By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
Despite an intensive campaign of air strikes—including U.S. warplanes, Arab nation fighters, armed drones, and Tomahawk cruise missiles—the full scope of the rapid advance of ISIS has now become abundantly clear to the surrounding nations of the Middle East. By some American and British intelligence and military estimates, ISIS forces now number nearly 30,000.
Throughout Friday afternoon and evening, ISIS fighters in northern Syria—battling with Kurdish fighters—advanced to within a few hundred yards of the Turkish border. The intense fighting was so close that Kurds, Armenians, Yazidi, and Christian Syrians seeking refuge inside Turkey could watch the firefight from knolls and hilltops only a hundred yards inside the razor wire and chain link fence separating the two countries.
Television camera crews from news organizations captured the dramatic images of ISIS militants, clad in black, moving in small groups across the rolling landscape, while Kurds exchanged fire using small arms, mortars and a few vehicle-mounted guns. A CNN camera operator was so close to the firefight that crowds of Kurdish refugees nearby could be heard cheering and clapping when the Kurds would open up with heavier rounds of fire. Walking between the refugees and the razor wire were Turkish soldiers, heavily armed, watching nervously as the battle drew ever closer. Phil Black, CNN’s correspondent at that location, estimated the militants to be within a mile of the border (though my experience with the lens capacity and optical range of professional TV cameras suggests that the distance between CNN’s tripod and the closest ISIS fighters was less than 400 yards).
The war between ISIS and the rest of the world has now reached the doorstep of Turkey, a major European power and a NATO member state. The question becomes: how and when does Turkey respond, and under what circumstances?
Fareed Zakaria, speaking later in the day on CNN, suggested that the breathtaking proximity of Turkish soldiers and ISIS militants means that Turkey—up until now an ambivalent witness to the meltdown within Syria and Iraq—may have the security catalyst and political motivation it needs to provide the much-discussed injection of “boots on the ground,” so categorically dismissed as an option by U.S. President Barack Obama, and so scrupulously avoided by representatives of scores of other countries—even those supportive of air strikes.
The air campaign, in part, has shifted toward cutting off a measurable share of ISIS funding. U.S. warplanes have again struck oil facilities and oil distribution sites within Iraq and Syria. The goal: starve ISIS of the quick cash it receives from the sale of oil from facilities under its control. By some estimates, ISIS collects nearly $2 million per day through the sale of oil on the black market. Many of the same middlemen who bought oil from Syrian or Iraqi companies only months ago now buy it directly from ISIS, often paying cash, and frequently at a deep discount; ISIS is not concerned with profits by the traditional definition, but instead seeks to insure a steady supply of operating cash to fund its rapidly-moving army.
But all the air assets of the United States and its five partner Arab nations—Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—were unable to assist the Kurds in their fierce battles which now rage so close to the Turkish border. ISIS has been engaged in a systematic campaign to consolidate its territorial gains throughout Iraq and Syria, but it has exerted particular effort within the last week to push Kurdish fighters back along a long line of towns and villages across the northern rim of Syria. The Kurds have fought valiantly, but the ISIS advance has continued, often only by a few miles each day. The Kurdish stronghold of Kobani (in Arabic, Ayn al-Arab), which sits on the border checkpoint just south of Suruc, in Turkey, has been under siege all week as ISIS militants slowly encircle the town.
Kobani has previously served as a safe-haven for civilian refugees fleeing ISIS, and its own population has swollen as the Syrian Civil war had raged. But the steady advance of ISIS has caused panic in Kobani and in a dozen smaller towns across the northern rim of Syria, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled into Turkey to escape the wrath of the radicals. Many have arrived with stories of atrocities they have witnessed before their escape. Humanitarian groups and U.N. observers say that roughly 200,000 refugees have entered Turkey just within the last seven days. Thousands more enter the country each day, and the total number of Syrians who have fled their own country by crossing into Turkey now numbers nearly 1.5 million.
The Syrian civil war, now well into its third year, has rapidly morphed into something much more dangerous and complex than anything White House policy-makers could have envisioned six months ago. ISIS, also sometimes called ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), formed out of the chaos and lawlessness in northern Syria as anti-Assad rebels fought with troops loyal to Damascus. ISIS co-opted other radical groups, including some al Qaeda units in Syria and northern Iraq. Coalescing around those units most heavily-armed, the newer, larger ISIS army sprang into action this spring, sweeping across Syria, crossing the border into Iraq, and moving with astonishing speed across wide swaths of Iraq. Ahead of its advance, the Iraqi army and Iraqi security forces collapsed, abandoning weapons, tanks, small vehicles and ammunition. The collapse of the Iraqi army, and ISIS’s rapid advance to within 40 miles of Baghdad, threatened to unravel Iraq as a nation, and created stresses along the borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Later, after U.S. air power began to intervene on behalf of thousands of besieged Yazidis trapped on and around Mount Sinjar, ISIS militants raised the stakes and escalated the brutality and violence. ISIS radicals beheaded journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a week later killed a British aid worker. The United States began a full-scale air campaign against ISIS inside Iraq, but not Syria. Later, after a week of discussion and debate over whether ISIS could be degraded using only airstrikes in Iraq, the United States—along with five Arab partner countries, and some French air assets—began a campaign of attacking ISIS positions deep inside Syria.
