In air-dropping weapons and ammunition to Kurdish defenders of a Syrian town, President Barack Obama has embroiled the United States all the more deeply in two very different confrontations – one with the Islamic State extremists and the other with NATO ally Turkey.
That combination complicates Obama’s prospect for success at Kobani, even with a coalition of more than 60 countries behind him.
The main clash is with the Islamic State, which has been pouring reinforcements into the Kobani area and shows no sign of letting up. The U.S. response, 135 airstrikes through Sunday, hasn’t secured the nearly-empty town, and indeed on Sunday, the Islamic extremists stepped up their battle, raining rockets and mortars on the Kurdish defenders.
Kobani desperately needs troop reinforcements, but because the Islamic State controls the Syrian territory between Iraqi Kurdistan, which might be willing to provide them, and Kobani, there’s almost no way to send in additional forces except via Turkey.
And this is where Obama’s second confrontation comes in -- with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two now are in flat disagreement over the fate of the enclave, which lies directly on the Syrian-Turkish border. Ankara is willing to let it fall, and Washington clearly isn’t.
The rulers of Kobani, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, are affiliated with the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK, which has waged a 30-year guerrilla war against the Turkish state. Turkey, the United States and the European Union all have labeled the PKK as a terrorist organization.
So Erdogan has strong domestic political reasons for not coming to Kobani’s rescue.
“As far as we are concerned, the PKK is the equivalent of ISIS. Therefore it is wrong to consider them separately,” Erdogan said early this month, referring to the Islamic State by one of its alternative names. His remarks made clear that so long as the PKK affiliate controls Kobani, Turkey would provide no military assistance.
Ten days ago, Erdogan said it was likely to fall, a statement that enraged Turkey’s Kurdish population and may have given the signal to the Islamic State to go for the kill by sending more fighters and heavy weaponry. U.S.-led airstrikes stepped up dramatically, turning Kobani into the single biggest battle of the U.S.-led war with the Islamic State.
Shortly before the U.S. began its weapons drops from C-130 cargo aircraft, Erdogan said he would have no part of it.
“At the moment, the PYD is equal with the PKK for us. It is also a terrorist organization. It would be very wrong for America – with whom we are allies and who we are together with in NATO -- to expect us to say ‘yes’ after openly announcing such support for a terrorist organization,” Erdogan told reporters on board his plane returning from a visit to Afghanistan.
The United States, he said, “cannot expect such a thing from us and we cannot say ‘yes’ to such a thing either.”
Erdogan, a self-confident leader, is unlikely to back down, and now that Obama has doubled his bets by air-dropping weapons to Kobani, seems equally unlikely to retreat.
Erdogan has been a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, charging that the U.S. has no strategy in Syria for removing President Bashar Assad, whom it views as the major reason for the rise of the Islamic State.
Bordering Iraq and Syria and with a major U.S. air base at Incirlik, Turkey is ideally located to provide military facilities and every other sort of assistance in the battle against the Islamic State.
But on Sunday, Erdogan made it clear that he still is holding out on the use of Incirlik in the air war against the Islamic State – the Obama administration’s foremost request.
“The Incirlik issue is a separate issue,” he told reporters on his plane. “What are they asking for with regard to Incirlik? That’s not clear yet. If there is something we deem appropriate, we would discuss it with our security forces, and we would say ‘yes.’ But if it is not appropriate, then saying ‘yes’ is not possible for us either.”
Erdogan’s defiance of his U.S. ally may have a limit. Obama’s move to save Kobani is bound to be welcomed by Kurds, who comprise at least 12 million of Turkey’s 78 million population.
Erdogan has to be careful not to touch off another round of demonstrations that could turn into riots as they did two weeks ago, when at least 35 people died in protests against his failure to help save Kobani.