Turkey’s Erdogan wants ground troops on ISIS, but not his own

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of the country with the 6th largest active duty military force in the world and a border with both countries where ISIS is active, has a lot of nerve saying “ground troops” are necessary to fight ISIS but that “the coalition” (which doesn’t include Turkey at the moment) should provide them.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday the besieged Syrian city of Kobani was in imminent danger of falling to Islamic State and called on the U.S.-led coalition fighting the radical group to bolster its air raids with ground operations.

Way to outsource.

ISIS enters Kobani, street combat begins

Today (October 5), ISIS forces captured the southeastern hill overlooking Kobani and breached the town entrance below it (see maps below) as shells rained down inside the town. Fresh U.S. airstrikes the same day appeared to have almost no effect. Syrian Kurdish YPG/YPJ resistance fighters continue to fiercely defend every meter of land, as block-by-block fighting began on the southeast. On the other side of the town, ISIS siege forces continue to tighten the noose and are still pressing up the Aleppo Road to the southwest entrance. Here’s the report from CNN:

ISIS intensified its attack on the city of Kobani as militants took a strategic hill Sunday evening and entered the southeastern edge of the city, a fighter and a media activist inside the city tell CNN.

The sources, who both requested their names be withheld for security reasons, said street-to-street fighting has started in Kobani.
ISIS fighters overpowered Kurdish forces to take the top and the eastern side of Meshta Nour, the strategic hill overlooking Kobani, the sources said.

A civilian source inside Kobani said there have been heavy clashes on all fronts around Kobani and that ISIS forces had been moved back from a small corner of the city they’d held for two days.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, said in a statement that 86 “terrorists” were killed during a 24-hour period and 17 YPG members died.

On Sunday, smoke billowed over Kobani as ISIS sent bombs into the middle of town.

Kobani is now tightly surrounded in a crescent from the Aleppo road on the southwestern outskirts of the city all the way to the eastern edge of Kobani, near the Turkish border, the fighter and media activist said.

ISIS is making inroads despite airstrikes by U.S. and allied forces, including Sunday’s strikes on the eastern outskirts of the city.

The YPG destroyed an ISIS tank in the east of Kobani near Kane Kordan, a large mound on the eastern side of the city, the civilian source said.

ISIS fighters are now about about one kilometer south on the Aleppo road, the civilian source said.

Turkey’s parliament voted last week to authorize participation in the coalition efforts in Syria against ISIS, and more than two dozen tanks are still sitting on the other side of the border from Kobani, but no action has been taken yet. Turkish security forces clashed with increasingly enraged Kurdish protesters who are upset over Turkish inaction against the dozen of ISIS tanks and heavy artillery positions pounding away at the town within line of sight. On Saturday, commentator Juan Cole suggested that the Battle of Kobani might prove to be the “Kurdish Alamo.”

Labeled overhead map of Kobani / Ayn Al-Arab, Syria, October 5, 2014. Click map to enlarge or click here to navigate in Google Maps.

Labeled overhead map of Kobani / Ayn Al-Arab, Syria, October 5, 2014. Click map to enlarge or click here to navigate in Google Maps.

Labeled digital rendering, looking eastward, of Kobani / Ayn Al-Arab, Syria, October 5, 2014. ISIS captured the hill on the right, allowing it to shell the town center Click map to enlarge or click here to navigate in Google Maps.

Labeled digital rendering, looking eastward, of Kobani / Ayn Al-Arab, Syria, October 5, 2014. ISIS captured the hill on the right, allowing it to shell the town center. Click map to enlarge or click here to navigate in Google Maps.

Labeled digital rendering, looking northward, of Kobani / Ayn Al-Arab, Syria, October 5, 2014. ISIS captured the hill on the bottom, allowing it to shell the town center Click map to enlarge or click here to navigate in Google Maps.

Labeled digital rendering, looking northward, of Kobani / Ayn Al-Arab, Syria, October 5, 2014. ISIS captured the heights just southeast, allowing it to shell the town center. Click map to enlarge or click here to navigate in Google Maps.

ISIS still moving faster than coalition forces on Kobani; will Turkey enter?

A second round of US-led coalition airstrikes hit ISIS positions around Kobani on Tuesday, but the group had tightened the circle around the town down to two miles (down from about five or so on Saturday, when the first airstrikes hit), according to CNN:

Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for the Pentagon, said U.S. airstrikes overnight hit the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

A civilian inside Kobani, near the Turkish border, told CNN on Monday that ISIS was closing in.

The terror group is three kilometers (nearly two miles) east of the town, the civilian said on the condition of anonymity, basically confirming a report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group.
When asked why strikes in the Kobani area may appear to be limited, a senior U.S. official said — speaking separately on background — that factors which may make it appear that way include that the United States has no direct reliable intelligence on the ground and that precise and careful targeting is needed to avoid civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Turkish border, Turkey’s government and military still seems to be weighing whether or not to become directly involved militarily in the civil war by crossing into Syrian territory — and perhaps weighing the long-term consequences of establishing and defending an autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria — but in any case they edged visibly closer toward intervention.

