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What’s Stopping Turkey From Saving Kobani?

Ankara can't seem to make up its mind about who's the bigger enemy: the Islamic State or the Kurds.

Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images
Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

ISTANBUL — There’s no harsher critic of the Turkish government these days than anonymous U.S. officials. One official, speaking to the New York Times this week, said that Ankara was "inventing reasons not to act" in the besieged northern Syrian town of Kobani; "this isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border," the official added. An anonymous U.S. official reached by the Washington Post was no kinder: The Turks, the senior official said, are dragging their feet because "they want the U.S. to come in and take care of the problem." 

The American effort to pressure Ankara to take on a larger role in Kobani, however, has so far been ignored by the Turks. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said yesterday that it was "not realistic" to expect Turkey to launch a ground operation on its own. Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, is also holding talks in Ankara — though the State Department readout on his visit did not announce any agreement between the two sides, and suggested talks could go on for some time.

So, what’s stopping Turkey from saving Kobani? To try to answer that question, I posed a few questions to Suat Kiniklioglu, a former MP for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who rose to become the spokesman for the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee, and the AKP’s deputy chairman for external affairs. Known as a member of the party’s liberal wing, he wasn’t included on the AKP’s list for the 2011 parliamentary elections; he has since served as the executive director of an Ankara-based think tank, and recently began a year in Washington as a visiting senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. 

There are two primary conflicts, according to Kiniklioglu, that explain Turkish reticence to get more involved in Syria. The first is between Ankara and the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State: "The primary problem remains the divergence on what the priority should be: Assad or ISIS," he said. "Ankara wants to know what the U.S. vision for Iraq and Syria is."

Turkey has been pressing the anti-Islamic State coalition to broaden its mandate to include the removal of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently said that Ankara is "ready to do everything if there is a clear strategy" for Syria’s future — but argued that only attacking the Islamic State wouldn’t solve the root cause of radicalization, which is Assad’s grip on power.

Ankara also is leery about bolstering the Kurdish defenders of Kobani. The militia is known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant organization that has waged a decades-long guerrilla war against the Turkish state. If forced to choose between the YPG and the jihadists, many Turkish officials seem ambivalent: "For us the PKK is the same as ISIS," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last weekend. Another AKP deputy tweeted that the Islamic State may kill, "but at least does not torture" like the PKK.

Ankara has balked, Kiniklioglu says, at the prospect of sending ground forces into such hostile territory. "If the area [around Kobani] would be populated by Turkmens or other sympathetic populations it would have been a different story," he said. "Ankara does not want a repeat scenario of northern Iraq, where an Iraqi Kurdistan emerged [after the fall of Saddam Hussein]."

For Turkey, however, the costs of failing to defend Kobani are also growing. Istanbul and the country’s predominantly Kurdish regions have seen escalating protests over the past week by Kurdish protesters angry over Ankara’s inaction. The interior minister announced today that 31 people have been killed and hundreds more have been injured. The protests have revived old ethnic fault lines, as Turkish nationalists in the city of Gaziantep took to the streets armed with swords in a counter-protest; four people were killed in the ensuing violence.

With the Islamic State pushing further into Kobani, the domestic fallout from the battle in Syria could derail the years-long effort to reconcile Turkey’s Kurdish citizens with the state. Kurdish parties may "have difficulty in controlling more fringe factions, who … want to return to violence," Kiniklioglu fears. "If Kobani falls, then all bets are off. It would probably mean an end to the peace process."

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