The U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State, launched in August to stop the takeover of Iraqi Kurdistan and to rescue a trapped religious minority, has now become focused on a Syrian Kurdish enclave whose defenders are linked to a group responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in Turkey.
With the U.S. decision to drop weapons and ammunition to the defenders of the town of Kobani, the Obama administration has tied success against the Islamic State to the little-known leadership of the Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PYD, a group in northern Syria affiliated with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, which is better known by its acronym, the PKK.
It is a classic case of strange bedfellows, where the outcome could end up empowering a group whose goals the United States does not share, to the distress of NATO ally Turkey and U.S.-backed moderate Syrian rebels.
Turkey vehemently objected to the weapons drop in advance. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday that the PYD “for us is equal to the PKK. It is also a terrorist organization.” It would be “very wrong” for the U.S. “to expect us to say ‘yes’ after openly announcing such support for a terrorist organization,” he said.
But after the first air drops early Monday – some 21 tons of weapon, ammunition and medical supplies, according to an Iraqi Kurdish official – Turkey backed away from the rhetoric and half-endorsed the action. Mevlut Cavusoglu, the new Turkish foreign minister, said that Turkey had made every effort to prevent the fall of Kobani, which lies just across the border in Syria, and that it viewed the U.S. weapons drops as “part of those efforts.”
Further, he announced that Turkey would allow Iraqi peshmerga fighters to cross its territory to join the fight to save the enclave. The U.S. and Iraq’s mostly autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government both said they had asked Turkey to facilitate sending KRG reinforcements to Kobani.
The U.S. told Turkey: “Help us to get the peshmerga or other groups in there,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Monday. Kurdish news media said Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barazani made a similar request.
One major Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet, reported that peshmerga forces already had begun crossing into Turkey.
But that looks increasingly unlikely. The obstacle this time is apparently not the Turkish government but the defenders in Kobani.
“We have enough fighters,” said Idriss Nassan, the spokesman for the embattled town. “The important thing is ammunition and weaponry.”
He said fighters could come from outside but they “must come under the coordination” of Kobani’s administration, which is dominated by the PYD.
The issue of command and control hasn’t been settled and is the subject of talks that began a week ago in Iraqi Kurdistan. Falah Mustaf, the head of the foreign relations department of the KRG, told McClatchy the talks about broadening the Kobani administration “have made some progress,” but he also called for more flexibility and cooperation among the partners.
In appearance at least, the PYD leadership, just 10 days after the enclave was widely viewed as doomed to defeat, has been buoyed by its good fortune and feel it can make it alone – so long as U.S. airstrikes continue.
Through Monday, the U.S.-led coalition had launched 141 airstrikes at Islamic State targets in Kobani, making it the most important theater of the war by far.
“We need arms more than we need the peshmerga,” Salih Muslim, the PYD leader, told the BBC. “If there is a need,” the PYD militia “will call on them to come. If there is no need, the peshmerga can fight ISIS on their own territory and also send us arms.” ISIS is an alternative name for the Islamic State.
Idriss told McClatchy that the Kurdish militia, with the help of more intensive airstrikes, more weaponry and ammunition, “will defeat” the Islamic State “in just a short time.” But without the airdrops and airstrikes, Kobani “will be destroyed completely.”
Like Turkey, Kurdistan Regional Government President Barzani has had tense relations with the PYD for the past two years, having failed to convince them to form a united front with rebels fighting the Assad regime. The PYD has long been accused of continuing friendly ties with Assad.
That is an awkward place for the United States to find itself, and Kerry said as much when he saw reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Referring to his and President Barack Obama’s talks with Erdogan and other Turkish leaders this weekend, he said “we understand fully the fundamentals to their opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group, and particularly, obviously, the challenges they face with respect to the PKK.”
But he said the Islamic State had chosen to make Kobani the setting for its biggest ground battle so far, and it would be “irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back” on the defenders of the enclave.
Kerry said he and Obama made it “very, very clear this is not a shift of policy by the United States. It is a crisis moment, an emergency.”
Turkey, while acquiescing to the weapons drops after the fact, continued its criticism of the PYD without any letup.
“The PYD’s purposes for Syria are different from those of the Free Syrian Army,” Cavusoglu said. “The PYD’s only aim is to control a certain part of Syria, just like ISIS. Therefore we believe it is a threat to Syria’s future, to Syria’s territorial integrity and its future democratic structuring.”
Just like the PKK, the PYD holds information very close to its vest, even some of the most vital data about the ongoing battle. For example, how many fighters are defending the enclave? “Thousands,” said Idriss, the spokesman for the government. He declined to be more precise.
And how many civilians are there? Ten days ago Staffan de Mistura, a top U.N. official who pleaded with Turkey to intervene in Kobani lest it become another Srebrenica, where thousands died in 1995, estimated there were 700 mostly elderly in the city of Kobani and 12,000 people in the border zone – but it wasn’t clear where he got his numbers.
Idriss said he did not have a count, but he estimated there were “thousands” in the region bordering Turkey and an unknown number in the city center. “It’s impossible to make a count of civilians in Kobani,” he said. “It’s a situation of war. There are snipers. There are clashes, bombs, shelling and airstrikes.”
McClatchy special correspondent Sussanah George contributed to this story from Baghdad.