Kobane: The anatomy of a disaster
Saturday, 11 October 2014 /Hisham Melhem
The world is watching with silence and dismay the slow death of Kobane, the mostly Kurdish town in Northern Syria adjacent to the Turkish border, at the hands of the hordes of so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Unfortunately, the valiant resistance of the Kurds will not stop the inevitable fall of Kobane (Ain al-Arab in Arabic), whose political obituary was pronounced days earlier by Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey. But consider this: two NATO powers; the United States and Turkey, members of the international coalition Washington has formed for the purpose of “degrading then destroying ISIS” are not dealing with the impending humanitarian catastrophe with the urgency it surely deserves.
The fall of Kobane is emblematic of a flawed narrowly focused American strategy that is doomed to fail in achieving its declared goals. Kobane is also being sacrificed on the altar of a cynical Turkish policy that is using the plight of its people as a bargaining chip in Ankara’s ongoing negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the militant Turkish group, for a political settlement on its terms and to punish the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) (which is affiliated with the PKK and the dominant Kurdish force in Syria) for not fighting the Assad regime, and to force it to drop its demand for the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in Northeastern Syria.
Kobane as a sideshow
If Kobane’s fate was pre-ordained, it is because of the divergent views and priorities of both Washington and Ankara in Syria. For Turkey, the primary objectives are the overthrow of the Assad regime and the containment of Kurdish political assertiveness and empowerment. For the U.S. the primary goal is to degrade, weaken and disrupt ISIS supply lines, its communication networks, command and control centers, and its ability to produce and illicitly sell oil. Neither the U.S. nor Turkey is actively working to defeat and certainly not to destroy ISIS in Syria.
“It is too late, too late to save Kobane. But its fall will bring to the fore, once again, the tragic failure of the Obama administration in Syria”
It is as if Kobane and the lives of its inhabitants, most of whom have been reduced to refugee status in Turkey, is a sideshow in a bigger conflict. Kobane is not the first Syrian town to be pulverized by the merciless professional killers of the Syrian regime, or the self-styled unholy butchers of ISIS, and unfortunately, it will not be the last.
But what makes Kobane’s slow motion death so salient, is the fact that it is taking place, literally in broad daylight, in full view of the Turkish army massing at the borders, and with the international media documenting the demise of the town and its defenders, while watching the smoke rise over the besieged town amid the thud of artillery. The die was cast for Kobane when ISIS laid its military siege and Erdogan laid his political siege, preventing Kurds from Northern Iraq or from Syria to use Turkish territories to send supplies and fighters to the town. President Erdogan went to the border region, addressing Syrian refugees and expressing fake sympathy for the people of Kobane, and repeated his conditions for Turkey to intervene: the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria and a safe border zone inside Syria to host refugees and fighters, and called on the coalition to bring down the regime in Damascus. What Erdogan failed to say, is that he does not mind for the time being, having a front row seat watching the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Kobane, satisfied in the knowledge that until his conditions are met, he will let ISIS and the Kurds bleed each other.
‘No friends but the mountains’
The fall of Kobane will reverberate beyond the Kurdish world in its various provinces in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and in the diaspora. Symbolically, the fall of Kobane will shake the Kurdish world the way the fall of Mosul shook Iraq. This comes at a historic moment where the Kurds of Iraq at least, find themselves at a rendezvous with destiny, getting ever closer to achieving what is in the heart of hearts of every Kurd; independence. The Kurds who constitute the largest ethnic group in the world without a state, have been struggling for almost a century – since the promised Kurdish homeland in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) after the demise of the Ottoman empire was later denied by the western powers at the Treaty of Lausanne (1923)- to reclaim their political, civil and cultural rights in the four states where most of them live.
Against tremendous odds, they fought peacefully and violently repressive regimes that denied them even their cultural rights, particularly in Turkey, including the most fundamental one: the right to speak the language of one’s parents. The repression at times reached genocidal proportions as was the case during the “Anfal” campaign waged by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in the 1980s. In those tragic times, when it seemed that the whole world betrayed the Kurds, They would invoke a proverb that speaks for their collective tragic memory: ‘we have no friends but the mountains’. The Kurds of Iraq have achieved tremendous progress since the 1991 Gulf War, building the institutional foundations for a successful autonomous region, which could potentially become the independent Kurdistan. The fall of Kobane, will revive those dark memories of having no friends but the mountains.
The fall of Kobane
It is a sign of Erdogan’s hubris and recklessness that he does not seem to be overly concerned about the impact of the fall of this Kurdish enclave on the 14 million Kurdish-Turks many of whom will see the tragedy, particularly if thousands of civilians “ will be most likely massacred,” as U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura feared.
Already scores of people were killed and wounded in clashes across Turkey, mainly in the predominantly Kurdish provinces between demonstrators protesting the government’s unwillingness to militarily help Kobane, or allowing Kurds to assist their brethren in the besieged town and rival groups including sympathizers with ISIS. The battle for Kobane makes it clear – whether the Turkish state admits it or not – that the war in Syria has arrived in force and it is likely to stay in Turkey for a while with many unknown variables.
