October 1, 2014 by Frederic C. Hof
In an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem offered a remarkable, if dubious revelation: that Washington sent three separate messages to Damascus 24 hours in advance of the September 23 airstrikes on Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria, each one saying, “We are not after the Syrian army or the Syrian government.” One hopes that Mr. Muallem’s truthfulness in this matter is consistent with the usual standards of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. For if the supposed messages were as described, they would have been read in Damascus as a green light for the continuation of the regime’s barrel bombing, artillery shelling, and starvation sieging of areas held by mainstream Syrian rebels—the same rebels designated by President Obama as the ground component of American-led military operations against IS in Syria.
Muallem was probably either dissembling or misleading. A proper message to Damascus would have been unambiguously curt: “Coalition aircraft will soon commence operations against ISIL in Syria. Any Syrian government anti-aircraft installations detected in target acquisition mode against coalition aircraft will be engaged decisively. Any Syrian government aircraft detected in the skies during coalition operations will be considered hostile.” Regardless of what was actually said, it’s unthinkable that whatever message may have been conveyed to the regime would have been worded consistent with Mr. Muallem’s description.
Unthinkable for two reasons. First: Although Obama claims that the American intelligence community did not grasp the scope of IS’s rise in Syria, neither he nor anyone in his administration will ever express ignorance about the gross criminality of the Assad regime in Syria, and therefore will be exceedingly careful about inadvertent giving the green light for more of the same. And second: Obama has made it clear that the nationalist, mainstream armed resistance to the regime will be the aforementioned ground component against IS in Syria. Indeed, as a matter of logic and military necessity it would have made sense to end any message to Damascus with the following warning: “Barrel bombings, artillery shelling, and starvation sieges should cease immediately.”
Muallem’s mission is to sanctify that which is obscene: the illusory image of the Assad regime’s being allied with the West against IS. The West, according to Muallem in the AP interview, need not coordinate anti-IS operations with the Syrian government: “simply being informed” is good enough. “Until today,” said Muallem, “we are satisfied. As long as they are aiming at ISIS locations in Syria and Iraq, we are satisfied.” No doubt the attitude of the Assad regime toward these strikes would be different if coalition aircraft were hitting IS formations in western Syria: those supplying the hammer to the regime’s anvil against nationalist forces, mainly in and around Aleppo. But for now coalition aircraft are concentrating on IS targets about which the Assad regime is supremely indifferent. The de facto collaboration between the regime and IS against what is left of the armed nationalist opposition in Syria remains undisturbed.
Indeed, when asked about “the loose umbrella rebel group known as the Free Syrian Army,” Muallem claimed that the group “does not exist anymore.” By implying that it once existed, the Syrian foreign minister seemed to part ways with the regime narrative that it faced nothing but terrorists from the very beginning of the uprising in March 2011. Consistent with the commentary of some Western analysts critical of Obama’s decision to support the mainstream, nationalist Syrian opposition, Muallem put all of the regime’s current opponents in the same category: “They have the same ideology. They have the same extremist ideology.” Is Syria now aligned with the West against extremism? According to Muallem, “This is the fact.”
The salient fact governing today’s situation in Syria is that there would be no Islamic State were it not for the criminally sectarian manner in which the Assad regime chose to respond to peaceful political protest. This would be true even if the Assad regime had had nothing to do with sustaining Al Qaeda in Iraq during the years of American occupation. This would be true even if regime-IS collaboration on the ground in western Syria were merely happenstance: an accident produced by the existence of a common enemy. Walid al-Muallem is a skilled diplomat. Yet not even he can erase the organic link between the lawlessness of the regime he represents and the magnetic effect of IS on foreign fighters seeking jihad and some Syrian rebels seeking (among other things) breakfast and some pocket money. Not even he can make the Assad regime part of the answer for Syria.
