Turkey said on Monday it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce fellow Kurds in the Syrian town of Kobani, while the United States air-dropped arms for the first time to help the defenders resist an Islamic State assault.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington had asked Ankara to let Iraqi Kurds cross its territory so that they could help defend the town which lies on the Turkish frontier, adding that he hoped the Kurds would “take this fight on”.
Kurdish militias in Kobani have been fighting off an Islamic State offensive since September without, until now, outside help apart from US-led airstrikes on the jihadists. The town, which is besieged by Islamic State on three sides, lies on the frontline of the battle to foil the radical group’s attempt to reshape the Middle East.
However, Ankara views the Syrian Kurds with deep suspicion because of their ties to the PKK, a group that waged a decades-long militant campaign for Kurdish rights in Turkey and which Washington regards as a terrorist organization.
Speaking in Indonesia, Kerry acknowledged Turkish concerns about support for the Kurds, and said the airdrop of supplies provided by the Kurdish authorities in Iraq did not amount to a change of US policy.
He indicated that the battle against Islamic State, a group also known by the acronym ISIL that has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, was an overriding consideration.
“We understand fully the fundamentals of (Ankara’s) opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group, and particularly, obviously, the challenges they face with respect to the PKK,” he told reporters.
But he added: “We cannot take our eye off the prize here. It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting ISIL.”
Iraqi Kurdish official Hemin Hawrami, writing on his Twitter feed, said 21 tonnes of weapons and ammunition supplied by the Iraqi Kurds had been dropped in the small hours of Monday.
Kerry said both he and President Barack Obama had spoken to Turkish authorities before the air drops “to make it very, very clear this is not a shift of policy by the United States”.
“It is a crisis moment, an emergency where we clearly do not want to see Kobani become a horrible example of the unwillingness of people to be able to help those who are fighting ISIL,” he added.
Turkey has stationed tanks on hills overlooking Kobani but has refused to help the Kurdish militias on the ground, suspicious of their links to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and demanding broader US action that would target Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as Islamic State.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference that Ankara was facilitating the passage of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces which have also fought Islamic State when the militants attacked the Kurds’ autonomous region in Iraq over the summer. Syrian Kurdish officials, however, said no backup had arrived.
Cavusoglu stopped short of saying whether Ankara backed the US decision to air-drop the weapons.
Turkey’s refusal to intervene in the battle against Islamic State has led to growing frustration in the United States. It has also provoked lethal riots in southeastern Turkey by Kurds furious at Ankara’s failure to help Kobani or at least open a land corridor for volunteer fighters and reinforcements to go there.
“NOT ENOUGH TO DECIDE THE BATTLE”
The US Central Command said it had delivered weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to allow the Kurdish fighters to keep up their resistance in the town which is called Kobani in Kurdish and Ayn al-Arab in Arabic.
The main Syrian Kurdish armed group, the YPG, said it had received “a large quantity” of ammunition and weapons.
Redur Xelil, a spokesman for the YPG, said the weapons dropped overnight would have a “positive impact” on the battle and the morale of fighters who have been out-gunned by Islamic State. But he added: “Certainly it will not be enough to decide the battle.”
“We do not think the battle of Kobani will end that quickly. The forces of (Islamic State) are still heavily present and determined to occupy Kobani. In addition, there is resolve (from the YPG) to repel this attack,” he told Reuters in an interview conducted via Skype.
He declined to give more details on the shipment.
The United States began carrying out air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq in August and about a month later started bombing the militant group in neighboring Syria.
However, the resupply of Kurdish fighters marks an escalation in the US effort to help local forces beat back the radical Sunni militant group in Syria. It points to the growing coordination between the US military and a Syrian Kurdish group that had been kept at arms’ length by the West due partly to the concerns of NATO member Turkey.
Washington has pressed Ankara to let it use bases in Turkey to stage the air strikes, and a Turkish foreign ministry official said the country’s airspace had not been used during the drops on Kobani.
Escalated US air strikes on Islamic State in and around Kobani have helped to slow its progress there in the last week. The Kurds say the US military has been coordinating the air strikes with them, helping to make them more effective.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war in Syria using sources on the ground, said there had been two new air strikes on Islamic State positions after midnight.
SITUATION REMAINS “FRAGILE”
In a brief statement, the US Central Command said US Air Force C-130 aircraft “delivered weapons, ammunition and medical supplies that were provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq and intended to enable continued resistance against ISIL’s attempts to overtake Kobani,” using an acronym to refer to Islamic State.
The Central Command said 135 US air strikes near Kobani in recent days, combined with continued resistance against Islamic State on the ground, had slowed the group’s advances into the town and killed hundreds of its fighters.
“However, the security situation in Kobani remains fragile as ISIL continues to threaten the city and Kurdish forces continue to resist,” the statement said.
Obama gave advance notice to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan of the plans to deliver arms to the Syrian Kurds.
The Turkish presidency said Obama and Erdogan had discussed Syria, including measures that could be taken to stop Islamic State’s advances, and Kobani.
In a statement published on Sunday, it also said Turkish assistance to over 1.5 million Syrians, including around 180,000 from Kobani, was noted in the conversation.
In comments published by Turkish media on Monday, Erdogan equated the main Syrian Kurdish political group, the PYD, with the PKK, describing both as terrorist organizations.
“It will be very wrong for America with whom we are allied and who we are together with in NATO to expect us to say ‘yes’ (to supporting the PYD) after openly announcing such support for a terrorist organization,” Erdogan said.
Kobani is one of three areas near the border with Turkey where Syrian Kurds have established their own government since the country descended into civil war in 2011.