THE BLOG
11/20/2014 03:19 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Kobani Crossroads

KOBANI CROSSROADS
By David L. Phillips

Kobani represents a crossroads in the war against the Islamic State (IS). The battle for Kobani is also a defining moment in US policy toward the Kurds, the construction of Kurdish national identity, and the West's view of Turkey as an ally.

Kobani has both strategic and symbolic importance.

The IS has deployed vast resources to the Battle for Kobani. Seizing Kobani would give the Islamic State uninterrupted control of territory stretching 60 miles from Raqqa to the Turkish border, and 350 miles from Raqqa to the outskirts of Baghdad. In addition, it would give IS control of all three official border crossings between Turkey and Syria.

It would also be a public relations victory. The Islamic State's slick social media campaign created an aura of invincibility, as IS fighters racked up battlefield victories in Iraq. Recruits flocked to join the Islamic State's glorious triumph against Takfirs ("non-believers").

IS fighters encountered stiff resistance from Kurds defending Kobani. Today, the IS controls only about a quarter of the city. The battle is ongoing; Kurds are proceeding cautiously, as large parts of Kobani have been booby-trapped. A forced retreat of the IS from Kobani would be its first major defeat, and could turn the tide against the terror group.

Kobani has been a rallying point for Kurds across the region. The People's Protection Units were joined by PKK militias in street-to-street fighting that prevented the city from being overrun. About 150 heavily armed peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan recently joined the battle.

Kurds have their differences, but they come together under duress or attack. Kobani has assumed the same mythical importance for Syrian and Turkish Kurds as Halabja for Iraqi Kurds.

Improved relations between Syrian Kurds, represented by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are all the more important in light of the failed strategic partnership between the KRG and Turkey.

Kobani has been a strategic and public relations disaster for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish tank brigades watched from the hills above Kobani as the Kurds battled IS fighters. Turkish gendarmerie blocked Kurds from crossing the border to join their compatriots in Kobani. Turkey wanted Kobani to be overrun, destroying the push for autonomy by Kurds in Syria.
Erdogan stated, "The PYD, for us, is equal to the PKK; it is a terrorist organization." He continued, "The PKK is the same as ISIS. It is wrong to consider them as different from each other."

Erdogan's remarks sparked protests across Turkey. Ankara declared a state of emergency in Southeastern provinces and cracked-down, killing 34 people. It launched air strikes against PKK positions in Turkish territory. In response, the PKK threatened to suspend its political dialogue with Turkey's National Intelligence Agency.

Erdogan also alienated himself from the United States by disparaging US support for Kobani's valiant defenders. Ankara thought it could veto US actions, but President Barack Obama acted over Turkey's objections.

The Obama administration's approach to Kobani has been evolving. On October 8, Secretary of State John Kerry said that preventing the fall of Kobani was not a strategic objective of the United States. US officials came to realize, however, that Kobani's fall to ISIS would be big blow to the broader battle with IS. Kerry ultimately acknowledged: "It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn our back on a community fighting ISIL."

By October's end, the US had 135 bombing sorties. Despite Erdogan's opposition, US aircraft dropped 27 bundles of weapons and medical supplies to the PYD on October 19. The State Department acknowledged a recent meeting in Paris between Salih Moslem Mohammed, the PYD head, and US Special Envoy for Syria, Daniel Rubinstein.

Coordination between the United States and PYD could have larger consequences, impacting US-Kurdish relations, as Washington and re-evaluates Turkey's reliability as an ally and considers dropping the PKK from its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

As the US seeks to strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition, Kurdish fighters may well emerge as "boots on the ground." In Kobani and Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurds have shown courage, commitment and capability to defeat the IS.

Alliances are shifting. Kurds are proving to be America's best friends in the region. Cooperation with the Kurds is critical to degrading and defeating the Islamic State.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert to the US Department of State during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama.