On Thursday, October 9, the Carnegie Endowment hosted a media call on the situation in Kobani and Turkey’s strategy to combat the Islamic State with Yezid Sayigh, Sinan Ülgen, and Frederic Wehrey.

Listen to the call

Tom Carver: OK, good morning everyone. It’s Tom Carver here from the Carnegie Endowment, and this is the media call on the Islamic State and specifically the crisis in Kobani. I’m pleased to have with me here Yezid Sayigh, who is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. He is formerly a professor of Middle East studies at the King’s College London and focuses particular on Syria and military transformations in the Middle East.

And then I have Frederic Wehrey, who is a senior associate in the Middle East Program based in Washington, D.C. but is currently calling in from London and is an expert on the Gulf. We’re also hoping to have Sinan Ülgen who is a non-resident Turkish expert who is based at Carnegie Europe, joining us momentarily.

Just the usual reminders: please mute your line when you’re not speaking; this is an on-the- record call; if you ask a question please just identify yourselves for the benefit of the speakers; and it will last approximately 30 minutes. So we start with you Yezid, as you’re closest to the scene as it were. Do you have a sense of what the Turks are doing? They seem to be withstanding enormous pressure from the U.S. and others to get more involved in this.

Yezid Sayigh: Well my reading is that first of all, the Turks don’t want to do anything that involves a significant escalation or a shift, i.e. direct military involvement, even just yards inside Syrian territory without the direct participation and some form of greater commitment by other partners in NATO—the U.S. in particular. Because otherwise they will, in a sense, have opened the gate to some form of wider, legitimating ground action in Syria, and they don’t necessarily want to be the ones to lead on that.

And they don’t regard, sort of, Western pleas to save Kobani as a sufficient argument, as it were, they feel that what’s at stake is too significant to respond in that way. I also think that the way the Turks have come up with an interesting sort of angle that allows them to sound very committed but at the same time prevents them from actually doing anything—that is the way in which Erdogan over the past week or so, first committed Turkey to not allowing Kobani to fall, but at the same time said that any intervention in Syria has to aim at toppling Assad.

So by linking those two things together he in effect has gone from one side seeming to commit Turkey to stopping the Islamic State, at least in that area of Syria, but at the same time, he has given himself an escape clause by saying: yes we do that if there is an agreed strategy to bring down Assad. And as no one else, we all know, is committed to doing that.

Carver: Sinan has just joined. Sinan, I was just asking Yezid what he thought the Turks were up to, and maybe you could just give us your take on what the strategy is of Erdogan.

Sinan Ülgen: Well I’m not going to say things that are fundamentally different from what Yezid said a little while ago. Just add one detail, and that is, Turkey’s hand is actually weakening because right now the government –a week ago the government passed a law in parliament that will allow the government to send troops across the border to Iraq and Syria to fight terrorism. That was interpreted rightly in the international community and in Washington as the willingness of the government to be part of that coalition.

But now, as Yezid mentioned, there are negotiations going on. General Allen is going to be in Ankara today about this issue of how much the U.S. will support Turkey’s regime change agenda in Syria. But everybody’s also conscious that, at the end of the day, if there is no U.S. support for what Turkey desires to attain, and those are particularly the setting up of safe haven zones within Syria to be protected by a no-fly zone, and that’s essentially where the U.S. support is needed, that even if none of this happens, eventually Turkey will be pulled to engage much more aggressively against ISIS.

Turkey cannot remain aloof to what’s going on just beyond its borders.That is also the case with Kobani, where so far the government has been rather indifferent. But even more long term, everyone is aware within Turkey that ISIS is a far major threat. The more the government tries to impose this conditionality, the more it’s going to be difficult for the government to sell it domestically because there is rising perception about the threat of ISIS within Turkey.

Carver: Could you just talk a bit Sinan about the Kurdish dimension. How do you think this is going to play out vis-à-vis the talks with the PKK and so forth?

Ülgen: The government operated under one assumption, which is now being stress tested. That assumption is that the Kurds, and in particular the PKK, will not pull the plug on the ongoing negotiations with the Turkish government on behalf of Kobani. But that now is rather doubtful.

What will happen in the days ahead: The Kurdish political representatives have stated now publically that if Kobani falls to ISIS, they will pull back from the negotiations. Already they have given signs of what sort of violence that might bring about. In the last two days in more than 30 cities in Turkey, there were street protests, the number of causalities now stands at 25, the government had to impose curfew in some of the cities in the southeast for the first time in more than 36 years, so that already gives you a sense of how shaky the whole situation can become. So, there is actually a lot that hinges on the negotiations with Washington, because if Turkey can start to adopt a more aggressive attitude towards ISIS, or start to engage in Kobani more that will certainly pacify things domestically. But if it doesn’t do that than of course Turkey may be faced with almost a perfect storm of security threats, with the resurgence of PKK violence and ISIS at the border.

