Exaggeration on both sides of the fight for Kobane has been commonplace so one must take the news from the YPG with a grain of salt, but the news is certainly far better from reports last week speaking of Kobane’s imminent collapse. Aided by airstrikes from the US-led coalition, which is seeking a propaganda victory following tepid initial progress of the air campaign, it appears that the city (which according to Secretary of State John Kerry is not essential to the US strategy) is not in danger of imminent collapse assuming no renewed assault by the Islamic State.
While the coalition pats itself on the back for -- hopefully -- staving off a Srebrenica-type massacre and (again hopefully) returns its gaze to Anbar province over in Iraq, where the Islamic State has been making significant gains following capture of one of the largest military bases in western Iraq, Turkey is warily heaving a sigh of relief. Turkey, like its neighbors, is concerned with transnational actors in this conflict, but, unlike the US-led coalition who are focusing on the Islamic State, is worried about a different one: Kurdish independence movements. The Kurds, it would appear, are a bigger threat to Turkey in the eyes of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than the Islamic State is, evidenced by his reluctance to join the coalition.
The reason Turkey feels more threatened by the Kurds than the Islamic State is fairly simple: Mr. Erdogan perceives the Islamic State as a short-term security concern given the fact that it is at war with nearly everyone in the area, whereas Turkish and Syrian Kurds, in particular, will be a long-term problem. In other words, the Islamic State’s lifespan is currently in question, but the Kurds (and their respective ambitions for statehood) will be here for some time to come. Mr. Erdogan has approved peaceful talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a US-listed foreign terrorist organization, which is a positive step. But the issue for him is, he has lost leverage thanks to the rise of the Islamic State. The PKK is openly recruiting and fighting alongside the YPG in Syria, their resistance inspired likely by their Iraqi cousins the Peshmerga. This is dangerous for Turkey -- a weak PKK makes easy negotiating; a resurgent one does not.
That is why, amid PKK threats of re-opening conflict with Turkey if it did not assist in the defense of Kobane (or even allow freer movement of those wishing to aid the defenders) and mass protests across the country calling for the same thing, Turkey is dragging its feet on the subject. Rather than help the Kurds out, Mr. Erdogan has taken the opposite route. 31 people were killed as a result of crackdowns on protests, with many more injured, and the Turkish government has traded fire with the PKK. Turkish jets recently bombed a PKK position in response to the shelling of an army outpost. The longer Kobane remains free of the Islamic State, the better for Turkey as it can dodge the accusations that it is soft on (or even supportive of) the Islamic State. Fighting between Kurds and the Islamic State -- both sides being terrorists in Turkey’s book -- is fine by Mr. Erdogan, but only so long as it does not lead to a blowback on Ankara. Kobane’s collapse would cause such a blowback. The fact that the city has not fallen, and Turkey has not had to commit troops to keep it that way, means Turkey can spare direct confrontation with the Islamic State while also ignoring the demands of the Kurds.
As the spotlight swivels to other locations of the so-called caliphate and the coalition campaign against it, Turkey is likely to maintain its low profile while quietly working to mitigate the threat posed by the PKK. World leaders have continually named the Islamic State as a threat to, well, everyone thanks to the group’s extreme practices and apparent global ambition. But in actions, it seems a number of parties see fit to use the Islamic State as a wedge against other, more long-term rivals.