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ISIS is about to take a city called Kobane. Will it drag Turkey into war?

A Kurdish soldier in Kobane, with dog.
A Kurdish soldier in Kobane, with dog.
Stringer/Getty Images

After several failed invasion attempts, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria appears on the verge of taking the Syrian town Kobane. ISIS fighters have entered Kobane, and have engaged local Kurdish forces in street-to-street battles. This is the culmination of an assault that began in early September, has sent thousands of refugees fleeing across the border, and has big implications for the larger conflict.

Yes, ISIS has seized many towns during its expansion, but the fight for Kobane is an unusually important one. The mostly Kurdish city, along Syria's border with Turkey, has strategic and symbolic importance for ISIS. It is already creating a humanitarian disaster that could be on the verge of getting much worse. And it threatens to pull Turkey's military — which is part of NATO — into direct combat with ISIS for the first time. Here's what you need to know to understand the fight for Kobane.

Why ISIS wants Kobane

syria october 5th

The situation in Syria, as of October 5th, 2014. (Thomas van Linge)

Look for the little yellow swath in north-central Syria surrounded by a sea of grey. That's where the Kobane is, and what the current fighting is over. The yellow indicates Kurdish control; the grey surrounding it denotes ISIS land. Kobane is surrounded, and fighting for its survival.

ISIS wants Kobane for a few reasons. First, according to the Washington Post's Liz Sly and Erin Cunningham, "Kobane would give the Islamic State control of a critical stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border, which could be used to expand clandestine supply routes."

Second, "It is clear that ISIS perceived the [Kurds] to be a threat to important lines of communication that run close to the canton's borders," Joseph Sax writes at the Institute for the Study of War's Syria blog. According to Sax, Kobane limits ISIS access to a highway between Manbij, in western Syria, and Hasaka, in eastern Syria — a road ISIS wants uninterrupted.

The third reason is simply that ISIS is in a good position to take the town. Kobane is surrounded by ISIS land, which means the Kurds can't resupply. "Kobane might be our soft spot, if you look at it from a geopolitical point of view," Polat Can, a Kurdish military spokesperson, told the BBC. ISIS loves to expand its territory, and crushing weaker land is an easy way to do that.

Kurdish forces have held off ISIS, but they're breaking

kurdish fighters in kobane

(Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)

Kurdish fighters in Kobane. (Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)

Kurdish forces took control of Kobane in 2012, and declared it part of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad basically let them do it: the Kurds have an unspoken agreement not to fight Assad, who is more preoccupied with other problems, and in fact have coordinated with his forces.

In August 2013, ISIS and several other Syrian militant groups declared their intent to seize Kobane. Between April and September, ISIS launched several offensives to take it, all of which failed. ISIS also attempted to undermine Kurdish rule through kidnappings and terrorist attacks, though this failed.

In late September, things changed. Look at this map of the frontlines of the battle for Kobane over time, paying special attention to how little the lines moved between March and September and how rapidly ISIS advanced between September 1 and September 24:

Map of Kobane as of October 5, 2014.

Frontlines as of October 5, 2014. (Mouradi/MrPenguin20/BBC)

Why did things change? Most analysts say it's about Iraq. When ISIS swept northern Iraq beginning June 10, its militants captured enormous amounts of advanced, American-made military equipment that had been dropped by the Iraqi army, including mortars and frontline battle tanks, which they've brought to the fight in Syria. The Kurdish forces are now outgunned. And because they're surrounded, they can't resupply.

By the morning of October 7, ISIS forces had entered the city. The American-led coalition stepped up airstrikes on ISIS targets near Kobane, but it's unclear whether this will push ISIS out. "Yes, it will certainly fall soon," Idriss Nassan, a Kurdish official, said of the city.

Turkey to the rescue?

Turkish tanks Kobane

Turkish tanks across the border from Kobane. (Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Kobane isn't just a town, but also an important border crossing into Turkey. Turkey has deployed a number of tanks and troops to the border, partly in response to ISIS and partly to deal with the thousands of refugees being pushed across the border.

The Kurds now believe Turkish intervention into Kobane is their last, best hope — but that would mean a Turkish invasion of Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has committed to defending the city, saying "We do not want Kobane to fall. We will do all that we can to ensure it does not." On October 7, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly called for a ground invasion of Syria to save Kobane from ISIS. "The terror will not be over," he said in a televised speech, "unless we cooperate for a ground operation."

Yet, so far, Turkish troops remain on their side of the border and Kurdish pleas for arms transfers have gone unanswered. That's because of deep political tensions between the Turks and the Kurds. Turkey has had a long-running conflict with the Kurdish minority in Turkey, who want autonomy. The Turkish military has, at time, viciously repressed Kurdish separatists and one Kurdish group — the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK — waged a notorious, decades-long terrorist campaign against Turkey.

The Kurdish group that controls Kobane, the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), works closely with the PKK. Its armed wing fights side-by-side with PKK troops against ISIS. Turkey hates Kurdish nationalism, and really hates the PKK. They've even threatened to invade Syria to root out Kurdish forces. So it's now in the strange position of threatening to invade to defend other Kurdish forces.

As such, Turkey has two major demands for the PYD if it wants their help: distance itself from the PKK and join the anti-Assad rebellion. The PYD, so far, has refused.

Turkish involvement is a critical question for the future of the Syrian war

Turkish military border

Turkish military forces gather after a howitzer shell from across the Syrian border lands in Turkish territory. (Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

For the past two years, Turkey's parliament has regularly authorized military intervention in Syria. On October 2, the parliament renewed that authorization — meaning that the government can launch operations in Kobane as soon as it would like. The new resolution, according to the Carnegie Endowment's Aron Lund, is expressly phrased to authorize war against ISIS.

However, Lund argues, that doesn't mean intervention against ISIS is imminent. He believes that Turkey is maneuvering, trying to trade intervention against ISIS for an American promise to widen American strikes to target Assad forces in Syria. That seems unlikely to happen, to put it mildly.

It's possible that Lund is wrong and that Turkey will intervene to save Kobane. But it's really hard to know where that would go. Turkey's peace process with the PKK is still ongoing; what happens if Turkish and PKK forces meet each other on the battlefield in Syria? "The nightmare result", one senior Turkish official told The Economist, would be "Turkey fighting [ISIS] and the PKK at the same time."

And then there's Assad. Turkey wants to turn the area around Kobane into a "safe zone" where Syrian refugees could live and anti-Assad rebels could train. Assad would see this as a threat; there's no telling how he'd respond.

In other words: the battle for Kobane could end up being about far more than the fate of one town.