Erbil – As Iraqi Peshmerga forces began combat operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Kobane, Turkey’s softening position after weeks of intense fighting between the ISIL and Kurdish fighters, has raised questions as to why Ankara allowed military assistance at this time while it could have acted weeks earlier.
The Turkish government’s permission for Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and Free Syria Army (FSA) forces to use its territory to deploy to Kobane appears to be less motivated by a desire to save the besieged town than an attempt to ward off international criticism, analysts say.
“The Turkish government opened the corridor to Kobane to take the blame off of its shoulders if Kobane fell, by saying that they actually tried to prevent it,” Rebwar Karim Wali, a political commentator and columnist in Erbil told Al Jazeera.
Since September, Turkish tanks and troops deployed on a small hill overlooking Kobane have sat idle and watched as ISIL forces have taken large parts of Kobane, also known as Ayn al-Arab.
But under intense pressure from its own restive Kurdish population and western nations – in particular the United States, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently agreed to allow military aid to besieged Kobane.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani announced in a statement on Oct 30 that the decision to allow Peshmerga troops to enter Kobane was a result of three-way talks between the US, Turkey and his Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Turkey has close relations with the KRG and appears not to be worried about the implications of KRG’s Peshmerga troops’ deployment to Kobane. It has, however, refused to allow Kurdish volunteers from Turkey or Syria to join the fight in Kobane.
Kobane is one of the three autonomous zones that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its allies have established since January in northern Syria known among Kurds as Rojava or West Kurdistan, much to Ankara’s displeasure.
The PYD and its military wing, the YPG, are seen as affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has fought Turkish security forces for around three decades in pursuit of Kurdish rights in Turkey.
To many, the change in Turkey’s position is a case of too little too late. They doubt whether Turkey is eager to save Kobane even though it has allowed reinforcements for Kurdish fighters in the border town.
“The government of Turkey would prefer to see Kobane fall,” Cengiz Candar, an Istanbul-based political analyst and an adviser on Kurdish affairs to former Turkish President Turgut Ozal told Al Jazeera.
“First of all, President Erdogan and his government do not see ISIL as the main and imminent threat in Syria as the Obama administration and other members of the anti-ISIL coalition see.”
There are no strings attached to the deployment of the Peshmerga forces going to Kobane. The KRG does not want to be seen as an alternative to any of the groups on the ground there.
“Secondly, the Turkish government would not shed tears to see an end to Kurdish self-rule on its doorsteps run by Kurds close to the PKK as this could serve as a precedent for Turkey’s Kurds,” added Candar. “[Erdogan] may invest on Peshmerga’s presence in Rojava in order to further delegitimise the PYD.”
Iraqi Kurdish government officials reject suspicions that they pursue their agendas or are aiding Turkey achieve its own goals in Kobane and other Kurdish territories in northern Syria.
“There are no strings attached to the deployment of the Peshmerga forces going to Kobane,” said Safin Dizayee, the official spokesperson for the KRG. “The KRG does not want to be seen as an alternative to any of the groups on the ground there.”
ISIL attacks have forced as many as 200,000 civilians in the Kobane area to leave their homes and head to Turkey.
Dizayee added that: “The extension of the threat from Syria to Iraq by ISIL is a common threat and therefore we put it upon ourselves to provide the necessary assistance.” Seeing the plight of their brethren in Kobane, Iraqi Kurds have been urging the KRG for weeks to take action to assist the town’s defenders.
And when Ankara finally gave the green light to the Peshmerga to enter Kobane, it imposed a condition on the PYD and YPG; that elements from the rebel FSA who have been fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should also be allowed in.
The decision to allow Peshmerga troops to cross Turkey to reach Kobane seems to be a victory for the KRG as well.
“In terms of domestic reactions and consumption, it won popular sentiments among Kurds,” said Wali, the Kurdish columnist.
But an important motive behind dispatching the Peshmerga forces to Syria has to do with internal Kurdish rivalries.
Barzani has long sought to compel the PKK and PYD to allow KRG’s Syrian Kurdish allies to be a major partner in the self-rule administrations in northern Syria that the PYD and its affiliated bodies are believed to control.
“[Dispatching the Peshmerga to Kobane] has undermined PKK’s one-sided control over Kurdish areas [in Syria],” added Wali.
|Questions over Peshmerga capability against ISIL remain|
When ISIL took over the Sinjar area in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, populated mostly by the followers of the ancient Yazidi faith, the YPG and PKK fighters established a strong presence in the area and played a critical role in saving tens of thousands of besieged Yazidis.
The YPG and PKK fighters are still there and might, in the long run, pose a challenge to KRG’s authority in Sinjar and nearby areas such as Rabia on the border between Iraq and Syria.
The KRG might be thinking that by sending Peshmerga forces to Kobane, it might be able to establish a foothold there and if ISIL forces are expelled from the area, the KRG can in the future use that as a negotiation chip to pressure YPG and PKK forces to withdraw from the KRG controlled areas in northern Iraq.
Local officials in Kobane downplay scepticism towards some of Turkey’s motives for allowing FSA or Peshmerga’s deployment to the town as they appear to be willing to accept much-needed help to counter ISIL’s intense campaign.
Idris Naasan, deputy minister of foreign affairs for the canton of Kobane, one of the three self-rule administrations that the PYD and its allies have established in northern Syria, says the entry of FSA and Peshmerga forces “is not a cause of concern or a tool of pressure”.
“A small group of around 50 FSA fighters entered Kobane before the Peshmerga came. This is nothing new. The FSA have been fighting here for around eight months and if they brought in new people and weapons recently, we see this as assistance to the resistance [against ISIL] in Kobane,” Naasan told Al Jazeera via phone from Kobane.
“We see Peshmerga’s deployment as a very important step… The Peshmerga and FSA assistance will have its impact on the resistance in Kobane and their weapons and troops will be helpful to the resistance.”