As a vicious battle for the Syrian town of Kobani rages between Kurdish forces and Islamic State fighters, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a warning on Tuesday that the town was about to fall into ISIS hands. He added that airstrikes might not be enough to repel the Islamic State invasion: "There has to be cooperation with those who are fighting on the ground." Kobani, which once had a population of roughly 400,000 people, is just miles from the Syrian border with Turkey.
Erdogan's remarks came as The Wall Street Journal reported that American-led airstrikes against Islamic State forces intensified overnight, signaling broader American involvement. After nearly three weeks of fighting, the battle for Kobani entered a new phase as ISIS made headway into the eastern outskirts of town on Monday, raising the group's black flag over a few buildings. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented over 400 deaths since the fighting began, but expected that the true number of casualties was probably twice as high.
Turkey, for its part, seems ambivalent about its role in the fight. While it says it won't let ISIS take over the town, it also hasn't joined the effort to stop the group and doesn't seem interested in joining a campaign that will benefit Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whom Turkey wants to see deposed. Turkey's involvement would also put the country squarely in line with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group that Turkey has battled for decades.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu straddled this divide in an interview with CNN International: "We are ready to do everything if there is a clear strategy and if we can be sure that our border can be protected after [the Islamic State is gone]." He added that if ISIS is defeated and Assad stays in power, there's no guarantee another radical group won't emerge.
A spokesman for the Kurds in Kobani told Agence France-Presse that all civilians had been ordered out of the city. Another 2,000 people reportedly fled Kobani, swelling an already dizzying figure of new refugees. Turkish officials say that nearly 200,000 civilians—mostly Kurds— have entered Turkey in the past two weeks ahead of the Islamic State offensive.
Meanwhile, as Turkey equivocates, the fighting continues and the fate of Kobani hands in the balance. On Monday, Jeffrey Goldberg spoke with Rooz Bahjat, a Kurdish intelligence official, who gave this chilling prediction: "A terrible slaughter is coming. If they take the city, we should expect to have 5,000 dead within 24 or 36 hours." The official added that, as of yesterday, he believed 50,000 civilians remain in the town.