ISIS, Kobani and Turkey’s Policy on a Globalized Crisis

Friday, October 17, 2014

Saeid Jafari
Expert on Middle East Issues

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently noted that the government of Turkey would not allow the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani to fall into the hands of the ISIS terrorists. Since that time, however, his country has closed its border with Kobani and does not allow the Kurdish members of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to enter Syria’s Kurdistan region and defend the town. Even the sole channel for transfer of humanitarian and medical aid as well as foodstuff to Kobani has been closed by Ankara. This clear conflict between the words and deeds of Turkish politicians brings a question to mind: What goal is Çankaya (1) pursuing through the ongoing developments in the Middle East? What goal is Ankara trying to achieve through its current policies and what is the picture that Turkey has drawn of the ideal situation in Kobani, in particular, and Syria, in general?

It goes without saying that the incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the staunch opponents of the Syrian President Bashar Assad and perhaps, he is as much in favor of a military attack on Damascus and overthrow of the Syrian government, as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The change in regional and international political equations, however, has caused these players to give up the idea of a military strike against the government of Assad – at least in short term – and, as such, the developments in Syria have not been going on in favor of Turkey. This state of affairs has practically brought Turkey’s strategy vis-à-vis Syria to failure. The theoretician of Syria’s foreign policy, however, has not remained idle and has entered the scene again in order to change the balance of powers in Syria to its own benefit. Following the rise of the phenomena, which is now known as the ISIS or the Islamic State (IS), Ankara has been trying to meet its interests and achieve its goals by using the so-called Islamic State as a tool. The Turkish government, therefore, has been supporting the surge of crisis in Syria, especially in the northern Kurdish town of Kobani. At the same time, since the United States has gathered all its regional allies around the pivot of air strikes against the ISIS, Turkey has been following an ambiguous policy in this regard and has avoided practical involvement in these strikes. As was predicted beforehand, the air strikes have so far failed to block the progress of the ISIS and even on the opposite, the possibility of the fall of Kobani into the hands of ISIS is now higher than any time before.

Goals pursued by Turkey through Kobani crisis

At present, and in view of the critical situation of Kobani, Turkey seems to be pursuing multiple goals. Firstly, since Syrian Kurds mostly belong to political currents close to the PKK and Turkish Kurds, Ankara is happy about them being weakened by the ISIS. Therefore, any expectation for involvement of the scion of the Ottoman Empire in Kobani crisis to counter the ISIS would be miles away from the reality. On the other hand, with the fall of Kobani and further increase in the ISIS’ power in Syria, Erdogan would see another one of his goals, which is undermining the government of Syria’s President Assad, fulfilled. Therefore, by achieving this goal, Ankara would get one step closer to seeing its wish for the overthrow of the incumbent Syrian government come true. Nonetheless, due to the global notoriety of the ISIS, if Turkey chooses to use the ISIS as its military arm in a proxy war, even in an indirect manner, it would damage the image of Turks within the international system. This, in turn, would not be of any good to a government, whose economic system is closely intertwined with international economy.

The threat of radicalism

It seems that apart from Kurdish groups, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the government of Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran are other parties that are indignant with what is going on in Kobani. The Western states and Arab allies of the United States in the region, on the other hand, are happy with further weakening of Assad’s government and believe that the fall of Kobani can be a key step toward realization of this goal. The point, however, which should not be ignored here, is the risk of further expansion of the ISIS’ activities in other parts of the region; a risk, which if ignored and if no solid strategy based on regional realities is developed to handle it, may have very dangerous consequences for the entire region.

Goals pursued by the West

When it comes to this point, the measures so far taken by the West can be viewed from two standpoints. If the West really aims to stop the progress of the ISIS, it should remember how the past neglect and belated intervention in Iraq caused the crisis in that Arab country to flare up beyond any imaginable level. Now, if the West is actually trying to eliminate the ISIS, it should not forget that the rising influence of the ISIS will make it much more difficult to control the crisis in that country.

However, assuming that the West is not truly planning to fight the ISIS, the conclusion would be that Western countries are making another big mistake. This is true because history has already shown us that such social movements never remain contained in a certain geographical region and it would not be illogical to imagine that the crisis fomented by the ISIS would sooner or later find its way into Europe and the United States.

In this way and in view of the experience already gained with regard to the Iraqi town of Amirli, the conclusion that can be reached here is that blocking the progress of the ISIS would not be possible in the absence of Iran and without resort to land operations. Of course, Turkey is actually waiting for Kobani to fall and for ISIS to consolidate its control over that region in order to make the international community request Ankara to intervene. By doing this, Turkey is willing to appear as a pioneer in fighting against radicalism. However, it is quite evident that the method Ankara has chosen to play in recent developments of the region has fostered many doubts as to the honesty of Turkey’s government. finally, it should be noted that although some analysts believe that each and every measure taken by the ISIS is based on a clear theory and plan, existing evidence and the reality on the ground prove that the situation in the region is too complicated to be simply blamed on a hidden hand with a clear-cut and predefined field of activity. As a result, it is possible that coordinated pursuit of conflicting goals such as fighting the ISIS and toppling Assad simultaneously, would finally lead to a permanent and spiraling crisis in the Middle East; a crisis which if not quenched is sure to afflict other parts of the world.


(1) The central metropolitan district of the city of Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and an administrative district of Ankara Province; in this context, it stands for the Turkish government.

Key Words: ISIS, Kobani,Turkey, Globalized Crisis, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Bashar Assad, Threat of Radicalism, Western Countries, Jafari

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Photo Credit: The Guardian

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