Group’s deputy program director for Europe and the Central Asia.
“Turkey has to be extremely careful. If it engages in something that could be seen as an unprovoked attack then Nato’s response could be very ambivalent.”
In recent weeks, Turkish and international media have reported on the presence of a substantial Islamic State recruiting network in Turkey, also raising the fear of possible blowback.
Turkey attracts 35 million visitors a year, including many Westerners, with tourism accounting for 10 per cent of the economy, raising concerns that Islamic State terrorist attacks could cripple the sector.
Equally, Turkey remains as wary of the Kurdish-nationalist militias defending the besieged town as it is of IS itself.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), an armed organization that has run northeastern Syria’s Kurdish populated region as an autonomous enclave since the Assad regime withdrew in 2012, has close links to the PKK, the Kurdish rebel group that has fought a 30-year-long insurgency for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey and is regarded by Ankara as a terrorist group.
“Turkey is more than happy that the semi-autonomy declared by Syria’s Kurds is being demolished by the so-called Islamic State,” says Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University.
Earlier this week, intelligence officials in Ankara were visited by the PYD’s leader, Salih Muslim. But they told him that Turkish assistance would only come in return for the PYD abandoning all demands of autonomy, and ending its alleged ties with the Assad regime.
However as anger boiled among Turkey’s 15 million Kurds, the cost of inaction also appeared to be rising.
On Monday night and into Tuesday, Kurdish demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails and set up barricades during protests in Istanbul, Ankara, and cities across the Kurdish populated southeast Monday night and into Tuesday.
In the Kurdish majority town of Varto, police shot and killed a 25-year-old man after reportedly using live ammunition against demonstrators.
For the past 18 months Turkey has been engaged in delicate peace talks with the PKK, whose years of insurrection against the Turkish state have cost 40,000 lives and left the country’s southeast economically devastated.
Last week, the PKK’s imprisoned leader and point man in the talks, Abdullah Ocalan, warned that peace talks would be over if Kobane fell and a massacre of its population were allowed to take place.
A growing number of observers fear that regardless of Turkey’s current ambivalence, it may sooner or later have to face the Islamic State head on.
“If Kobane falls then the next target for ISIS will be Turkey,” says Nazmi Gur, a parliamentarian for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party.