30 tanks and armored vehicles from a Turkish armored division have arrived at the border crossing with Syria within sight of where ISIS tanks and artillery have besieged Kobani. If the tanks cross the border, this would be the first time a foreign military’s ground forces have entered the fight against ISIS. The Turkish military reported that they fired on Syrian territory Sunday in response to ISIS shells landing on the Turkish side of the border, but so far no substantial action has occurred.

This may change if parliament approves an intervention, which is under discussion … or if ISIS forces directly attack Turkish troops — a scenario raised again this week by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc in relation to the Turkish Special Forces stationed at the Tomb of Suleiman Shah in an enclave near Aleppo. The tomb, guarded by Turkey’s military since 1938 under the terms of a 1921 treaty with France, has been repeatedly and publicly identified by ISIS as a target all year. ISIS may have hesitated to attack the Turkish enclave, given that a direct assault might trigger an automatic invasion of Syria by all of NATO, under Article V. Turkey beefed up security at the tomb significantly earlier in the year (rather than withdrawing), but the troops there are reportedly tenuously supplied due to deteriorating local conditions as the Aleppo region becomes the center of fighting between Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebels, the Syrian government, and ISIS.

In another development at Kobani, the Turkish government says they will allow Syrian Kurdish fighters to cross from Kobani into Turkey if forced to cede the field to ISIS, but only without their weapons. This continues the balancing act between humanitarian responsibilities as a refuge and their fear of a disintegration of the ceasefire and peace talks with the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey itself. The Syrian Kurdish fighters are viewed as a potentially destabilizing factor in the effort to make peace within Turkey.
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Coalition airstrikes hit ISIS outside Kobani, but only slow the attack

The northern Syrian border town of Kobani and surrounding villages — predominantly Kurdish — recently came under siege by ISIS tanks and artillery, as discussed previously on this site. This collapsing Kurdish enclave quickly turned into a mass exodus of at least 150,000 Syrian Kurdish civilians in a matter of days, as Turkey warily opened its border to avoid total pandemonium (and the possibility of a massacre happening so close to the border that it would probably appear on Turkish evening television news).

As U.S. airstrikes in Syria had not yet started but were increasingly seeming inevitable, I suggested that this ISIS armored unit closing in on Kobani and its relatively pro-American Kurdish population was probably going to be an early target:

Depending perhaps on Turkey’s views on the potential future threat posed by the now-beleaguered YPK [Syrian Kurd] fighters and the Kurdish villagers they are trying to protect, as well as whether the influential Iraqi Kurdish leadership is concerned about the situation — both of which have a significant voice in setting American military priorities in the region and are much friendlier to Syrian Kurds after months of ISIS advances into Iraq — ISIS tank units attacking Kurdish areas in northern, central Syria seem like a pretty tempting target for American-led coalition airstrikes on ISIS forces in Syria, once those begin in the coming weeks.

US-led coalition airstrikes began in Syria this past Tuesday, primarily focusing on military and administrative targets in Raqqa, the so-called ISIS “capital,” to the south (see map below). But on Saturday — day six of coalition strikes in Syria — the first sortie to relieve Kobani and the besieged Syrian Kurds was initiated.

According to the New York Times reporters on scene just across the border in Turkey, this first action appeared to have only a small effect, apart from slightly slowing the pace of ISIS shrinking its perimeter in the half-circle it had established around the town and up to the border; ISIS artillery still reached range to hit the town itself for the first time later on Saturday:

The Pentagon said on Saturday that it had conducted its first strikes against Islamic State targets in a besieged Kurdish area of Syria along the Turkish border, destroying two armored vehicles in an area that has been the subject of a weeklong onslaught by the Islamic State.
After days of pleading for air cover, Kurds watching the fighting from across the Turkish border west of Kobani were gleeful as jets roared overhead and two columns of smoke could be seen from the eastern front miles away. They hoped it meant that American warplanes had finally come to their aid.
Nearby, Syrian and Turkish Kurds cheered from hilltops dotted with fig and olive trees and army foxholes as Kurdish fighters scaled a ridge and fired a heavy machine gun mounted on a pickup truck at an Islamic State position less than a mile from them. Islamic State fighters could be seen moving from a nearby village, but seemed to be shifting tactics in a hedge against airstrikes, moving one vehicle at a time rather than in a convoy.

The fighting took place just a few hundred yards inside Syria, clearly visible from hilltop olive groves in Karaca, a frontier village on the Turkish side of the border. They fought with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns west of Kobani, the central town in the region.
On the eastern front, a Kurdish activist, Mustafa Ebdi, said from Kobani that an Islamic State command post, a tank and a cannon had been hit by the American strike. Still, hours later, Islamic State shelling hit Kobani’s main town for the first time, killing at least two people.

