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Islamic State gains highlight Syrian Kurds’ plight

Bassem Mroue Associated Press

BEIRUT – Islamic State militiamen backed by tanks defiantly advanced Thursday in Syria, capturing more than 20 Kurdish villages as the international community strains to assemble a coalition that might destroy them.

The gains highlighted the plight of Syria’s Kurds, who have been some of the most successful against the Islamic extremists. But unlike U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurds, they seem largely on their own in a devastated country where the enemy’s enemy is not necessarily a friend.

The main Kurdish force in Syria, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPK, is viewed with suspicion by mainstream Syrian rebels and their Western supporters because of perceived links to President Bashar Assad’s government.

NATO member Turkey is also wary of the group, which it believes is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement that waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey.

“This is a complicating factor in the equation,” said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.

The U.S. and its allies think the Kurdish alliance is fighting alongside the Assad government, he said. And the Americans don’t want to upset Turkey.

So while the U.S. and its allies accelerate weapons deliveries to Iraqi Kurds, Syrian Kurds complain they have been largely dismissed and ignored as a fighting force.

“We are ready to join any coalition to face Daesh,” said Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, which dominates the Kurdish fighters. He used an Arabic name to refer to the Islamic State.

The YPK has been fighting the group since July 2013. Over the past year, it has cleared many Kurdish areas of jihadi fighters.

But since June, when Islamic State fighters captured weapons and vehicles from Iraqi army bases and brought them into Syria, the militants have retaken some Kurdish areas, mostly in the northern region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab.

Over the span of two days, they took 21 villages in the area, activists said Thursday.

Beyond building the coalition, Washington is also making plans to train up to 5,000 Syrian rebels. Kurdish officials in Syria say the YPK should be the group to spearhead the mission against jihadis. The group denies any links to Assad’s government or the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

“There are double standards. They are looking for allies who serve them. They are not looking for real allies,” said Nasser Haj Mansour, an official at the defense office in Syria’s Kurdish region about the planned U.S.-led coalition.

The U.S. and other Western countries have sent weapons to Iraqi Kurds, who have strong relations with Washington.

Marking a possible shift, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Associated Press on Thursday that arming the Syrian Kurds was under consideration.

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