Turkey Advances on Kobani in Latest Broken Promise

Erdogan told Trump he would not attack the symbolically important Kurdish-held town in northern Syria.

Relatives visit the tombs of Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.
Relatives visit the tombs of Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on March 27. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

Turkish-backed forces advanced on the Kurdish-held border town of Kobani on Wednesday, despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s commitment to U.S. President Donald Trump that he would not attack the location.

As the situation in northern Syria dissolves into chaos, Turkey’s move into Kobani reflects just the latest broken promise Turkish officials have made to their U.S. counterparts in recent weeks. Kobani is a symbolically significant city that the Kurdish-led fighters recaptured from the Islamic State in 2015, in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the campaign against the militant group.

“Erdogan told Trump he would not go to Kobani. He immediately broke all his promises on the size and scope of the operation,” a senior U.S. administration official told Foreign Policy. “I think they played us the whole time.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said late Tuesday on Twitter that any Turkish attack on Kobani would be a major escalation. “I am certain Congress and the Administration will hold Erdogan personally responsible for any atrocities committed in and around Kobani,” he added.

As Erdogan’s proxy forces advanced, Russian and Syrian troops entered the city late Wednesday to help the Kurds hold off any attack. Meanwhile, the Turkish advance forces U.S. troops to hastily evacuated the LaFarge Cement Factory, a facility about 35 miles southeast of Kobani that served as the Syrian headquarters of the U.S. campaign to defeat the Islamic State. Two U.S. fighter jets then destroyed the factory before the Turkish-backed forces could seize it.

The Americans were not expected to leave the facility for several days, but accelerated their evacuation due to the unexpected advance of Turkish-led forces, a senior U.S. official told Foreign Policy. Now U.S. troops are hunkering down at the Kobani Landing Zone, an airfield about 20 miles south of the city, waiting to evacuate on cargo aircraft.

Just one week after Ankara began its bloody campaign into Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria, Turkish-backed forces have advanced far past the established boundaries of the so-called safe zone Erdogan proposed months ago, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters.

After an Oct. 5 phone call between Trump and Erdogan, which prompted the U.S. president to withdraw American troops from the border ahead of a Turkish assault, U.S. officials understood that Turkey would move into an area about 300 miles wide and 20 miles deep. But Erdogan’s army and proxy forces have long passed that point, the senior defense official said. 

The Turkish operation has killed scores of fighters with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and 71 civilians, including 21 children, a Kurdish politician, and two citizens who were executed by Turkish proxies, according to a Syrian human rights watch. Nearly 300,000 people have been forced to flee.

Many aid groups on the ground in Syria have been forced to suspend operations and evacuate due to the fighting, including Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee.

“This is our nightmare scenario. There are tens of thousands of people on the run, and we have no way of getting to them,” said Made Ferguson, Mercy Corps’ deputy country director for Syria. 

The first sign the senior defense official received that Turkey would go beyond the proposed safe zone was on the night of Oct. 11, when Turkish-backed forces fired artillery rounds on U.S. troops in Kobani. Turkey said the incident was an accident and stopped firing after U.S. officials expressed concern. But the senior administration official told Foreign Policy the attack was a deliberate attempt to push U.S. forces out of the town.

Indeed, just hours before news of the strike emerged, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that Turkish and U.S. military leaders are in close coordination so that the Turkish military “is fully aware, down to explicit grid coordinate detail,” of the location of U.S. troops in Syria.

U.S. troops departed Kobani, and, separately, the city of Manbij, in recent days, the senior administration official said. They are now hunkered down at the Kobani Landing Zone, an airfield about 20 miles south of the city, waiting to evacuate, U.S. officials said. 

Bassam Saker, the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political arm, to the United States, and other Kurdish sources told Foreign Policy on Oct. 15 that Turkish-backed forces had begun to attack Kobani’s outskirts—despite Erdogan’s promise that he would not do so.

The SDF evacuated the Lafarge cement factory between Kobani and the town of Ain Issa—which had been the headquarters of the coalition to defeat the Islamic State in Syria—on Oct. 15 as Turkish-backed militias advanced, according to coalition spokesman Col. Myles Caggins III. The SDF set fire to, then vacated, the factory’s facilities and equipment.

“No U.S. forces or equipment were ever in jeopardy and remain within separate, secure facilities,” Caggins said.   

Videos showed the area around the base had been used by displaced civilians seeking protection.  

The news comes just hours after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that Trump had spoken to Erdogan by phone and received a commitment from his Turkish counterpart that he would not attack Kobani. During the phone call, Trump also called for a cease-fire—a call Erdogan quickly rejected.  

“They say ‘declare a cease-fire.’ We will never declare a cease-fire,” Erdogan told reporters late Tuesday.

Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were set to lead a delegation to Ankara on Wednesday. But Erdogan said on Wednesday that he wouldn’t meet with Pence, stressing that he will only talk to Trump.

Update Oct. 16, 2019: This story has been updated with the latest developments in Kobani. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman