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Kobani: Turkey's Stunning Checkmate

Updated on October 14, 2014

ISIS in Kobani: An Imminent Threat, or A Welcome Opportunity?

Kobani is now facing what Syrian intelligence officer Rooz Bahjat has promised will be "a terrible slaughter" as ISIS marches forward into the Turkish/Syrian border town. Given ISIS' history of violence in the region, there is no doubt that the scene will be one of mass genocide; Bahjat estimates upwards of 5,000 casualties within "24 or 36 hours" if the Islamic State is successful in capturing the city, which is currently populated by over 50,000 civilians, including Turkish, Kurdish, Christian, and Arab refugees.

The U.S. and coalition airstrikes this past Monday and Tuesday have done nothing to stop ISIS' advance towards the Turkish border, but Turkey doesn't seem worried; in fact, quite the opposite. Ankara has denied military assistance to Kobani, even as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan admits that it is going to take a lot more than airstrikes to stop ISIS. Why?

Because ISIS' advance into Kobani is the bargaining chip Turkey has been waiting for all along.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan holds out assistance against another Syrian massacre.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan holds out assistance against another Syrian massacre.

The Ultimate Checkmate

"The problem of ISIS (Islamic State) ... cannot be solved via air bombardment. Right now ... Kobani is about to fall. We had warned the West. We wanted three things. No-fly zone, a secure zone parallel to that, and the training of moderate Syrian rebels." ~ Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan

According to an October 8th RT report, Mehmet Aksoy from the UK Kurdish Assembly explained that Turkey is doing all it can to avoid a Kurdish foothold in Northern Syria because it fears that Kurdish self-governance would cause an "adverse effect" on the Kurds within Turkey, and destabilize that nation. In fact, according to Aksoy, Turkey has provided ISIS with tanks and missiles as recently as September 17th.

Turkey's fears are not unfounded; the Kurds are aggressively pushing for complete autonomy within all regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. If Turkey were to allow Turkish Kurds to enter Syria and fight ISIS, they would become armed and trained; a Kurdish victory in Kobani would serve to rally the efforts of Kurds everywhere, a threat that Turkey is not willing to entertain.

However, Turkish tanks are aligned against its Syrian border, as Turkey plays a complicated game with the West - on the one hand, Turkey could intervene in order to avoid a Kurdish victory, but on the other, Turkey promises to help fight ISIS if the U.S. and coalition forces mobilize against Assad, a move that no Western power wants to make; putting the coalition forces right where Turkey wants them - damned if they do, damned if they don't.

Turkish tanks at the Syrian border, October 8th, 2014.
Turkish tanks at the Syrian border, October 8th, 2014. | Source

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The U.S. and The Kurds: A History of 'Betrayal'

It was Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points that inspired Kurdish rebel leader Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji nearly 100 years ago to seek Kurdish independence; although the Allies agreed to help create an independent Kurdistan in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, by 1923's Treaty of Lausanne, the international community had abandoned the Kurds in favor of Kemal Attaturk’s Turkey. Thus began the Kurds' fight for autonomy.

After years of seeking independence from Iraq, the Kurds received their first indirect support from the U.S. during the 1970s; when Iraq aligned with the Soviet Union in 1972, the Shah of Iran pressured the U.S. to arm the Kurds with Soviet weapons seized in Egypt. But when Iran and Iraq made peace during the 1975 Algiers Accord, the Iranians ceased support for the Kurds, and the Kurdish uprising was, once again, deterred.

Skip to the end of the First Gulf War; backed up by American reassurances, the Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein for the third time. Hussein retaliated, sending ground troops that slaughtered thousands of villagers, and made refugees of more than 1.5 million Kurds who escaped to Turkey. Neither U.S. troops nor arms ever reached the Kurdish rebels, although U.S. airstrikes helped push Hussein back to Kirkuk, establishing a no-fly zone that lasted until the Second Gulf War.

Fighting side by side with American forces in 2003, the Kurds were convinced that their efforts would finally result in U.S. support for Kurdish independence; instead, they were eventually disarmed and compelled to accept the new Iraqi government. The Maliki administration proved to be oppressive to the Kurdish minority, and by the end of 2011, the Kurdish peshmerga faced Iraqi forces over an oil dispute.

But by 2013, Sunni extremists had taken over Fallujah, and in the summer of 2014, Mosul and Tikrit were taken over by ISIS; the Iraqi army receded to Baghdad, and the Kurds took over Kirkuk and its oil refinery. However, because the U.S. refused to arm the Kurds and Baghdad refused to share arms with peshmerga, Kurdish forces were left depleted and unable to oppose ISIS' advancement into the Kurdish capital of Erbil. President Obama stepped in, not only bombing ISIS, but pledging to defend Erbil and - notably - to arm the Kurds directly.

Which brings us to the question of Kobani.

Pawns for the Endgame

If the U.S. defends the Kurds in Kobani, it risks enraging its Turkish allies and encouraging a violent backlash from ISIS forces; if the U.S. does not defend the Kurds, it is quite possible that the ensuing slaughter would create a Kurdish enemy that would conceivably rise up against the U.S. in the foreseeable future.

Turkey's aim is evident: to work in concert with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to displace the Assad regime in Syria, and eventually, to bring about an exclusively Sunni region. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently proclaimed before the Turkish parliament that Turkey "will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East."

How this will be achieved isn't clear; but if it depends on U.S. military might to bring it about, what the U.S. stands to lose is obvious.


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    • Shivendra Tiwari profile image

      Shivendra Tiwari 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Thanks for this involving & eye-opening history lesson and you know sometimes I just turn surprised why such sorts of intimidation on the name of religion without any positive reason get it only politics, only petro-chemicals, dogged belief systems or sheer ignorance towards the reality of our existence..

    • nadia asencio profile image

      nadia asencio 3 years ago from miami, fl

      Agreed. It's a huge klstrfk and our best option is to stay out. I was watching an Anthony Bourdain segment on Shanghai last night were he interviewed one of China's top economists, a man who was taught here in the States. Bourdain asked how it was that China has risen so quickly in wealth and influence, the man answered, "We've had peace for years. We haven't wasted resources on war." It was the b*tch slap that was heard around the world, lol...enough said.

    • profile image

      Sgardality 3 years ago

      The US dismantled the Iraq military soon after the invasion. Within years Malaki was helped to form his own government, mostly consisting of Shiites. Maliki in turn systematically eliminated anyone he could to settle scores who were mostly the Sunnis in Iraq. Iran was there to assist him since he was a stooge of Iran. Today the Sunnis made themselves available to the ISIS and we really don't know who they are. It's a battle we can never win or sort out. Turkey is in a tight spot in regard to the Kurds. Somehow we have no real strategy in the region and the best is to stay out of it.

    • nadia asencio profile image

      nadia asencio 3 years ago from miami, fl

      Thank you, I'm glad you found it helpful. Middle Eastern politics are chaotic and yet it has been the policy of every administration since FDR to keep us involved there; it doesn't serve the U.S. to continue this trend, and the American people are aware of that. Clearly, this has a lot to do with Petro Dollars, but it should be pretty clear by now that we must find an alternative way to secure our currency other than OPEC/Saudi oil reserves. We cannot afford to "war without end," especially when it's not our fight to begin with. Cheers.

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Thank you for the short history lesson on the Kurds and Turkey. Yes, the U.S., and the Obama Administration, is in a no-win situation in Iraq and Syria.