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Opinion On Syria and the Kurds, we ought to listen to Turkey

In the drama that has been unfolding in Kobani, Syria between the terrorist army Islamic State and the Kurds, reality has looked different from the Turkish side of the border than it has from Washington, Ottawa and elsewhere.

Turkey has been resisting sending ground forces into Syria. The West would be wise to understand the Turks' concerns and not just blow them off, much less condemn them as some have done (some have even questioned continuing Turkish membership in NATO).

At the outset of the Syrian uprising, Ankara attempted to persuade the Bashar al-Assad regime to stop slaughtering its own citizens. When that failed, Turkey sought Western support for a more direct military engagement: it proposed no-fly zones and the creation of a safe haven and safe corridors inside Syria for Syrians fleeing the Assad forces. They even contemplated putting Turkish boots on the ground if others would do likewise. But others demurred. The Obama administration was deep in re-election mode, and was campaigning on ending the American military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, not starting a new one in Syria. Further, in strategic mid-pivot to Asia, the US was reluctant to risk getting its foot caught in the Middle East. Others, including the Europeans and Canadians, were likewise unwilling to put boots on the ground, certainly not in Syria, although if Ankara wished to do so they were prepared to hold the Turks' coats.

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Turkey and others began to assist the regime's opponents, and fighters and arms found their way across the border into Syria. Meanwhile "moderate" Syrian resistance progressively lost ground to the extremists, especially the IS (also known as ISIS and ISIL), who had territorial ambitions and ideological-theological agendas, directed towards Shia, Christian, Turkomen, Yazidi and other minorities in Iraq and Syria. Islamic State threatened Iraqi Kurdistan, America's ally in the 2003 war, as well. The IS captured Mosul, and proceeded to declare a Caliphate and gruesomely to execute Western innocents, virtually daring NATO and Arab countries to intervene. The Obama-led coalition of Western and Arab countries mobilized behind the Americans' decision to use air power to bolster the ground efforts of the Iraqi army, the Kurds, and others in order to degrade and destroy IS. Turkey, against its better judgment about the strategy and under pressure, joined in.

Kobani, a heretofore obscure, small but strategic city on the Turkish border, is defended against the IS by a Kurdish faction related to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a terrorist group with Marxist-Leninist origins that has ambitions to hive off part of southeastern Turkey to create a greater Kurdistan. With IS threatening to overrun Kobani, as many as 190,000 Kurdish refugees fled across the border into Turkey. Turkey was already sheltering over one million Syrian refugees, about 1000 times more than Canada is, at a cost of $3-billion.

Turkey's allies and its Kurds, who comprise 15 to 20 per cent of the Turkish population, have pressured Ankara to relieve Kobani by sending ground forces into Syria, providing arms to the Kurds in Kobani and permitting the use of Turkish bases to air-drop weapons and supplies to them, and allowing PKK fighters into Syria to help their Kobani relatives. This time the Turks demurred, although they did allow a contingent of 150 heavily armed Iraqi Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdistan Regional Government of Northern Iraq to convoy through Turkey into Kobani. The Turks fear that sooner rather than later the Syrian Kurds, who have made no secret of their ambitions for a greater Kurdistan derived in part from Turkey, will turn the guns on Turkey. Meanwhile, on-going peace talks between separatist Kurds and the Turkish authorities that were to bring to an end the 30-year insurgency that has cost upwards of 30,000 lives to a political end are in jeopardy. Turkish military clashes with the PKK in eastern Turkey have picked up and three off-duty Turkish soldiers were shot dead in the street this past week, schools were burned and scores have died in rioting. The IS, for its part, has also made clear its capacity to wreak terrorist havoc in Turkish cities if provoked.

One suspects that like the West during the Iraq-Iran war, the Turks are not inclined to hurry to intervene in Kobani to prevent their enemies from killing each other. Furthermore, many Turks apparently fear Kobani is a trap set to drag Turkey into a war with Syria, thereby weakening Turkey and putting it at risk of breakup. Conspiracies are not always imaginary in the Middle East: the infamous Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1915, which was concluded secretly by France and Britain to dismember the Ottoman Empire, is seared into Turkish consciousness. Last, and most important, the Turks believe that degrading Islamic State will not bring the slaughter to an end, that a larger strategy is needed and that the principal goal for the coalition has to be the end of the Assad regime, which has already triggered the deaths of 200,000 people and the flight of millions. The Turks will not go it alone, however, and no other government, Western or Arab, has shown any stomach for such a fight.

And so the West and its principal regional ally Turkey are once again at odds. Western critics are giving vent to their frustrations with what they perceive as Turkish obstinacy. These critics would do well to ask themselves, nonetheless, how their own countries' humanitarian records in this conflict stack up with Turkey's. They should ask themselves as well whether the Turkish concerns for their own security are not legitimate and whether it is fair to criticize them for not intervening on the ground in Kobani while their allies are so determined to keep their own troops on the sidelines, and so unwilling to lift a finger against Assad.

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