Air power, though largely welcomed by the government of Iraq, and now receiving tacit approval from Assad’s government in Syria, has arrived late to the landscape of fractious, war-torn Syria, where tens of thousands have died in a brutal, bloody civil war. Not all of the anti-Assad rebel factions are in favor of intervention by the U.S. or other western powers. Some rebel groups, in fact, fear the worst: U.S. air strikes will have only a modest effect on ISIS while shoring up the Assad regime in Damascus. Other rebels groups support U.S. air intervention, but only if such strikes can be surgically targeted to strike ISIS positions without collateral damage. Indeed, some observers on the ground in Syria have reported that U.S. strikes have caused extensive damage in civilian areas.
Still, in predominantly Kurdish areas of both Iraq and Syria, the air strikes are welcome. Kurdish fighters have been engaged along a variety of fronts with ISIS, in some cases battling for survival. Reports of ISIS atrocities—beheadings, mass shootings, crucifixions, amputations, kidnapping, and rape—have spurred panic among the general population, and entire villages and towns have emptied out ahead of the arrival of ISIS forces. The struggle has been particularly intense across parts of northern Syria, where ethnic and religious minorities proliferate (Kurds, Yazidis, Syrian Christians, Armenians, even Turks).
ISIS seeks to establish a caliphate—a broadly-defined sovereign land, in defiance of existing borders, ruled by a radical Sunni interpretation of some parts of Islamic law (most Muslims eschew ISIS’s extremist calibration of the religion), and this has led to horrifying results in many towns and cities now under ISIS control. Vendors and markets must pay tribute to ISIS collectors, schools are banned, women and children are to stay indoors, Shiite mosques are destroyed, and ethnic or religious minorities (Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, Kurds) must disavow their beliefs and express absolute loyalty to the ISIS definition of religious law. Those who do not comply are summarily killed.
The beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines, have become part of a gruesome pattern of publicity meant to instill fear outside of the immediate reach of ISIS, and discourage foreign intervention on behalf those whom ISIS is terrorizing. But the beheadings may have been the catalyst which brought about the start of the U.S. air campaign. After weeks of debate, Britain’s Parliament voted to authorize U.K. air power in Iraq (but presumably not in other areas of the Middle East) in the fight against ISIS. The same day as the British decision, both Denmark and Belgium also passed resolutions offering military help.
The matter of boots-on-the-ground remains tenaciously unresolved. There is still no consensus in Washington over how to approach the next phase of what will surely be a long struggle. Almost everyone—military experts and military analysts, foreign policy wonks, the Pentagon brass—agrees that the air campaign can only go so far. Without trained, disciplined eyes on the ground, air strikes remain vaguely focused, and can often lead to unreliable levels of success. (Some recent U.S. strikes may have produced much material damage, but few actual ISIS casualties). The more narrowly-defined mission to defang the Khorasan Group, a terror-within-the-terror cell enclave of bomb-makers and hardened fighters, may also yield spotty results if left exclusively to air power.
So the question becomes: whose troops can be effectively deployed to provide an on-the-ground army to confront ISIS? For many weeks, some have suggested Saudi Arabia, a country with vast wealth, and a nation which also receives hundreds of millions of dollars in military and technological assistance from the United States. But the Saudis are unlikely to want to engage on the ground, and will likely demure if pressed to participate beyond the air campaign now under way.
Today’s fighting along the northern rim of Syria, within view of Turkey’s army, may offer a clue as to the best possible direction. So reluctant is Turkey to provoke ISIS, that is has used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to quell mass disturbances near the border checkpoints and the point-of-entry stations. Kurdish men on the Turkish side of the border want to heed the call of their besieged brethren inside Syria. So even as thousands flee Syria, thousands more seek to enter the country to fight ISIS. (Today, there were reports from some Turkish towns that hundreds of Kurds, able to witness some of the fighting taking place less than a mile away, have begun to overwhelm the Turkish soldiers; Kurds have, in several places, reportedly broken down the border fence or used cutting tools to break through the razor wire, and in one area Turkish military officers reportedly did not intervene in the incident).
After changing its mind about allowing U.S. and French airplanes access to Turkish bases, while still agreeing to more to seal off its porous border with Syria—a loosely-patrolled line which many would-be militants from Europe apparently cross in search of jihadist violence—Turkey may soon have reason to rethink, again. Days ago, it completed a hostage trade with ISIS, a straight-up prisoner-for-prisoner exchange which included no quid pro quo on invasion or military action. In other words, Turkey may no commitment to its ISIS contacts regarding hostilities.
Turkey is a NATO member state, well-funded, and its army is professional, well-trained, disciplined, and relatively free of corruption. And with ISIS fighters only a few hundred yards from the border, and with Turkey now bearing a heavy share of the humanitarian load wrought by ISIS’s atrocities, the time may be ideal for Turkey to choose sides in a deadly fight it was trying to avoid only weeks ago.
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