The Kobani conundrum

Turkey has finally agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish forces to cross its border with Syria to help fight ISIS and thereby relieve the besieged town of Kobani. For weeks, Turkey had refused to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters or weapons to cross its border in support of the Kurdish fighters defending Kobani.

Why the change? The New York Times cites “international pressure.” But the pressure has been there all along.

More to the point, it seems to me, is the fact that (in the words of the Times) “as the United States-led coalition has increased its airstrikes as well as its coordination with the Kurdish fighters, who have provided targeting information, the militants have lost momentum after appearing close to overrunning the town.” In other words, the Obama administration is beginning to behave seriously, at least in Kobani, and may actually be winning there. The predictable consequence is that Turkey takes the U.S. more seriously.

Turkey has also come under pressure from its Kurdish population. There have been mass protests against the government’s unwillingness to assist in the relief of Kobani. The Turkish government has resisted the pressure, both international and internal, because it considers the Syrian Kurds who are resisting ISIS as terrorists and its mortal enemies. And, indeed, these forces are associated with the PKK which is the enemy of the Turkish government.

By agreeing to help the Iraqi Kurds, President Erdogen seeks to thread the needle. He can no longer be accused of doing nothing to relieve Kobani, but at the same time he tries to limit his assistance to the Iraqi peshmerga, an ally.

In reality, though, allowing Iraqi Kurds into Syria will almost certainly play into the hands of Erdogen’s Kurdish enemies in Syria. According to Michael Rubin, “as soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG [the peshmerga associated with the PKK] which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled.”

Erdogan surely understands this, but now apparently sees value in cooperating President Obama and in relieving some of the domestic pressure that his unwillingness to lift a finger to help Kobani has generated.

It isn’t just Erdogan who faces a Kobani conundrum. The Obama administration is airlifting arms to YPG even though the State Department has designated it (along with its political arm, the PYD, and the PKK) a terrorist organization.

Rubin argues that the designation “is long overdue for a review, if not elimination.” He adds:

The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up.

And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK.

Mugged by reality on the ground in Northern Syria, the Obama administration may be coming around to the same view.

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