No doubt Muallem exercised literary and diplomatic license in characterizing messages allegedly received from Washington. No doubt he has a steep hill to climb in trying to re-introduce Bashar al-Assad to polite society. Yet unless Washington finds a way to curb the murderous excess of the Assad regime and breaks the regime’s collaboration with IS in western Syria, who can guarantee that paid and unpaid apologists for the regime will not in the end succeed?
Already that which remains of the armed nationalist opposition wonders what it means to be the ground component of a coalition that bombs IS in eastern Syria while permitting IS’s partner in the western part of the country to terrorize civilians with barrel bombs, artillery, chlorine, and starvation. It is not a bad question. Any answer from the lips of Walid al-Muallem will be unsatisfactory. Yet accuracy may be something else entirely. That will depend on what the United States, Turkey, and others actually do to neutralize both forces—the regime and IS—that are causing the failure of the Syrian state.
October 1, 2014 by Bassem Barabandi and Tyler Jess Thompson
The first American bomb that fell on Syria this week started a countdown. When this clock reaches zero, the soul of the democratic movement in Syria will be lost. The strikes on ISIS have a high potential to be helpful in the fight for stability in Syria, but they can also be extremely damaging. While these strikes may harm ISIS’s short-term capability, they also boost its legitimacy and serve as a recruitment tool. No bombs have hit the assets of the Assad regime, the largest purveyor of death and chaos in Syria. As a result of this omission, the Syrian people are starting to feel a sense of betrayal. The United States and its international coalition can correct this path by taking steps to eliminate Assad’s ability to kill civilians and to empower moderate opposition forces and local governance to fill the vacuum as ISIS retreats.
Many Syrians interpret the one-sided nature of the strikes as proof of American coordination with the Assad regime and the Iranian government. It is almost certain that the United States is not coordinating with Assad in this effort. However, pro-Assad media claim there is a clear partnership. Protest signs held in Idlib and Aleppo show that many Syrians believe these strikes are helping the regime.
Assad still tortures countless people in prisons, drops bombs on civilians, and gasses thousands with no repercussions from the West. He facilitated the emergence of extremists in Syria and created a further obstruction to the Syrian people’s dreams. As a result, the Syrian people and the moderate opposition are caught between the vice grip of the Assad regime and other terrorist movements. The way that these strikes have occurred shows either a lack of awareness or a lack of respect for the needs and aspirations of the Syrian people.
In order to shift the message and outcome of this mission for the better, the United States should take the following steps within the next few days. First, the United States should coordinate with the vetted fighting groups currently supported by the train and equip program. These groups cannot be treated as mercenaries against ISIS. The United States should instead coordinate as a strategic partnership with the rebels with respect and support for their goal of counter-terrorism and an inclusive political transition in Syria. It seems America has not reached out to them during this campaign, and they are quickly becoming disillusioned.
Second, the United States should conduct outreach with Sunni tribes, local governing committees, and other groups currently under the grip of ISIS. American programs have already vetted these groups as beneficiaries of support programs over the last three years. They should be empowered to fill local civilian governance and security vacuums left by ISIS in retreat, allowing some refugees to return. The United States should provide air power to protect these newly-liberated areas against future incursions from either extremists or Assad.
Third, the United States needs to send a clear and swift threat of force to the Assad regime. This can be accomplished through hitting ISIS targets in the heart of Damascus or through a direct strike on the helicopters and planes from which Assad constantly drops barrel bombs on civilians. Assad has continued attacks on civilian targets very close to where American strikes occur. Thus far, Russia and Iran have been able to play games with the United States as a result of the unfulfilled “red line” threats of 2013. It should not be forgotten that the chemical weapons deal, though flawed, was a result of the credible threat of force from the United States. This week, Obama has shown seriousness once again on Syria. A threat of force against Assad at this stage could pressure him, or his inner circle, to accept a political transition. To achieve this transition and to purge foreign fighters, Iran and Russia will no doubt have a role to play. That said, the threat of force from the United States is the only factor that will drive these processes forward with the least manipulation from Assad’s allies.
