On the face of it, the apparently torpid and never-ending campaign by the West and their regional allies against the Islamic State has started to take on a new meaning. This happened after reinforcements of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters crossed into Syrian territory near the town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) on 31 October, after leaving Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Their appearance, however small in number (150-200 men), marked a serious change not so much in the deployment of forces in and around Kobani as in the tactical plan of operations against ISIS. After all, the Turkish authorities had previously been categorically opposed to sending any help to the Kurds fighting the Islamic radicals, considering both terrorists.
It is curious that this complete U-turn of the Turkish position happened overnight. On 19 October, immediately after his return from Kabul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the Kurds fighting in Kobani are simply a wing of the Kurdish Workers Party, and that these were terrorists. But already on 20 October, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, D. Çavuşoğlu, said “We are helping the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to cross the border, to get to Kobani.”
Obviously, this was not an easy decision for the Turkish authorities to make because ten long days had passed before the Kurdish forces arrived in Kobani from Erbil. So how can this sudden change in Ankara’s policy be explained, when it had been maintaining neutrality for over a month of fighting around Kobani?
The simplest and most obvious explanation is pressure from its American allies. Its first action was to throw aid supplies from planes to fighting Kurds at that very time on 19 October, which immediately sounded like a direct reproach to Turkey, whose border is within sight of Kobani. It is obviously simpler and easier to transport goods through this border and they won’t fall into the hands of ISIS, which is what happened with part of the first consignment of American aid of 27 containers of weapons and military supplies.
The Americans were breaking the Turks by other, more direct methods too. There were calls from Barack Obama to the Turkish President, and announcements by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, that “to turn your back on the community fighting ISIS would be irresponsible”. In the view of international experts, the most convincing arguments that turned Turko-American negotiations around seemed to be the following: aid to the defenders of Kobani would be short-term and would only go through a true ally of Ankara, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani.
There is another opinion too: the Turkish President was forced to accept the Americans’ proposal since Turkey had been in the grip of a wave of Kurdish discontent with the policies of the authorities, who had not given them the opportunity to come to the aid of Kobani, and Erdogan could not ignore the threat of the internal destabilization of the country.
However, there have been talks in the Middle East over the last few days of other “arguments” too that compelled Ankara to change its course, namely, that the USA appeared to intend to deploy its military air base in Iraqi Kurdistan, on the airstrip at Harir near Erbil. It would appear that work on preparing to receive American forces had already been started.
Who if not the Turks was to know that there had been close ties between Kurdistan and the USA ever since the time of the 2003 war, when the Americans imposed a no-fly zone over Kurdish areas, and later, in exchange for support in the war against Saddam Hussein, almost went so far as to promise the Kurds recognition of the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan (they had already been granted autonomy – and not a little – by the Iraqi central authorities).
Today it can be presumed in Ankara that the ultimate goal of the American operation against ISIS is the total restructuring of the region and Washington may truly support (now not in words but in deed) the Kurds’ demand for independence in exchange for their support not only in the struggle against ISIS but in the future overthrow of Bashar Assad’s regime. And for this purpose a base is being built.
But here Turkey will find itself walking on thin ice. Not only is it unopposed to but fervently supports the idea of the overthrow of the Syrian regime, which Ankara has come to hate. But it is prevented from sending its own troops into Syria by its imperial past and the growing distrust in the Arab world of Erdogan’s politics, which are regarded as “neo-ottoman”, as well as the protracted aid to ISIS itself when this group was being formed. It would be another matter if the Kurds took up the battle with ISIS and then Assad, but even here there are huge risks that the “liberation” of Kobani will become a prologue to a wider Kurdish movement in Turkey itself. This is something to worry about. For the new Kurdish state will be created not only at the expense of Syria, Iraq and Iran, but also at the expense of Turkey.
Hence Erdogan’s acceptance of the “Judgment of Solomon” to help the Kurds, but only those whom Ankara trusts, i.e. Masoud Barzani’s people, is the result of a profound compromise with his own political aspirations. The Turkish authorities will find it extremely difficult to refuse Washington’s requests after the appearance of an American base in the area of Erbil.
This base, situated at the junction of four Middle-Eastern states, may become a powerful argument for the Americans for putting military and political pressure on all these countries – Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq itself. And in any direction, depending on the will of Washington “strategists”.
Today they assure us that the principal task of the “anti-terrorist coalition” is the fight against ISIS, and then Assad’s regime. But come tomorrow, the flighty and fickle “world’s policeman” may no longer like his closest allies, or will turn his wrath to unyielding Teheran. In any case everyone will need to be afraid, and this is the ultimate goal of Washington, for whom intimidation and threats of force have become its main instruments for keeping hold of world hegemony that is gradually slipping away.
Nevertheless, whether the rumors of the American base in Iraqi Kurdistan are true or not (and why not, if the Turks have refused the USA the right to use the Incirlik Air Base), the actions of Washington continue to profoundly destabilize the situation in the Middle-East, and to assist the spread of even further chaos in the region.
At the end of the day, even the most faithful American allies may find themselves asking: why have a protector like that, who is constantly threatening you and instead of supporting order, at least to some degree, is destroying all the foundations for peace and stability in the region?
Maxim Egorov, a political commentator on the Middle East and contributes regularly for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.