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Isis in Kobani: US resupplies Kurdish fighters by plane - then Turkey allows reinforcements through its border

Policy shift sees American planes drop tons of weapons to resupply Kurds fighting Isis militants as Washington loses patience with Turkey’s reluctance to back defenders of town on Syrian border

Patrick Cockburn
Tuesday 21 October 2014 06:29 BST
The US and Turkey have stepped up support for Kurdish fighters defending Kobani against Isis but it is still feared the town may fall; above, observers watch the fighting from a nearby village
The US and Turkey have stepped up support for Kurdish fighters defending Kobani against Isis but it is still feared the town may fall; above, observers watch the fighting from a nearby village (AFP)

Turkey is to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce the besieged Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani and US aircraft have dropped military supplies to its defenders to prevent its capture by the Islamic State.

The US resupply effort marks a radical change in American policy towards direct cooperation with Kurdish fighters on the ground, whom Turkey has denounced as terrorists. During the month-long siege of Kobani, just south of the Turkish border, the Turkish army has hitherto prevented arms, ammunition and reinforcements reaching the town.

American C-130 cargo planes dropped some 21 tons of weapons including anti-tank guns and medical supplies. Stepped-up US air strikes on Isis positions, using intelligence supplied by the Kurds, has helped repel the Islamic militants.

The rapidly intensifying US support for Kobani appears motivated by a belief that Washington could not afford to allow Isis to win another victory which would be a humiliating setback for President Barack Obama’s campaign to degrade and destroy it.

The US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “It is a crisis moment, an emergency where we clearly do not want to see Kobani become a horrible example of the unwillingness of people to help those who are fighting Isil (Isis).”

Despite the diplomatic language, Washington has lost patience with Turkey, which, though a member of the US-led coalition aimed at eliminating Isis, has repeatedly refused to authorise measures to save Kobani.

A senior White House official was quoted as saying that “there was an urgent need to resupply”, suggesting that the US had information that the Kurdish militia was getting low on ammunition and was outgunned by Isis.

Turkey announced later that it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce Kobani, thus breaking the Turkish blockade of the town which is surrounded by Isis on its other three sides.

The change in the Turkish stance came at the request of the US. Allowing Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory enables Ankara to save some face, the Turkish government having previously denounced as terrorist the political and military organisations of the Syrian Kurds, the PYD and YPG, as the Syrian branches of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he sees no difference between the PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984, and Isis. President Obama told Mr Erdogan in a phone call on Saturday about US plans to directly supply Kobani, but did not seek Turkish permission and US planes did not overfly Turkey.

It is politically easier for the Turkish government to help Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga reach Kobani than allow the PKK safe passage because it has good relations with the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG may see an advantage in playing a role in the defence of Kobani which many Kurds see as being a Kurdish Stalingrad, a symbol of heroic resistance and national identity. The Iraqi peshmerga were criticised for putting up a feeble defence when Isis launched an offensive against them in August.

Isis was reported to be making renewed attacks on Kobani on Monday night and US officials warned that the town could still fall. The US Central Command said 135 airstrikes in recent days had slowed the Isis advance, but “the security situation in Kobani remains fragile”.

Syrian Kurdish spokesmen are more optimistic about their military prospects, given that they now have strong American support, although they say that “this is not enough to decide the battle”.

Six US air strikes were conducted near Kobani on Sunday and Monday. A “stray” resupply vehicle from the US airdrop of supplies was hit, the US military said, which “prevented these supplies from falling into enemy hands”.

Isis has not given up its assault on Kobani, despite suffering significant losses, the British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights saying that 70 of its fighters have been killed in the last few four days.

Despite its failure to take Kobani, Isis has been advancing slowly north of Aleppo and, more dramatically, in Anbar province in Iraq where it is now almost entirely in control. Its forces are within easy reach of west Baghdad where there are large Sunni enclaves, although the majority of its seven million people are Shia. Six US-led air strikes, which also included the participation of France and Britain, hit Isis positions in Iraq on Monday.

Turkey has been insisting that the priority in Syria should be the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad and his government by imposing a no-fly zone and creating a rebel force in Turkish-held buffer zone in northern Syria. This force would then fight both Isis and the government in Damascus. Unless Mr Erdogan has received some assurances from the US about displacing Mr Assad, Turkey is the loser in the latest phase of the Syrian crisis.

The government has enraged its own Kurdish population by refusing to rescue the Syrian Kurds and being covertly complicit in the attack on them by Isis. If Mr Erdogan’s purpose was to weaken the 2.5 million Syrian Kurds who gained de facto autonomy in 2012 when the Iraqi army withdrew from Kurdish areas, then he has failed. If the US is now committed to supporting the Syrian Kurds as an effective opponents of Isis, then they emerge from the crisis stronger than before.

US officials were stressing on Monday that their policy towards the Syrian Kurds and Turkey has not changed. Mr Kerry said that he and President Obama had made “it very, very clear that this is not a shift of policy by the United States”, though by bypassing Turkey and supplying the Kurds directly, the opposite is true.

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