West’s search for allies
Harsh V Pant
The US has increased its air assault on Islamic State (IS) militants, a radical al-Qaeda offshoot that has captured parts of Syria and Iraq, slowing their advance on the predominantly Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab), near the Turkish border. The IS fighters have been pushed out of all major towns even though the US continues to warn that the situation in Kobani “remains tenuous.” Washington reached out to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) ahead of the intensified campaign of airstrikes in Kobani. The success in Kobani can, to a large extent, be attributed to the coordination between PYD forces and the US-led coalition.
There is evidence that western efforts are succeeding, though they continue to remain constrained by lack of ground forces. The US President Barack Obama had met with military officials from 22 countries last week, where he underscored “important successes” though he predicted a “long-term campaign” to counter IS militants in Iraq and Syria. Washington remains concerned over the situation in Kobani and Iraq’s Anbar province. The terror outfit has claimed responsibility for recent attacks in Baghdad and Anbar province.
There has been a great deal of focus on the role of Turkey in this crisis. Though it has been suggested that air force drones in Turkey have been given the green light to join the fight against the Islamic State, there is a lot of uncertainty about its exact role. The Turkish Parliament has granted the government the authority to send the Turkish military into Iraq and Syria, should the government decide to take such actions. Turkey is also now willing to join Saudi Arabia in offering territory to be used to train moderate rebels who could fight Islamic State on the ground in Syria.
The US and the UK have called on Turkey to join the international fight against the Islamic State, appealing for more allies from the Middle East to come forward, and arguing that the US and UK could not be the “saviours” of Iraq and Syria alone. While the US has been pressing Ankara to allow bombing missions from the US air base in Incirlik, southern Turkey, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is holding out for America to sign up to a broader effort against the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, which he sees as the root cause of the 2,00,000 death toll in the country’s civil war.
Demanding US involvement
Ankara has also been concerned that its efforts in hosting 1.6 million Syrian refugees are not being recognised by the West. Turkish government has asked for more US involvement, including in setting up a no-fly zone and a safe haven near the border with Syria. Turkey has drawn a line in the sand: Unless the United States and its coalition partners create a “buffer zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border, it will not be able to join the western military campaign.
Turkey has denied that it has reached any agreement with the United States to allow the use of Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey for attacks on the Islamic State, despite suggestions from the Obama administration last week that a deal had been reached. Turkish officials have merely suggested that talks are continuing between Ankara and Washington over whether to permit US forces to use Incirlik in the fight against the IS. Incirlik Air Base is a joint US and Turkish Air Force facility that is host to about 1,500 US military members. The base is home to the 414th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, which has flown the MQ-1B Predator since the unit reactivated in 2011.
This dispute with the US has raised questions about Turkey’s global reputation at a time when Erdogan was already under attack for growing state authoritarianism and a drift away from the west. A number of factors including public wariness of war in a neighbouring country and uneasy relations with the region’s Kurds are shaping Turkish reticence. Where the West views the IS as the biggest threat, for Ankara it is only one of several and it is not the highest on their agenda.
The Obama administration is under pressure from domestic critics to take more aggressive military action as the airstrikes might have little impact in keeping the Islamic State fighters from seizing new territory. He remains a reluctant commander-in-chief and so he needs more allies to do some heavy-lifting. President Obama has predicted “periods of progress and setbacks” in the war against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria as he has sought to demonstrate a unity of purpose with his allies.
While defending the coalition’s “important success” against the Islamic State, including the defence of the Mosul Dam in Iraq in the summer, he has suggested that the coalition of nations allied against the militants should understand that “this is going to be a long-term campaign.” The challenge he faces is to keep a war-weary western public opinion on his side.