Obama's Kobani crossroads

Whatever the US accomplished after about a decade of war in Iraq has deteriorated to a situation that may become unprecedented in its instability and threat to Western interests.

Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani (photo credit: REUTERS)
Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani
(photo credit: REUTERS)
President Barack Obama has consistently disregarded the advice of his military experts on the Islamic State threat. And he seems to have written off the Kurdish-Syrian town of Kobani, which may soon be overrun by Islamists.
Whatever the US accomplished after about a decade of war in Iraq has, in a matter of months, deteriorated to a situation that may become unprecedented in its instability and threat to Western interests.
Obama’s clumsy departure from Iraq, his military mismanagement of the mess that ensued, and his refusal to intervene in Syria – again, overruling his top security advisers – are what produced the current quagmire.
The loss of Christianity in Mosul didn’t have to happen. Obama’s tardy air strikes managed to prevent the Mosul Dam from falling, but the city may never be the same.
Similarly, why did the Yazidis have to find themselves besieged on Mount Sinjar before the US took action? Instead of preemptively stopping Islamic State from spreading into Iraq, Obama effectively waited until some high-profile beheadings forced him to focus on the danger.
While such gruesome murders can reliably rally public opinion in favor of military action, the duty of the commander-in-chief is to lead and take military action when and how national security requires it, and not just when terrorists provoke some tardy and token air strikes into empty buildings.
As the next disaster is about to unfold on Obama’s watch, he should recognize that there is much more at stake with the fight for Kobani than just the loss to Islamic State of a small town on the Syria-Turkey border.
Above all, letting Kobani fall means betraying our only ally fighting Islamic State on the ground, and allowing them to be massacred while the world watches.
What message does the US send to Mideast partners and the world at large, if the Kurds are the only force providing the ground troops that Obama so desperately needs now, and yet Obama is unwilling to support them enough to avoid the horrific slaughter that will follow an Islamic State victory in Kobani? Kobani also has geostrategic importance to the Iranian nuclear threat. The more Islamic State succeeds in capturing territory and recruiting fighters, a trend bolstered by Kobani’s fall, the more desperate the US becomes for help from Iran, which, as leader of the Shi’ite world, is the natural enemy of Sunni fighters. Because Iran also has one of the most powerful militaries in the region, and has – even before the Islamic State crisis – outmaneuvered the West in talks to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions, Iran could easily leverage the situation to secure tacit Western acceptance of its nukes. Indeed, Iran has already signaled its fight-Islamic State-for-nukes strategy.
Even more important, as Iran watches how feebly the US responds to the loss of Iraq and how Obama cowers from a relatively minor fight in Kobani, the Ayatollahs can rest assured that there really is no US military option to stop their nuclear program.
This conclusion becomes all the more inevitable, when they look at Obama’s waning influence at home, as he enters the lameduck period of his presidency.
There is also a moral dimension to Kobani.
Obama – in his 2009 and 2012 speeches on Holocaust Remembrance Day – proudly recalled how his great uncle helped to liberate a Nazi death camp. Yet Obama’s inaction in Syria has left about 200,000 dead, including many who were simply massacred, and Kobani may be where the next atrocities happen. Does the US not hold itself to a higher standard than that of Turkey, which has thus far chosen just to watch the fighting a mere mile from its border? Turkish history already includes genocides against the Armenian Christians and the Kurds (in the Dersim Massacre), so it’s no surprise that the Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would let his army stand idly by, watching and waiting for Islamists to slaughter thousands of Kobani Kurds. But does the US really want to be in the same camp as the Turks on this one? How much more shame will fall upon the United States, and the Obama legacy, when the Internet overflows with images of mass graves containing Kobani’s brave and abandoned fighters, along with Kurdish civilians who were too weak, infirm, or elderly to flee the approaching Islamic State barbarism? AS IF the above concerns weren’t enough to goad Obama into action, there is also the strategic impact of letting Kobani fall. As good as Islamic State recruiting on social media already is, the popularity of this terrorist army among Islamists worldwide will surge when Islamic State can boast about one more example of how even the mighty US military can’t stop them.
Having foolishly telegraphed that he won’t send ground troops to confront Islamic State, Obama can still try to convert his error into a feint, by doing the opposite and sending troops to Kobani. At least that would restore some element of unpredictability to how Islamic State regards US military moves in the region.
Obama is effectively a month away from the lame-duck portion of his presidency. If Republicans take Congress in next month’s midterm elections, then the president will become that much more ineffectual. But he can still try to demonstrate some leadership by changing his strategic approach to Mideast threats – if only to prevent his legacy from going into free fall. If the Middle East has only one lesson for Obama, it is that much can go terribly wrong in very little time. With Iranian nukes around the corner and Islamic State on the march, two years of Mideast deterioration is a frighteningly long time to be on Obama’s watch.
Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes and other geopolitical issues in the Middle East.