Politics & Policy

How Obama’s Non-Strategy Doomed Kobani

Turkish tanks take up positions outside Kobani. (Getty Images)
Can you blame the Turks for refusing to join an ally as incoherent as the U.S. in Syria?

Sometime in the next few days, the Islamic State will probably capture the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. The U.N. has warned that a massacre on the level of Srebenica in 1995 is imminent: There are an estimated 700 civilians left in the city, as well as about 12,000 who haven’t yet made it across the Turkish border.

The U.S. isn’t taking this lying down, of course. It’s taking it reclining, with a half-dozen nightly air strikes that the Pentagon concedes are unlikely to be enough to save the town. So the main focus of the U.S. plan to do more hinges on nagging Turkey to do more.

But Turkey has been remarkably resistant. Why not? It doesn’t think the U.S. is serious in its approach to the region. After America’s strategic carousel over the past three years, you can hardly blame the Turks for it.

In principle, Turkey has no problem getting more deeply involved in Syria. After all, they’ve been quietly supporting the opposition to Bashar Assad for three years now and have been one of the few voices of strategic clarity in the entire Syrian fiasco. Their argument is simple: They’ll save Kobani if the U.S. commits to destroying not just the Islamic State but the Assad regime as well.

Turkey is quite naturally concerned that, if it accedes to American demands, it will wind up bearing the brunt of the fighting against the Islamic State until the group is degraded and Assad is strong enough to regain control over his country. At that point, they’ll have helped place a hostile, genocidal neighbor back in charge and probably contributed to re-militarizing Kurds in Turkey, as well.

So you can’t really blame them for their resistance. But the Obama administration apparently can. “Of course they could do more,” sniped a senior U.S. official to the Washington Post. “They want the U.S. to come in and take care of the problem.” That’s true, but the core of our strategy is having the Turks come in and take care of our problem.

Turkey doesn’t trust our current strategic direction because, for the last three years, American diplomacy has swung wildly and almost continuously around all points of the Syrian compass. Meanwhile, they’ve been significantly more coherent on the Syrian question than we have.

The country’s civil war started off in a reasonably straightforward fashion, as the Assad regime vs. nonviolent demonstrators. It’s well understood in the Middle East that nonviolent demonstrations are sort of a sporting, pro forma gesture on the way to violent demonstrations, and Syria went according to plan. During this period, President Obama declared that the United States was committed to removing Assad from power. Others were, too. So about a year after the war began, the conflict had evolved into Assad vs. the Syrian rebels, America, al-Qaeda, the Arab states, and Turkey, which saw a chance to knock Iran down a peg and support friendly nearby Sunnis at the same time.

It was about this time that people began to notice that the Syrian regime had not just the Assad family and regime figures, but also most of the country’s religious minorities. The regime also seemed to be losing, though certainly not through any effort of the United States, which mostly contributed emotional support. But Iran began to pour in the troops and supplies, and so after about two years, the war had become Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and Christians vs. the United States, the Free Syrian Army, al-Qaeda, the Arab states, and Turkey.

When the Assad regime then began to drop chemical weapons on its major cities, the United States quickly responded with a lot of emotional support, before carefully ratcheting back and accepting a deal wherein Assad would destroy his declared chemical weapons. And in any case, by that point, there really weren’t many moderate Syrian rebels left. Their membership had been subsumed by the better-funded and more-radical Islamist groups, including the al-Nusrah Front and the still-more-radical Islamic State (ISIS) from Iraq. The U.S. decided that the Islamic State would be its main strategic target after it began seizing huge amounts of territory in Iraq, putting the Obama administration’s political fortunes at risk.

Turkey, not unreasonably, is frustrated by America’s somewhat migratory strategic aims, which apparently have been dictated only by the unswerving desire to minimize political disaster. The siege of Kobani certainly looks bad politically, but it is, as John Kerry said, not a strategic target. The Turks are thus unwilling to abandon their primary focus — Assad — for a crisis midwifed by the Obama administration’s strategic ADD.

The latest estimate is that the Islamic State controls about 40 percent of Kobani. They may well capture all of it. But if the Turks won’t help because they don’t believe Obama’s serious about any of it, well . . . we can’t really blame them.

— Andrew L. Peek is a professor at American University and was a strategic advisor to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewLPeek.

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