Notes From the Margins…

Kobane: Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold

  • October 07, 2014
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Despite heroic and desperate resistance from Kurdish Peoples Defence fighters (YPG) in Kobane, it is now looking increasingly likely that this key Syrian border town will fall to ISIS.   It that happens, Islamic State will be able to unite the territories that it already controls in northern Syria, and will undoubtedly inflict a bloody vengeance on the Kurds who have defied it for the last few months.

IS will also be able to split the three autonomous Kurdish Mountain Region or cantons established in northern Syria in January this year, and will therefore be in a position to use the area around Kobane as a springboard for further assaults on the two remaining cantons of Afrin and Jazira.

This outcome is already being depicted in some quarters as a major reversal for the US bombing strategy, and there is no doubt that airstrikes have had no impact on the IS advance in Kobane.     But there is another less convenient reason for the Kurdish defeat in Kobane which is likely to receive less attention.

Ever since the IS offensive on Kobane began in July there have been boots on the ground, in the shape of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, who unlike the Iraqi army, actually want to fight IS, but it is not at all clear whether the US and its allies want them to do so.

For the last few months Turkey has actively prevented Turkish Kurds from crossing the border to help defend Kobane.     Even though Turkey is a nominal member of Obama’s grand anti-ISIS coalition it has done nothing to help Kobane except to allow refugees fleeing the city to cross the Turkish border.

Kurdish requests for heavy weapons have so far fallen on deaf ears, which means that the YPG fighters in Kobane are outgunned by the US tanks and Humvees that IS took from the Iraqi army in the summer.

What explains this passivity?     For one thing, Turkey will not lift a finger to do anything that might encourage or empower the Kurds, and regards Kurdish national aspirations as a greater threat to its national security than ISIS.   The YPG is the fighting wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the Turkish government regards as a terrorist organization, as does the US.

In a choice between IS and the YPG, Turkey clearly prefers the former.   Secondly, and no less significantly, its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is more interested in bringing down the Assad regime than it is in taking down ISIS, whose rise to power owes a great deal to Turkish assistance.     US Vice-President Joe Biden hinted at this contribution   when he accused   the Turkish government and its Gulf State allies of helping to create ISIS.   In public address last week Biden declared:

They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.

Biden’s statement is closer to the truth than one can normally expect from US politicians, even if it ignores the fact that the US itself has played a role in the arming and training of some of these groups.

For diplomatic reasons, Biden apologized.   But he has nothing to apologize for.

Turkey has played an absolutely malignant game throughout the Syrian civil war.   It has maintained a conveyor belt acros its 750-mile border with Syria, in which weapons and fighters have flowed freely to Free Syrian Army forces and an assortment of jihadist groups, and even wounded ISIS fighters have been allowed to recuperate in Turkish hospitals.

According to a Turkish politician from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), ISIS has sold more than $800 million worth of oil from the Rumeilan and Mosul oil fields through Turkey, and has actually built pipes across the border at various points across the border to transport it.

In other words Turkey is up to its neck in Islamic State’s ghastly horrorshow.     Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted with indignant fury to Biden’s accusations.   But his fit of pique is entirely disingenuous.

In March Erdogan’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and other high-ranking Turkish officials could be heard plotting to stage a faked al-Qaeda attack on the Suleiman Shah Tomb in Syria, which is under Turkish military protection,   as a justification for a Turkish invasion of Syria, apparently with Erdogan’s approval.

The creation of a buffer zone or no fly zone in Syria has been a longterm goal of Turkish foreign policy in Syria since at least the summer of 2012, when it was presented as a means of protecting Syrian refugees.

But protection is the last thing on the Turkish government’s mind.   What Erdogan and his cronies want is an enclave that can be used to train their Syrian proxies to attack Assad – and also to undermine any attempts at Kurdish autonomy in Syria that might have a knock on effect inside Turkey itself.

IS’s advance on Kobane has helped to bring these aspirations closer.     Last week the Turkish parliament backed a motion that would allow Turkish troops to enter Syria.     But for that to happen Kobane must fall, or come so close to falling that only a Turkish invasion can ‘save’ it.

And they may not be the only ones to use Kobane as a justification.   This weekend the headbanging warmonger Lindsey Graham was telling Obama ‘American soldiers need to go back to Syria and Iraq as part of a coalition, and we”re going to need more than 4,000 to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria.’

And on Friday, Erdogan and Biden seemed to have gotten over their little tiff and reportedly discussed the possibility of establishing a ‘buffer zone’ inside Syria.

So you could say that Kobane is proof of strategic failure, but if you look at some of the wider and mostly undeclared strategic objectives that are also part of the great coalition against evil, then an IS victory – or near-victory – could also have positive results for the gangster-politicians and plotters who are intent on tearing the region to shreds, and who regard the Kurds as pawns, and nothing more.





  1. Richard Carter

    7th Oct 2014 - 9:28 am

    Oops! Small error in an otherwise excellent piece: ISIS has actually sold more than $800 MILLION worth of oil from the Rumeilan and Mosul oil fields…

    • Matt

      7th Oct 2014 - 9:38 am

      Changed and thanks for pointing it out! Not the first time I’ve left out the crucial million. I mean I could probably sell $800 worth of oil myself!

  2. Andy

    7th Oct 2014 - 1:46 pm

    Your observations make a lot of sense Matt, but why does Erdogen seem to despise Assad so much? Despite Assad’s father being a very nasty piece of work, from what I’ve read, his son doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as bad, and in any case I doubt the Turks empathise with human rights issues for the Syrians. Is it all to do with energy supplies? I’m not trying to suggest the current Assad regime is by any stretch perfect but I believe that the choice between him and ISIS/ISIL/IS doesn’t require much contemplation. Al Baghdadi’s thugs have little in common with Islam and despite your view regarding the Kurds and Erdogen clearly wanting Assad out, isn’t it a policy fraught with danger considering IS don’t appear to recognise any borders and that they could eventually be a danger to Turkey, albeit more of a terrorist threat rather than a challenge to their military forces?

    • Matt

      7th Oct 2014 - 3:29 pm

      Hi Andy. Personally I think that the Assad regime is very far from perfect, and that he long since blew the opportunity that he had to be a reformist president, when he responded with extreme violence to the initial protests back in 2011. But as you suggest, the extreme violence in the civil war that followed wasn’t exclusive to the Syrian security forces, and the militarisation of the rebellion was deliberately encouraged and fomented by external forces, including Turkey, with the catastrophic results that we’ve seen. That said, Erdogan’s motives in all this are quite murky and difficult to determine, and his support for the Syrian regime change project is not popular in Turkey. I suspect that various factors have influenced Turkish involvement in this eg. Turkey’s membership of Nato and a possible desire to acquire kudos in Washington and Europe by helping topple Assad; Turkish desire to be a powerful regional player and establish its own sphere of influence to rival the Gulf States; Turkish interest in becoming an energy pipeline hub through the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and also the putative Qatari-Europe gas pipeline; possible Turkish interest in controlling/accessing Syrian and Iraqi oilfields. Combine all this with Turkish anxieties about the Kurds and you have a combination of factors that have shaped its Syrian policy over the last three years, and have clearly led it – at least until recently – to think that ISIS and its various tributaries and affiliates might get it what it wants.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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