U.S. frustrated by Turkish inaction, but seeks support over time

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is frustrated by Turkey’s failure to stop the Islamic State onslaught on the Syrian town of Kobani but hopes to win its support against the group over time, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.

Turkish troops have sat on the sidelines as Islamic State militants have fought to gain control of Kobani, a Syrian town on the border with Turkey that is largely populated by Kurds, who also constitute large minorities in Turkey and Iraq.

Analysts and U.S. officials said Turkey’s hesitance to commit its military, NATO’s second-largest, to save Kobani reflects a fear of emboldening and empowering its own Kurdish population, which has long sought greater autonomy.

The result is a standoff between two NATO allies as a militant group that has overrun large parts of Iraq and Syria this year appeared close to seizing Kobani this week.

“There’s no question the U.S. government thinks Turkey can do more, should do more, and that they are using excuses not to do more,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We have been sending that message very clearly behind the scenes.”

The official suggested that Turkey was juggling its desire not to see the Syrian Kurds strengthened with the potential threat to Turkey’s interests, including the continuing flow of Syrian refugees across its border.

“You have to weigh the fact that making the decision not to ... help across the border means your own border is threatened,” said the U.S. official of the Turkish calculation. “And if you are not doing that (stopping the IS attack on Kobani) because of political considerations about the Kurds, then you are still putting your own country at risk.”


Analysts suggested that Turkey - while calling for a no-fly zone, a buffer zone in Syria to keep refugees from flowing into its territory and a greater focus on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - was really worried about Kurdish autonomy.

“The Turks have made, if you want, a Faustian bargain of sorts,” said Henri Barkey, a former member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff who now teaches at Lehigh University. “The Faustian bargain is this: they are willing to take in lots of refugees, even though it is costing them a lot, if that means that the Syrian Kurds will face a defeat.”

“For Turkey, the greatest threat is the empowerment of the Kurds in Syria,” he added. “They see the potential for an autonomous (Kurdish) region in northern Syria ... to be terribly dangerous because if the Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi Kurds have autonomy, next are the Turkish Kurds,” Barkey said.

“They don’t want to save the Syrian Kurds. They want Kobani to fall because that would be a major, major blow for the Syrian Kurds,” he said, adding that a victory for the Syrian Kurds would strengthen the hand of Turkish Kurds in peace talks with Ankara.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan initiated the peace process in 2012 with the aim of ending a 30-year-old insurgency by militants pushing for greater Kurdish rights in Turkey. The conflict has killed 40,000 people, most of them Kurds.

Aaron Stein of the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank said Kobani’s fall would give the Islamic State territory on Turkey’s border, raise questions about the U.S. strategy of employing its air power mated to local forces on the ground and could undermine Turkey’s peace process.

“Turkey doesn’t think this anti-IS coalition will achieve much,” he said. “Second, if Assad remains then the status quo of these Kurdish cantons (in Syria) would remain, which Turkey doesn’t want.”

The United States is sending two envoys, retired General John Allen and State Department official Brett McGurk, to Turkey on Thursday and Friday to try to persuade Ankara to do more.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he expected Turkey to decide “over the next hours, days” what more it may do to confront the Islamic State. A U.S. official suggested the talks would be about more than Kobani, which may already have fallen.

“It’s a larger objective with them than Kobani ... a larger discussion,” said the official, suggesting that Washington was playing a longer game with Ankara about “the role they can play overall here.”

Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Ankara and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Tom Brown