Ankara and Beirut, Reuters/Asharq Al-Awsat—Turkey said on Monday it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce fellow Kurds in the Syrian border town of Kobani, while the United States airdropped arms for the first time to help the defenders resist an assault by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Washington said the arms had been supplied by Iraqi Kurdish authorities and had been dropped near Kobani, which came under ISIS attack in September and is now besieged to the east, west and south, and bordered to the north by Turkey.
Turkey has stationed tanks on hills overlooking Kobani but has refused to help the Kurdish militias on the ground without striking a broader deal with its NATO allies on intervening in the Syrian conflict, saying action should also be taken against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
However, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told a news conference that Turkey was facilitating the passage of Iraqi–Kurdish Peshmerga forces which also fought ISIS when the militants attacked the Kurds’ autonomous region in Iraq over the summer. He gave no details.
Turkey’s refusal to intervene in the battle against ISIS, which has seized large areas of Syria and neighboring Iraq, has led to growing frustration in the United States.
The policy has also provoked lethal riots in southeastern Turkey by Kurds furious at Ankara’s refusal to help Kobani or at least open a land corridor for volunteer fighters and reinforcements to go there.
Ankara views the Syrian Kurds, particularly the Democratic Union Party (PYD), with deep suspicion because of their ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that waged a decades-long militant campaign for Kurdish rights in Turkey.
Earlier, the US Central Command said it had delivered weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to allow the Kurdish fighters to keep up their resistance in the town, which is called Kobani in Kurdish and Ain Al-Arab in Arabic.
The main Syrian–Kurdish armed group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), said it had received “a large quantity” of ammunition and weapons.
Redur Xelil, a spokesman for the YPG, said the weapons dropped overnight would have a “positive impact” on the battle and the morale of fighters who have been outgunned by ISIS. But he added: “Certainly it will not be enough to decide the battle.”
“We do not think the battle of Kobani will end that quickly. The forces of [ISIS] are still heavily present and determined to occupy Kobani. In addition, there is resolve [from the YPG] to repel this attack,” he told Reuters in an interview conducted via Skype.
He declined to give more details on the shipment.
The United States began carrying out air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq in August and about a month later started bombing the militant group in neighboring Syria.
However, the resupply of Kurdish fighters marks an escalation in the US effort to help local forces beat back the radical Sunni militant group in Syria. It points to the growing coordination between the US military and a Syrian–Kurdish group that had been kept at arms’ length by the West due partly to the concerns of NATO member Turkey.
Washington has pressed Ankara to let it use bases in Turkey to stage the air strikes, and a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said the country’s airspace had not been used during the drops on Kobani.
US President Barack Obama gave advance notice to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the US’s plans to deliver arms to the Kurdish fighters in Kobani.
“President Obama spoke to Erdoğan yesterday and was able to notify him of our intent to do this and the importance that we put on it,” one senior US official told reporters, which was confirmed by Turkish sources speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat.
A Turkish government source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, told Asharq Al-Awsat the two leaders had discussed the situation in Kobani, but said there had been no progress in discussions with Washington regarding Turkey’s involvement in the fight against ISIS.
The source called the move to arm Kurdish groups an “irresponsible” one.
“Our allies need to re-evaluate their position regarding arming Kurdish political parties in Syria and Iraq,” the source said, adding that arming these groups threatened Turkish national security and that “a terrorist organization [the PKK] would benefit from these weapons.”
The source also echoed recent comments by President Erdoğan, saying Ankara regarded the PYD as a terrorist organization in the same vein as the PKK, and calling both groups “two sides of the same coin.”
The source also said Ankara was frustrated that the US and its allies were opposed to extending the campaign against ISIS to include the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
The source said the international community possessed the necessary “medicine” that would allow it to fight against the spread of “strange phenomena” such as the Assad regime, and that it was perfectly capable of bringing an end to the conflict in Syria.
US officials, speaking in a conference call, described the weapons delivered to Kobani as “small arms,” but gave no further details.
Escalating US air strikes on ISIS in and around Kobani have helped to slow its progress there in the last week. The Kurds say the US military has been coordinating the air strikes with them, helping to make them more effective.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war in Syria using sources on the ground, said there had been two new air strikes on ISIS positions after midnight on Monday morning.
In a brief statement, the US Central Command said US Air Force C-130 aircraft “delivered weapons, ammunition and medical supplies that were provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq and intended to enable continued resistance against [ISIS’s] attempts to overtake Kobani.”
The Central Command said 135 US air strikes near Kobani in recent days, combined with continued resistance against ISIS on the ground, had slowed the group’s advances into the town and killed hundreds of its fighters.
“However, the security situation in Kobani remains fragile as [ISIS] continues to threaten the city and Kurdish forces continue to resist,” the statement said.
“We understand the longstanding Turkish concern with the range of groups, including Kurdish groups, that they have been engaged in conflict with,” he added. “However, our very strong belief is that both the United States and Turkey face a common enemy in [ISIS] and that we need to act on an urgent basis.”
Thair Abbas and Nazeer Rida contributed reporting from Beirut