In a statement, the United States Central Command said that strikes around the country had been carried out with forces from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates — it did not specify which aircraft hit which areas — and that “all aircraft exited the strike areas safely.”

We can probably expect more coalition airstrikes in the coming days, if the situation is not too fluid to hit from the air. The fact that ISIS positions are now visible from across the border may also make it easier to get accurate enough intelligence to target the attacks.

There is also extensive discussion — following heavy lobbying by the Obama Administration this past week — that Turkey may be about to join or support the military coalition directly attacking ISIS within Syria’s borders. This would at least involve providing air bases, if not bombers, or possibly even ground troops tasked with establishing a hypothetical refugee safe zone on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.

The latter, far more expansive and ambitious option — which should raise a lot of questions and red flags all around — is probably less likely than some level of supporting the air operations. Those operations would probably become significantly safer for coalition pilots by dramatically shortening the flight distances required over hostile territory and Syrian air defenses.

[Our update for September 30, 2014: “ISIS still moving faster than coalition forces on Kobani; will Turkey enter?”]

Click to enlarge: Detailed conflict map of Northern Syria and Northern Iraq, September 26, 2014, including Kobani / Ayn al-Arab. (Adapted from Wikimedia)

Click to enlarge: Detailed conflict map of Northern Syria and Northern Iraq, September 26, 2014, including Kobani / Ayn al-Arab. (Adapted from Wikimedia)


Chaos at Turkish border as ISIS presses in on Syrian Kurdish enclave

Although Turkey has already absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees since the start of the civil war in 2011, one of the government’s big fears has been that the situation directly adjacent to the border, in northern Syria and northern Iraq, will deteriorate significantly and overwhelm the stability and crisis capacity of the lengthy southern border.

This fear has been so powerful in recent months that Turkey recently suspended its longstanding (albeit already somewhat relaxed by improved relations) policy of trying to keep Kurdish militant groups weak and contained, because they decided it would be better to allow Kurdish fighters from Turkey to go to Iraq and fight ISIS than to allow the refugee safe-haven of the Kurdish Regional Government to collapse and flood Turkey with up to a million more refugees.

Although the situation in northern Iraq, after the start of US airstrikes in early August, seems to be stabilizing somewhat in comparison to the earlier months of continuous advances by ISIS across the north, things in northern Syria have been getting worse. Earlier this week, I wrote about an ISIS unit supported by tanks that began attacking villages in an isolated, historically-Kurdish area right along the Turkish-Syrian border:

An armor-supported ISIS division in northern, central Syria has launched an offensive to seize territory from one of the three major Kurdish enclaves in Syria, which have been largely separate from the primary civil war for the past couple years.

[…] the north-central Kurdish enclave where Kobani/Ayn Arab is located is surrounded by ISIS and “moderate rebel” positions on three sides and a largely unsympathetic Turkey with border controls on the fourth. They are mostly cut off from other Syrian Kurds, unless they can cross through Turkey or manage to get through areas now held by ISIS.

Over a span of just three days, this nearly encircled area shrank considerably, as 16 captured villages became 60 and thousands of Syrian Kurdish villagers raced out of the countryside toward the border town of Kobani, ahead of advancing ISIS tanks and heavy artillery. YPK defenders were forced to fall back very quickly as well. Now, the only way out for the civilians (and possibly the fighters) is through Turkey.

Map: Ethnically Kurdish zones of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran -- circa 1992. (Credit: CIA)

Map: Ethnically Kurdish zones of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran — circa 1992. Small, southwestern corner of the yellow area is the Kobani region in Syria. (Credit: CIA)

Although it’s a relatively small number of people in this situation compared to the vast northern Iraq crisis, this is precisely what Turkey’s government was afraid might happen. A chaotic border crisis and humanitarian emergency played out live on national television in Turkey, as CNN reported:

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Kurds fleeing the violence walked right up to the wire border fence with Turkey, where they initially were not allowed in. They just sat at the border as Turkish Kurds on the other side of the fence tried to persuade the Turkish guards to let them in. The situation on the border could be observed on a live feed from the border and from video footage aired on Turkish news outlets. The refugees also tried to force their way into Turkey, creating chaos as one woman stepped on a landmine. Turkey finally opened the border, relieving some of the mounting pressure in Kobani and allowing refugees to enter Sanliurfa province.

Edit: Overnight and into Saturday this number rose from 4,000 to 60,000 refugees as Turkey continued to allow Syrian civilians into the country. Several hundred Kurdish PKK fighters from Turkey were also reported to have crossed from Turkey into the besieged Syrian area to help relieve local resistance.
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ISIS ushers in era of new good feelings among Kurds, Turks

Middle East alphabet soup of harmony: ISIS brings together PKK and KDP, with AKP blessing, in a fascinating turn of events for the Middle East.