Carver: OK, we’ll open it up to questions in a minute, I just want to bring in Fred. Fred, how is this seen from the Gulf do you think? Are they happy to just wait to see what Turkey does?

Frederic Wehrey: Yeah, I think they’re actually somewhat marginal players in this drama. I mean Kobani, they obviously want a greater coalition against Assad, I mean I think that’s where they fall into this. They’ve always been of the mind that their participation in this coalition is really a prelude to a broader campaign against Assad. Can I just say a few words about the U.S. role in this?

Carver: Sure, yeah.

Wehrey: Yeah, I think it’s really important to look at, and this is coming off of Admiral Kirby’s statement, of the U.S. ,[…] force and their interests […], you know, can’t be everywhere at once, that I think they’ve got this sort of strategic plan of attacking ISIS that relies on command and control and leadership. And it seems to me from this statement that the fall of this town is somewhat of a marginal issue for us in the broader strategy. I mean, you also have to look at what’s happening in Iraq right now where the media’s gaze is not there, but if understand it ISIS is making significant gains in Anbar, they’ve taken over this central town called Hit […] the U.S. has engaged with Apaches trying to help the Iraqis security forces take Fallujah, so I think you have to realize that resources are really stretched thin. I mean you have to remember that for every single […] strike there’s about twenty supporting stories of intelligence, of surveillance flights, logistics and I just get the sense that, I saw this during the Libya campaign, where to go after mobile targets, technical vehicles, armored vehicles, it really requires persistent […] and intelligence drones, and I’m just not sure the U.S. has that kind of persistence capability right now to devout to this town.

Carver: OK, let’s open it up to questions because I think there are quite a few people on the call. Any questions for any of the three?

Reporter: Yes hello, I would like to ask Yezid a question if possible. Yezid, could elaborate the U.S. NATO position, I mean are they willing to interfere?

Sayigh: Sorry, to intervene specifically at Kobani?

Reporter: Yes, yes, yes.

Sayigh: Well, I mean we’ve already seen airstrikes around Kobani, but I think the U.S. clearly is making statements that not too much should be expected of it, or their power alone can’t do the trick, I guess that’s partly in order to put more pressure on the Turks to do something on the ground. But I think it’s very true that there is a limit to what air power can do, and I think that ISIS has calculated this perfectly carefully and sensibly that in the initial phases of their offenses against the rest of the countryside of Kobani, during which they took over dozens or more villages and hamlets and so on starting on the 24th of September, I think they understood that if they moved really fast at first, they weren’t going to present a target, it was going to take a while for the coalition or anyone else to respond, and it wasn’t until Kobani that the resistance really started to build up. The thing is that they’re basically exercising a hugging tactic, I mean it’s not impossible to target them with precision munitions as clearly they are doing – what is happening, in reality. But they’re so close to the border that in a way, I think they’re demonstrating very high confidence that they can do this and get away with it precisely in a way because it’s so close to the border. It’s partly a technical issue, and I think that for the U.S. or NATO to do much more there, they’re so close to the Turkish positions, I mean Fred is far more of an expert on this and can speak to this, but I just think that there’s fundamentally a political calculation by ISIS that they can do this and create a fait accomplish.

Carver: OK, any others?

Reporter: Hi, […] I was actually wondering, I had a question for Sinan, is ISIS doing the dirty work for the Turkish government right now because Turkish government was quite critical regarding an independent or autonomous state – a Kurdish state in Syria. I would appreciate your thoughts, thank you.

Ülgen: There’s certainly some of that in Turkish thinking, in the sense that the Turkish policymakers don’t like what they see in Rojava essentially, which is the main administration in terms of the Kurdish autonomy this region has acquired. They don’t like ISIS either, so the fact that the two are fighting each other, is not necessarily a bad outcome for Turkey if you really want to think in pure realistic terms. Of course, there’s a limit to how much Turkey can continue with this policy, because at the end of the day I believe if there is going to be a humanitarian tragedy just at Turkey’s borders, Turkey will have had responsibility in it. So, so far Turkey decided to remain aloof, but there are still two schools of thought in the Turkish government. The Erdogan school believes that Turkey should not intervene, they don’t like what they’re seeing in Kobani in terms of Kurdish autonomy, but there is another school of thought that believes that if Turkey lets this happen, you know a few miles across the border, that’s going to be very bad not only in terms of humanitarian cost, but also from the perspective of the image of the country.

