- - Thursday, October 9, 2014

Just over a week ago, I sat in a room with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. While speaking to a small group, he was asked: How did 49 Turkish hostages suddenly get released by the Islamic State? 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, Mr. 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 by the Islamic State. From videos and pleas for help, one remembers 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 — Kurds — face an unconscionable massacre?

America could stop the massacre by direct weapons drop to the Kurds, yet Mr. Obama resists even that support. America could stop it with direct, overwhelming force from the air, based on acquired intelligence. Instead the president authorizes only token airstrikes, 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. The residents are all Kurds, and who are the Kurds? The biggest Kurd population in America is in Tennessee. Internationally, Kurds are religiously diverse, hopeful and diffuse. Dating from the Mesopotamia era, Kurds are practitioners of Islam, Yazidism, Christianity and Judaism. They are spread across Syria (2 million), Iraq (6 million), Iran (8 million), and Turkey (14 million). What lies beyond Kobani? If the terrorists have their way, Baghdad, Medina, Mecca and the West. When will we act? If not at Kobani, where?

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. Could it be — as cynical as this sounds — that a deal was actually cut with the Islamic State? That the hostage deal involves inaction as the Islamic State massacres the Kurds in Kobani? No, surely, this cannot be the motivation for inaction by Turkey. Surely, as a NATO ally of the United States, Turkey will order its tanks to roll and save these innocents, preventing another unconscionable killing field. However, they are not rolling yet. Why not?

What is motivating Mr. 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, he is not an anti-war president throwing up political flak, a few bombs here and there to appear engaged until the coming elections are past. Mr. Obama’s indifference cannot run this deep, can it? He would not knowingly let these people die, would he? No American president in history has wished death on innocents, and none should withhold the use of power we have to save them, right? Then, what is Mr. Obama doing?

How do we win this? The answer is for Turkey, Mr. Obama and Congress to act. The answer is to immediately arm the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, for a full-on defense of their lives, permitting them survival. To this, Mr. Obama should add real air support — not window-dressing for the midterms. He should instantly authorize considerable monies to buy intelligence on the Islamic State’s positions in Kobani and elsewhere. Then, he should take the gloves off and should convene a National Security Council meeting of principals, fully empower the U.S. military to initiate a robust air campaign, and drop perhaps half of the 4,000 Tomahawk missiles available to him, on enemy targets over a four-week period. Three dozen sends the opposite signal — of weakness, indifference and indecision. At the end of that period, with a repeat strategy available, he should invite all Islamic State combatants left to promptly demobilize and become, once and for all, part of Iraqi, Turkish or Syrian civil society.

To make this strategy work, he will have to talk candidly with Mr. Erdogan, persuading him to save Kobani and in the process, save 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, Mr. Obama’s failing nonstrategy for beating the Islamic State — at best a containment strategy — will become decisive, instant rollback. More lives, land and leadership will not be senselessly lost.

Here’s the kicker: Mr. Obama could silence the Islamic State 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, winning Mr. Obama an unlikely legacy for incisive strategic thinking, the president could opening path-breaking peace talks, personally brokering a tete-a-tete between the Assad government in Syria and a half-dozen “moderate” minority and anti-Assad groups. Shocking the world, Mr. Obama would win global acclaim and his second Nobel Peace Prize.

If all this is too grand, how about we arm the Kurds, persuade Mr. 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 good people everywhere, it’s time for Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Obama to act.

Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement from 2003 to 2005.

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