Turkey appeared to take a step closer toward membership in the coalition against the Islamic State on 20 October. It agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters and heavy weapons to transit through its territory to defend the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane, located less than a mile from the Turkish border. Up to 200 peshmerga will arrive in the area over the next week, with some reports suggesting they will only provide heavy artillery support from outside the city.
US Secretary of State Kerry with Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, September 2014.
The US has been under pressure to take action on Kobane because the city's border location has enabled the international media to cover the fighting there relatively closely, and because the local population is firmly against ISIS and has been putting up valiant resistance. While some military analysts have noted that Kobane isn't as great a strategic prize as Iraqi locations like Mosul, failure in Kobane would deal a heavy blow to both the tactical assumptions of the air campaign and to the Coalition's global public credibility.
Over the last week the US initiated a substantial air campaign followed by weapons and ammunition drops into the city. This Coalition military effort has made solid progress in driving ISIS fighters back to a small section of the city. ISIS rallied somewhat over the weekend but was unsuccessful in its efforts to cut Kobane off from the border crossing.
So, Coalition credibility restored? Somewhat.
The military action comes after weeks of speculation that Kobane might be left to its fate. As Foreign Policy's Kate Brannen notes, the delay, coupled with the fact that the US has potentially expended a lot of its leverage with Turkey over this issue, means the US is making a huge bet on Kobane. Time will tell if it pays off.
On the surface it seems as if Turkey has acceded to US requests, but Turkey remains an ambivalent partner in the fight against ISIS. It sent a lower-level official than the other Coalition members to a meeting at Andrews Air Force Base last week. It allows the US to conduct air surveillance operations out of its Turkish bases, but full combat missions are still ruled out. In an article in The Guardian, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu expressed dissatisfaction with the Coalition's 'Iraq first' strategy and its lack of clarity on the endgame in Syria. President Erdogan has been critical of the fact that at least one US arms drop has fallen into the hands of ISIS militants, claiming that he personally warned Obama about this possibility.
The Kobane issue and the delayed Coalition action there reflect Turkey's sensitivities about the status of the Kurds in light of its 30-year struggle with its own sizeable Kurdish minority. Although Ankara has been engaged in a peace process with the leaders of the Kurdish PKK, it still designates the group as a terrorist organisation, as does the US, NATO and the EU. The EU's designation has been challenged by a number of its own member states, however, and a range of other important players like Russia have refused to brand the PKK terrorists.
Ankara therefore has a significant stake in shaping how the Kurds in Syria and Turkey are perceived globally. Whereas Turkey has (perhaps surprisingly) had fairly good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region from which the peshmerga hail, it has been vexed by the growing autonomy of Syria's Kurds amid that country's descent into chaos. Stronger links between Syria's Kurds and the PKK would potentially place Turkey's internal security in jeopardy, as would the possibility of further Coalition moves to strengthen Syria's Kurds militarily or politically.
We can only speculate as to the reasons for Turkey's concessions on Kobane. Some commentators have cited Turkey's increasing isolation and US pressure as key factors. Perhaps a more specific quid pro quo (either with the US or the main Syrian Kurdish Party, the PYD) has been hammered out. Perhaps Turkey has calculated that it cannot afford to sit this one out and risk further Kurdish unrest inside Turkey, a further influx of refugees and international opprobrium. Perhaps Turkey regards strengthening the peshmerga and the Iraqi Kurds as one move in a long game to strengthen the (Iraqi) form of Kurdish nationalism it prefers.
By staying engaged with the Coalition (but only just), shrouding its true motives and continuing to elicit US attention to its concerns, Turkey is for the time being maximising its influence and room for maneuver.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.