Kurds hanging on in Kobani as Islamic State presses offensive

Smoke rises following an airstrike by US-led coalition aircraft in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, Oct. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Smoke rises following an airstrike by US-led coalition aircraft in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, Oct. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) AP

Islamic State militants have captured about one-third of the city of Kobani in the last 24 hours, but Kurdish defenders are fighting fiercely to prevent their advance, Syrian opposition activists said Thursday.

Islamic State forces captured a police station and a secondary school in the eastern part of the city, while fighters from the People’s Protection Units – the Kurdish group known as the YPG, which has controlled the city since the middle of 2012 – were still in control of the city center and the city’s west.

U.S. aircraft launched five airstrikes against Islamic State positions south of Kobani, the military’s Central Command said Thursday. Centcom described the targets as a training camp, a support building, two vehicles and two units of Islamic State fighters, one large and one small. It gave no estimate of casualties, though fighters inside the city said at least 11 Islamic State fighters and six members of the Kurdish militias had died in the fighting.

“Indications are that Kurdish militia there continue to control most of the city and are holding out against ISIL,” Centcom’s statement said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS.

Abu Issa, the leader of the Thwar al Raqqa Brigade of the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting inside Kobani, told McClatchy that he believed the fall of the city was only hours away. He said the Islamic State had deployed at least three car bombs in its effort to seize the city.

Other reports indicated that the Islamic State had set fire to tires in Kobani in an effort to obscure the vision of U.S. drone aircraft, which journalists reported were a nearly constant presence over the city.

In one dramatic video, posted on the Internet by opposition activists, friends can be seen gathering around a badly wounded Islamic State fighter and exchanging final words with him. The exchanges were not in Arabic – unsurprising given that as many as one-third of the Islamic State’s militants are thought to come from outside Syria.

The battle for Kobani has become one of the most closely watched fights in the war against the Islamic State, though the strategic value of the city is disputed.

At least part of the interest in what is taking place there come from its visibility – journalists can literally watch the fighting from hillsides inside Turkey. That has made Kobani a dramatic backdrop for reports on many of the war’s major themes: Islamic State military prowess, the persistence of outgunned Kurdish fighters, the effectiveness of U.S. airstrikes, Turkey’s ambivalence toward joining the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, and its long-running battle against its own Kurdish separatists.

Despite calls for it to intervene to save Kobani, Turkey has made clear it won’t. An estimated 160,000 Kurdish civilians have fled into Turkey in recent weeks, and Turkey dispatched armored vehicles to the border last week. But the only hostile action came when Turkish security forces fired tear gas against Kurdish civilians demanding that Turkey intervene. In recent days, clashes in Turkish cities between security forces and Kurdish demonstrators have killed as many as 24 people.

Indeed, the fact that the city has been ruled for two years by Kurdish factions linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought the Turkish government for three decades to establish an autonomous zone in Turkey, is a major factor in Turkey’s decision not to intervene. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said one of the conditions for Turkish intervention would be the YPG’s agreement to surrender its autonomous structure inside Syria.

“The Turkish policymakers don’t like what they see in Rojava, essentially,” Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar in the Brussels offices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told reporters in a conference call Thursday, referring to the Kurdish area of Syria by its local name. “They don’t like ISIS, either, so the fact that the two are fighting each other is not necessarily a bad outcome for Turkey.”

Turkey, meanwhile, lifted a curfew that had been imposed in three predominantly Kurdish provinces because of disturbances but extended it in a fourth, according to the Anadolu News Agency.

At the White House, deputy spokesman Eric Schultz said the Obama administration was still hopeful that Turkey would join the anti-Islamic State coalition and noted that retired Marine Gen. John Allen was in Ankara Thursday to discuss the possibilities. Allen is President Barack Obama’s special envoy to coordinate the anti-Islamic State coalition.

But Schultz declined to say what the United States hoped Turkey would do. “I’m not going to preview that at this time,” he said. “I can say that we’ve been in constant discussion with our Turkish partners about the range of possible ways that Turkey can contribute to support the anti-ISIL coalition.”

In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg that he saw no easy way to push back the siege on Kobani.

“It is not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct a ground operation on its own,” Cavusoglu said.