foreign affairs

ISIS May Be About to Commit a Massacre in Northern Syria. Are Americans Ready for What Limited Intervention Looks Like?

People watch smoke rising from the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known as Kobane by the Kurds, after an air strike, on October 8, 2014 in the Turkish-Syrian border, in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
People watch smoke rising from the Syrian town of Kobani. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

It has now been 40 hours since officials in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani, where ISIS’s forces have massed, started to telephone Western journalists to tell them that “a terrible slaughter is coming.” And though that slaughter has not yet begun, the anti-ISIS coalition looks like it may be running out of ways to forestall it — despite two days of intensive bombardment from American and allied aircraft, ISIS’s fighters have “managed to enter new areas of town and move north,” nearer to the Turkish border. Officials within Kobani were warning of “5,000 dead within 24 or 36 hours.”

So everyone is bracing, in part because both the United States and Turkey have suggested they won’t be able to do much more. Kurdish militiamen have urged the Turkish government to allow them to cross the border into Kobani (a Kurdish town). But they have been refused, partly because the militias are allied with a Kurdish nationalist political party that aims to separate from Turkey itself. Americans, who have insisted they will not send or need ground troops in order to defeat ISIS, have declined to coordinate attacks with militias on the ground, preferring to wait until “vetted” moderate Syrian militias have been fully prepared. Perhaps, of course, the threat to Kobani’s citizens has been exaggerated. But today, at a press conference with the British foreign secretary, John Kerry tried to brace Americans. “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what’s happening in Kobani, it’s also important to remember that you have to step back and understand the strategic objective.” American efforts have been directed at “the command and control centers, the infrastructure.” Kobani, he suggested, was in strategic terms less relevant, an out-of-the-way town.

This isn’t very satisfying, in any way. Speaking today, Kerry kept emphasizing exactly how early we are in the American intervention. “We’re literally just coming out of the UN meeting at which we announced the coalition” … “literally have just begun deploying the first efforts to liberate” … “General Allen is literally only on his first trip right now in the region.” Even so, the Kobani episode also feels dispiritingly inevitable. It may in the end be true that the United States can successfully “degrade and destroy” ISIS, as the president has put it, without relying on ground troops through the combined efforts of airstrikes and the Iraqi army and “vetted” Syrian militias on the ground. But Kobani suggests one risk of the plan: that in the interim there may be atrocities on the ground that these forces are helpless to stop.

The smart line in Washington ever since Obama took office, both from the administration and from foreign-policy thinkers, has been that the Bush adventures revealed some of the limits of what the United States could accomplish overseas, that we could no longer be everywhere at once. That is a sensible posture to take; it may be the only possible posture. But the cost of that posture is that there will be some very grim events that the United States allows to unfold, because they are not taking place at strategically important spots like “command and control centers,” because our allies aren’t ready, because we can’t be there and everywhere else, too. There will be some things that are unpleasant to stomach. Right now, it looks like Kobani may be one.

Can Americans Stomach Another ISIS Slaughter?