Even if it falls into the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the story of Kobani is far from over.
It symbolizes all the intricate parts that the Syrian crisis pushed to the surface and exposes the series of flawed reasoning and decision-making that escalated ISIL’s role, adding new elements in a cursed region where each and every actor, each and every social group now is on its own.
First it had to with “American flip-flopping”: George W. Bush had broken it with the invasion and Barack Obama should never have forgotten that he owned it.
I was one of those who questioned the wisdom of the troop pullout from Iraq, which I argued would create a vacuum in the region, as it would have emboldened the Shia axis, creating a sense of superiority along Teheran-Baghdad-Damascus.
Sunnis, feeling increasingly like the underdogs, were left adrift, needy for nothing but radicalization.
In a strikingly sharp and detailed news analysis some days ago, David Rhode and Warren Strobel with Reuters revisit the subject, seeking the “splinters” in the background.
“Obama’s handling of Syria — the early about-face, the repetitive debates, the turnabout in September — is emblematic, say current and former top US officials, of his highly centralized, deliberative and often reactive foreign policy,” they wrote.
“The withdrawal of all American troops from neighboring Iraq and the lack of a major effort to arm Syria’s moderate rebels, they say, gave Islamic State leeway to spread. Internal debates focused on the costs of US intervention in Syria, while downplaying the risks of not intervening. And the White House underestimated the damage to US credibility caused by Obama’s making public threats to Bashar al-Assad and then failing to enforce them.”
Their story, titled ”How Syria policy stalled under the ‘analyst in chief”’ is a severely critical reading that explains how centralized decision-making foreign policy in the White House led to a loss of control of the course of events in Iraq and Syria. The Washington Post wrote in its editorial, that “the administration strategy of targeting the Islamic State while giving Mr. Assad a pass has actually worsened the conditions for his victims in towns held by moderate rebels who, in theory, enjoy US backing.”
“The strategy is incoherent as well as morally questionable,” it concludes: “The United States expects these same moderate rebels to become its foot soldiers in the war against the more extreme Islamic State. Yet it refuses to target the Assad regime, which the moderates see as their chief enemy — and which is doing everything it can to wipe them out while the United States calls for patience and restraint.” One wonders how the White House reasoned when Damascus, as the epicenter of cunning strategic thinking, encouraged the birth and growth of ISIS as the “distractive and destructive monster” and spread the crisis ruthlessly, by forcing out 4 million refugees to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The leader of the last feels, without a doubt, degrees of comfort in ongoing American indecision.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who by his deeply contrasting statements speaks about the importance of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), while causing a bloody Kurdish uprising by saying that “there is no difference between the terror of ISIL and the PKK,” feels he has a lot of room to maneuver for his cynical politics of survival, which is his absolute priority rather than regional stability. Seeing Abdullah Öcalan as the “hostage” to keep Turkey’s uneasy Kurds on the leash, Erdoğan feels he has a free hand to see PKK weaken by losing the cantons in Syria, such as Kobani, that it controls: It will give him political leeway, he believes, to exert full control over the peace process. He bets also that the PKK rebels, the only forces capable of fighting ISIL, will not be able to open a “second front” to Turkey. ISIL is therefore of no urgency for him. Erdoğan also calculates that if push comes to shove, he may cut a deal with the forces of “old Turkey (military and the extreme right Nationalist Movement Party [MHP]) and embrace ultra-nationalism. This raises the bets for higher, yet inevitable risk-taking. Thus, the choices the American “timidity” presents to Erdoğan offer only further instability to the region.