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Syrian border town about to fall to ISIS, Turkish leader says

A Turkish Kurd sitting on the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, watched as smoke rose from a strike in Kobani.
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A Turkish Kurd sitting on the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, watched as smoke rose from a strike in Kobani.

MURSITPINAR, Turkey — Kurdish fighters in Syria struggled to fight off Islamic State militants in Kobani on Tuesday, as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned that border town was about to fall, despite new US-led airstrikes on the militants.

Saying that aerial attacks alone may not be enough to stop the fighters’ advance, Erdogan called for more support for insurgents opposed to the group in Syria. In doing so, he was reiterating the key sticking point between Turkey and Washington: President Barack Obama wants Turkey to take stronger action against the Islamic State, while Erdogan wants the US effort to focus more on ousting Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. Turkey has long supported the armed opposition to Assad.

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

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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, Erdogan sees the group, known as the YPG, as an enemy and an even greater threat than the Islamic State.

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

Not long after 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 YPG force, who was reached by telephone inside Kobani.

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

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

The US 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 YPG 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.

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“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.”

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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 YPG and listening to warplanes circling overhead. “They used to come with high expectations of strikes against ISIS, but all are disappointed,” he said.

Altindag blamed Turkey for the delay in stronger US-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 YPG. 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 Assad and openly join the Syrian insurgents fighting him, and to dismantle its semiautonomous zone inside Syria. But the YPG and its affiliated political party, the PYD, accepted control of Kurdish areas when 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 PYD to distance itself from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which the Turkish government and the United States consider a terrorist group.

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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. Tensions were also higher, with Kurdish men packing the streets of Suruc to show their displeasure with 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 YPG leaders and their relations with them, he said.

“I was locked alone in a room for four hours,” said Bali, a Syrian Kurdish activist. “They checked my phone and text messages and asked me questions about specific names in the YPG 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.”