Turkey says Iraqi Kurds can fight in Kobane. Could they make a difference?

Turkey doesn't want to allow Turkish Kurds - most importantly members of the Marxist PKK - to go fight in Syria. But the PKK's fighters have proven most effective in resisting Islamic State advances in Iraq.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Tracer rounds are seen fired over Kobane during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as smoke from a fire following strikes rises over the town, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.

Turkey has announced it is relenting – sort of – on military aid to the beleaguered Kurdish town of Kobane just over the border in Syria. The government refuses to allow in Turkish Kurds, who played a crucial role in the fight to repel the forces of the Islamic State from the Kurdish-Iraqi capital of Erbil in August. But, in an about-turn, Turkey said Monday it would allow passage for Iraqi-Kurds to travel through its territory and into Syria to join the fight. 

The shift of the Turkish position followed US airdrops of weapons, ammunition and medical supplies into the city on Sunday. Fighting continues in Kobane, but the momentum has clearly shifted over the last week to the point where IS forces appear to be in retreat. 

On the ground, the resistance to IS is led by the YPG – allies of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), an outlawed Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey. As a result, the Turkish government opposes to any support for the group. Indeed, it seems far more concerned about Kurdish separatism at home than about a possible future threat to Turkey from IS across the border.

So now we have an offer of free passage of Kurds from Iraq to shore up Kobane's defense. But is it really going to amount to much?

"We are assisting Peshmerga forces to cross into Kobane," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a press conference in Ankara today, though he declined to give any details. A spokesman for the YPG fighters inside the city disputed this to Al Aan TV, saying no new fighters have arrived.

Jenan Moussa, a TV reporter who's been on the Turkish-Syrian border near Kobane for weeks, said she was told the same by an Iraqi Kurdish official.

Iraq's peshmerga are mostly drawn from Iraqi Kurdistan's two major power centers: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). Both have had their hands full in securing their territory from IS, as the near-fall of Erbil demonstrated. Their enemy continues to hold the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, not far from the Kurdish Iraqi border, as well as much of the surrounding Nineveh Province. All of which suggests that there are limits to what forces Iraqi Kurds can spare for the Syrian front. 

Iraqi Kurdistan has long hosted PKK camps, and Turkish forces carried out a series of air attacks on PKK camps along the Turkish-Iraqi border a week ago. Might Turkey allow these fighters "from Iraq" to head to Kobane? All things are possible, but that seems unlikely given President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan's insistence on Sunday that both the PKK and its Syrian cousin are "terror organizations."

Turkey's shift to at least rhetorically allowing some support to flow to the "terrorist" Kurds in Syria clearly followed President Barack Obama's decision to ignore Ankara's position by sending weapons to Kobane on Sunday. But whether this is an attempt at generating more political leverage without doing much remains to be seen.

The standoff over the various Kurdish factions in the war against IS is a reminder of the challenge of cobbling together and maintaining a viable coalition against the jihadi army. In August, PKK fighters proved among the best of the Kurds fighting in Kurdish Iraq. This was awkward for the US since it found itself in a position of indirectly aiding one State Department-designated terrorist group (the PKK) against another (the Islamic State). 

Turkey's interests remain unaligned with America's and some of its other allies in the fight against IS. Priority one is keeping a lid on restive Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population. Priority two is seeing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad destroyed – something that IS is also pursuing, for its own ends. Syria's Kurds, like their Turkish and Iraqi brethren, are primarily interested in carving out independence or autonomy in their territory. And while the US has repeatedly said Assad "must go" its military efforts so far have been focused on IS.

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