Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once aspired to lead the Muslim world. At this time of regional crisis, he has been anything but a leader. Turkish troops and tanks have been standing passively behind a chicken-wire border fence while a mile away in Syria, Islamic extremists are besieging the town of Kobani and its Kurdish population.
This is an indictment of Mr. Erdogan and his cynical political calculations. By keeping his forces on the sidelines, and refusing to help in other ways — like allowing Kurdish fighters to pass through Turkey — he seeks not only to weaken the Kurds, but also, in a test of will with President Obama, to force the United States to help him oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whom he detests.
It is also evidence of the confusion and internal tensions that affect Mr. Obama’s work-in-progress strategy to degrade and defeat the Sunni Muslim extremist group Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL. Kurdish fighters in Kobani have been struggling for weeks to repel the Islamic State. To help, the Americans stepped up airstrikes that began to push the Islamic State fighters back, although gun battles and explosions continued on Wednesday.
But all sides — the Americans, Mr. Erdogan and the Kurds — agree that ground forces are necessary to capitalize on the air power. No dice, says Mr. Erdogan, unless the United States provides more support to rebels trying to overthrow Mr. Assad and creates a no-fly zone to deter the Syrian Air Force as well as a buffer zone along the Turkish border to shelter thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the fighting.
No one can deny Mr. Assad’s brutality in the civil war, but Mr. Obama has rightly resisted involvement in that war and has insisted that the focus should be on degrading the Islamic State, not going after the Syrian leader. The biggest risk in his decision to attack the Islamic State in Syria from the air is that it could put America on a slippery slope to a war that he has otherwise sought to avoid.
Mr. Erdogan’s behavior is hardly worthy of a NATO ally. He was so eager to oust Mr. Assad that he enabled the Islamic State and other militants by allowing fighters, weapons and revenues to flow through Turkey. If Mr. Erdogan refuses to defend Kobani and seriously join the fight against the Islamic State, he will further enable a savage terrorist group and ensure a poisonous long-term instability on his border.
He has also complicated his standing at home. His hesitation in helping the Syrian Kurds has enraged Turkey’s Kurdish minority which staged protests against the Turkish government on Wednesday that reportedly led to the deaths of 21 people. Mr. Erdogan fears that defending Kobani will strengthen the Syrian Kurds, who have won de facto control of many border areas as they seek autonomy much like their Kurdish brethren in Iraq. But if Kobani falls, Kurdish fury will undoubtedly grow.
The Americans have been trying hard to resolve differences with Mr. Erdogan in recent days, but these large gaps are deeply threatening to the 50-plus nation coalition the United States has assembled. One has to wonder why such a profound dispute was not worked out before Mr. Obama took action in Syria.