MURSITPINAR, Turkey – Islamic State fighters were poised to capture a strategic Syrian town on the Turkish border, Turkey’s president warned Tuesday, even as Kurdish forces battled to expel the extremists from their footholds on the outskirts.
The outgunned Kurdish fighters struggling to defend Kobani got a small boost from a series of U.S.-led airstrikes against the militants that sent huge columns of black smoke into the sky. Limited coalition strikes have done little to blunt the Islamic State group’s three-week offensive, and its fighters have relentlessly shelled the town in preparation for a final assault.
Warning that the aerial campaign alone was not enough to halt the Islamic State group’s advance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for greater cooperation with the Syrian opposition, which is fighting both the extremists and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Kobani is about to fall,” Erdogan told Syrian refugees in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, near the border. “We asked for three things: One, for a no-fly zone to be created; Two, for a secure zone parallel to the region to be declared; and for the moderate opposition in Syria and Iraq to be trained and equipped.”
Erdogan’s comments did not signal a shift in Turkey’s position: He has said repeatedly that Ankara wants to see a more comprehensive strategy for Syria before it commits to military involvement in the U.S.-led coalition.
Turkish tanks and other ground forces have been stationed along the border within a few hundred yards of the fighting in Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, but they have not intervened. And while Turkey said just days ago that it wouldn’t let Kobani fall, there’s no indication the government is prepared to make a major move to save it.
Since mid-September, the militant onslaught has forced some 200,000 people to flee Kobani and surrounding villages, and activists say more than 400 people have been killed in the fighting. It has also brought the violence of Syria’s civil war to Turkey’s doorstep.
Capturing Kobani would give the Islamic State group, which already rules a huge stretch of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border, a direct link between its positions in the Syrian province of Aleppo and its stronghold of Raqqa, to the east. It would also give the group full control of a large stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border.
Syrian Kurds scoffed at the rhetoric coming out of Ankara. They say that not only are the Turks not helping, that they are actively hindering the defense of Kobani by preventing Kurdish militiamen in Turkey from crossing the border into the town to help in the fight.
“We are besieged by Turkey, it is not something new,” said Ismet Sheikh Hassan, the Kurdish defense chief for the Kobani region.
Relations between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds have long been strained, in large part because Ankara believes the Kurdish Democratic Union, or PYD – the leading Syrian Kurdish political party – is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey.
Despite Erdogan’s dire assessment of the battle for Kobani, the front lines were largely stable despite heavy clashes Tuesday.
Kurdish forces managed to push back Islamic State militants from some neighborhoods on the eastern edges of town, hours after the extremists stormed into the areas, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Still, two black jihadi flags fluttered from a building and a small hill on the eastern outskirts.
Fighting also raged at the southwestern entrance to town, where the militants have seized control of a few buildings, including a hospital, said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman.
From the Turkish side of the border, plumes of smoke from Islamic State shelling could be seen rising above the rooftops Tuesday, while long bursts of heavy gunfire frequently erupted followed by brief lulls.
The beleaguered Kurdish militiamen defending Kobani received some support overnight and Tuesday from the American-led coalition.
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