SURUC, Turkey — Islamic State militants raised their group’s black flags Monday over two buildings on the outskirts of a besieged Syrian city near Turkey, using tanks and artillery to battle Kurdish forces over the strategically located town.
Dozens of combatants on both sides were killed in clashes around the perimeter of the city of Kobani, as civilians sought to join the more than 160,000 Syrians who have fled the area during the terrorists’ protracted onslaught.
Under siege by the Islamic State for more than two weeks, Kobani — also known as Ayn Arab — has become a symbol of the increasingly complex web of shifting alliances, ethnic politics and diplomatic wrangling over Western intervention into Syria’s civil war.
And at the heart of this turmoil is Turkey — seesawing between helping the town across the border and trying to play its hand to its advantage by keeping the Kurds in check and bringing down the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.
It’s a dangerous game for Turkey and its Western allies, analysts say.
“The Turks, now feeling that the West needs their services more than before, have a confused mindset and think that this could be an opportunity to revive their illusions,” said Burak Bekdil, a defense columnist for Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper and critic of Turkey’s Islamist-rooted ruling party. “[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan et al. think that the West’s need for some kind of Turkish cooperation could be an opportunity to hasten the downfall of al-Assad.”
For more than two weeks, Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have held back Islamic State fighters as the U.S.-led coalition has conducted airstrikes on the outskirts of the city.
Turkey’s leadership pledged that Kobani should not fall, and last week parliament passed authorization to send troops into Syria and Iraq to protect Turkish interests.
“Our borders are under a threat now,” Mr. Erdogan said over the weekend. “What is happening in Kobani these days might occur in any other city bordering Turkey.”
But it’s the rise of Kurdish militants in Syria — and not the Islamic State — that Turkey’s government sees as its gravest threat, analysts say.
Since 1984 the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has waged a separatist guerrilla war against Turkey that has killed more than 40,000 people on both sides of the conflict. Although a cease-fire has been in effect since last year, conflicts still occur, and peace talks have stalled.
Rojava, a strip of territory controlled by Kurdish militiamen along Turkey’s southern border, was formed two years ago by allies of Kurdish separatists based in the mountains of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.
Rojava’s main fighting force — the PYD — is allied with the PKK, which both Turkey and the U.S. list as a terrorist group.
During the celebration of Eid al-Adha on Saturday, Mr. Erdogan said there is no difference between the Islamic State and the PKK.
“The [Islamic State] for us are the same thing as the PKK. It’s erroneous to consider and regard them separately. There are other terrorist organizations apart from them. And we, as well as the whole world, must assess them right,” the Turkish president said.
As fighting has raged in Syria, Rojava’s Kurds have carved out an autonomous region on Turkey’s doorstep and avoided taking sides with either the Syrian regime or predominantly Sunni Arab rebel fighters in Syria’s civil war.
At the center of all this lies Kobani, which links the three provinces of Rojava.
If the Islamic State takes Kobani, the militants would secure a direct link between their Syrian stronghold of Raqqa in the east and their positions in and around Aleppo, the country’s largest city. It also would crush a lingering pocket of resistance and give the group full control of a large stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border, The Associated Press reported.
But the rise of the PKK’s allies on Turkey’s doorstep has given Ankara pause in coming to the aid of Kobani’s Kurds, despite the gruesome reputation of the Islamic State and the danger of renewed massacres at the hands of the black flag-waving jihadists.
“For Turkey, the real enemy is the YPG and not so much the Islamic State,” said Ismail Kaplan, the mayor of Suruc, a Turkish border town that has absorbed more than 100,000 refugees over the past two weeks, mostly Kurds from Kobani.
Turkey has sealed the border gates north of Kobani, preventing Turkish Kurds from reinforcing militias fighting to defend the city or preventing wounded from traveling to be treated in Turkish hospitals, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, reported over the weekend.
Turkish security forces have used gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to forcibly disperse hundreds of Kurds who have tried to force their way across the border to reach Kobani.
On a recent afternoon, Gokhan, a 30-year-old graduate student from Ankara, said he had been camping out along the frontier waiting for a chance to reach Kobani, about a mile away. But border guards had prevented him from joining his fellow Kurds in Kobani for days.
“I have been here for five days, but they didn’t allow us to cross,” said Gokhan, who didn’t give his last name out of fear of being arrested.
Turkey’s efforts in preventing its citizens from traveling to Kobani have brought accusations that Ankara’s policies are either directly or indirectly aiding the Islamic State.
Over the weekend, Vice President Joseph R. Biden apologized for a speech in which he said Mr. Erdogan had personally admitted to him that Ankara’s open borders policy to anti-Syria regime militants and weapons had helped give rise to extremist groups like the Islamic State.
Siamend Hajo, an analyst with KurdWatch, a Berlin-based Internet portal that frequently criticizes the PKK and PYD, says Turkey doesn’t have much choice.
“If Turkey would send ground troops, people would criticize [Turkey by saying] that they do not really want to fight [the] Islamic State but [instead fight] the Kurds,” Mr. Hajo said. “What is true is that Turkey’s focus is on toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad, not on fighting [the] Islamic State.”
Meanwhile, Turkey has warily watched the fight for Kobani unfold. On Monday, at least 14 Turkish tanks took up defensive positions on a hilltop on Turkish soil near the besieged town, while a shell from the fighting struck a house and a grocery store inside Turkey, but no one was wounded.
Turkey so far has refused to allow the use of the U.S. Air Force’s Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey for strikes against targets in Syria and Iraq. Analysts say this is one area where Ankara sees it has leverage over Washington to assist in helping bring down the Syrian regime.
Mr. Bekdil said Turkey seeks to contain the Islamic State without losing credibility among the ruling party’s hardcore religious base, strengthening the military position of the Kurds or removing an Islamist foe of the Syrian regime — all of which, he argues, would be inevitable if Turkey actively fights against the Islamic State.
Should Kobani be overrun by armed religious fanatics while Ankara and Washington are horse trading over air bases and Turkey’s regional ambitions, this could lead to a renewed Kurdish insurrection in Turkey, pro-Kurdish politicians and militant leaders warn.
“If Kobani falls there is a risk fighting will spread inside Turkey between the Turkish army and the Kurds, but there are also tensions between Islamists and Kurds inside Turkey,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst specializing in Kurdish politics with the Jamestown Foundation, a D.C.-based research center. “This could destabilize Turkey in the future.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.