ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey will do what it can to prevent the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani, near its border with Syria, falling to Islamic State insurgents, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said late on Thursday, but stopped short of committing to military action.
Hours before Davutoglu’s comments, parliament gave the government powers to order cross-border military incursions against Islamic State, and to allow foreign coalition forces to launch similar operations from Turkish territory.
“We wouldn’t want Kobani to fall. We’ll do whatever we can to prevent this from happening,” Davutoglu said in a discussion with journalists broadcast on the A Haber television station, in comments apparently meant to placate Turkey’s Kurdish critics.
But later in the two-hour discussion program, he appeared to pull back from any suggestion that this meant Turkey was planning a military incursion, saying such a move could drag Ankara into a wider conflict along its 900 km (560-mile) border.
“Some are saying ‘Why aren’t you protecting Kurds in Kobani?’ If the Turkish armed forces enter Kobani and the Turkmens from Yayladag ask ‘why aren’t you saving us?’, we would have to go there as well,” he said, referring to another ethnic minority in Syria across from a Turkish border town.
“When the Arab citizens across from Reyhanli say ‘why don’t you save us as well”, we’d have to go there too.”
Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz was also quoted as telling reporters that it would be wrong to expect imminent military action after the parliamentary motion passed.
Islamic State fighters advanced to within a few kilometers (miles) of the center of Kobani on three sides on Thursday, having taken control of hundreds of villages around the town in recent weeks.
More than 180,000 Syrian Kurds have now fled to Turkey to escape the insurgents’ assault, Davutoglu said.
Their advance to within clear sight of Turkish military positions on the border has piled pressure on the NATO member to take a more robust stance against the Islamists.
But Ankara remains hesitant, fearing military intervention could deepen the insecurity on its border by strengthening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and bolster Kurdish fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.
Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan said on Wednesday that peace talks between his group and the Turkish state will come to an end if Islamic State militants are allowed to carry out a massacre in Kobani.
Davutoglu said it was wrong to link the two issues.
“If Kobani falls, Turkey is not at fault. If Kobani falls, this shouldn’t be tied to the solution process (with the PKK). Kurds in Kobani are our brothers as well,” Davutoglu said.
“The opportunity the (parliamentary) motion gives us is that we can do everything possible when the situation warrants it ... We will take all humanitarian precautions against the persecution of our brothers in Kobani,” he said.
Kurdish politicians voiced doubts that Turkey would intervene in support of Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State onslaught, viewing the parliament mandate as aimed as much against Assad and the PKK as against the Islamists.
“Such comments are solely aimed at keeping the Kurdish people happy but don’t have any material backing,” said Ertugrul Kurkcu, a senior official from the pro-Kurdish party HDP. “At the center of this mandate is the Syrian government and Assad and the PKK, not Islamic State.”
The party’s co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas met Davutoglu on Wednesday, “but no tangible action plan or promise to help protect Kurds was presented. These are just words of consolation,” Kurkcu told Reuters.
Demirtas said Davutoglu needed to back up his promise to help Kobani with action.
“Davutoglu’s statement is the first expression of a change of stance by the government. But it has to be put into practice. Even this second it is important for logistical support to be sent to Kobani,” he told the Hurriyet daily.
U.S.-led forces have been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, hitting a village near Kobani on Wednesday. Turkey has so far resisted a frontline military role.
President Tayyip Erdogan insists air strikes alone will not contain the Islamic State threat, and wants simultaneous action to be taken against Assad’s government, including the creation of a no-fly zone on the Syrian side of the border.
“You know what will happen if there isn’t a no-fly zone? ISIL bases will be bombed and then the Syrian regime, Assad, who has committed all those massacres, believing that he is now legitimate, will bide his time and bomb Aleppo,” Davutoglu said.
“ISIL withdraws, the Free Syria Army (moderate opposition forces) are weak, and the regime will hit Aleppo with all its might. Three million people will start moving from Aleppo to Turkey,” he said.
Thursday’s parliamentary vote extended a mandate initially intended to allow Ankara to strike Kurdish militants in northern Iraq and to defend against any threat from Assad’s forces.
Those objectives remain in place, complicating its policy towards Islamic State and meaning it is likely to remain reluctant to take a full role in the U.S.-led coalition.
“Turkey’s Syria policy is awash with confusing and often conflicting priorities ... (the) policy is to degrade ISIS and Assad alike while also subjugating the PKK,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.
Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Peter Graff