Just over a week ago, I sat in a room with President Erdogan of Turkey. He spoke to a small group. He was asked: How did the 49 Turkish hostages suddenly get released by ISIS? His answer was coy, at best. He implied that no money had changed hands. He pivoted, mentioning that Israel had once done a large prisoner swap. Of course, he could have referenced President Obama’s own terrorist swap with the Taliban.
Still, Erdogan’s answer just hung in the air, incomplete. Now, we may know the answer.
Today, a leading northern city in Syria, Kobani, is under intense assault from ISIS. From videos and pleas for help, one is put in mind of Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in Cambodia, and our promise never to let this happen again. So, why is Turkey and why are we, as Americans, letting these innocents of Kobani – the Kurds – face an unconscionable massacre?
America could stop that massacre by direct weapons drop to the Kurds, yet Obama resists even that support. America could stop the massacre with direct, overwhelming force from the air, based on acquired intelligence. Instead the President authorizes only token air strikes, making excuses shamelessly for not doing more. By all accounts, what he is doing qualifies as patently ineffectual and unimpressive, even if the White House gets a good daily headline.
Turkey could also stop that massacre. Turkey has tanks positioned within a stone’s throw of Kobani, on the Syrian-Turkish border. But they are all Kurds.
And who are the Kurds? The biggest Kurd population in America is in Tennessee. But internationally, Kurds are religiously diverse, hopeful, and diffuse. Dating to Mesopotamia, Kurds are practitioners of Islam, Yazidism, Christianity and Judaism. They are spread across Syria (two million), Iraq (six million), Iran (eight million), and Turkey (14 million). Thus, in a way Kobani is symbolic. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, “We are all Kobani today.” What lies beyond Kobani? If ISIS terrorists have their way, Baghdad, Medina, Mecca, and the West.
So, when will we act? And if not for Kobani, where?
And why is Turkey not acting? Turkey has long been at odds with the Kurds, who have historically pressed for autonomy, across the region, consistent with promises made after World War I. So, could it be – cynical as this sounds – that a deal was actually cut with ISIS? That the hostage deal involves inaction as ISIS massacres the Kurds in Kobani? No, surely, this cannot be the motivation for inaction by Turkey. Surely, this is not the real answer. And surely, as a NATO ally of the United States, Turkish tanks will roll to save these innocents, preventing another unconscionable killing field. But they are not rolling yet. Why not?
On a different note, what is motivating President Obama’s inaction? Strategic ignorance is no longer an excuse. His actions have been ineffectual, feckless, his bombardments leveling empty warehouses. That is not a U.S. strategy. Surely, this is not an anti-war President throwing up political flack, a few here-and-there bombs to appear engaged, just through the coming elections. Obama’s indifference cannot run this deep, can it? He would not let these people die – knowingly, would he? No American President in history has wished death on innocents, and none should avert the use of power we have to save them, right?
Then, what is Obama doing?
How do we win this? The answer – for Turkey, President Obama and Congress – is: Act.
The answer is to immediately arm the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, for a full-on defense of their lives, permit them survival. To this, Obama should add real air support not window dressing for the midterms. He instantly should authorize considerable monies to buy intelligence on ISIS positions in Kobani and elsewhere.
Then, he should take the gloves off. He should convene a National Security Council meeting of principals, fully empower the United States military to initiate a robust air campaign, and drop perhaps half of the 4000 Tomahawk missiles available to him, on ISIS targets over a four week period. Three dozen sends the opposite signal, weakness, indifference and indecision. At the end of that period, with a repeat strategy available, he should invite all ISIS combatants left to promptly demobilize and become, once and for all, part of Iraq, Turkey or Syrian civil society.
Syrian civil society, you ask? Yes. To make this strategy work, he will have to talk candidly with President Erdogan, persuading him to save Kobani, in the process saving Turkey. He should give the green light to U.S. military commanders, get multiple carrier battle groups to the front, and launch a real air campaign from Incirlik. In this way, Obama’s failing non-strategy for beating ISIS, at best containment strategy, will become decisive, instant rollback. More lives, land and leadership will not be senselessly lost.
And here is the kicker. Obama could silence the ISIS threat with resolve and overwhelming force. Then, in an act of brilliant diplomacy, he could unveil a collaborative Arab nation ground force, its mission to hold, with cooperation from Iraq and Turkey, ground recovered (including oil production facilities) through his uncompromising air campaign.
Finally, in tour de force, giving Obama an unlikely legacy for incisive strategic thinking, the President could opening path-breaking peace talks, personally brokering a tete-en-tete between the Assad government and half a dozen “moderate” minority and formerly warring anti-Assad groups. Shocking the world, Obama would win global acclaim and his second Nobel Peace Prize.
If all this is too much, how about we arm the Kurds, convince Erdogan to forsake his hostage deal and save Kobani, and then open a real air campaign? As Edmund Burke once observed, “All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.” On behalf of all good people everywhere, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Obama, it is time to act.
Robert Charles was Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, 2003-2005, under Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George W. Bush.