Beirut and Mürşitpınar, Reuters/ِAsharq Al-Awsat—Iraqi–Kurdish fighters have joined the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants in Kobani, hoping their support for fellow Kurds backed by US-led airstrikes will keep the ultra-hardline group from seizing the Syrian border town.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in the country, said heavy clashes erupted in Kobani and that both sides had suffered casualties, while the US military said it had launched more air raids on ISIS over the weekend.
Idriss Nassan, deputy minister for foreign affairs in Kobani district, said Iraqi Kurds using long-range artillery had joined the battle on Saturday night against ISIS, which holds parts of Syria and Iraq as part of an ambition to redraw the map of the Middle East.
“The Peshmerga joined the battle late yesterday and it made a big difference with their artillery. It is proper artillery,” he told Reuters.
“We didn’t have artillery; we were using mortars and other locally made weapons. So this is a good thing.”
Nassan did not elaborate and it was not immediately possible to verify that progress against ISIS had been made.
The arrival of the 150 Iraqi–Kurdish fighters—known as Peshmerga, or “those who confront death”—marks the first time Turkey has allowed troops from outside Syria to reinforce Syrian Kurds, who have been defending Kobani for more than 40 days.
“They are supporting the People’s Protection Units [YPG, the armed wing of the Syrian–Kurdish Democratic Union Party]. They have a range of semi-heavy weapons,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Peshmerga Ministry in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
Eyewitnesses in the Mürşitpınar area on the Turkish side of the border from Kobani said two rockets were fired on Saturday night.
A Reuters witness said fighting on Sunday was heavier than in the last two days, noting a strike in the late morning and the sound of three explosions.
Attention has focused on Kobani, seen as key test of the effectiveness of American airstrikes, and of whether combined Kurdish forces can fend off ISIS.
The battle for the border town has also demonstrated the Turkish government’s unease at the presence of autonomous Kurdish regions and fighters on its borders.
As a precondition for allowing Iraqi Peshmerga to reinforce the town, Ankara insisted that they be accompanied by fighters from the armed wing of Syria’s Western-backed Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
However, sources say that this had led to friction between the FSA and Kurdish fighters.
A senior source within the Supreme Military Council of the FSA, who requested anonymity because he were not authorized to brief the media, told Asharq Al-Awsat, however, that there were currently disputes between the FSA and the Kurdish fighters from the YPG.
The source said around 20 of the original 52 FSA fighters who had joined the fight just days ago had now left the area as a result of the disputes, adding that they had now re-entered Turkish territory.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, a senior source from the YPG did not confirm or deny the allegations, saying only that “the FSA fighters who joined us [the YPG] recently in Kobani were motivated more by political goals than military ones,” accusing them of following orders from Ankara.
The source added: “The group of FSA fighters who have been with us from the beginning of the battle [for Kobani] are still by our side, and around 30 of them have been killed in the fighting. But those who joined recently, who are under the leadership of Gen. Abdul Jabbar Al-Akidi and came [already] supplied with weapons, are still hesitant and have not yet decided whether to join the fight or not, despite our opening the door fully to any help they might offer.”
In contrast, Munthir Silal, a member of the opposition Syrian Council for the Protection of the Revolution, told Asharq Al-Awsat around 200 fighters under the leadership of Gen. Akidi had entered the fight in Kobani in the last two days.
Speaking of the accusations the source from the YPG had leveled at some of the FSA fighters under Akidi, he said: “Maybe it is in the Kurds’ interest to devalue the role the FSA is playing [in the fight]. It is they who did not want the FSA’s presence, [and the FSA would not have entered the fight] if it wasn’t for Turkish pressure.”
He added: “Despite all this, we want to ensure everyone that our [FSA] fighters in Kobani are in good shape and are getting ready to enter the battle in Kobani with full force, since the fight for the town is now getting a lot of attention and support, and [victory there] can therefore act as a springboard for the liberation of the towns of Manbij, Jarabulus and Tel Abyad [from ISIS].”
Airstrikes have helped to foil several attempts by ISIS, notorious for its beheading of hostages and opponents, to take over Kobani.
But they have done little to stop its advances, in particular in Sunni areas of western Iraq, where it has been executing hundreds of members of a tribe that resisted its territorial gains.
In their latest airstrikes, US military forces staged seven attacks on ISIS targets in Syria on Saturday and Sunday and were joined by allies in two more attacks in Iraq, the US Central Command said.
In the Kobani area, five strikes hit five small ISIS units, while two strikes near Deir Ezzor, around 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the southeast in Syria destroyed an ISIS tank and vehicle shelters.
US and partner nations hit small ISIS units near the Iraqi cities of Bayji, north of Baghdad, and Falluja, in Anbar province to the west of the capital.
The ultra-hardline ISIS regards Iraq’s majoriy Shi’ites as infidels who deserve to be killed.
The group is expected to try and deploy suicide bombers to inflict mass casualties as Shi’ites prepare for and take part in the religious festival of Ashura, an event that has been marred by sectarian bloodshed in the past.
A series of bomb attacks killed 37 Shi’ite pilgrims in Baghdad on Sunday, police and medical sources said.
The worst attack took place when a bomb exploded near a tent in the Sadr City area of the capital.
Shi’ite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stepped in to try and fill a security vacuum after US-funded Iraqi military forces crumbled in the face of an ISIS onslaught in the north in June.
ISIS inflicted humiliating defeats on the Kurds.
While the Kurds have retaken some territory with the support of US airstrikes in the north, ISIS faces limited resistance in Iraq’s western Anbar province, where its militants last week executed over 300 hundred members of the Albu Nimr tribe because it had defied the group for weeks.
In the first official confirmation of the scale of the massacre, the Iraqi government said ISIS had killed 322 members of the tribe, including dozens of women and children whose bodies were dumped in a well.
The systematic killings, which one tribal leader said were continuing on Sunday, marked some of the worst bloodshed in Iraq since the Sunni militants swept through the north in June.
The Albu Nimr, also Sunni, had put up fierce resistance against ISIS for weeks but finally ran low on ammunition, food and fuel last week as ISIS fighters closed in on their village at Zawiyat Albu Nimr.
Since ISIS declared a “caliphate” in large areas of Syria and Iraq in June, the militants have lost hundreds if not thousands of fighters in battles against other Sunni rebels, Islamist groups, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and in US-led airstrikes.
Fighters inside the group say that it receives hundreds of volunteers every month, which helps it carry our more attacks. It also received pledges of allegiances from Islamist groups in places such as Pakistan, Africa and some Arab states.
Caroline Akoum contributed reporting from Beirut