The disaster in Kobane will shake the complex, multidimensional relationship between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Both sides have worked very hard in the last few years to improve their political relations, but most importantly to develop a burgeoning web of economic and financial ties that brought to the Kurds of northern Iraq unprecedented economic prosperity.
Already the plight of Kobane has deepened the alienation between Turkey and the U.S. with American officials unable to hide their frustration and anger with President Erdogan’s excuses for inaction. Privately, U.S. officials reject and debunk Erdogan’s complaints, and they say that the Turkish armed forces could operate in Syrian territories to stop the onslaught on Kobane without fear of Syria’s diminishing air force, since the U.S. and allied air campaign in Syria has created a de facto No-Fly-Zone in northern Syria.
The prickly Erdogan
Erdogan may be prickly, while his populism makes him unpredictable and his increasingly autocratic behavior could render him a political liability for the Obama administration, yet the U.S. cannot say that all his demands and conditions to be more helpful in Syria are baseless. And if the U.S. is serious about degrading and eventually, with help from the Arabs and the Turks, defeating ISIS militarily and demolishing its ideological appeal to alienated Muslims, it should focus its attention and its fire power on the Assad regime, the very party that provided ISIS the safe environment to grow and metastasize in Syria. If Turkey is willing, as Erdogan says, to participate in the protection of a safe zone inside Syria, then the U.S. should provide safe skies above this exclusion zone by degrading and hopefully destroying Assad’s air force, particularly the infamous fleet of helicopters bearing the primitive but lethal anti-personnel barrel bombs that have been terrorizing Syrian civilians in areas under the control of the opposition. It is worth remembering that morally, the arguments the Obama administration used to justify its military intervention in Libya, to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, and in Iraq, to prevent the mass killings of Yazidis at Mount Sinjar, can also be applied in Kobane. Are the Kurds of Syria, or Syrians in general the children of a lesser God?
America and the Kurds – the complex inheritance
I believe the Kurds of Iraq are the only group in the country that is still very grateful towards the U.S. for getting rid of the regime of their long time tormentor, Saddam Hussein. The political and religious Shiite establishment in Iraq, would rarely and very reluctantly and only after prodding, admit that their empowerment for the first time in the history of modern Iraq is in part due to the American invasion. The Shiites, and of course the Sunni Arabs who lost their political monopoly of Iraq after the invasion, are quick to point out to the admittedly huge blunders committed by the U.S. during the occupation. The safest region in Iraq for the American soldiers and civilians is Kurdistan.
Officially, the U.S. is still pursuing a ‘one Iraq’ policy, and has been counseling the Kurds not to secede, but push for genuine autonomy within the unitary state of Iraq. After ISIS’ stunning capture of Mosul last summer, the U.S. was forced to abandon its previous policy of denying arms to the Kurds. The Kurds were once again grateful to Washington. But the fall of Kobane, will revive the dormant memories of those times of American abandonment and even betrayal of the Kurds, most notably when the Nixon administration in collaboration with the Shah of Iran dropped their support for the Kurds in their fight with Iraq for autonomy in 1975, after Iraq and Iran reached an agreement over riparian rights in Shatt al-Arab’s estuary. The agreement freed Saddam to brutally suppress the Kurds and exacting on them a tremendous loss.
To the extent that one can talk about an American strategy against ISIS, one can say that the Syrian theater, as far as the White House is concerned, is still a sideshow and an afterthought. Obama’s heart would never beat with sympathy and affection for more than three years for Syria’s calamity. Not even after more than an estimated 200,000 casualties and Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. It was ISIS that forced the leader of the free world to climb down from the tree of denial, after its blitzkrieg into Iraq, occupying Mosul, threatening Baghdad, and causing the collapse of the large but brittle Iraqi army. What followed was the beheading of two American journalists and solid intelligence that the Khorasan group, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, was seriously plotting to bring its terror to Europe and potentially to America.
President Obama tied his own hands when he kept stressing that the use of ground troops in combat role is not an option. No Commander -in-Chief should make such absolute pronouncements since they provide comfort to his enemies. President Obama’s minimalist strategy is flawed if the goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS is serious and not a protracted limited war of attrition, designed in part to kick the can of ISIS to his successor. If President Obama is serious about a credible ground component in Syria, he should accelerate with Saudi Arabia and Jordan the programs of equipping and training the nationalist Syrian opposition, he should take another look at the establishment of buffer zones in collaboration with Turkey and Jordan, and he should use – very selectively – U.S. special forces against ISIS leadership and key assets.
It is too late, too late to save Kobane. But its fall will bring to the fore, once again, the tragic failure of the Obama administration in Syria. When one contemplates the amount of criticism directed at Obama over his shifting Syria policies from his former senior cabinet members, including two secretaries of defense, one secretary of state and one director of the Central Intelligence Agency, one sees the enormity of the failure. Even the deliberative and cautious former president Jimmy Carter, criticized President Obama for waiting too long to intervene in Syria, and for giving ISIS the time to build its capabilities and strengths. One would hope that the tragedy of Kobane would lead to a serious re-assessment of the President’s strategy, and that the lives lost will not have been lost in vain. One would hope…