Writing about Kobani and ISIS this morning, I casually mentioned that “If you want quick results against ISIS, then speak up and tell us you want to send in 100,000 troops.” I got a bit of pushback on this from people suggesting that it wouldn’t take anywhere near that number of troops to take out ISIS and save a small town.
Actually, I was lowballing. For starters, here’s a map showing Kobani’s predicament:
Kobani is the tiny yellow patch of Kurdish territory at the top of the map. It’s deep inside Syria, surrounded almost entirely by territory controlled by ISIS. The only country with the capability of getting in ground troops is Turkey, and they’re refusing to do anything. Why? Because Kobani is home to Kurdish separatists, and Turkey has no intention of saving their bacon.
In a nutshell, this is America’s problem: we have no trustworthy allies in the region who truly care about ISIS. The Turks care about keeping Kurdish separatists under control and securing their border with Syria. The Arabian Gulf countries care about Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian patrons. The Iraqis care about maintaining Shiite dominance over their Sunni minority. They’re all willing to play along in the US war against ISIS, but it’s not really a high priority for any of them. As Fred Kaplan puts it, “ISIS gains much of its strength from the fact that the countries arrayed against it—which, together, could win in short order—can’t get their act together; they have too many conflicting interests tearing them apart.” What’s more, those conflicting interests are deep and longstanding. These countries will humor us to varying extents since they’d just as soon stay on our good side, but the bottom line is that helping America fight its latest shiny-toy war just isn’t something they really care about. They have their own fish to fry.
Given all that, you should ask yourself this: What would it take to rescue a small city that’s hundreds of miles behind enemy lines with no allies to help you out? Answer: A hundred thousand troops would be a good start, but there’s no guarantee that even that would be enough.
So was it “tone deaf” for John Kerry and others to talk about how Kobani wasn’t strategically important to us? Maybe so. The problem is that the real-life adult answer would have acknowledged that (a) we don’t have the capability to save Kobani, and (b) our NATO ally Turkey has chosen not to save Kobani. Neither of these is something that the American public is really prepared to digest.