Officials within Assad’s inner circle are not satisfied with the way his regime has managed this crisis. There are many patriotic officials in the Syrian bureaucracy who seek to oust the regime without sacrificing the government institutions needed to run and rebuild the state. This dynamic creates a ripe environment for a political transition in Syria. America must show the Syrian people that a transition towards peace and inclusivity has begun. The United States has struck extremists first, and fine. But what it does next will determine whether it will win the hearts and support of the Syrian people or forever alienate them.
Barabandi served as a diplomat for several decades in the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Thompson is an international lawyer and Policy Director at United for a Free Syria.
Beirut, September 30, 2014 by Bassem Mroue
Iran will supply the Lebanese army with military equipment to be used in fighting Muslim extremist groups, a visiting senior Iranian official said on Tuesday.
The announcement marks the first time that Iran has said it would give Lebanon military assistance. Tehran has offered help in the past but such offers did not materialize because of sharp divisions among Lebanese political groups over Iran.
Iran is the main backer of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group, which has a force more powerful than the Lebanese national army. The group has thousands of rockets and missiles — many of them from Iran.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, did not say what type of military equipment Iran would provide. He told reporters in Beirut on Tuesday that the details would be announced during an upcoming visit by Lebanon’s defense minister to Tehran.
"The state of Lebanon welcomed this grant," Shamkhani added, without elaborating.
However, a Lebanese military official told The Associated Press that any military grant from Iran to Lebanon would still need the approval of the Lebanese government. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
For the past two months, the Lebanese army has been fighting Muslim militants near the border with Syria. In early August, extremists crossed into Lebanon from Syria, capturing 20 soldiers and policemen. Two of the soldiers have since been beheaded and one has been killed in captivity.
Hezbollah has used the threat posed by the Islamic State group in neighboring Syria to justify sending its militia to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The U.S. has also recently sent several arms shipments to Lebanese troops to fight extremists.
After Lebanon, Shamkhani is to visit neighboring Syria later Tuesday for talks with Syrian officials.
Paris, October 1, 2014 by John Irish
A Syrian Kurdish leader called on Tuesday for Western states to provide weapons to his forces fighting Islamic State in the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani, warning that his fighters were outgunned and risked massacre if help did not arrive soon.
Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, said that his calls for arms had so far been rebuffed by the United States and European nations, blaming Turkey for obstructing his efforts.
"We are asking everybody who can help us to provide weapons to the people fighting against tanks and artillery, but nobody is doing anything. There will be many who are martyred," he told Reuters during a diplomatic mission to Europe.
"We have sent messages to the Europeans and the United States, but I think there are obstacles… Turkey and other countries are preventing this because they don’t want the Kurds to be able to defend themselves."
Turkey, a NATO member with long border with Syria, has so far declined to take a frontline role, fearful partly that the military action will strengthen President Bashar al-Assad and bolster the Syrian Kurdish militants allied to the outlawed PKK in Turkey who have fought for three decades for more autonomy.
This is despite an advance in the past 10 days by Islamic State fighters against the Kurdish YPG forces, the armed wing of the PYD, at Kobani, known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic, near the frontier that has caused the fastest refugee exodus of the three-year civil war.
The Islamic State has laid siege from three sides to Kobani. The rattle of sporadic gunfire could be heard on Tuesday from across the frontier, and a shell could be seen exploding in olive groves on the western outskirts of town.
"There is heavy fighting," Muslim said. "The Kurdish forces are defending themselves with what they have in their hands to avoid a massacre… but if the Islamic State comes through the city they will destroy everything and slaughter the people.
"In a few days it will be resolved one way or another."
A steady stream of people, mostly men, were crossing the border post back into Syria on Tuesday, apparently to help defend the town. Muslim said most of them were originally from the area and had returned to defend the city after earlier fleeing to Turkey.
He said that Turkey was preventing some fighters from entering Syria and that there were no Turkish Kurds in Kobani.
