Turkey’s decision, announced on Monday, to permit Kurdish fighters to percolate across its border with Syria to aid the defense of Kobani against the Islamic State (IS) came as something of a surprise, particularly in the wake of renewed conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).
After all, Ankara had hitherto resisted pressure to allow such a development, with official spokesmen describing the conflict in Kobani as a tussle between two terrorist groups, IS and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish outfit seen as a sister organization of the PKK.
There is, of course, a catch. The forces to which Turkey has committed to allow safe passage belong to the Peshmerga, the military force of the Iraqi Kurds. Ankara has with reasonable consistency made a distinction between semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and the separatist tendencies of Turkish and Syrian Kurds, and has been more than willing to do business with the former.
The most recent bout of hostilities with the PKK — designated a terrorist organization not just by Ankara but by Washington and Brussels as well — was predicated on Turkey’s refusal to allow Kurdish fighters to cross into Syria. Spokespeople for the PKK have, partly as a consequence, accused the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of colluding, if not collaborating, with IS.
While not articulated in comparable terms, that concern has also been raised in western capitals.
This generosity has been put down to Ankara’s insistence that the most pernicious force operating in Syria is the regime of Bashar Assad, which has far more blood on its hands than IS. Turkey has consequently been ambivalent about the US-led campaign against IS, suggesting that the authorities in Damascus be targeted as well.
It was initially presumed that this ambivalence — which included a refusal to permit use of the air force base at Incirlik — had quite a lot to do with the fact that 49 personnel from the Turkish consulate in Mosul had been captured by IS when it took control of Iraq’s second largest city. All of the hostages, thankfully, returned safe and sound to Turkey last month. The circumstances in which their freedom was negotiated remain murky, however, with little clarity on what Ankara may have conceded in return. And there has been no dramatic change in Turkey’s position after that shadow was lifted.
Mosul remains under the IS thumb, of course, and reports suggest that US-led airstrikes have thus failed to decisively thwart the militia’s advance toward Baghdad, with bomb attacks in the Iraqi capital over recent days providing plenty of cause for concern.
One of the mainstays of the resistance to IS in Iraq have been the Peshmerga, whom the West has agreed to arm and train — implicitly as a more reliable force than the official Iraqi army, allied with Shiite militias that are occasionally capable of perpetrating atrocities against innocents that are almost on a par with the grotesque excesses of IS. In the circumstances, it is open to question whether diverting a certain proportion of the Peshmerga to Syria — if indeed the authorities under Massoud Bazargan agree to a deployment.
Despite initial indications that the airstrikes against IS in the vicinity of Kobani were not making much of a difference, the available evidence suggests that the militia may indeed have retreated in the face of the combined assault from the air and the ground. Turkey’s partial volte-face on border crossings followed US military airdrops to the PYD, which Ankara had warned against.
Earlier, while Kobani faced the imminent prospect of being overrun, Turkish forces watched from the border but refused to pitch in, insisting on the preconditions of a no-fly zone and a territorial buffer in northern Syria — actions that would obviously antagonize Damascus and possibly confront the western interventionists with a fight on two fronts.
The nature of the Assad regime and the atrocities it has committed no doubt provide plenty of cause for apprehension and disgust. The West, though, clearly sees IS as a more immediate threat. And those who argue that the US should have intervened militarily in Syria in the early months of the anti-Assad uprising have to contend with the possibility that such action may well have exposed Damascus to being overrun by forces such as IS and Al-Nusra Front, echoing the disarray in Libya.
The unpredictable consequences of all military activities in the region remain a signpost in this convoluted mess.