The US has lots at stake in the Syrian border town of Kobane

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World.  At the top of our program today we talked about the dark cloud hanging over Syria and fears that the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobane is on the verge of falling to the militants of ISIS.  The US and coalition partners today launched more airstrikes to support the Kurds fighting to hold onto the town, but the aerial assault has not been enough to halt the militants’ advance.  Joshua Landis has been watching the siege of Kobane closely.  He directs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.  Landis says Washington has a lot riding on the outcome in the Syrian town on the Turkish border.


Joshua Landis: This is the first time that our overall strategy in Syria is being challenged.  A small enclave of Kurds ruled in a semiautonomous way is now beset with Islamic State warriors surrounding it.  It’s abutting the Turkish border and it’s a little bubble that sticks down into Syria.  All around it are Islamic State.  They are trying to overrun it, almost 200,000 of its inhabitants have already fled into Turkey.  The question is should America protect it or let it be ethnically cleansed.  Can it get along with Turkey and agree with Turkey, its main partner, in trying to deal with Syria on what objectives are for Syria, and Turkey refuses to come up with a strategy for Kobane until America agrees with Turkey on an overall strategy for getting rid of Assad.  So it underlines this chaos of our coalition in Syria.


Werman: So what do you think the United States military is going to do?


Landis: Well, right now, the military has been bombing ISIS fighters at the doors of Kobane.  There have been six, seven, eight military strikes, quite a few, just in the last several hours, but there are no boots on the ground.  Turkey refuses to allow other Kurds to go in and reinforce the Kobane people because it doesn’t want this PYD group that runs the Kurds (and it considers a terrorist group) to begin to setup an autonomous Kurdish state in Syria, so I think the United States is going to continue help as much as they can from the air, and keep on negotiating with the Turks and hope Kobane doesn’t fall.


Werman: And I’ve read that the US military is now using Apache helicopters, which to me, says they’re trying to get  a little closer to the ground with more precise strikes.  Is that just leading into possible boots on the ground at some point?


Landis: Boy, you know, this is exactly what happened to the United States in 1990 in Iraq after the Gulf War.  Saddam Hussein began to retake the Kurdish zones.  There was a giant flood of refugees out; it was of Biblical proportions.  It was caught on TV.  And President Bush, the father, panicked.  He said we’ve got to do something about this and he drew a line on the 36th parallel and he said no Iraqi jets over that border.  And that was the beginning of a quasi-independent Kurdish state in Iraq.  This little spot on the map in Syria could be the beginning of a similar effort to protect the Kurds, which would then emerge into a quasi-autonomous Kurdish state, and America would be responsible for defending it.


Werman: It sounds like we’re a bit at risk of breaking what former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, called the Pottery Barn rule, you know -- you break it, you buy it.  I mean Syria has already broken it.


Landis: Well, that’s exactly...


Werman: But will the US make a commitment to Syria’s future?


Landis: Well, that’s what hangs in the balance here and we don’t know what the United States and what President Obama will do.  He has done everything in his power in the last 3-1/2 years not to get sucked into the Syrian swamp, but by not moving in and not taking charge of Syria, in a sense the place has deteriorated and now he’s sucked in because the violence of Syria did not stay in Syria.  ISIS broke out into Iraq, conquered one-third of Iraq and looked like it would take Baghdad this summer.  And that would have destroyed Obama’s presidency.  He had to respond and he responded in a big way.


Werman: I don’t like Monday morning quarterbacking, but if Obama had decided to really push hard back against Bashar al Assad in the first year of the Syrian uprising, do you think we’d be in this situation today?


Landis: I think we’d be in Syria.  Would we be with ISIS?  I don’t know.  Most Syrians, as we see from the militias and the Sunni rebels, there are 1,500 militias, according to the CIA...most of them are organized by town or by clan.  A national ethos has not grown up that allows for one common leadership as there was under George Washington or you can name, you know, in Vietnam or a hundred other places where insurgencies organized on a national basis.  In Syria, they have not.  The militias that have organized are the Islamic ones, like al-Qaeda and ISIS, and we’re trying to destroy them.  So we’re left with these little bits, and whether America could have destroyed the Syrian state under Assad and then rebuilt these little bit into a viable state, is anybody’s question.  Obviously, based on Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama said I don’t want to do it.  And here we are with lots of little bits, trying to somehow figure out how to put them together.


Werman: And that’s a really frightening scenario and there are no good scenarios here.  There’s really bad and there’s bad.


Landis: What everybody is begging for is the United States come over the horizon, the cavalry rides over the horizon and saves them.  The Syrian Sunnis want America to save them.  The Assad regime wants America in a sense to save them, and the Kurds are begging on their hands and knees for America to come and save them.  Everybody is facing a very bleak future of perpetual war, unless the United States takes Syria in hand.


Werman: Joshua Landis, great to speak with you, as always.  Thank you.


Landis: It’s a pleasure, thank you.


Werman: That was Joshua Landis.  He directs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.