The media is telling us that the battle for Kobani is crucial in the war against the Islamic State. Upon reflection, there are many, many questions about the battle. We know that there is fighting taking place around and within the Syrian city on the border with Turkey. While the media’s job is to keep the public informed about major events around the world, the many questions raised indicate a worrying pattern of sensationalism and lack of in-depth reporting in addition to the complexities of the larger geopolitical maneuvering.
What is the Islamic State? Certain media and public figures refuse to use the term. Calling the group a state, it is believed, gives its followers a certain legitimacy. Other terms are often used, but the lack of clarity concerning the group itself shows a lack of understanding of who they are. It is difficult to fight a battle or a war against an enemy that is not clearly defined. The war on terror, the war on poverty, the war on drugs, are other examples of amorphous enemies against whom we entered into battle. While the Islamic State is certainly more present and definable than the others, a lack of clarity about its identity is one of the elements clouding the nature of the battle for Kobani.
If the enemy is not clearly defined, the means of fighting the enemy are also subject to questioning. We are constantly being shown aircraft dropping explosives, some of them causing apparent damage. To whom does the aircraft belong? Besides the United States, we are told that other countries are participating. How so? In addition, and most important, what is the value of the aerial bombing? If recent history is relevant, bombing campaigns against terrorists or in civil wars are not helpful. If the Islamic State is a State, then we are dealing with an interstate war in which bombing is a traditional means of warfare. If Dasch is a rebel group, then we are involved in an intra-state conflict in several states in which bombing may be necessary but not sufficient. Can we really expect to “win” with no boots on the ground?
As witnessed by footage of the struggle for Kobani, fighting against ISIL, ISIS or Dasch is a very particular form of warfare. Airplanes drop bombs, explosions are seen and heard while Kurdish sympathizers are filmed nearby watching the action and are not allowed to come to the aid of their fellow Kurds. Turkish tanks remain immobile close by and their border guards refuse to let the Kurds in Turkey cross the border to join the battle. During the American Civil War in the 19th century, spectators watched the battles from the surrounding hills, but in the 21st century it seems absurd to see people watching who would be important volunteers in the actual battle itself. Even worse, we are learning that the Turkish army is bombing the very Kurds who are crucial in the fight.
We are also witnessing two other phenomena on the front pages at the same time. The battle for eastern Ukraine is another example of an intra-state battle with interstate implications. We cannot clearly prove a Russian influence, but we see the desperate civilians in cities like Donetsk being driven from their homes by fierce fighting. With memories of proxy battles during the Cold War, the West and the Russian Federation are vying for influence and control in a major European country. The concepts of territorial integrity and democracy are once again being shown to be inconsistent with no end in sight for a potential protracted conflict such as in Transnistria or Nagorno Kharabak. All these territorial conflicts relate to establishing new borders and influences after the end of the Soviet Union. They are both intra and interstate conflicts.
The Ebola epidemic is quite a different phenomenon. While Kobani and Donetsk involve high diplomatic conflicts with competing forces, Ebola represents a threat to all with a solution demanding transnational cooperation. Whether it be World Health Organization, Medicins Sans Frontieres or national health organizations, the only solution to stop or contain the spread of the deadly virus is by cooperation.
So, at the same time we are witnessing two violent clashes between opposing troops, we are also witnessing attempts at inter-state and transnational cooperation because the threat is across borders and can only be solved by cooperation. While fighting ISIS, ISIL or Dasch does involve cooperation among the willing, it is far from the type of universal cooperation needed to stop Ebola.