Carver: Others?

Reporter: Yes, from now on, [...] again, what are the possible scenarios for the coming period?

Ülgen: Well, it is in terms of the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Ankara, there is very – almost no probability that the U.S. will back Turkey’s demands to be part of an anti-Assad campaign. So essentially Ankara will have to decide, how much it is going to be willing to engage under these conditions of not getting any significant U.S. support. So after this week’s meetings, and also depending developments on the ground, I expect that the position of Ankara to shift. Especially if ISIS starts to make inroads into Kobani despite the more heavy air strikes, then there will be, I believe, a contingency plan to send – certainly help Kobani, but that doesn’t solve the long term problem of how to deal with ISIS. That is nobody really has an answer to that as of yet, about how really to deal with the ISIS threat, given that on the Turkish side as well there is no political willingness as well to send troops across the border to fight ISIS.

Carver: Yezid?

Sayigh: I agree with that, I mean I don’t really have much to expect, to look at the broader picture in Syria, which is that in my view, further offensive action by ISIS was very likely, if not inevitable both there and in Iraq. We’ve seen, you know, very heavy ISIS pressure around Baghdad, pressure on army bases in the Anbar province. In Syria, the fighting in the last few weeks, the fighting in the last few weeks has been limited to the Kobani area, and I think it’s important to understand what ISIS is trying to do. I think in this case, as elsewhere like in Tabqa, in Raqqa in August, most of what it’s doing is consolidating its own control, straightening out lines, and I think in the case of Kobani, it was partly preventing linkage between the three main Kurdish enclaves, but more importantly, I think it was getting rid of a front that it had to defend. It’s thinking probably was that once it got rid of the Kurdish enclave around Kobani, they would be on the border with Turkey facing the Turkish army, which they probably correctly calculate doesn’t want to get in, so they could actually, ISIS that is, could reduce the number of men it has to pin down on defending a line against the Kurdish militias. So I think there are sort of more tactical calculations there, while also demonstrating that they can very easily shrug off the coalition air strikes and continue to conduct offensive action whenever and wherever they choose. I think we should keep in mind, that they may do this in other parts of Syria, they are keeping up the pressure on the regime to the east of Homs, on the line between Salamiyah and Palmyra, though that may not be where they eventually launch any major offensive, I think they’ll reserve for the area north of Aleppo.

Carver: Thank you, just a reminder to please mute your lines if you’re not speaking.

Reporter: This is Eric Schmitt with the New York Times in Washington, I just had a few quick factual questions for any of the speakers and then an assessment. Do any of you have any estimates as to how many residents are still remaining in Kobani and the number of fighters there? And second, what would be the potential blowback to the United States from the Kurdish community should Kobani fall? I don’t understand – I don’t have a good sense of the relationship between the Syrian Kurds there and say the Kurds that the U.S. is working with in Iraq, and whether these Kurds for instance in Syria had any role in the assistance in getting the Yazidis off the mountain in Iraq or not.

Sayigh: Well I’ll say what I know at least is that – I mean first of all, the Kurds of this region are quite distinct from the Kurds in Iraq. I mean, we’re talking about areas that are geographically quite separate. The Kurdish community historically, socially, etc., has these distinct sort of subdivisions. Politically speaking, the Kurds that – the Kurdish regional government that the U.S. works with is – consists of obviously of the P.U.K. and of the K.D.P., led by Barzani. The Barzani faction, which is strongest in Erbil and Barzani himself the President of KRG, are hostile to the P.Y.P. Syrian Kurdish party which controls the Kurdish enclaves in Syria. So, there’s not a lot of love lost between them. There have been several instances of the K.D.P. or the K.R.G. in Kurdistan, Iraq, blocking the border to the P.Y.P. area in [……]. And so there is probably not much attempt now to support them. But in any case, the K.R.G. is not adjacent to Kobani, it’s quite distant, there is a lot of Turkish territory in between them or ISIS controlled territory in between. And I guess the only thing to add there is that we know there were at least 140, maybe 150,000 refugees, mostly Kurdish though not necessarily all Kurdish who had already left the region of Ain Arab, Kobani since 24th of September, flowing into Turkey, so it’s very likely that there are not that many civilians still inside the town, although I doubt very much that anyone has an accurate estimate.

