As the situation in Kobane unfolds, Erdogan, the most powerful man in Turkey since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has confounded his supporters with his inactivity and blunt refusal to commit troops to the rescue of the Kurdish town. Erdogan, who has harboured ambitions for Turkey to become a regional superpower, and has lambasted the West on numerous occasions for standing by as thousands are killed in Syria, is now either unable or unwilling to act in a manner befitting his firebrand speeches.
On the face of it, Erdogan faces many risks in engaging ISIL in Kobane. Militarily, a war with ISIL appears difficult in light of their heavy weaponry and growing track record in resisting opposition and taking over huge swathes of land. The international coalition that has been bombarding ISIL areas has done little to really dent ISIL expansion, evidenced in the current dire situation in Anbar in Iraq. Erdogan is unlikely to be particularly attracted to the prospect of a war that may potentially erode his tough image and gradually chip at his public support as casualties mount. His supporters also see the pressure on Erdogan to engage ISIL as an attempt by the Americans to push the Turks to do what they do not want to; commit troops on the ground to coordinate with the coalition air strikes to begin a decisive campaign against ISIL. Erdogan is keen not to be seen as America’s stooge.
The truth however, is that Erdogan’s stance should come as no surprise and is instead a clear indication of his deep distrust of the Kurds with whom he is currently engaged in peace negotiations with (and who are currently heavily involved in the fighting against ISIL in Kobane). The negotiations have recently hit a snag over calls to demilitarise the PKK, who have shown a reluctance to do so as the dream of Kurdish independence begins to show signs of becoming a reality as a result of the disarray of the region’s borders brought about by the advent of ISIL.
The harsh reality is that it is in Erdogan’s political interest for the PKK to become weakened as a result of fighting ISIL. The PKK would then be unable to pursue the Kurdish dream for independence as they seek to recover and this would then inevitably reduce their influence over the Turkish Kurds. Erdogan would then be in a much stronger position as the Kurds return to the idea of greater autonomy within a Turkish state. Erdogan is well aware that were Turkish troops to save Kobane, he would gain little in Kurdish support and would merely be saving the PKK and maintaining the bargaining status quo between him and them; something he wishes to avoid in all circumstances.
There is also a deeper element to this Kurdish problem. The relationship between the PKK and the Peshmerga under Masoud Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan remains tense and whilst Erdogan has a frosty relationship with the former, he enjoys friendly ties with the latter, reflected in the oil that travels via trucks from Kurdistan through to Turkey. Barzani and the PKK continue to vie for leadership of the Kurds across the region (and any future Kurdish state), and any victory for the PKK in Kobane will only serve to strengthen the PKK’s position at the expense of the Peshmerga; not in Erdogan’s interests.
Herein lays the real reason behind Erdogan’s demands for a ‘corridor’ along the Turkish/Syrian border. Such a corridor would allow the Peshmerga to come to the aid of Kobane and for Barzani to claim credit for rescuing his fellow Kurds at the expense of the PKK. However this corridor has caused unease amongst the Americans for two reasons. Firstly, establishing such a corridor means disabling Syrian anti-air systems. This is likely to perturb the Iranians who will view it as an expansion of the coalition’s aims from solely targeting ISIS to targeting their ally; the Assad regime. This will inadvertently put greater pressure on the current nuclear negotiations with Iran in which Kerry is under increasing domestic pressure to come to a ‘successful’ agreement. The second reason is that the Americans are well aware of the friendly relations between Erdogan and Barzani and some analysts have suggested that Turkey stands to benefit, and is indeed already benefiting, more from the Kurds in terms of oil and influence than the Americans who have put their weight behind a potential Kurdish state. The Americans are therefore wary of Turkey’s support for Barzani’s bid for leadership over the Kurds.
The significance of Kobane is therefore neither its geographical location nor its military importance, but rather that it has exposed the politics, intrigue and suspicions between the coalition forces and local regional forces that has hindered any real approach to combatting the threat of ISIL.