Impotent U.S. Airstrikes, Passive Turks and an ISIS Triumph

Kobani has become the Kurds’ Alamo as they fight ISIS in Syria. Nobody’s coming to help them, and if and when they fall, the repercussions will be felt for years to come.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

ATMANEK, Turkey — At dusk on Friday evening the crackle of automatic gunfire, the whoosh of rockets and the sickening roar of tank shells echoed from the fighting in Kobani, Syria, less than a mile away. We stood on the rooftop of a derelict farmhouse meters away from a Turkish tank and a razor wire fence marking the end of Turkey.

Nearby a family of Turkish Kurds busied themselves in their fields piling vegetables onto a donkey-drawn cart. Look the other way though, towards Syria as the sun melted in a red glow under the horizon, and the occasional rocket and flare flashed across the skyline.

Another day in a desperate fight was ending in the Kurds’ Alamo. And as with the 13-day last stand of the Texans James Bowie and William B. Travis there was no relief in sight.

In the morning Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told journalists in a briefing in Ankara that his government would do what it could to prevent the mainly Kurdish town of Kobani, known as Ain al-Arab to the Arabs, from falling to the militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).

“We wouldn’t want Kobani to fall,” he said.

It is hard to tell though.

Despite the Turkish parliament giving the government powers to order cross-border military incursions into Syria, there were no signs yesterday of any Turkish military buildup. Along the border every quarter of a mile or so there was a tank or armored vehicle parked with turrets pointing towards Kobani, but they didn’t thunder. Yet if Kobani falls, the strategic victory for ISIS will mean it controls much of the long Syrian frontier with a nation that is a member of NATO and wants to become part of the European Union.

Turkish soldiers sat by their vehicles in the twilight languidly chatting or cooking. They only bestirred themselves to hassle passing Turkish Kurds traveling along newly made tracks in the flat fields now shorn of their wheat between the tiny villages along the border. The Turkish Kurds were looking for better vantage points—as I did—to try to make sense of the battle between the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish defense forces and the jihadists.

In the border villages Kurds from all over Turkey are gathered in small groups—from Diyarbakır and Mardin, Batman and Van—to keep vigil and to watch a battle unfolding that is making their blood boil and will be fixed firmly in the history of the Kurdish struggle.

For 30 years inside Turkey the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, waged a ferocious war met with ferocious repression that had only recently seemed ready to end. But the action—or inaction—of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan right now in the face of what’s happening at Kobani is threatening all that. The YPG is essentially a Syrian offshoot of the PKK, and the fate of its fighters—if left to die as Turkish tanks stand by—will be felt among millions of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and in Western Europe as well.

“If Kobani falls,” Sabri Ozdemir, the mayor of Batman, told me, “the peace process between the [Turkish] government and the Kurds will end.” He is also bitter about the failure of the U.S.-led coalition to intervene decisively—all the dozens of Turkish and Syrian Kurds I spoke to yesterday share that bitterness.

On Wednesday U.S. warplanes did strike ISIS targets in a captured Kurdish village near Kobani. And late Friday night there were more strikes on outlying areas of the besieged city now mostly empty of civilians. But the forays have done nothing to slow the jihadists. On Friday morning three ISIS battle tanks sat brazenly out in the open before trundling towards the center of Kobani. Wouldn’t the armored formation have been an easy target for U.S. F-15s?

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Ozdemir’s warning echoed the threat given a day ago by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK. He too warned that an ISIS victory would mark the end of the faltering peace process between the Turkish Kurds and Ankara. In a message relayed to supporters from his prison cell on the island of Imrali he declared ominously that, “the siege of Kobani is far from being just an ordinary siege.”

That was the feeling Friday night, certainly, as young and old Kurds sat hunched around campfires near the border cooking communal meals and debating whether Kobani can hold out from a furious ISIS offensive that has seen dozens of outlying villages fall to the jihadists.

There was bravado in their talk about how Kobani won’t fall and in the village of Alizer patriotic Kurdish songs were sung. But in quieter moments the pessimism was tangible—and along with it went the realization that the fall of Kobani will likely impact dramatically their lives, too.

In Kurdish towns across southeast Turkey there are reports of increasing clashes between Kurdish youngsters and police. The young men and women are furious they have been blocked from crossing the border to assist in the defense of Kobani. And they accuse the Turkish government of helping ISIS, meanwhile, by failing to block jihadist fighters from entering Syria through Turkish territory. They see collusion and deception and they say Ankara is determined to subjugate them.

Just across the border from Kobani in the town of Suruc the Turkish police are alert. Unlike their military counterparts they are ready for trouble. The town that has received, according to the local governor, about 180,000 refugees. Crowd control is needed—the numbers are daunting—and refugee families are sleeping where they can, from tents to municipal buildings and empty shops. But the police presence seems more about intimidation.

Several refugees say they have received no food from the Turks—but have been given supplies by Kurdish families and activists and by “the friends,” meaning the PKK.

By the evening what slim hopes had been placed in the pledge by Turkey’s Prime Minister to do all that could be done to save Kobani had evaporated. In a TV program later in the day he pulled back from his earlier remarks, saying Turkey could not intervene militarily because it would drag the country into a wider conflict.

And so the Kurds of Kobani will face ISIS alone.