Kobane as a litmus test

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In what appears to be a key development in the war against the Islamic State, about 150 peshmerga fighters from the Kurdish province in Iraq have arrived in a border village in Turkey from where they plan to launch an offensive against IS jihadists laying siege on the Syrian town of Kobane.

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The peshmerga fighters’ presence in Turkish territory is nothing short of a political aberration. The Ankara government has traditionally been wary of the Kurds, who want to set up an independent state in Turkey. Sporadic clashes between Kurdish guerrillas and Turkish troops have erupted along the Iraqi-Turkish border, and the Kurds have accused Turkey of clamping a regime of repression on its Kurdish minority.

Under normal circumstances, it would have been unthinkable for Turkey to allow peshmerga forces to mass along its border. But the war against the jihadists has shaken up the political landscape in the Middle East. For weeks Turkish troops watched from their side of the border as the jihadists pounded the Kurdish defenders of Kobane with mortar and rocket barrages. Ankara positioned tanks on the hills overlooking the embattled town but never gave the order to fire at the IS. Why the delay? Ankara is not comfortable with Kobane in the hands of pro-independence Kurdish factions.

The Turkish government would have watched idly by as the IS blasted the Kurds in Kobane into smithereens. But the United States has come into the picture.

Washington has been trying make up for the ignominy of underestimating the Islamic State and letting it grow into a potent force in such a short time. US intelligence failed massively to track the jihadist group’s successful campaign in Syria and intrusion in Iraq until it was too late. The red flags went up only after the IS had overwhelmed Iraqi forces in Mosul and threatened Baghdad itself.

The US and its allies cobbled together a strategy based mainly on raining death and destruction on the IS from the air. US jets and drones pounded the jihadists, and for a while the aerial bombardment managed to halt their advance. The air attacks, however, had limited success in achieving the more important objective of dealing a decisive blow on the IS.

The only way to do that is to send ground troops to engage and finish off the jihadists. US President Barack Obama had been reluctant to give this option serious thought; he had, after all, made a commitment not to redeploy American troops to Iraq.

Training and arming local forces like the peshmarga seemed a more palatable alternative.

The presence of peshmerga fighters in Syrian soil will further complicate the already convoluted relationships between Syria, Turkey and Iraq. The Assad regime has its hands full fighting an assortment of insurgents and will not countenance the entry of another hostile force in its territory. Ankara will for now bow to the wishes of Washington and allow the peshmerga passage into Syria. Baghdad is banking that an IS defeat in Kobane will weaken the jihadists’ hold on Iraqi territories they have usurped for their caliphate and give the Iraqi army enough time to regroup and go into the offensive.

For now Kobane will be the litmus test for the US-old coalition’s reconfigured strategy. It will also determine the realignments that will shape the regions in the years to come.

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