The respective military wings of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) from Turkey and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) from Iraq, which essentially hate each other, are now working together in Iraq against ISIS.

The President of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, visited fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for the first time last week, after the PKK joined Kurdish Peshmerga forces to expel the Islamic State group from the town of Makhmour.

In a video published online, Barzani thanked the PKK fighters: “We are brothers. They [Islamic State fighters] are the enemy of the people of Kurdistan. We have one destiny; we will do everything, what we can,” Barzani said.

kurdistan-map-ciaThe Iraqi ex-insurgency KDP has often sparred directly with — and even allied itself militarily against — the PKK insurgency in Turkey for many years. This is partially due to infighting, as two of the three biggest Kurdish factions across the region, over who is the “leader” of the pan-Kurdish national liberation movement (if one exists) in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. But it’s also due to Turkey’s tendency to threaten the Iraqi Kurds if they are seen as helping the PKK. After a while, it just became easier to oppose the PKK out of self-preservation. Plus, since Turkey is a NATO member, all the NATO members including the United States are supposed to support Turkey’s counterinsurgency operations against the PKK separatists. Since the US is the main international supporter of the Iraqi Kurds, including the Kurdish Democratic Party, aiding and abetting the PKK was a big no-no.
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Pro-Gay, Pro-Erdogan: The LGBT reformers inside Turkey’s AKP

The big political story this week from Turkey is that controversial PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has somehow managed to get himself elected president, after years of finagling, despite being at the center of a major corruption scandal and despite a fairly nasty crackdown on protesters across the country in 2013. The massive engine of Erdogan’s center-right AK Party keeps chugging along and apparently that’s sufficient to keep him, an increasingly unpleasant man with a worsening record, on an easy cruise into an enhanced and strengthened presidency, even after more than eleven years as prime minister.

There are some other interesting stories getting less attention from this year’s politicking in Turkey. One in particular that I read about from Al-Monitor was about the increasingly visible presence of LGBTQIetc supporters in the ruling party — an important development since the party clearly seems to be quite entrenched across most of the country at this point.

The members of the AKP LGBT group have a great affection for Erdogan. They argue that pious people, Kurds and non-Muslims have all acquired greater freedoms under Erdogan, and believe he is the only leader who can make LGBT individuals freer, too. They are fully confident that Erdogan will undertake LGBT reforms when the time comes. Yet, they are strongly critical of the AKP’s current LGBT policies. Their objective is to transform the AKP.

Even though Erdogan’s cabinet has sometimes said cruel things about gay people and the party still remains generally unsupportive, Al-Monitor reported that “a gay pride march would have been unthinkable before Erdogan, whereas today homosexuals hold marches to freely express their identities.” Which is to say, even after more than a decade of governance by a socially conservative party with extensive rural support, Turkey is more liberal than before.

And they’re making their presence inside the party known, whether the leadership is ready for it or not:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Aug. 3 rally in Istanbul marked a first for the country: LGBT supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) waved the rainbow flag at the rally in a show of support for Erdogan’s presidential bid.

The group, using the Twitter handle Aklgbti, shared pictures from the rally with the following message: “The homosexuals stand with Tayyip Erdogan. We are at the rallies, we are everywhere — get used to it.” A member of the group tweeted, “I waved the rainbow flag in the front rows. Our prime minister must have seen it.”

It was a truly intriguing scene, which Western analysts of Turkey may find difficult to comprehend.

The rainbow flag was first seen fluttering next to AKP members at the inauguration ceremony of the Ankara-Istanbul high-speed train on July 25, which Erdogan attended.

One activist said, of the election rally, “We waved our flag right before Erdogan’s eyes. He saw the flag, but said nothing and only smiled. We take it as a positive sign that he said nothing. Thus, we will now keep up the struggle.”

That might not seem like much, but he’s not exactly known for verbal restraint on the campaign trail.

One could suggest that LGBT supporters of the Islamist-oriented AK Party in Turkey are showing a lot more guts and grit than their generally staid and quiet counterparts inside the Christian-oriented Republican Party in the United States. They’re also laying important groundwork, it seems from the article, for making the loud and proud case that they can be dedicated Muslims and be gay at the same time, which will probably benefit many other gay Muslims the world over in years to come.

President-elect Erdogan and his senior officials might have many troubling authoritarian, anti-European, and racist tendencies, but it seems clear that the AK Party as a whole is still a relatively moderate political entity with broadly socially conservative leanings and a diversity of opinions on how flexible those should be. And for the moment, even when the popular AK Party’s leaders go overboard with absurd viewpoints, Turkey still has enough democratic freedom for the people to call it out.