The high-stakes game of chicken between the U.S. and Turkey over who should step in and save the Syrian town of Kobane from an imminent takeover by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has exposed a deep divide between the two NATO allies on critical elements of Syria's future, which analysts suspect may not be resolved until long after the Kurdish enclave falls.
Despite an uptick in strikes against insurgent targets descending on the town, the last and possibly best chance for saving Kobane might be to consider Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s renewed push for a no-fly zone in Syria along Turkey’s border — a long-running demand that would stem the flow of refugees and prevent the incursion of insurgents from ISIL who now control hundreds of miles of the notoriously porous Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq.
Ankara has been the most critical holdout from the U.S.-led coalition striking ISIL in Syria and Iraq — a consequence of the coalition’s refusal to target Turkey’s foremost enemy in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Leveraging the urgency of the Kobane crisis, Ankara has pinned a long-delayed intervention in Syria to certain conditions that the U.S. has long ruled out — above all, widening the scope of the anti-ISIL effort to include regime targets.
But as the crisis in Kobane escalates, the idea of a no-fly zone and accompanying buffer zone on the ground has gained traction in Washington as a workable compromise between Turkish demands for greater U.S. commitment in Syria and U.S. President Barack Obama's refusal to directly confront Assad, in whose downfall Washington has no vested interest.
Though Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby would not confirm that Erdogan's plan was being seriously considered by the U.S. military, Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that the idea was “worth looking at very, very closely.”
“If Syrian citizens can return to Syria and be protected in an area across the border, there’s a lot that would commend that,” Kerry said, framing it as a humanitarian measure. Two coalition allies, France and the U.K., have indicated they could support Erdogan’s proposal.
Analysts say Kerry and others could merely be sending friendly signals to the Turks as they prepare for critical talks on how to address the ISIL surge. The Obama administration has always rebuffed the idea of a no-fly zone out of concerns it would be too expensive and that it would risk direct military confrontation with the Assad regime.
In fact, while having the zone in place could necessitate the shooting down of Syrian fighter jets that cross its boundaries — an act that would considerably escalate U.S. involvement in the country — analysts believe that could be avoided if the regime cooperated. After all, the last thing the Syrian regime needs is to open up a front against vastly superior U.S. or Turkish air forces.
According to Jeffrey White, an expert on Syrian security issues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, carving out a buffer zone in the largely rebel-held north wouldn’t necessarily put the U.S. at odds with the regime. “If it were done in a limited fashion, the regime would still complain, but I don’t think it would resist,” White said.
But White and other analysts believe that a no-fly zone is still only a remote possibility and that mobilizing political support, moving military infrastructure and funding the whole operation would prolong the process far past the expected fall of Kobane. The American public would have little appetite for such a venture.
“It’s technically realistic. There’s just no political will in the U.S.,” said Chris Harmer, an analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Institute for the Study of War.
He and others question whether Turkey has any more intention to take the plunge into Syria's messy civil war. They suspect Erdogan's renewed push for a buffer zone is little more than a rhetorical maneuver aimed at delaying action against ISIL, which is a complex calculation for Turkey.
“The Turkish government has placed an unrealistically high barrier to entry for the Turkish military to get involved. It’s an escape clause. They know we’re not going to do those things,” Harmer said.
Ankara had long turned a blind eye toward ISIL fighters crossing between Turkey and Syria because the group was useful in countering Assad and Turkey’s other enemy in Syria, the Kurdish PYD party, whose armed wing is defending Kobane. Ankara may regret that policy, since ISIL has surged across much of Syria and Iraq, but its priorities in Syria have not changed.
The PYD, which has effectively abandoned the rebellion against Assad to consolidate control over much of Syrian Kurdistan in the north and northeast, is allied with the Kurdistan Workers' Party insurgency that has rumbled in southeastern Turkey for 30 years. Ankara is probably warier about bolstering Kurdish separatism across the border in Syria than it is about the existential threat posed by ISIL.
Ankara has come under intense criticism from its Kurds, who have rioted across Turkey in the last couple of days, but it could have much more to lose by provoking ISIL. If Turkey confronts the group in Kobane, it would be opening its border up as a front line in the extremist group’s quest to conquer the entire region. Not to mention that ISIL has a growing presence in Turkey’s major cities, which could erupt if Ankara signals a shift in policy regarding the insurgents.
“ISIL can destabilize Turkey. They could release suicide bombers there tomorrow if they wanted,” Harmer said. “Turkey knows the best way to stay off the ISIL kill list is to stay out of the fight entirely.”
On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at a news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that Turkey was prepared to “play its part” in Kobane but that it would not act unilaterally. “It is not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct a ground operation on its own,” Cavusoglu said.
Given that the U.S. military acknowledges its strikes will not be enough without a viable partner on the ground, the politics do not bode well for Kobane, analysts say.
“My guess is that the Turks will stay on the defensive and prevent military spillover," said White. "The U.S. will say this is a tragic event but that we just didn’t have an objective for preventing it.”