Unlike in Iraq, where the U.S.-led air strikes are coordinated closely with the government and Kurdish forces, Washington has no powerful allies on the ground in Syria, making its strategy there riskier and more precarious.
"We have said that we want to be part of the coalition because if they carry out air strikes they will need people to fight on the ground," Muslim said.
The United States and its Western and Arab allies oppose Assad and are wary of helping him by hurting his enemies. They have said they will support moderate opposition forces that are part of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and its military wing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight Islamic State.
Muslim said his fighters were coordinating efforts to fight Islamic State, although the FSA was not in the Kobani region.
The $35m (£22m) Uptown development on the outskirts of Damascus includes an amusement park
Damascus, October 1, 2014 by Lina Sinjab
In the Damascus suburb of Dummar stands a four-storey building overlooking a wide residential street that has been spared the scars of war.
In the first three years of the uprising in Syria, Aliya would peer through the window, watching explosions and smoke as neighbouring areas were bombarded by government forces stationed on nearby Mount Qassioun.
But since the summer, the view has changed dramatically.
Aliya now sees people flying through the sky on a ride at a new amusement park, leisure and shopping centre called Uptown.
Most of the crowd going there is mainly watching the rides rather than going on them because very few can afford such luxury”
President Bashar al-Assad’s feared younger brother, Maher, is believed to be the main backer of the $35m (£22m) development, which was built at a time when almost half of the country’s 22 million population has been displaced and more than half are living in poverty.
The road leading to Uptown is regularly blocked by expensive cars, while its colourful lights are unaffected by the severe power cuts that plague the rest of the area.
"Most of the crowd going there is mainly watching the rides rather than going on them because very few can afford such luxury," Aliya says.
While some Syrians have welcomed Uptown, it has angered many others.
Not far away is the eastern Ghouta, an agricultural belt around Damascus from which rebels launch daily mortar attacks on the city centre in response to the government shellfire and air strikes.
There, members of religious minorities that have largely stayed loyal to President Assad have been more concerned about the reported approach of jihadist militants from Islamic State (IS), known locally in Arabic as Daish.
A few weeks ago, hundreds of residents of Dukhani and Dwaila in the Ghouta fled after members of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a pro-government militia, warned them of the imminent threat from a group that considers Shia Muslims heretics and has told members of other faiths that they must convert to Islam, pay special taxes or die.
October 1, 2014 by Ken Dilanian
The Pentagon is grappling with significant intelligence gaps as it bombs Iraq and Syria, and it is operating under less restrictive targeting rules than those President Barack Obama imposed on the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen, according to current and former U.S. officials.
The U.S. military says its airstrikes have been discriminating and effective in disrupting an al-Qaida cell called the Khorasan Group and in halting the momentum of Islamic State militants. But independent analysts say the Islamic State group remains on the offensive in areas of Iraq and Syria, where it still controls large sections. And according to witnesses, U.S. airstrikes have at times hit empty buildings that were long ago vacated by Islamic State fighters.
Human rights groups also say coalition airstrikes in both countries have killed as many as two dozen civilians. U.S. officials say they can’t rule out civilian deaths but haven’t confirmed any.
"We do take extreme caution and care in the conduct of these missions," Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told reporters Tuesday. "But there’s risk in any military operation. There’s a special kind of risk when you do air operations."
Military officials acknowledge that they are relying mainly on satellites, drones and surveillance flights to pinpoint targets, assess the damage afterward and determine whether civilians were killed.
That stands in sharp contrast to the networks of bases, spies and ground-based technology the U.S. had in place during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials say.
As a result, “it’s much harder for us to be able to know for sure what it is we’re hitting, what it is we’re killing and what it is collateral damage,” said Tom Lynch, a retired colonel and former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is now a fellow at the National Defense University.
In Iraq, the U.S. is relying for ground reports on the Iraqi military and intelligence services, whose insights into Islamic State-controlled territory are limited.