Ülgen: Well the estimate that I’ve seen is about 10,000 for the residents remaining in Kobani, but I just wanted to add something that Yezid rightly pointed out, which complicates Turkish decision making in this case. Turkey has a very good relationship with Barzani, and with K.R.G. And the fact that K.R.G. is itself hostile to administration in Kobani, complicated Ankara’s decision making. Imagine a scenario the K.R.G. had a different approach, and had really wanted Turkey to intervene, then things might have been a bit different. But now, Turkey is not even backed by Iraqi Kurds in terms of its more aggressive intervention in Kobani.

Wehrey: Yeah I think I saw a United Nations estimate that there were about a couple hundred Kurds left in Kobani, so I think we’re seeing, you know, wildly different figures on that and I think regarding the Sinjar question, my understanding is they did play a significant role in helping a corridor for that […..] out of Sinjar. And just to add to the K.R.G. issue, I mean you have Barzani come out, I think yesterday, really saying if only Turkey would lift the blockade we would be sending forces to aid the Y.P.P., is think that’s a bit disingenuous given the hostility we know exists between the two, so I think either really trying to push the blame on to Turkey there.

Reporter: Just a follow up question to any of the panel here, would there be any constructive role the Turkish military could play if they did go into Kobani? Or is the antagonism between the army and the Syrian Kurds there, is that just a recipe for perhaps complicating things, or even increasing the hostilities there in terms of who the Turks might actually be fighting, ISIS or the Syrian Kurds?

Ülgen: Yeah, I think that the reticence on the Turkish side is also related to what you’ve just highlighted, that once that decision is made – if ever – but if that decision is made to move Turkish troops across the border to save Kobani, then what? Mainly, what’s the next step? Because, that would mean Turkey unilaterally would have taken the risk, without U.S. backing for a more ambitious plan to settle some of the core problems of the region and get – expose itself to ISIS retaliation, which is you know, quite unfortunately likely given that ISIS or militants that are now within ISIS, have operated out of Turkey and crossing the borders in the past few years when the government turned a blind eye to their activities for the sake of doing regime change in Syria.

Carver: Yezid?

Sayigh: I don’t have much to add except simply to underline that for Turkey to intervene now would probably raise the stakes much higher, however if Turkey had as it were drawn a red line in the sand two weeks earlier or at the very start of the ISIS offensive saying, you know, the moment you have beyond the following location, we will deploy to protect the rest of this town and prevent any further offensive action. Something like that, but of course that already assumes Turkey could have resolved the sort of internal differences of a policy on Syria that Sinan discussed earlier. The fact that Erdogan and others don’t want to support the Kurds in that area, they’re not happy with Kurdish autonomy, they weren’t going to protect. But if they would have been clearer and more decisive earlier on in a more preemptive way then this situation may not have risen in the first place. But it looks like that ISIS felt it had low lying fruit it could easily pluck.

Reporter: Hello, may I ask a question please? This is Marlin Dick from the Daily Star newspaper. I’d like to ask about the, go back to the whole buffer zone idea, in the context of it being enthusiastically supported by France. When you folks on the panel talk about the buffer zone, and people talk about the no fly zone that must accompany it-- and the no fly zone, I assume, while it might be directed at the regime, you would think the problem is ISIS, you’re talking about a no fly zone against ISIS, which doesn’t have aircraft. So the entire discussion and the debate of the no-fly zone component of the buffer zone kind of confuses some people out there. Is there anyway to get -- unless we describe this all as a way to put pressure on a political solution.

Ülgen: No there is a strategy behind it. And thank you for asking the question because the strategy has somewhat not been clear. What Turkey wants is the safe haven which would have a double objective. The first objective would be to cater to possibly additional outflows of refugees, that’s on. But the second one would be Turkey wants it to also be used for the training and equip module of the anti-Assad campaign. That is the reason why the no fly zones is out there. Because essentially those zones are going to have an offensive role in bringing down eventually the Syrian regime. That is at least the Turkish calculation. Otherwise, as you rightly point out, there is no need for a no-fly zone -- ISIS has no air power.

Sayigh: If I could add something there. This is something that I discussed or put out early in 2013, this whole issue of no-fly zone corridors has been out there since at least 2012. I just want to point out that, and this is what Sinan just put his finger on, is that the Turks would like to present the idea of a protective zone in a manner that sort of forces its allies to go on the offensive against the regime. Whereas, the idea of providing a safe zone for refugees near the border, either near in the south with Jordan or in the north with Turkey, could have been pushed at a much earlier stage in a way that was defensive. In other words to say we will recognize a zone of 10, 20, 30 kilometers deep in such and such a location on our border in which refugees and displaced persons can assemble and receive humanitarian assistance from outside, and we basically require the regime not to target this with any kind of power, whether air power or artillery, and that we will if this happens respond to any attacks and silence the sources. In other words, you don’t need to set up a formal no fly zone over Syrian territory -- what you say is that you will defend the border area. And I’m pointing this out simply to say there are other options, and that if any of these external actors, whether Turkey, France, the U.S. or others, had been sufficiently committed, they could have invested this kind of political capital doing this much earlier in the game before we were talking about 2, let alone, 3 million refugees.

