Turkey’s president warned the Syrian border city of Kobani was in imminent danger of falling to Islamic State and pressed the U.S. and its allies to move ahead with plans to arm and train Syrian and Iraqi ground forces to battle the extremist group.
Coalition airstrikes on Tuesday hit Islamic State positions near Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab. But officials and Syrian opposition members said the militants were still advancing against Syrian Kurdish fighters.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a visit to a refugee camp in the Turkish border province of Gaziantep, declared Kobani was “about to fall” and reiterated Turkey’s call for a no-fly zone and a safety zone along the border.
“You can’t end this terrorism just by airstrikes,” he said. “If you don’t support them on the ground by cooperating with those who take up a ground operation, the airstrikes won’t do it.”
The U.S. and its Arab and Western partners have conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State fighters and installations in recent weeks. But they have so far ruled out the use of their own ground forces to counter them, opting instead to train and support local allied forces.
Amid fierce fighting against Kurdish militia defending Kobani, Islamic State fighters pushed into three of the city’s eastern neighborhoods for the first time on Monday and hoisted at least two of their black flags.
Fighting continued in those districts Tuesday, particularly along an avenue leading to the city center, according to Sheikh Hasan, the defense minister of the Kobani district, one of the main administrative units of the Kurdish enclave known as Rojava.
“There were more than 10 airstrikes overnight continuing until the morning, but we can’t assess their damage to Islamic State,” Mr. Hasan said.
On Monday and Tuesday, the U.S. Central Command said coalition forces targeted Islamic State assets in numerous strikes to the south of Kobani, destroying and damaging armed vehicles, antiaircraft artillery and a tank.
Strikes also hit targets elsewhere in Syria, in the northeastern provinces of Al Hasakah and Deir Ezzour. They destroyed a production facility for improvised explosive devices, among other targets. Another strike targeted a small group of Islamic State fighters in Rabiah in western Syria, the U.S. said.
American aircraft were joined by warplanes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the strikes, the U.S. said. Further airstrikes were conducted against Islamic State targets in Iraq, focused around Sinjar, a city west of Mosul in the north of the country. Belgium participated in those strikes, the U.S. said.
In Kobani, there was also fighting in the west of the city, according to an opponent of the Syrian government who was in contact with residents.
Kurds won’t surrender to Islamic State, said Asya Abdullah, the co-chairman of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party. She called for the coalition to arm Kurdish militants with antitank missiles, saying the Kurds were fighting a difficult and uneven battle.
“Today it has been 23 days that we have fought Islamic State on our own, and we are fighting their tanks with light weapons,” she said.
Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish city, has become a flash point in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State. Before the civil war, an estimated 400,000 people lived in the city and hundreds of surrounding villages that are now mostly under Islamic State control and evacuated. Violence in the area over the past three weeks has driven an estimated 180,000 refugees into Turkey.
The group has exploited political instability and sectarian tension in Syria and Iraq to capture territory and impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
If Kobani falls, the security of Kurdish-majority regions that have long enjoyed a de facto autonomy from Iraqi and Syrian governments could be jeopardized. The town’s fate also carries major implications for Turkey, which hosts its own restive Kurdish population.
Kurdish fighters are angling for international military aid, and have criticized the international response to Islamic State threat. Yet aiding local Syrian Kurds who Turkey says have links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, could pose other complications. Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union all designate the PKK as a terrorist group.
But failing to aid the Kurds risks thwarting Turkey’s fragile reconciliation with the PKK, an effort years in the making.
The jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan warned last week that the fall of Kobani would bring the peace process to a violent end, accusing the Turkish government of deliberately helping Islamic State against the Kurds to prevent the “revolution in Rojava.”
The U.S. is urging Turkey to take a more active role in the fight against Islamic State, and officials are set to meet this week in Turkey to discuss cooperation. Turkey’s parliament last week approved a measure that allows Turkish forces to respond to Islamic State aggression, including by crossing the border into Syria.