In Syria, the U.S. is not coordinating the strikes with the main moderate opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, even though it has backed that group with weapons and training, said Andrew Tabler, who follows the conflict for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The CIA is generally unwilling to send American intelligence officers into Syria, and partner Arab intelligence services are often focused on their own agendas.
The intelligence gaps raise questions about the effectiveness of the strikes and about whether the current strategy will achieve the administration’s goal of defeating the Islamic State group.
The group has begun adapting to U.S. airstrikes by seeking to conceal itself, move at night and blend in with civilians, Pentagon officials say.
"They’re a smart adversary," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, briefing reporters at the Pentagon this week.
In terms of tracking the movements of militants, U.S. intelligence coverage of Syria and Iraq is not as good as it was in Pakistan and Yemen at the height of covert CIA drone campaigns there, officials say.
At the same time, the military’s targeting rules are less restrictive. Under rules Obama announced in May 2013, no drone strike would occur without a “near certainty” that civilians would not be harmed. White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the near-certainty standard does not govern U.S. strikes underway in Syria and Iraq. It was intended to apply “only when we take direct action outside areas of active hostilities,” she said in a statement.
What’s happening in Iraq and Syria right now is an armed conflict, Hayden said, and targeting is undertaken in compliance with the international law of war. The law of war requires militaries to take precautions to avoid killing noncombatants, but it does not hold them to a near-certainty standard.
After the near-certainty standard was imposed on drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, the frequency of strikes dropped precipitously, and the use of so-called signature strikes — attacks aimed at large groups of armed men who fit the profile of militants but whose names were not all known to the CIA — was curtailed.
There have been just nine drone strikes in Pakistan this year, according to Long War Journal, a website that tracks the strikes based on media reports. That is down from a high of 110 strikes in 2010.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based group that has been critical of drone strikes, found no instance of civilian casualties in Pakistan in 2013 after the policy took effect.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which opposes the Syrian government, says U.S. airstrikes have killed up to 19 civilians, including several when bombs hit a grain silo Sunday in the town of Manbij.
In Iraq, according to a report in by the National Iraqi News Agency, four civilians were killed in a U.S. airstrike Sept. 26 in Mosul.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said this week that the U.S was investigating the reports of civilian casualties but that, so far, “we’ve found nothing to corroborate” that civilians have been killed.
The U.S. has relied on intelligence-gathering technology — or ISR, which stands for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” — such as satellites, drones and overhead surveillance flights to determine whether there have been civilian casualties. Few if any human spotters are believed to be on the ground assessing the results of U.S. and coalition airstrikes.
Warren acknowledged that the Pentagon could not say for sure that every person killed in the bombing of Iraq and Syria has been a combatant.
"The evidence is going to be inconclusive often," he said. "Remember, we’re using ISR to determine the battle damage assessment."
Jennifer Cafarella, the top Syria analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said the Syrian Observatory reports are generally regarded as credible.
"I think it is likely," she said, "that airstrikes will inevitably result in some civilian casualties."
The safe haven will not include any region in northern Syria that is under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). AA Photo
Turkey is drawing up plans for a safe haven on the border in Syria that will secure regions controlled by the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, possibly manned only by Turkish troops, according to security sources.
Ankara would prefer any safe haven to be established by U.S.–led coalition forces, but the Turkish Armed Forces is preparing to establish a safe haven even unaccompanied by foreign troops, sources said.
The safe haven will not include any region in northern Syria that is under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), so the Turkish forces will not come into contact with those groups, they added.
Turkey is willing to declare a safe haven in Syria in order to contain the mass influx of Syrians into Turkish territory before they cross into the border. Ankara also plans to transfer Syrian refugees that are currently taking shelter in Turkish territory to new camps in the intended safe haven in northern Syria.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government is set to ask Parliament for authorization to allow foreign soldiers to use its bases for cross-border incursions against Islamic State militants, and to send Turkish troops into Syria and Iraq.