For this now to happen would still be, I think now is a good time to bring this back up, but if it’s brought up in the context of using it manipulatively to turn it into a means for offensive action against Damascus, which Russia still will not allow, Iran will not allow, the U.S. will be reluctant to do because it does not want to do this, and especially if that means its going to lose Iranian support on Iraq, then I think that the Turkish ploy is going to backfire at the expense of local Syrian civilians.

Carver: We’ve got time for one other.

Reporter: This is Jo Biddle from the AFP -- May I ask a question? I’d like to pick up on the theme of retaliation by ISIS against the Turks and wondered if you could perhaps describe a little bit more what kind of form that retaliation could take, and more broadly, do you believe that ISIS has any territorial ambitions to try to move into Turkey? Obviously the army there is well-equipped and well-trained as we know, but perhaps would they even try moving into Turkish territory. And one other question that is perhaps a little bit wider and beyond the subject of Turkey itself, but I was wondering whether if your panel had any reaction to news over the weekend that the Pakistan Taliban is sending its support to ISIS, and whether in fact U.S. airstrikes and the coalition building is indeed galvanizing extremist support for ISIS ranks? Thank you.

Ülgen: Maybe I’ll take the first two. The second question, the answer is definitely no I don’t think that ISIS has either the potential or the ability to directly attack Turkey, Turkish territory, in a more conventional fight. That’s probably out of the question. But ISIS has, in my belief, the ability to retaliate, which is essentially by exporting their brand of terrorism to Turkey, by carrying out suicide attacks, bombs, and so on. What many people fear is that they may have already developed, established their own networks, cell structures during the time when the government turned a blind eye to many of these groups in the past. That’s the fear.

And perhaps the second component of that is the Turkish exclave in Syria. It belongs to the grandfather, it’s a tomb of the grandfather of the person who set up the Ottoman Empire, Osman, so Suleiman Shah’s tomb is a Turkish exclave in Syria. It’s about 30 kilometers to the Turkish border. There’s a small Turkish garrison around it. And that is under ISIS threat. And so you know one way for ISIS to strike would also be to strike against that tomb and try to capture it, which would certainly lead to Turkish reaction. So that is something to be conscious of, we might see that sort of scenario unraveling if Turkey decides to take adopt a more aggressive stance towards ISIS.

Carver: Yezid, do you just want to answer that Taliban question?

Sayigh: The thing about the about the Taliban that is very interesting is that ISIS is obviously trying to appeal to a wide global audience, and present itself as a global movement in a way, as a caliphate. Although in my view, ISIS’ core agenda focuses on Iraq and on neighboring Arab Levantine countries. I think the core is Iraq but I think what they do is they use their sort of global appeal as a way of keeping up the pressure on their adversaries.This keeps the Americans, the Europeans, some Arab countries, the Turks concerned about flows from their countries, it diverts intelligence attention, but at the end of the day, this is not critical for their war efforts, certainly not in Iraq.

Because most, not all, but most of the foreign fighters that do come in end up in Syria. My sense however, my hunch, I mean I just got back from Gaziantep the day before yesterday after spending nearly 10 days there talking to a lot of Syrians and local and international reps etc and my sense is that the Islamic State has been ‘Syrianizing’ its operation in Syria. And although there are foreign fighters, administrators, technicians, etc, I think that from now on we should think of ISIS in Syria as more of a Syrian operation and not to overestimate or exaggerate the importance and impact of foreign volunteers.

I think the balance is shifting now. It’s attention grabbing when the Taliban announces something like this. In terms of ISIS, it uses this very opportunistically, but the critical impact of ISIS that we should all keep our eyes on is not Pakistan or even elsewhere in the region -- it’s what’s going to happening in Jordan and maybe Lebanon where there are very large receptive audiences, and if this air campaign goes on for a long while without out a clear political strategy, without clear results, then I think it’s not just in Iraq and Syria that will see the consequences but at the moment Western leaders do not seem to have their eyes on that ball.

Carver: Okay, I think we’ll call it a halt there. Thank you very much guys, thank you Yezid, thank you Fred, thank you Sinan.