U.S. Airdrops Weapons, Supplies to Besieged Syrian Kurds

A Kurdish family walks on Sunday in a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, where many have fled to escape the fighting in nearby Kobani. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—The U.S. dropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to Syrian Kurds fighting Islamic State extremists in the embattled city of Kobani, U.S. officials said Sunday.

Three U.S. C-130 cargo planes began dropping the weapons and supplies, provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq, on Sunday, the officials said. Over several hours, the U.S. dropped 27 bundles of small arms, ammunition and supplies.

The mission marks a deeper U.S. involvement in the conflict and comes over the objections of U.S. ally Turkey, which strongly opposes arming the Syrian Kurds.

The U.S. has conducted some 135 airstrikes in the area of Kobani, itself a main focus of the Islamic State militant offensive. U.S. military officials said they have killed hundreds of fighters and damaged scores of combat equipment.

U.S. defense officials said earlier Sunday that the U.S. military had prepared options for arming or resupplying the Syrian Kurds, who are fighting to keep the extremist group Islamic State from taking over the city of Kobani.

Syria’s main Kurdish groups have been pleading for the U.S. to supply heavy weaponry to confront Islamic State, which they believe poses a threat to their community’s existence.

A senior administration official said the U.S. has emphasized with the Turkish government the urgency with which it views the situation in Kobani. In a telephone call on Saturday, President Barack Obama told Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan that the U.S. intended to resupply the Kurdish fighters with Iraqi Kurdish arms.

“This is really meant to provide resupply,” said the senior administration official.

The divided Syrian Kurdish factions have been meeting since Tuesday in Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to try to forge a united front and win international support for arming their fighters.

The Kurdish militia defending Kobani, which borders Turkey, has been helped by the airstrikes in the area by the U.S.-led international coalition fighting Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. However, there had been no indication of any direct coordination between the coalition and the militia.

The fighters in Kobani are linked to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, which is considered the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for decades and is classified as a terrorist organization by Washington and Ankara.

A senior U.S. military official said Kurds fighting in Kobani needed more ammunition and weapons to confront Islamic State.

“We do assess they are low on munitions and supplies,” the official said.

The U.S. military had drafted options for arming the Syrian Kurds through Turkey as well as options that would avoid Turkish territory, given Ankara’s opposition.

The White House declined to comment on the deliberations, but confirmed Mr. Obama spoke Saturday with the Turkish president to discuss the situation in Kobani.

The U.S. has been pressing the Turkish government to take a more direct role in pushing back the Islamic State advance near Kobani. The White House provided no details of the call, except to say that the two men said they would continue to work together to “strengthen cooperation.”

Mr. Erdogan said he wouldn’t agree to allow U.S. arms transfers to Kurdish fighters through Turkey.

On Saturday, he said a discussion had emerged over arming the PYD and that the U.S. seemed to be expressing overt support for such an initiative in anticipation of rallying Ankara to back the plan as well.

Saleh Muslim, a leader of PYD, said he met recently with Daniel Rubinstein, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, to appeal for crucial heavy weaponry and other support.

Mr. Muslim’s group is ready to expand the fight against Islamic State in northern Syria beyond Kobani, provided they receive adequate help from Washington, he said.

Mr. Muslim said it was the first meeting between his group and U.S. officials.

“The message we wanted to get across to the Americans: You have the choice to be our friend or foe but hear us out first. Do not let others shut your ears and eyes,” Mr. Muslim told The Wall Street Journal.

About 20 Syrian Kurdish factions, including the group fighting in Kobani on the Turkish border, have been meeting since Tuesday in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region in an attempt to unify militarily and politically.

Participants in the talks, which continued on Sunday, said a unified front could encourage the West, and particularly the U.S., to consider supplying heavy weapons and to increase pressure on neighboring Turkey to rethink its opposition to such support.

