By Talmiz Ahmad
30 October 2014
An obscure Kurdish town on the Turkey-Syria border has in recent weeks acquired an extraordinary resonance in the war against the Islamic State (IS).
Kobane has been subjected to a siege by the IS since mid-September. Much of its population has fled to Turkey as refugees, while most of the town is said to be in the hands of IS forces.
The principal fighters in Kobane belong to the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main political force among the two-million strong Kurds in Syria.
Peshmerga fighters seen in Arbil before leaving their base in northern Iraq to go to the Syrian town of Kobane
For some years, PYD has enjoyed the support of the al Assad regime in Syria, primarily as a check on Turkish ambitions in the region.
This is because the PYD is affiliated to the Kurdish party in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Though the PKK has for the last few years given up its separatist aspirations and is engaged in a peace process with the government in Ankara, the Turkish government tends to view events in the region in terms of their impact on its Kurdish populace.
In responding to the siege of Kobane, Turkey’s first consideration was that that the weakening of the PYD at the hands of the IS was to its advantage: the last thing it wanted to see at its border was a robust Kurdish grouping linked to the PKK.
The fact that the IS forces were also hostile to the Assad regime was seen as an added advantage. Thus, by giving the IS forces a free hand at Kobane, Turkey saw itself reaping two advantages: the defeat of the Kurds and a boost for regime change in Damascus.
President Erdogan has insisted on the setting up of a no-fly zone and a buffer zone for refugees, which would diminish Syrian military capabilities and facilitate regime change.
Syrian refugee children who fled from Kobane, Syria, play acting as fighters at a refugee camp in Suruc district, Sanliurfa, Turkey
Just when the fall of Kobane seemed imminent and there were concerns about a possible genocide of Kurds if the town were to fall into IS hands, the US increased the frequency and ferocity of its air attacks from October 6, conducting 135 air attacks over the next two weeks.
From October 19, the US also began air drops of weapons and supplies for the besieged Kurds. This led to a policy shift by Turkey: it announced that it would permit the flow of weapons and Kurdish soldiers from Iraq to bolster the fighters in Kobane, amidst suggestions that the US might have accepted its pre-conditions.
Kurdish soldiers from Iraq are already marching to Kobane to confront the IS.
Kobane has now acquired an importance that goes well beyond the limited military value it had earlier. Taking this town will boost the standing of the IS and call into question the efficacy and resilience of the coalition battling the jihadi group.
Thus, Kobane has become not only a “real test of coalition resolve” but also whether the strategy of seeking to degrade (and ultimately destroy) the Islamic State can be achieved mainly through air power with some limited ground support.
This is expected to be a daunting task since the IS forces at Kobane are said to number over 10,000 and are heavily armed.
Given the extent of the IS’s military commitment, it appears the IS is also attaching the same symbolic importance to its capture. Having held out against the IS forces for several weeks, the siege has now acquired a symbolic significance for the Kurds as well.
A commentator has referred to the siege as a “defining moment of [Kurdish] nationhood and identity” that has mobilised Kurds worldwide and instilled in them a deep sense of pride and achievement. This is bound to make Turkey’s future engagement with its own Kurdish community more difficult, particularly given that it had been incensed at Erdogan’s earlier inaction.
The battle against the IS is further complicated by the ongoing strategic competitions in West Asia.
First, a more active Turkish role in overthrowing Bashar al Assad, including ground action in Syria, will not be acceptable to Syria’s strategic partner Iran, and could set up the possibility of a military stand- off between the two major regional powers which will destabilise the whole region.
Secondly, Turkey’s expanding military and political role in West Asia is already a matter of concern for the Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia since Turkey, in association with Qatar, espouses a Brotherhood-affiliated vision and belief-system of political Islam which challenges Saudi Arabia’s insistence on its own monopoly on power and doctrinal influence in the region.
Finally, the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which emerges from strategic differences articulated in sectarian terms, has been recently aggravated by the Iran-influenced Houthis asserting their power in Yemen, constituting a security threat at the Kingdom’s 1600 km long southern border.
The deteriorating West Asian security situation that embraces all the major regional players has serious implications for India’s long term political and economic interests.
Most of India’s energy requirements are met from West Asia, with which it also has substantial trade and investment links.
Over seven million Indians live in the Gulf who remit to their mother country over thirty billion dollars annually. Their safety and welfare are matters of abiding concern to India.
India cannot be a bystander in this situation. It calls for the definition and pursuit of an initiative by India to promote stability of the region by building a new, inclusive and comprehensive security paradigm in association with regional and extra-regional players with a direct interest in peace in West Asia.
Such a role would be unprecedented and would require diplomatic skill, imagination and resilience of the kind that have not been utilised by India outside South Asia.
Unless this is pursued with vigour, the Islamic State can be expected to use the region’s cleavages to consolidate itself in West Asia — territorially, politically, and, above all, ideologically.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat