Islamic State siege of Kobane: Did Turkey shoot itself in the foot?

The Iraqi Kurds have agreed to send fighters to help Kobane fend off the Islamic State. Critics say Turkey’s foot-dragging on the siege alienated its allies.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
A general view shows the Kobane and Mursitpinar border crossing from the southeastern town of Suruc, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 9, 2014.

The decision by Iraq’s Kurdish regional government to send fighters with heavy weapons to reinforce the beleaguered Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane is offering hope to its defenders, who have been holding off fighters from the self-declared Islamic State in a 37-day siege.

But the decision caps a disastrous week for Turkey, which is looking increasingly isolated and at odds with its Western allies, after having branded the town’s defenders as terrorists no different from the jihadi forces attacking them.

Earlier this week the United States airdropped weapons to the defenders of the town, who are mostly from the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls most of Syria’s Kurdish-populated region.

The PYD is a close affiliate of the PKK, a Marxist-inspired rebel group that has been fighting a 30-year-long insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, and which is designated a terrorist group by Ankara and Washington.

“Did Turkey view this business positively? No it didn’t,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said of the weapons drop at a press conference Thursday in the Latvian capital, Riga.

“I told [Obama] that the PYD is in the same class as the PKK. I said it is also a terrorist organization,” Mr. Erdogan said.

The airdrop does not appear to have affected the fight for the town, however, and Can Polat, a Kurdish commander who spoke to the Monitor by phone from inside Kobane, says the IS has intensified its attacks since the new weapons arrived, briefly capturing a strategic hill to the west of Kobane Thursday.

“There was an attack today on a small group of us there in which they killed four of our comrades, but we took that hill back.”

On Wednesday, the parliament of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) voted to send its peshmerga fighters to reinforce the town, after Ankara agreed earlier in the week that it would open a conduit for that purpose.

Salih Muslim, the leader of the PYD, told the Monitor that military chiefs from both sides are still hammering out the details of the assistance.

The reinforcements, he says, are expected to include heavy weaponry capable of destroying tanks and artillery, the lack of which has put the town’s defenders at a disadvantage against their heavily-armed IS opponents.

“They have enough manpower, but what they need are qualified people to operate these heavy weapons,” says Mr. Muslim, adding that he did not know when the reinforcements would be dispatched.

On Wednesday, Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish leaders signed a new power-sharing agreement for Syria’s Kurdish region in which the PYD will share power with smaller parties closer to the Iraqi Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani.

The various factions have in the past had poor relations, but have been forced to unite due to the threat posed by the IS.

The Kurdish rapprochement, and the growing cooperation between the PYD and the Western powers fighting the IS, is bad news for Turkey, which has sought to undermine and isolate a group it views as a security threat to itself.

In an op-ed for the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman, Suat Kiniklioglu, director of STRATIM, an Ankara-based foreign policy think tank, argued that Turkey’s leaders had badly miscalculated by seeking to oppose Kobane’s defenders at a time when the town’s plight was receiving global attention.

“Patience in Washington has run out with Ankara's short-sighted policy of strangling the Kobane Kurds into submission,” he wrote.

“Instead of aiding the Kobane Kurds and becoming an indispensable actor in the shaping of Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan], Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have succeeded in alienating everyone, and now find themselves very much alone.”

Even more damaging for Ankara, the PYD has received de facto recognition from major Western powers, Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, tells the Monitor.

“The Turks are really in trouble,” he says. “Every major Western power involved in the fight against IS is now speaking to the PYD. They are trying to convince everyone that they’re a terrorist group who should be treated the same as IS, and no one’s listening.”

However, a foreign policy reversal for Ankara may yet augur good news for Turkey more broadly. The strengthened diplomatic position of the PYD may goad Ankara into more urgently pursuing a peace process currently underway with its own Kurdish guerrillas.

Intense rioting broke out this month within Turkey’s 15 million strong Kurdish community over the government’s failure to help Kobane, and since then Ankara has vowed to take concrete steps in the two-year-long peace negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Both Turkish and Kurdish leaders have struck a note of optimism in recent days, predicting that a peace settlement to end the insurgency, which has claimed 40,000 lives, could be only months away.

“Including disarmament, five to six months would be enough for us to reach an absolute peace,” Sirri Sureyye Onder, a parliamentarian for the PKK-affiliated People’s Democratic Party told CNN Turk on Wednesday night.

“That’s to say, we would leave all this behind when March arrives.”

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