October 29, 2014

Iraqi peshmerga troops cross Turkey to Kobani - why, and will it matter?

The initial cadre of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters headed for the northern Syrian town of Kobani arrived in Turkey early Wednesday (October 29). The group of 80 men flew from an Iraqi air base outside Irbil to a Turkish air base near the city of Saniurfa, about 30 miles north of Kobani - they brought with them just light weapons. The fighters were loaded onto buses and headed south toward the Syrian border, with a Turkish military escort.

At the same time, a convoy of 70 Iraqi peshmerga fighters and vehicles - heavy trucks, armored vehicles and a variety of SUVs - departed Irbil and made its way into Turkey at the Habur border crossing*, adjacent to the Iraqi city of Zakhu.

The Iraqi Kurd convoy (see top photos) is transporting the remainder of the peshmerga force with heavy weapons - artillery and mortars - which will be of great use in the fighting against members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Syrian Kurds, who are not as experienced or well-equipped as their Iraqi cousins, have been outmanned and outgunned in the battle for Kobani which has been raging for weeks now.

As many as 200,000 Syrian Kurds have fled the ISIS assault on Kobani and the surrounding area. It was only the introduction of U.S.-lead coalition airpower that has provided enough firepower to allow the Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (abbreviated as YPG in Kurdish) to stave off what appeared to be an inevitable defeat.

The peshmerga convoy must traverse 375 road miles to bring the additional troops and the greater firepower from Irbil to Kobani (see maps) - it is 125 miles from Irbil to the border crossing at Habur/Zakhu, and then another 250 miles to Kobani, Syria.

I traveled these roads years ago - they were in good condition, used for years by the the Turkish Army in its military campaign against its own Kurds and the Kurdish Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish abbreviation, the PKK. The PKK has been designated to be a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State.

There are several extraordinary things going on here. Having followed events in these countries for almost four decades, some of it is surprising and beyond what I thought I would ever see. The Turks allowing an armed Kurdish force, be they Iraqi, Syrian or Turkish Kurds is almost mind boggling. The conflict between the Turks and the Kurds resident in Turkey has been going on for 30 years. The separatist PKK mounted an armed insurgency, killing tens of thousands of Turkish citizens - and used northern Syria as a base of operations.

To complicate things, the former Syrian president, Hafiz al-Asad - father of the current ruler - allowed the PKK to use Syrian territory when he wanted to try to pressure Ankara to settle border or water rights issues. The Turks regard the YPG as linked to the PKK and as having cooperated with them in their cross-border operations into Turkey. You can be sure that the Turks are paying close attention to how many of which weapons are entering Turkey and then being introduced into Syria. They will probably want an accounting when this is all over.

So why are the Turks being so cooperative all of a sudden?

Up until now, the Turks have paid only lip-service to supporting the coalition. The coalition can only use Turkish air bases for humanitarian operations, not to launch the airstrikes required to blunt ISIS's offensives in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Turkish leaders have stated conditions that must be met before they fully participate in the coalition: they want a commitment that the coalition will support the removal of the current Syrian regime, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria and establishment of a security buffer zone inside Syria along the Turkish border. Thus far, the coalition has not agreed to those conditions.

The Turks have been soundly criticized in world public opinion for their lack of support to the coalition and their seeming willingness to sit within sight of the slaughter in Kobani and do nothing. The decision to allow the Iraqi Kurds to transit Turkey to reinforce the Syrian Kurds in Kobani is nothing more than a compromise - it makes Turkey look good without having to really do anything other than continue to sit an watch.

If the reports we are reading in the media are accurate, there will now be an additional 150 Kurds in Kobani fighting the ISIS assault. Granted, the Iraqi Kurds are bringing some better firepower in the form of artillery and mortars - indirect fire weapons that can accurately place rounds on ISIS targets. There are also reports of a group of 50 Free Syrian Army (FSA) having arrived in Kobani to assist in the fight against ISIS. The FSA is the "moderate" opposition fighters the United States hopes will be "boots on the ground" to confront ISIS and to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Are 200 more fighters going to turn the tide against ISIS?

It depends - what do the 200 bring to the table? There is increased firepower, and most likely skilled artillery soldiers to make it effective. One can hope that in that group of Iraqi peshmerga there are a few that have received training from the American "advisers" on how to properly coordinate airstrikes and close air support. The airstrikes by American B-1 bombers appear to be the key reason the city has not fallen to ISIS.

Both sides have blood and resources invested in winning the battle of Kobani. For the Syrian Kurds, it is their home. For the Iraqi Kurds, it is the commitment to defend their fellow Kurds, their cousins if you will.

On the opposite side, ISIS wants to consolidate their gains in this part of Syria, particularly on the Syrian border. They have lost hundreds of fighters and do not want to face another defeat - it would represent the beginning of the end of the blitzkrieg between the Turkish border and Baghdad. In Iraq, the Iraqi Army with Shi'a militia support has retaken a key area southwest of Baghdad. Another defeat - such as a loss in Kobani - would deal a serious blow to ISIS's momentum.

That said, will the 200 additional fighters make a difference in the battle? Hard to say. With constant American airstrikes and now Kurdish artillery, it is certainly more of an equal fight. I am now more optimistic, but the realist in me believes it could still go either way.

* In the 1990's, I used this crossing numerous times while assigned to the CIA to work with the Kurds in northern Iraq.

The author and Kurdish peshmerga fighter in northern Iraq - 1995