Is ISIL after a second Kobane in Ras al-Ayn?
There are reports indicating that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) may be preparing to launch an attack on the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn near the Turkish border.
The town is just across from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpınar, and in the past there have been fatal incidents in which bombshells dropped on the Turkish side of the border from fights between jihadist and Kurdish forces. Ras al-Ayn and its surrounding villages are known to be under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria, a Kurdish party in line with the Turkey-origin Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
A massive attack by ISIL on another Syrian town, Kobane (or Ayn al-Arab), in another part of the 910 km long Turkish-Syrian border between September 2014 and January 2015, was repelled after strong resistance from the YPG fighters (the armed branch of the PYD), with the help of the PKK, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmarga (which crossed into Kobane via Turkey), and air support and attacks by the U.S.-led coalition. The town was left in ruins, and more than 150,000 of its inhabitants are still living in refugee camps around the Turkish town of Suruç, across from Kobane. Kobane is northwest of Raqqa, the ISIL capital in Syria, whereas Ras al-Ayn is in the northeast, towards Iraq.
The ISIL advance on Ras al-Ayn could be an attempt to secure another physical contact point with the Turkish border in order to renew the illegal crossing of foreign fighters into Syria, as well as the crossing of supplies, which has become more difficult due to stepped up security measures taken by the Turkish authorities and the PYD’s increasing control over larger portions of the Turkish border on the Syrian side.
The reports about Ras al-Ayn come at a time when ISIL has stepped up its attacks in Iraq, while on the other side of the border the Turkish government is still engaged in intense talks with the PKK, the PYD’s elder sister, in pursuit of a political settlement to the country’s chronic Kurdish problem.
The Iraqi theater is warming up with reports about a possible anti-ISIL coalition offensive on Mosul, also near the Turkish border, in order to retake it from ISIL control. ISIL took the oil-rich city in June 2014, after which 49 employees of the Turkish consulate there were taken hostage by ISIL. Those hostages were released alive through bargaining carried out by Turkey’s National Security Organization (MİT) in September.
U.S. Central Forces (CENTCOM) Commander General Lloyd Austin arrived in Ankara on March 11 to talk to Turkish Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Necdet Özel about possible scenarios in both Syria and Iraq against ISIL. Turkey has already committed itself to training and equipping Syrian opposition forces in Turkey and Iraqi Sunni tribes near Mosul in Iraq, as well as training the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. There are reports that the KRG is ready to give training to Christian fighters against ISIL and Iran is doing the same for Shiite-origin fighters, including Turkmens in Iraq.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgiç said on March 11 that opening up the strategic İncirlik air base for direct military operations in Syria and Iraq was subject to a wider concept, which means that the Turkish government wants to open up the base if it will also be used for a no-fly zone in Syrian territories for fighters against the Bashar al-Assad regime. This is a position that has not been able to find many supporters so far.
However, if ISIL tries a “second Kobane” in Ras al-Ayn, it could have multi-dimensional consequences in the region, including on the Kurdish dialogue process in Turkey.