Fresh clashes shook Kobani on Sunday. Islamic State militants fired at least four mortar shells at Kobani, adding to more than 40 launched in the past few days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. The U.S. said the coalition conducted 11 airstrikes around Kobani on Saturday and Sunday.

U.S. defense officials said they don’t believe Islamic State militants have the advantage in Kobani, but cautioned that the city could still fall to the militant group.

Mr. Muslim, the co-president of PYD, said airstrikes wouldn’t save Kobani. He said antitank weapons and more fighters are needed to beat back the militants, who have U.S.-made tanks and heavy weaponry captured from Iraqi army bases since June.

Mr. Muslim said he explained this to Mr. Rubinstein, the U.S. envoy, when they met for nearly three hours in Paris on Oct. 12.

“I told him we are ready to be part of this international coalition against Islamic State, the force on the ground, but fulfill your duty and give us what’s needed to prevail,” he said in the interview in Dohuk, where talks between Syrian Kurdish groups are under way.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed the meeting but said it “doesn’t represent coordination—it represents one conversation.”

Turkey and many in the Western-backed Syrian opposition accuse Mr. Muslim and his party and fighters of being proxies for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his main regional backer, Iran.

For more than two years, the PYD and its local allies, backed by a force of more than 30,000 fighters, have been running three self-rule enclaves inside Syria along the Turkish border including Kobani.

During this period they have fought some Syrian rebel groups including the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State, which now controls most of the areas separating the three Kurdish enclaves from each other. This has prevented the PYD from sending more fighters to Kobani.

Mr. Muslim said he doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of Mr. Assad but that his party averted all-out war with the Syrian regime and did what it thought was best to protect Syria’s Kurdish areas as what began as a largely peaceful uprising against the regime morphed into a civil war dominated by extremists on all sides.

Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey all have sizable Kurdish population but under separate leadership. The Syrian Kurdish group PYD and the Turkish Kurdish group PKK both pledge allegiance to leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been jailed in Turkey since 1999 but has nevertheless engaged in peace talks with the Turkish government for nearly two years.

This process has been roiled in recent weeks by deadly riots inside Turkey by Kurds who accuse Ankara of being complicit with Islamic State because it didn’t do more to save Kobani.

Notwithstanding Mr. Erdogan’s public statements, Mr. Muslim said he met with Turkish Foreign Ministry officials earlier this month to discuss how Turkey can aid Kobani.

Several Syrian Kurdish politicians and Iraqi Kurdish officials say one way to overcome Turkish objections to increased U.S. support for Syrian Kurds is to boost the participation of groups loyal to Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani —both in local self-rule administrations and among fighters confronting Islamic State in Syria.

Mr. Barzani is president of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region and a long-standing U.S. ally who has also built strong economic and security ties with Turkey since 2008. The U.S. and its Western allies have pledged to do everything to support Iraq’s Kurdish region in the fight against Islamic State.

“There’s a human catastrophe on the ground and the day can only be saved by having a united front,” said Safeen Dizayee, spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government and a senior member of Mr. Barzani’s party.

But so far the talks in Dohuk are deadlocked because Mr. Muslim insists about half a dozen Syrian Kurdish parties loyal to Mr. Barzani be integrated into existing political and military structures created by the PYD instead of establishing new structures from scratch. About half the Syrian Kurdish parties at the talks are allied with PYD.

“They are weak and helpless and they want to impose their conditions on us,” Mr. Muslim said of the other parties.

Kawa Hassan, a Kurdish expert with Carnegie Middle East Center and Hivos, a Dutch development organization, said Mr. Muslim’s group and the PKK are emboldened by the enormous support they have received from Kurds all over the world for standing up to Islamic State in Kobani despite being outnumbered and ill-equipped.

Mr. Hassan said this contrasted with how Iraqi Kurdish fighters loyal to Mr. Barzani were quickly overrun by Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in the northwestern Iraqi city of Sinjar in early August.

“There is a growing sense among many Kurds that the PKK is the only force that can confront ISIS,” says Mr. Hassan.