THE BLOG
10/16/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Cracking the ISIS Conundrum -- Obama and the Arab World Part II

ALI AL-SAADI via Getty Images

As has been already reported, a month has passed since the U.S. president laid out the strategy for tackling the ISIS insurgents rampaging through northern Syria and northern and western Iraq. He made it clear that unlike the past U.S. misadventure in Iraq, no soldiers would be dispatched. What is not as well-known is that the U.S. already has a reported 1,600 special forces advising the autonomous Kurdish regional government in Iraq, who may be drawn into active combat if the ISIS group persists with its attempts to capture Erbil, the Kurdish capital. This is referred to sometimes as "mission creep," or as we experienced in Vietnam, incremental increase in armed involvement. Obama says that he's totally opposed to "boots on the ground," either in Iraq or Syria. For ISIS, who by leveling the sand berm delineating the Iraqi-Syrian border have already proclaimed their "Caliphate," which transcends the border between Syria and Iraq, it does not matter where the airstrikes take place.

Obama and his peripatetic Secretary of State John Kerry have worked hard to fashion a coalition of countries that would participate alongside the U.S. in "degrading and destroying" ISIS. So far, the support from the EU partners and the Arab partners has been more rhetorical than actual. The brunt of the aerial attacks on ISIS assets have been launched by U.S. aircraft based off the sea or from a base in a Persian Gulf country. Despite serious efforts with trying to get Turkey on board, President Erdogan has demurred so far on the ground that degrading President Assad should be an equal, if not higher, priority for the coalition. Further that the U.S. in concert with its partners should establish a no fly zone in northern Syria and protected areas where refugees would be safe from attack by Assad's forces. Apparently Washington does not agree, stating that destroying ISIS at this stage should be priority number one. The second stage would be training and arming 5,000 soldiers in Saudi Arabia to confront Assad's army, an arrangement in which the Saudis have acquiesced, to be followed by larger groups of soldiers in the coming years. The Turks have disagreed, and as a consequence not permitted U.S. aircraft to use the crucial Incirlik air base. Turkey as a NATO ally has allowed the use of this air base by U.S. forces in the past. Kerry, a few days back, had hinted that the U.S. was seriously considering the Turkish no fly zone request, but nothing concrete seems to have come of the talks between the U.S. and Turkey.

Incirlik is only around 500 kilometers away from the areas in northern Syria bombed by the U.S. Its use would make quite a difference to the coalition campaign to deter the ISIS advance in both countries. It could, for instance, make a material difference to the sustained efforts by ISIS to capture Kobani, the Kurdish town on the northern border between Turkey and Syria. Turkish inaction has understandably aroused an angry response from the Turkish Kurdish minority, who demonstrated last week in a number of cities. It would be appropriate to state here that Kurdish minorities exist in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. During the post-World War I Versailles deliberations, the Kurds had made an impassioned case to the Allies to grant them a homeland based on the right of self-determination. Regrettably from the Kurdish point of view, their efforts in this regard were not fruitful. Turkey is ever-watchful about its Kurdish minority, elements of which aligned with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) have engaged the Turkish government in the past decades in a low-grade insurgency. One of Erdogan's main achievements a few years back was to have stopped the fighting with the PKK and engage in negotiations leading to a permanent peace. That architecture has been put in doubt by Turkey's refusal to come to the aid of the beleaguered Syrian Kurds in Kobani, surrounded on three sides by the ISIS forces. Erdogan is suspicious of the Kurds. He considers the PKK his enemy. It would be difficult for him to turn 180 degrees and, at the behest of the coalition, join with it in attacking ISIS.

Observers are already suggesting that the airstrike campaign led by the U.S. has not produced the desired results. Getting Turkish cooperation is central to Obama's objectives. Meanwhile ISIS continues to capture more territory in Iraq, and if Kobani falls almost all of northern Syria will be under its control. This would be an outcome which will ring alarm bells not only among the neighboring Arab states but in the western world also. Much more patient, diplomatic work needs to be conducted by Washington among its EU and Arab allies to fashion a military response which would push back the ISIS momentum.