Kurds need help from the West and Turkey to hold off Islamic State
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call yesterday for a ground offensive to prevent the Syrian border town of Kobane falling under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) shows the limitations of the West’s reliance on air power to defeat a determined and resilient Islamist foe. While US warplanes have carried out several bombing raids against Isil positions on the outskirts of Kobane, Isil fighters have nevertheless succeeded in flying their menacing black banner from the rooftops of captured buildings. Isil’s continuing advance against Kurdish-held positions in Kobane, moreover, has prompted Turkey to deploy large numbers of tanks to protect its side of the border.
But while Mr Erdogan is right to argue that air strikes alone are unlikely to defeat Isil, the use of ground forces remains deeply problematic. Any attempt by Turkish forces to move into Syrian territory in support of the Kurdish defenders of Kobane would be firmly resisted by Damascus, and might even lead to a further escalation in hostilities. The prospect of Western troops being deployed against Isil, on the other hand, remains remote, as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic remain determined to avoid the use of their ground forces at all costs. That leaves the poorly equipped Kurdish fighters and their allies to defend the town against the formidable Isil forces.
Mr Erdogan’s attempts to persuade the West to adopt a more realistic approach to the conflict might carry more weight if Ankara was able to provide more clarity about its own objectives. Turkey’s long-standing refusal to tolerate Kurdish independence claims has led to speculation that Ankara has turned a blind eye to Isil fighters regularly crossing its borders. Indeed, Turkey’s recent hostage swap with Isil, in which Ankara reportedly freed a number of Isil fighters in return for the release of Turkish diplomats taken hostage during the summer, suggests Mr Erdogan’s approach remains very different to that of his Nato allies, who refuse to negotiate with terrorists.
If Mr Erdogan is really serious about saving Kobane, then a good first step would be to concentrate his efforts on helping the beleaguered Kurds rather than cutting deals with Isil. The Kurds desperately need arms and reinforcements that are being denied them by Turkey’s refusal to open its border. And, as Nadhim Zahawi argues, the West also needs to raise its game in terms of supporting the Kurds’ ground effort. To date, all Britain has offered the Kurds is £1.6 million in military aid – a paltry sum compared with the vast resources at Isil’s disposal. If we really want the Kurds to defeat Isil, we must give them the means to do so..