Turkish lawmakers Thursday approved allowing ground troops into Syria and Iraq, as riot police prevented Kurdish defenders from reaching the besieged Syrian border town of Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobani to its mostly Kurdish residents.
“It’s clear. Daesh and the Turks are one hand,” said one disgusted Kurdish man, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State militant group, sometimes called the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, or ISIS.
Turkey’s ambivalence about the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State has been on full display, even as militant forces across the border in Syria close in on Kobani, drawing attention to the isolated border zone. More than 150,000 mostly Syrians, mostly Kurds, have escaped into Turkey, fleeing the militant onslaught.
U.S. warplanes have been bombing extremists’ positions near Kobani, including an overnight strike that destroyed a militant checkpoint, the Pentagon said Thursday.
But Turkish troops massed with tanks and armored vehicles have not stopped the militant advance on Kobani, which has become a vivid symbol of resistance among Kurds. The inaction has aggravated Turkey’s long-fraught relations with its Kurdish minority.
Turkey’s longtime nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, has signaled that peace talks between the group and the government in Ankara could collapse if Kobani is allowed to fall.
On Thursday, lawmakers responding to the militant threat on Turkey’s borders overwhelmingly approved a motion to allow the Turkish army to engage in cross-border operations in Iraq and Syria. The parliament also approved allowing foreign powers to launch attacks from Turkey, easternmost bastion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance.
“The threat against Turkey has gained a new dimension,” Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said before the parliamentary session, Turkish news reports said. “It’s our obligation to take measures against this threat and to protect our citizens in the frame of international law.”
There was no indication that Turkey was preparing to dispatch troops across its borders. Asked whether any action was imminent, the defense minister told reporters, “Don’t expect any immediate steps.”
Ankara has come under international criticism for its tepid participation in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. Turkish officials have rejected allegations that it covertly aided Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria.
“No terrorist whether in Turkey or elsewhere will receive any sympathy from us.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the parliament this week. “Their presence is not acceptable.”
But Erdogan has made it clear that his priority is to help topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Ankara has long aided anti-Assad rebels and has opened its more than 500-mile-long border with Syria to militants fighting Assad’s government.
Turkey has one of the region’s largest and most powerful armies and a modern air force equipped with U.S. fighter jets. But Turkish officials have been hesitant to become directly involved in the Syrian conflict.
Turkey’s concern reflects the complex nature of the Syrian conflict, which consists of various layers of proxy battles involving regional and world powers.
A major concern of Erdogan’s government is that military action against Islamic militants in Syria could bolster two of its principal foes: Assad and the PKK, designated a terrorist group by Ankara and Washington. Kurdish fighters affiliated with the leftist PKK are the major adversaries of the Islamic militants in Kobani and at other contested zones in Syria along the Turkish border.
Turkish officials are also worried about the possibility of retaliatory attacks should Turkey become directly involved in the conflict. Islamic State reportedly has cells and supporters in various Turkish cities.
In formulating a revamped Syria policy, Turkish authorities are reviving a diplomatic push for a “buffer zone” in Syrian territory that could provide a haven for civilians and Ankara-backed rebels. A no-fly zone barring Syrian warplanes would be part of the proposal. But whether Turkey is willing to commit troops to such a plan remains a question mark.
At the border Thursday, a sharp whistle signaled the advance of riot police into a crowd of Kurds protesting Turkey’s refusal to allow volunteers to return to Kobani to fight the militants.
“We don't know the reason why the Turks are doing this,” said a frustrated Mohammad Fares, a lanky 22-year-old with wispy facial hair and a yellow scarf on his head.
Fares, like other Syrian Kurdish men interviewed, said he had crossed into Turkey to take his family to safety. That deed done, he was eager to return and defend the city.
Across the border, Kurdish activists said the U.S. strikes were not nearly enough to dislodge Islamic State fighters closing in on the town from the east, west and south.
“We view the strikes positively, but they're not very effective,” said Anwar Muslim, a Kurdish official in Kobani contacted by phone. “We want them to intensify the strikes and actually hit the front lines of Daesh.”
With or without the airstrikes, the Kurds of Kobani said they would fight to the death against the militants.
“The strikes are not at the level required; we need more,” said Assia Abdullah, a political leader in Kobani reached by phone. “Either way, when they come, the resistance will continue.”
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Mursitpinar and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.
Follow @mdcneville for news from Iraq and Syria.