Last night’s Wall Street Journal’s review and outlook examines how “The siege of Kobani shows the holes in Obama’s strategy:”
A month ago President Obama ordered the world’s greatest military “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. America’s word isn’t what it used to be. As we went to press on Tuesday, ISIS was on the verge of a major military victory in Kobani, a mostly Kurdish city along Syria’s border with Turkey.
The siege of Kobani has left hundreds dead and forced some 200,000 to flee, mostly to Turkey. The city’s fall would mean a massacre of civilians and Kurdish fighters—ISIS doesn’t distinguish among “apostates”—that would put Kobani in the same sentence with Srebrenica. So soon after Mr. Obama’s call to arms, it would also be a blow to American prestige and a huge recruiting tool for ISIS. The jihadists would claim they’ve defeated an America unable to stop them.
For three weeks the U.S. has watched while doing little to help undermanned Syrian Kurdish fighters holding out against the terrorist army that is using stolen American weapons. The black flag of ISIS appeared Monday above buildings in an outlying district of Kobani, which before the war had a population of some 50,000.
After the Kurds begged for help, the U.S. on Tuesday escalated air strikes against ISIS artillery positions near Kobani. But the bombing is late and insufficient. ISIS fighters move in small teams and many are dug into urban areas.
The Syrian Kurds are trapped between the President’s refusal to act beyond cursory bombing and neighboring Turkey’s cynical realpolitik. In northern Syria and across the Middle East, the Kurds are secular, mostly Sunni Muslims and staunch friends of America. The U.S. needs to protect and strengthen these allies to defeat Islamist terror and restore order in the region.
As for Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ’s government is letting its distrust of Kurdish intentions cloud its moral and strategic interests. Turkey refuses to let weapons and supplies cross into Kobani to reach the Syrian Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Committees. Ankara suspects them of links to the banned Turkish Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK. Though Turkey’s parliament last week voted to support the Obama campaign, its formidable military sits on the border, watching the ISIS onslaught.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said last week that “we do not want Kobani to fall,” and he shouldn’t. With Kobani in ISIS hands, a long chunk of Turkey’s (and thus NATO’s) southern frontier would be in the hands of a fanatical terrorist army. Mr. Davutoglu said this week the Turks were prepared to send ground forces into Syria but first wanted to see “a clear strategy” from President Obama. Join the club.
Speaking on Tuesday at a Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey, Mr. Erdogan argued that ISIS can’t be defeated by air power alone. “The terror will not be over,” he said, “unless we cooperate for a ground operation.” America’s military brass have made clear they agree.
Mr. Erdogan didn’t offer details about a ground operation but he called for a no-fly zone to ground Bashar Assad ’s planes in Syria, a secure border security zone, and more training and arming of moderate Syrian rebels. These columns have suggested the same for more than three years.
The regional frustration with Washington dates to the beginning of the Syrian uprising in spring 2011. The Turks and pro-American Gulf states turned against Assad’s regime and backed the rebels. The Turks, who have the best army, were reluctant to take the risk to move militarily on their own.
Out of character, Mr. Erdogan even turned the other cheek after Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane in 2012. But Turkish officials urged America to arm Syria’s rebels and weaken the Assad regime with air strikes and said it would follow the U.S. lead. Washington refused.
In his reversal last month on Iraq and Syria, President Obama ruled out U.S. ground forces and left out the Assad regime from his ISIS plan. As Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham wrote in these pages on Tuesday, the absence of a policy to remove Assad is a “self-defeating contradiction.” Turkey and the Gulf allies think the campaign against ISIS will strengthen their nemesis Assad and his Iranian godfathers. They are right to be worried.
The Turks and friendly Arab are looking for American leadership in Kobani and beyond. The Syrian city needs weapons and fuel supplies, a more intense bombing campaign, and maybe U.S. Special Forces to end the ISIS siege. This early crisis in the Obama campaign exposes flaws in his strategy that will continue to undermine the military effort and the anti-ISIS regional alliance.
No successful war plan is static, and Mr. Obama needs to adjust his now if he wants to stop a massacre in Kobani and the continuing march of ISIS.