“Information that ISIS and the Nusra Front exist in Jezzine is not true,” says Ajaj Haddad. (AFP Photo/Ali Diya)
September 25, 2014 by Nadine Elali
Hezbollah is believed to be arming Christian groups affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in villages east of Saida under the pretext of thwarting an Islamic State (ISIS) threat in Jezzine. While some officials and residents deny these claims, others believe that the move – although perhaps limited to FPM affiliates – is meant to bolster Hezbollah’s resistance brigades in the area and implicate Christian Lebanese in the Shiite party’s fight against Sunni Islamic groups.
NOW met with a social and human rights activist in Saida, who, on condition of anonymity, said that secret meetings have been taking place in private homes in Jezzine between Hezbollah officials and FPM affiliates on the issue of security. According to the source, Hezbollah is believed to be establishing Christian resistance brigades among local Christians whose cadres and members are affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) similar to those formed in Saida and elsewhere in Lebanon. “Under the pretext of thwarting threats from the Islamic State and Nusra Front sleeper cells,” he told NOW, “Hezbollah is arming young Christian men in order to guard their villages for a monthly salary of $500, along with ammunition.”
In an interview with the Lebanese Broadcast Channel, MTV, Change and Reform parliamentary bloc MP Ziad Aswad refuted these allegations, saying that they are an attempt to distort the party’s image and political stances. FPM’s head of security, Joseph Farhat, said that the party’s leadership rejects the idea of arming Christians, but according to local media outlet Janoubia, he did confirm that area residents – though maybe not on a large scale – are actually buying weapons.
A delegation from Hezbollah’s political bureau, headed by Ghaleb Abou Zeinab, visited Christian clergymen from Saida and Jezzine earlier this month to discuss the issue of security. Some days later, the same delegation met with prominent officials, municipality heads and mayors from the area. NOW spoke to Nicolas Andraos, head of Salhieh Municipality, and to Bishop Elie Haddad of the Catholic Diocese, both of whom were present at the meetings. They told NOW that Hezbollah’s delegates made no mention of arming but stressed a need for groups to put political differences aside and “unite against the Islamic State’s threat to Lebanon.” They also expressed the party’s command readiness “to collaborate with locals in order to thwart such threats.”
The FPM and their allies control 55% of the Federation of Municipalities of Jezzine, whereas the Lebanese Forces (LF) and their allies control 45%, as of the Federation’s elections in 2010. NOW spoke to Ajaj Haddad, an LF member whose family has presided over Roum’s municipality for decades and who is well-informed on political and security activities in the region.
Haddad says that LF supporters in Jezzine reject the idea of carrying arms and believe that security is the responsibility of the state and state institutions alone. “Others,” he said – in reference to Aounists who are arming – “are only a few and are not representative of the majority of Christians.”
Haddad went on to say that while rumors of Nusra Front and ISIS sleeper cells in Lebanon have reinforced a general fear among the Lebanese public, their circulation in tandem with news of Lebanese Army raids on Syrian workers’ households are meant to reinforce a sense of threat by Islamic forces against Christians in particular. “Information that ISIS and the Nusra Front exist in Jezzine,” he said, “is not true,” adding that Syrians were arrested recently for purportedly entering Lebanon illegally, with some being released and others transferred to General Security.
Hezbollah, Haddad says, is “spreading this propaganda and exerting these efforts today, to justify the party’s existence.” Since 2007, he continued, “the party has been committing grave mistakes and its interference in the Syrian war has turned the Lebanese against it. Hezbollah’s plan to arm groups is meant to create more chaos in Lebanon to weaken the state and justify Hezbollah’s need to continue carrying arms – and what better pretext is there today than the threat of the Islamic State?”
