ISIS could soon control close to half of the Syrian border with Turkey

Michael Werz and Max Hoffman write: President Barack Obama and senior administration officials have repeatedly pointed out the absence of reliable partners on the ground in Syria—the Syrian Kurdish groups, such as YPG, have the potential to help fill that gap. While the PYD (the mainly-Kurdish Democratic Union Party), which dominates the Syrian Kurdish scene, is far from perfect, it has treated the civilians under its control relatively well, has fought ISIS effectively for over a year, and entirely eschews the violent Salafi ideology that animates so many of the rebel groups in Syria. As we argued in a Center for American Progress report in July, Kurdish political and military actors will be a key part of any solution to the Syrian tragedy. While coalition aircraft hit several ISIS tanks and fighting positions Sunday, the tactical strikes must be rapidly expanded to prevent the fall of the city.

The ramifications of inadequate action are dire. First, if ISIS takes the city, they are likely to behave as they have in the past — raping, torturing and murdering residents who survive the shelling of the town. Those who are able will most likely flee to Turkey, adding to the refugee problem there and expanding the humanitarian disaster. Already, the fighting has caused UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, to say “it’s a dramatic humanitarian tragedy as we have all witnessed… the largest single outflow of Syrians in a few days, 160,000 people.”

Second, if ISIS takes Kobani, they will control close to half of the Syrian border with Turkey. This will make it even harder to stem the flow of fighters and equipment to the jihadist group. It will also make it more difficult to crack down on the illicit oil sales that finance their operations and to insulate Turkey against further infiltration and potential attacks.

Third, the fall of Kobani would enrage many Turkish Kurds and potentially derail the fragile peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Thus far, Turkey has done nothing to prevent a slaughter by ISIS just across the border. To its credit, Turkey has, for the most part, accepted Syrian refugees, despite already hosting over a million people fleeing the conflict. But the Turkish government has also hampered the provision of aid to Kobani and tear-gassed Kurdish protesters angered by the government’s refusal to help. Clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish protesters continued Sunday and Monday along the border near Kobani. PKK leaders are already angry about the slow pace of peace negotiations with the government, and a massacre in Kobani would solidify the impression among some Turkish Kurds that their government is inveterately hostile towards their group.

Fourth, Kobani has long been a thorn in ISIS’ side — one of the last redoubts of resistance north of the de facto capital of Raqqah — which is why ISIS has focused on the city with such ferocity, despite being pressed on other fronts. If the city falls, ISIS will be able to consolidate its lines and mass forces elsewhere. It will also be a propaganda victory for ISIS; the YPG has been one of the few forces able to effectively resist ISIS thus far, and a decisive defeat of the Kurdish fighters would further underline ISIS’ military edge.

Finally, the fall of Kobani would likely cripple the YPG as a fighting force. The Syrian Kurds have the potential to contribute on the ground in the coalition against ISIS; allowing them to be defeated would permanently undermine U.S. and Western efforts to reach out to Kurdish political and military actors, who will have lost all trust in the West following such a disaster. [Continue reading…]

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