In a move that marked a break with a key NATO ally, the U.S. dropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies Sunday to Kurdish forces fighting to defend the Syrian city of Kobani from the Islamic State.
The word came only hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned President Barack Obama not to assist the Kobani defenders, who he believes are linked to a group both Turkey and the United States have classified as a terrorist organization.
The airdrops were the first of their kind since President Barack Obama declared the anti-Islamic State campaign in early August and came after U.S. planes last week conducted more than 100 airstrikes on Islamic State positions in and around Kobani. Those strikes, which were coordinated with Kurdish militias on the ground, allowed the Kurdish forces to reclaim miles of territory that had fallen to the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL or ISIS.
U.S. officials warned that Kobani might still fall.
“The president was determined to take this action now,” said a senior administration official with knowledge of the operation who briefed reporters late Sunday night under the condition of anonymity. “Kobani is important because ISIL has made it one of its main focal points. . . . This was the quickest way to get the job done.”
The official said that the administration was pushing to persuade Turkey to allow weapons to reach the Kurdish forces by land through Turkey, but had moved without Turkey’s agreement because the fighters were running low on supplies. Other airdrops are possible, the official said.
Turkey’s agreement to allow weapons to reach the Kurdish forces seems highly unlikely, however. On Saturday, Erdogan made it clear that he sees little difference between the Kobani defenders, who are affiliated with a Syrian Kurdish political party known as the PYD, and a Kurdish separatist group in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK.
“At the moment, the PYD is equal with the PKK for us. It is also a terrorist organization. It would be very wrong for America – with whom we are allies and who we are together with in NATO – to expect us to say ‘yes’ after openly announcing such support for a terrorist organization,” Erdogan said. “It cannot expect such a thing from us and we cannot say ‘yes’ to such a thing either.”
The administration official said the U.S. had urged Turkish officials several times to allow the resupply, but declined to characterize the Turkish response.
A second senior administration official said “the Turks remain one of our closest allies.”
But the resupply of the PYD defenders -- the initials stand for Democratic Union Party in Kurdish -- marked a clear break with Turkey, which has been reluctant to embrace the anti-Islamic State coalition. Erdogan has said the U.S. strategy should be focused on toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad and not just on defeating the Islamic State. On Oct. 4, he equated the PKK and the Islamic State in remarks outside a mosque in Istanbul.
“As far as we are concerned, the PKK is the equivalent of ISIS. Therefore it is wrong to consider them separately,” Erdogan said then. “There are still other terror organizations in the area. We must deal with them simultaneously and so must the world.”
There was no immediate reaction in Turkey to the U.S. airdrops.
Obama told Erdogan of the U.S. resupply plans in a phone call that the White House said had been placed to discuss the situation in Kobani, officials said.
Since the U.S. airstrikes began in Iraq this summer, the U.S. had some early successes, such as helping displaced minorities in the Sinjar Mountains and defending the Mosul Dam, but a series of setbacks has prompted questions about the strength of the U.S.-led mission. In addition to being close to capturing Kobani, the Islamic State has made gains in Anbar province in Iraq, near the Baghdad International Airport.
“This is part of the presidents broader strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL,” the administration official said. “The president recognizes this is going to be a long-term campaign against ISIL.”
The aircraft delivered weapons, ammunition and medical supplies provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq. The mission began at 4:30 p.m. EDT and ended at 8 p.m. EDT.
The administration did not immediately provide details on the type of weapons.
The airdrops were conducted by U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft, according to U.S. Central Command. All aircraft exited the airdrop zone safely.
U.S. forces have conducted more than 135 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Kobani, according to U.S. Central Command.
U.S. strikes have slowed the Islamic State’s advances into the city, killed hundreds of its fighters and destroyed or damaged scores of pieces of combat equipment and fighting positions, U.S. officials say. But the situation in Kobani remains fragile.
The first senior administration official said the Islamic State wants to control the battlefield. “They're not going to be able to do that any more,” the official said.
Roy Gutman in Istanbul contributed to this report.