“This is an opportunity for Hezbollah to approach people again by warning them of the fear of ISIS and offering their help for protection,” he said. “If such threats from the Islamic State do exist, then why didn’t Hezbollah protect the border when it had the chance to? when it won battles in Qusayr and in Qalamoun? And why is Hezbollah today against the alliance to combat the Islamic State?”
NOW’s social activist source in Saida agrees, saying that Hezbollah is trying to implicate Lebanese Christians in its battles against Sunni Islamic groups by using ISIS as a pretext for them to carry arms.
“We’ve had our experiences with arms,” says Haddad, “and we have come to the conclusion that the fight for existence is not one fought with weapons – Hezbollah needs to understand that. They are dragging us into committing the same mistakes we committed before during the civil war, but we won’t.”
Karaca, September 27, 2014 by Anne Barnard and Mark Landler
No American ally is closer to the threat of the Islamic State than Turkey, and no country could play a more important role in a coalition that President Obama is assembling to combat the extremist Sunni militants. Yet Turkey has been reluctant to enlist, in part because of the desperate conflict playing out on its border with Syria.
On hilltops within sight of frontier outposts like this one, black-clad Islamic State fighters have been battling for the last week with Kurdish militants defending Kobani, a besieged Kurdish area that has become the prize in a fierce strugglebetween Syria’s embattled Kurds and the rampaging Islamic State militants. Turkish fighters have watched from behind the border fence.
It is a violent, murky situation, with the Turkish authorities preventing Kurds from crossing into Syria to help their Kurdish brethren fight, while Syrian Kurds are fleeing into Turkey to escape the militants. The chaos on the border, and Turkey’s ambivalent reaction, is a reflection of Turkey’s complex role in the Syrian civil war raging to its south. Turkey is caught between conflicting interests: defeating Islamic militants across its border while not enhancing the power of its own Kurdish separatists.
Cars abandoned by Syrian Kurdish refugees were parked at a border position, with a Turkish armored vehicle nearby. Nearly 150,000 refugees from Kobani have crossed in the last week. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
The dilemma played out on Saturday here as outgunned Kurdish fighters battled the militants at close range, within several hundred yards of the border fence. At the same time, the United States conducted its first strikes against the Islamic State moving into Kobani villages from another direction.
Mr. Obama wants Turkey to stop the flow of foreign fighters traveling through the country to join the Islamic State. As a NATO ally, Turkey could also take part in military operations and provide bases from which to carry out airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.
Turkish leaders have condemned the brutality of the Islamic State, but they worry that the American-led campaign against the militants will strengthen the Syrian Kurds, whose fighters maintain ties to Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Adding to that pressure is the fact that the United States is allied with Kurds in Iraq.
After intense lobbying by the Obama administration at the United Nations General Assembly last week, Turkey finally appears ready to take a more active role in the fight.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who met with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday, returned home to declare that Turkey would no longer be a bystander. “Our religion does not allow the killing of innocent people,” he said. But on Saturday, in comments published in the newspaper Hurriyet, Mr. Erdogan said Turkey would defend its frontier pending authorization of military action in Syria expected at a special meeting of the Turkish Parliament on Thursday.
But the recruitment has been arduous, and Turkey’s military role is likely to be constrained by its complex interests in Syria. In a statement, the Obama administration said Mr. Biden and Mr. Erdogan had discussed the urgency of building a broad-based coalition to defeat the Islamic State “through a variety of means, including military actions.”
Mr. Obama did not meet Mr. Erdogan in New York, but called him from Air Force One to thank Turkey for taking care of “the massive influx of refugees flowing into Turkey, including tens of thousands this week alone.”
Turkey was initially reluctant to take an openly aggressive stance toward the Islamic State, because the militants had taken 46 Turkish citizens and three Iraqis hostage in Mosul, Iraq. On Sept. 20, Turkey obtained the release of the hostages in a covert intelligence operation. The circumstances of the release were murky — there were reports that Turkey had swapped prisoners for the hostages — but the return of the Turkish captives nevertheless stirred hopes that Turkey would feel less constrained in acting against the group.
