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HomeMiddle EastSyria Border Town, Kobani, Falling to ISIS, Leader of Turkey Says

Syria Border Town, Kobani, Falling to ISIS, Leader of Turkey Says

Video | Fighting Rages in Syrian Border Town President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey warned that the Syrian border town of Kobani might fall to Islamist militants as fighting intensified between Kurdish rebels and Islamic State fighters.
By KARAM SHOUMALI and ANNE BARNARD
October 7, 2014

MURSITPINAR, Turkey — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said Tuesday that the Syrian border town of Kobani, under siege from Islamic State fighters, was about to fall to the militants despite United States-led airstrikes on the group.

Asserting that aerial attacks alone may not be enough to stop the fighters’ advance, Mr. Erdogan called for more support for insurgents in Syria who are battling the Islamic State, and reiterated Turkey’s earlier call for a no-fly zone and a buffer zone along the border. Yet he stopped short of committing Turkey to any ground operation, something he has long said would require an international agreement and a no-fly zone.

His comments highlighted a key sticking point between Turkey and Washington: President Obama wants Turkey to take stronger action against the Islamic State, while Mr. Erdogan wants the American effort to focus more on ousting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Turkey has long supported the armed opposition to Mr. Assad.

“There has to be cooperation with those who are fighting on the ground,” Mr. Erdogan said, addressing Syrian refugees at a camp in Gaziantep, a border province west of Kobani.

Turkish soldiers stood guard on Tuesday just across the border from Kobani, Syria.

But to the Syrian and Turkish Kurds watching in increasing desperation from hilltops here on Tuesday, the ground force that needs immediate help is the Kurdish group fighting the Islamic State in the streets of Kobani, the People’s Protection Committees. They believe that given Turkey’s long history of tensions with its Kurdish population, Mr. Erdogan sees the group, known as the Y.P.G., as an enemy and an even greater threat than the Islamic State.

Such complications are part of the tangled mix of alliances and enmities that have challenged the American effort to battle the Islamic State without wading deeper into the Syrian conflict.

Not long after Mr. Erdogan spoke, an airstrike hit less than a mile to the southwest of Kobani, also known as Ain al-Arab, sending a black plume skyward. Residents said the target appeared to be an Islamic State tank that had been shelling the city for two days. Two more strikes followed in the same area in less than an hour.

Several other airstrikes hit Islamic State positions overnight and Tuesday morning on the southern and eastern outskirts of the town, said Barwar Mohammad Ali, a coordinator with the Kurdish Y.P.G. force who was reached by telephone inside Kobani.

Video | ISIS’ Goals and Tactics Worldwide Some background on goals, tactics and the potential long-term threat to the United States from the militant group known as the Islamic State.

“It is the first time that people have the impression that the airstrikes are effective,” Mr. Ali said, referring to Kurdish fighters on the front lines. “But they need more.”

He said street fighting had continued on Tuesday and that Y.P.G. fighters had killed numerous attackers and captured 20, including 10 foreigners.

The American military confirmed four new airstrikes on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL: one strike south of Kobani that destroyed three armed vehicles and damaged another; another strike to the southeast that hit antiaircraft artillery, and two to the southwest that damaged a tank and “destroyed an ISIL unit.”

But there was little joy among the crowds of Kurdish men watching the battle unfold just across the border fence, many of whom had only recently fled the town or had relatives there.

One spectator, Mahmoud Nabo, 35, a Syrian Kurd who left his home in Kobani after Y.P.G. fighters urged civilians to evacuate on Monday, said airstrikes would have a limited effect since Islamic state militants move in small groups. They would work, he said, only if Kurdish fighters were given weapons and ammunition.

“Now I can see the shelling is getting closer to my neighborhood,” he said, pointing to the western side of the city. “We thought everything would stop after the first airstrike on ISIS, but now it is closer and more frequent.”

Another spectator, Avni Altindag, a Kurd from the nearby Turkish town of Suruc, said the Islamic State was stronger than a few air raids.

He pointed to the men watching the smoke rising over Kobani, who were chanting for the Y.P.G. and listening to warplanes circling overhead. “They used to come with high expectations of strikes against ISIS, but all are disappointed,” he said.

Mr. Altindag blamed Turkey for the delay in stronger American-led strikes. “They don’t want to help what they say is their enemy,” he said. “This is why it is in Turkey’s favor that Kobani falls to ISIS.”

Kobani is cut off from the east, west and south by the well-armed Islamic State fighters. To the north, refugees and fighters face the border fence with Turkey – a barrier to resupplying the Y.P.G. The Turkish authorities have refused to allow the group to receive supplies and weapons unless it meets a set of demands that are virtually impossible politically.

Turkey wants the group to denounce Mr. Assad and openly join the Syrian insurgents fighting him, and to dismantle its semiautonomous zone inside Syria. But the Y.P.G. and its affiliated political party accepted control of Kurdish areas when Mr. Assad’s forces withdrew earlier in the Syrian war, and have focused more on self-rule and protecting their territory than on fighting the government.

Turkey also wants the party to distance itself from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which the Turkish government and the United States consider a terrorist group.

That impasse leaves Kobani isolated. Some refugees are literally pressed against the fence, unwilling to cross because they cannot take their livestock, and sometimes blocked by the Turkish authorities when border crossings are closed.

Turkish soldiers have stood by and watched the fighting from their armored vehicles, and have also stopped Syrian and Turkish Kurds from crossing into Syria to fight the Islamic State.

Tear gas wafted near the border on Tuesday, one of many instances in which Turkish security forces have used it against crowds of demonstrators, journalists, and would-be fighters and refugees. Kurdish men packed the streets of Suruc to protest Turkish policy.

More than 180,000 people have already fled the fighting around Kobani, which in addition to its own population had hosted tens of thousands of displaced Syrians. Turkey is already hosting more than 1.5 million Syrians, shouldering an enormous economic and political burden.

But on Monday, about 200 civilians who crossed into Turkey from Kobani were detained by Turkish authorities, according to one of the detainees, Mustafa Bali, reached by phone in a Turkish border village called Ali Kor. Buses took them from an official border crossing to a gymnasium, where they are still being detained, he said.

Young men in the group, which also included women and children, were interrogated and asked about Y.P.G. leaders and their relations with them, he said.

“I was locked alone in a room for four hours,” said Mr. Bali, a Syrian Kurdish activist. “They checked my phone and text messages and asked me questions about specific names in the Y.P.G. in a very insulting way. They told us we will be released when they are done with our procedure, but I don’t know what kind of procedure a refugee receives.”

Meanwhile, one person died and dozens were injured throughout Turkey after the police confronted crowds protesting the siege of Kobani on Tuesday. Local authorities issued a curfew for Mardin, a predominantly Kurdish town in the country’s east, to ensure public safety, CNN Turk news television reported.

In Istanbul, pro-Kurdish demonstrators gathered in the Bagcilar, Kadikoy, Esenyurt and Sarigazi districts to protest the advance of the Islamic State fighters, burning vehicles as barriers against the police, who used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowds.

Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party called Tuesday for rallies across the country to demand that the governing Justice and Development Party open a humanitarian aid corridor between Turkey and Kobani to assist the thousands trapped in the Syrian border town.

Pro-government channels defined the protests as acts of provocation by Kurdish separatists against the government.

Karam Shoumali reported from Mursitpinar, and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon. Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Istanbul, and Alan Cowell from London.

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(via NY Times)