Turkey in the crosshairs: Kurds from Iraq, Syria and Turkey should unite to fight ISIS on the ground

An explosion rocks Kobani during a reported suicide car bomb attack by ISIS.
An explosion rocks Kobani during a reported suicide car bomb attack by ISIS.

Following the recent tragic deaths of two Canadian soldiers at the hands of domestic terrorists, who both appeared to be seeking to assist the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), some Canadians might feel that our country should quit the international coalition confronting ISIS.

The murders, however, appear likely to cause more Canadians to be cautiously favourable to continue the air campaign against jihadis, who have been denounced by Muslim leaders and believers worldwide.

The campaign against the estimated 20,000 mostly Sunni combatants of ISIS in Iraq and Syria can probably only be won decisively by soldiers. If so, the challenge is to obtain ground troops quickly from regional governments and communities, such as the Kurds, who are already confronting ISIS effectively. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey understandably queries why his soldiers are being pushed to intervene when other NATO members refuse to send ground troops.

In an encouraging recent reversal, Erdogan will allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross from his country into Syria to assist fellow Kurds in defending the border town of Kobani. Erdogan has for three years been preoccupied with ousting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Most in the international coalition regard ISIS as a worse immediate threat than Assad; he has thus received little encouragement on this priority.

[ David Jones: U.S. must mobilize and strike regardless of Turkey's stance ]

It is important to understand Turkey, its president and his particular challenges. The founding of the modern republic in 1923 under the brilliant leadership of Kemal Ataturk ended the Ottoman caliphates and sultanates and proved to be major world events. Today as a democracy, NATO member, and having a strong economy and almost 80 million citizens – mostly of Sunni Muslim faith Turkey has become a key regional and international power linking Asia and Europe.

The Turkish reality includes a distinct, 15-million-strong Kurdish community, which, seeking full nationhood, has rebelled at several points. Their 1937-38 uprising, for example, sparked by Ankara’s massive population resettlements, saw 50-70,000 Kurds and Alevis killed. In the 1970s, Kurdish separatists coalesced into the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and in 1984 launched a 15-year bloody war against the national government. The conflict finally tapered off after the capture of the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan; Erdogan must handle matters especially delicately at present if the crucial peace negotiations are not to be broken off.

American and other coalition air forces are providing essential help in Kobani and elsewhere with air strikes and drops of arms and humanitarian aid, but for a host of historical and other reasons fighters from the region seem best to do the door-to-door fighting rather the Americans, Canadians or others from distant lands.

In Iraq, the moderate Sunni, tribal and other national communities were systematically abused by the Shiite-based regime of Nouri al-Maliki during eight years. His recent successor, Prime Minister Abadi, is doing better at inclusion, but there are disturbing indications that ISIS is only a few kilometres away from Baghdad international airport. Many residents of Baghdad do not believe that the remaining Iraqi army will be able to protect them if ISIS attacks the capital.

The best hope for all ISIS opponents in Iraq is probably the Kurds from Iraq, Syria and Turkey working in combination with revitalized Iraqi government soldiers, and air strikes from the international coalition.

In Syria, however, where its disintegration would threaten the five nations on its borders and indirectly the entire region, there is no combat-ready force. The Pentagon has announced that it will take three to five months to identify and vet fighters from the Syrian opposition and another year to train them. What will happen, other than air strikes, in the meantime?

The Pentagon has announced that it will take three to five months to identify and vet fighters from the Syrian opposition and another year to train them. What will happen, other than air strikes, in the meantime?

Obama is refusing to deploy US military power in Syria until there is an outline of a political agreement. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the international public servant Lakhdar Brahimi could not find one. Half a dozen powers ensured that a military equilibrium was never reached. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah backed Assad; Saudi Arabia, some Gulf states, and the US backed the opposition.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran now share a common interest in defeating ISISbefore the chaos it brings reaches their own borders. The Assad regime and the non-jihadi opposition groups in Syria might thus be able to achieve unilateral truces.

The Assad government has suffered heavy casualties at ISIS’s hands and has raised the prices of food, water, and electricity for people already suffering from drastic shortages. The opposition forces centered on the Free Syrian Army are close to losing control of their last border crossing to Turkey. Assad’s forces and the moderate opposition are both vulnerable, but Assad would never agree to such a truce without a push from Iran as his most important backer.

It is difficult for Syrians to accept that the countries in the Gulf and elsewhere that supported ISIS with arms, financing, and fighters are now joining an American-led coalition to bring it down. Yet ISIS may have gone too far even for its own backers. ISIS looks to the Iranian regime as its mentor. What ISIS has been doing in Syria and Iraq, the Iranian regime has been doing for the past 35 years. The only difference is that Tehran is not doing it in front of cameras for the entire world to see.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.

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