Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Turkish Inaction on ISIS Advance Dismays the U.S. -- Bloodbath Feared, Obama Criticised
MURSITPINAR, Turkey — As fighters with the Islamic State bore down Tuesday on the Syrian town of Kobani on the Turkish border, President Obama’s plan to fight the militant group without being drawn deeper into the Syrian civil war was coming under acute strain.
While Turkish troops watched the fighting in Kobani through a chicken-wire fence, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that the town was about to fall and Kurdish fighters warned of an impending blood bath if they were not reinforced — fears the United States shares.
But Mr. Erdogan said Tuesday that Turkey would not get more deeply involved in the conflict with the Islamic State unless the United States agreed to give greater support to rebels trying to unseat the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. That has deepened tensions with President Obama, who would like Turkey to take stronger action against the Islamic State and to leave the fight against Mr. Assad out of it.
Mr. Erdogan has also resisted pleas to send his troops across the border in the absence of a no-fly zone to ward off the Syrian Air Force.
“There’s growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre less than a mile from its border,” a senior administration official said. “After all the fulminating about Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, they’re inventing reasons not to act to avoid another catastrophe.
“This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to avoid publicly criticizing an ally.
Secretary of State John Kerry has had multiple phone calls in the last 72 hours with Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, to try to resolve the border crisis, American officials said.
For Mr. Obama, a split with Turkey would jeopardize his efforts to hold together a coalition of Sunni Muslim countries to fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. While Turkey is not the only country that might put the ouster of Mr. Assad ahead of defeating the radical Sunnis of the Islamic State, the White House has strongly argued that the immediate threat is from the militants.
But if Turkey remains a holdout, it could cause other fissures in the coalition. It is not only a NATO ally but the main transit route for foreigners seeking to enlist in the ranks of the Islamic State.
Ultimately, American officials said, the Islamic State cannot be pushed back without ground troops that are drawn from the ranks of the Syrian opposition. But until those troops are trained, equipped and put in the field, something that will take some time, officials said, Turkey can play a vital role.
“We have anticipated that it will be easier to protect population centers and to support offensives on the ground in Iraq, where we have partners” in the Kurdish pesh merga fighters and the Iraqi Army, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Clearly, in Syria, it will take more time to develop the type of partners on the ground with whom we can coordinate.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, said he was confident that the president’s recently appointed special envoy for Syria, retired Gen. John R. Allen, would be able to resolve some logistical issues regarding the Turkish military’s participation in the coalition. But he acknowledged that Turkey’s differing view of the need to oust Mr. Assad was likely to come up.
While the diplomacy went ahead, the United States took pains to emphasize its support for the embattled Kurds in Kobani.
The military’s Central Command confirmed on Tuesday that coalition aircraft had carried out five airstrikes against Islamic State positions in the Kobani area in the past two days, destroying or damaging armed vehicles, artillery, a tank and troop positions.
The raids brought the number of airstrikes in and around Kobani to 18 — out of more than 100 in Syria altogether — since the air campaign was extended from Iraq to Syria.
But Kurdish fighters in Kobani said they were running out of ammunition and could not prevail without infusions of troops and arms from Turkey. Independent analysts and some influential members of Congress concurred, deriding the airstrikes in Kobani as too little, too late.