Fall of Aleppo is Ankara’s real concern

Fall of Aleppo is Ankara’s real concern

The government opened its borders for the transfer of the first units of Iraqi Kurdish fighters to pass through Turkish territory to the Syrian town of Kobane (or, officially, Ayn al-Arab) near the Turkish border yesterday, Oct. 30.

Their forces and heavy arms (like anti-tank, anti-aircraft and heavy machine guns) will join some 2,000 Syrian Kurdish fighters there resisting the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which have been attacking the town for over a month.

The total number of Peshmerga forces will only be 150 when the transfer is complete in a few days’ time - it is merely symbolic support.

Actually, the original number was 2,000 when the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, which is holding Kobane for the time being and is a sister organization of the Turkey-based outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), asked for help.

But Iraqi Kurdish fighters loyal to Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, were not the original choice of support for the PYD/PKK. They wanted either Turkey to supply heavy arms to them, or for PYD/PKK fighters to be allowed to use Turkish territory to enter Kobane. These requests came despite the PKK’s three-decade armed campaign against Turkish governments, and the fact that one of the PKK’s most notorious military leaders, Fehman Hussein (aka Bahoz Erdal), a Syrian Kurd, is reportedly in charge of the resistance in Kobane.

During a telephone conversation on the night of Oct. 18-19, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told U.S. President Barack Obama that Turkey could open its borders for the passage of either the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, also fighting against Bashar al-Assad, or Peshmerga forces.

The PYD had to accept that, but in order not to lose its political domination in the town to Barzani’s forces (almost all of civilian population of the town, more than 150,000 people, had already fled to Turkey within the first week) they first reduced the number to 1,500, then to 1,350, then to 500, then to 200, and finally to 150, according to security sources.

That has triggered a political row in Turkey. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), accused Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu of committing "treason" and surrendering to “terrorists” for helping the PKK by letting Iraqi Kurdish forces use Turkish territory.

The Syrian government in Damascus, despite having no actual control over large chunks of the country, accused Ankara of letting foreign armed forces violate the Syrian border from Turkey. (An ironic situation for the Baathist regime, which sheltered PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in Syria from 1982 to 1998; he has been in prison in Turkey since 1999.)

That is not the only irony in the theater.

Days after Erdoğan announced that some 1,300 FSA fighters could also use Turkish territory to enter Kobane to help the defense, Nizar al-Khatib, a spokesman for the FSA, told daily Hürriyet that this idea was not a good one, as it would weaken the defense of Aleppo.

That is a critical remark for Ankara, because since ISIL emerged as an unwelcome actor in the Iraq-Syria theater, one of Ankara’s main concerns has been ISIL capturing Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, which is only 60 kilometers from the Turkish border city of Kilis.

According to security estimates in Ankara, the northern sector of the city is being held by FSA forces. Its southern sector is divided between Syrian government forces and the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra. Al-Nusra and ISIL used to fight together until recently, falling out due to an intra-jihadist power game. However, recent reports have indicated to Ankara that the two are in rapprochement.

Ankara fears that if there is a massive ISIL advance on Aleppo, there could be another massive refugee flow to the Turkish border, as well as serious security problems. The estimates go up to another 1.5 million refugees, added to the existing 1.5 million in Turkey, who have been here since the start of the Syrian civil war over three years ago.

That is actually one of the main reasons why Turkey has been insisting on a no-fly zone over the north of the 36th parallel in talks with the U.S., believing that without air cover by the Syrian Air Force, an ISIL advance on Aleppo would not be able to succeed.