The Syrian Kurdish leader’s voice on the telephone on Monday sounded desperate.
He told me the Islamic State is on the verge of defeating Syrian Kurds, who have been fighting fiercely for weeks to defend the town of Kobani near the Turkish border.
“There are 15,000 to 20,000 civilians still in Kobani, people who say they will die on the ground,” said Salih Muslim, the top Kurdish opposition leader in northern Syria. “There were air strikes … but not efficiently enough to stop the attacks on Kobani. We don’t want another genocide.”
On Tuesday, Muslim’s voice was calmer. “Since last night there are serious airstrikes,” he said from Brussels, where he came to lobby European Union officials for help. “We want them to be continued,” he added. That is imperative, since the fall of Kobani would send a damning message about the effectiveness of the U.S. strategy to degrade Islamic State fighters. Without strong U.S. leadership, Kobani could still fall.
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The story of this Kurdish town reflects all the problems facing U.S. operations in Syria. To degrade the Islamic State, U.S. air strikes need the cooperation of ground forces, but reliable Syrian rebel forces are scarce. So the Syrian Kurds should be America’s best allies. Located mainly in the north and northeast, along the Turkish and Iraqi borders, Syrian Kurds have fought fiercely against the Islamic State, whose so-called caliphate abuts their areas.
Until now, however, U.S. help has been too little, and possibly too late.
This week, U.S. air strikes finally hit Islamic State positions in Kobani, which has been besieged for a month. But until now, there has been no contact with Kurdish forces on the ground to coordinate on targets.
“There has been no U.S. communication with the PYD,” said Muslim, using the acronym for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which he heads. It is the largest political grouping in the Kurdish region. “We have sent letters saying we are willing to coordinate. We are the only force in Syria ready to stand against (the Islamic State) until now. We are on the ground, we have the experience. But they (the U.S.) are not communicating with us.”
An engineer who went into politics, Muslim has paid a high price for his activism. Both he and his wife have spent time in regime prisons, and his son was killed a year ago by rebels linked to al-Qaida.
What galls Muslim is that the Islamic State is killing Kobani’s Kurds with American weapons – tanks, humvees, and artillery captured from Iraqi bases in Mosul. For the past month, thousands of Islamic State fighters have been assaulting Kobani province, which they have attacked on three sides; the fourth side abuts Turkey, to which more than 150,000 Kurdish refugees have fled.
But the Turks have blocked the movement of military aid to Kobani. The Kurdish fighters are desperate for anti-tank weapons and more manpower. Kurdish fighters elsewhere in Syria who are separated from Kobani by Islamic State-held territory could reach the besieged town via Turkey. But the Turks won’t let them, or heavy weapons, across.
Which brings us to the political part of the story.
Ever mindful of the nationalist aspirations of its own large Kurdish minority, Turkey is leery of helping Syrian Kurds who have set up an autonomous zone inside Syria. Salih Muslim’s PYD is a sister party to Turkey’s militant Kurdish nationalists, the PKK, which Ankara (and the United States, in deference to Turkey) label as terrorists.
However, the United States has never considered the PYD a terrorist group. Moreover, Turkey is, at this very moment, negotiating a peace deal with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who sits in a Turkish prison. Ocalan has threatened to stop the talks if Kobani falls.
So it would seem to be in Turkey’s interest to save the Kurdish town. Muslim traveled to Ankara three days ago to talk with Turkish foreign ministry officials, hoping they would let Kurdish fighters and weapons cross the border to relieve Kobani. “I said, ‘We are not enemies.’ They gave us some promises, but nothing has happened,” Muslim said.
By its inaction, Turkey is opening the way to another Islamic State triumph, even as it fails to stop jihadis from crossing its border into Syria. (Vice President Biden was correct when he recently cited this lapse, although he was impolitic to say this in public, requiring a humiliating apology to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
Ankara is so neuralgic about the Kurds that it appears ready to let the Islamic State strengthen its hold along the Turkish border. Turkey may hope to set up a Kurd-free buffer zone inside Syria, along its border, protected by allied air power.
Which brings us to the question of U.S. leadership. President Obama needs to convey an urgent message to Erdogan this week: The fall of Kobani will further embolden the Islamic State, which in turn will threaten Turkey, Europe, and America. It will make the allied air campaign look feckless. As a serious ally in the anti-Islamic State coalition, Erdogan cannot let this happen. He must let men and weapons in, and Washington must start coordinating with the Kurds.
Equally important is the moral issue. The fall of Kobani would convince the Kurds that Washington is ready to use them as cannon fodder but has no real desire to work against the Islamic State, let alone against Assad. “We fear a genocide is going to happen,” said Muslim, “and it will be the responsibility of all the world, because they know what is going on.”
Washington finally seems to be getting the message. But time is running out.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.