Islamic State militants have been fighting for the past week for control of a key town straddling the Syrian-Turkish border. A victory by IS in Kobani, better known in the Arab world as Ain al Arab, would be a setback for the U.S.-Saudi-led alliance fighting the world’s most dangerous and most powerful terrorist organization.
More importantly, a victory for IS would give the group prestige among the dozens of groups lined up in the fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad. It would also secure the terror organization’s flow of oil to a lucrative market – its link to the outside world via Turkey, as I reported last week.
Proof that this conflict is far from being a religious war, as IS would have the world believe, is the current battle to the finish between the Sunni militant group and the Kurds in Kobani. The Kurds are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, yet IS is going after them with a vengeance. It’s a revealing detail about who’s in power in IS: former members of the regime led by Saddam Hussein, who, it should be recalled, used chemical weapons against the Kurds, gassing entire villages.
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Today that battle continues in Kobani. IS has surrounded the Kurds on almost every side with tanks and shelled the city with heavy weapons. Kurdish fighters are resisting as much as they can with the few weapons they have.
In moving the front line to another region entirely, IS has once again shown that it is as agile on the battlefield as it is in its business operations.
The group shifts troops and materiel from one theatre of operations to another, easily adapting to the changing political and economic outlines of the conflict. At the end of the day, their fight is not for control of the mosques, but oil fields.
Why Kobani? Why the Turkish border? Why now? Three reasons.
First: IS has devoted so much energy and fighters to winning control of this otherwise non-descriptive town mostly because of its close proximity to the Turkish border. Much of the IS’s clandestine trade -- selling oil it has illicitly acquired from Syrian and Iraqi oil fields -- transits through Turkey.
Second: It gives IS a chance to further weaken the Kurds. Although they are from the same branch of Islam, IS sees the Kurds as an obstacle on their road to total domination of the caliphate declared by their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Third: Kobani represents an opportunity for IS to expand its influence in the region.
Turkey -- a regional “superpower” -- is the only country with enough troops and armor and air support to inflict serous damage on IS. Yet the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems extremely reluctant to intervene, despite a government pledge to do whatever it takes to prevent Kobani from falling.
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That’s the equivalent of Ankara playing with fire where relations with its own Kurdish population are concerned. Turkish Kurds are furious that Ankara is holding back from intervening in Kobani until the U.S.-led coalition meets certain demands, like establishing a no-fly zone and a buffer zone in northern Syria. Turkey also wants a clearer understanding about how, or whether, Washington is going to help drive Assad from power.
Meanwhile, Kurds have watched helplessly from across the border as the battle rages and Turkish ambulances race to bring the wounded to hospitals near the frontier.
Turkey is playing a dangerous game by using the Kurds as currency in this situation. It should remember that playing with fire so close to oil can be explosive.
By Claude Salhani of Oilprice.com
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