THE OBAMA administration seems to have settled on a blame-Turkey defense for a possible humanitarian catastrophe in the Syrian city of Kobane. It’s convenient and not entirely wrong. But it leaves out a big chunk of the story.
There’s nothing admirable in Turkey’s response to the fighting between the Islamic State and Syrian Kurds on the Syria-Turkey border. Set aside Turkey’s reluctance to put boots on the ground, something American politicians should understand. Turkey has blocked Kurdish reinforcements from crossing south to help in the desperate fight. Kurdish refugees from Kobane are not being made to feel welcome in Turkey, as the U.N. refugee agency has reported. If the Islamic State takes control of Kobane, the predictable result will be massacres of captured men and enslavement of captured women.
But the United States is poorly placed to pass judgment, having stood aside for more than three years while 200,000 Syrians died, most at the hands of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Another 3 million have become refugees, including 1 million who have alighted in Turkey — which, adjusting for population, would be the equivalent for the United States of more than 4 million Mexicans streaming across the border.
Unlike with the conflict in Kobane, there is little television footage of children being shredded by the “barrel bombs” that Mr. Assad’s forces drop on apartment buildings, schools and bakeries. It has become too dangerous for journalists to cover the war. But the horror of the carnage — these are bombs filled with screws, nails and metal shards intended to maim and painfully kill — is no less.
The administration strategy of targeting the Islamic State while giving Mr. Assad a pass has actually worsened the conditions for his victims in towns held by moderate rebels who, in theory, enjoy U.S. backing. As the New York Times reported Wednesday, the Assad regime, freed of the need to go after the Islamic State, has returned “with new intensity to its longstanding and systematic attacks on rebellious towns and neighborhoods.”
And the strategy is incoherent as well as morally questionable. The United States expects these same moderate rebels to become its foot soldiers in the war against the more extreme Islamic State. Yet it refuses to target the Assad regime, which the moderates see as their chief enemy — and which is doing everything it can to wipe them out while the United States calls for patience and restraint.
This lies at the heart of President Obama’s disagreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is urging the United States to create a no-fly zone over northern Syria. Such a move would not interfere with the campaign against the Islamic State, but it would give moderate rebels some respite from attacks and some territory in which to regroup. In other words, it would serve the interests of what Mr. Obama in the past has claimed as U.S. objectives: helping the moderates and unseating Mr. Assad. That may be why Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the proposal was “worth looking at very, very closely.”
But the White House seems as uninterested as ever in truly helping the moderates. Easier just to blame the Turks.