Turkey’s most immediate concern, however, is the rise of tensions on its border. The United States and its Arab allies have carried out numerous airstrikes in eastern Syria, but until Saturday there had been no attacks around Kobani, a collection of mostly Kurdish farming villages, also known as Ayn al-Arab. Kurdish fighters had issued urgent calls for help, saying they had only light weapons and were struggling to hold off the extremists, whose fighters are armed with tanks and artillery.
Kurds on both sides of the border were angry that the United States did not do more earlier to protect Kobani, especially since an assault on Kurds from the minority Yazidi religious sect in Sinjar, Iraq, last month triggered the first American airstrikes against the Islamic State. Some Kurds suspected that the United States was ignoring Kobani to mollify Turkey.
A Turkish political analyst said the scenes at the border raised the possibility that Turkey sees the Kurds, and the semiautonomous zone they have carved out around Kobani during three years of civil war in Syria, as “a greater threat” than the Islamic State, which has seized parts of Iraq and Syria, imposing harsh rule in areas under its control.
Those competing priorities, said the analyst, Soli Ozel, a newspaper columnist and a lecturer at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, were likely among the remaining “sticking points” with the United States.
“Turkey will do something militarily,” he said, citing Mr. Erdogan’s comments to Hurriyet that he would consider using Turkish ground forces to set up a secure zone inside Syria. But one of Turkey’s goals, Mr. Ozel said, might be “to crush or dissolve the Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone” or to dilute its Kurdish identity by resettling the 1.5 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey — the vast majority of them Arabs — in the area. Several male residents of Kobani said in recent days that they had brought their families to safety in Turkey and planned to head back to fight. Some, presenting themselves as civilians, were allowed into Turkey after checks at a border post.
“If they need to locate them, I can insert a smart chip in my heart and go to the Islamic State fighters,” said Hajjar Sheikh Mohammad, 22, a Syrian Kurd trying to return to Syria to fight, suggesting that he would sacrifice himself to spot Islamic State targets.
On Friday, as the Islamic State fighters came closer, large crowds gathered on both sides of the border fence and broke it down. Hundreds of people streamed across. Entering Turkey were women, children and older men, one leading a cow. Entering Syria were hundreds of men, some carrying backpacks, one riding a motorcycle.
At first, the police and army forces withdrew, and the atmosphere was almost jovial, with people singing and standing on the fence. But then security forces returned, firing tear-gas canisters. A crowd of perhaps 1,000 people scattered in panic, and the security forces continued firing tear gas as the crowd fled on foot and in cars.
On Saturday, Syrian and Turkish Kurds cheered from hilltops dotted with fig and olive trees and foxholes as Kurdish fighters scaled a ridge and fired a heavy machine gun mounted on a pickup truck. Muzzle flashes could be seen as Islamic State fighters returned fire and zipped toward the front line in cars and on motorcycles.
Kurds argued with a Turkish officer who refused to let them cross.
“We are fighting on your behalf,” the soldier said. “You are not fighting,” one man said. “Aren’t we all Turkish, from the same nation?”
Complicating the geopolitical issues is the fact that the Kurdish militants defending Kobani, the People’s Protection Units, are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., the Turkey-based Kurdish militia that Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist group.
But the Kurdish militants in Kobani and Afrin further west have been among the more effective groups in Syria at carving out safe areas where Christians and Muslims have lived in relative safety and harmony.
Mr. Obama’s top military adviser, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, has suggested that the Kurds could be a ground force partner in Syria much as they have been in Iraq.
Though that prospect unsettles the Turks, some longtime experts say that Turkey’s interest in defeating the Islamic State is ultimately no different than that of the United States and its allies, even if it avoids military action.
“Perhaps Turkey will come to judge that they should participate or overtly support other allies in the airstrikes,” said Francis J. Ricciardone, who recently retired as the American ambassador to Turkey, “but less visible forms of support also can be important.”