MURSITPINAR, Turkey/WASHINGTON: Bolstered by intensified U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeting militants from ISIS, Kurdish militiamen fought pitched street battles Wednesday with the extremists in a Syrian Kurdish border town near Turkey, making small advances, activists and officials said.
U.S.-led airstrikes have killed “several hundred” jihadists fighters in and around Ain al-Arab, known in Kurdish as Kobani, but ISIS could still seize the besieged strategic Syrian city.
“We believe that we have killed several hundred ISIS fighters in and around Kobani,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters, adding that the majority of the city’s population has fled as jihadists continued to pour into the region in an attempt to take the town.
“Kobani could still fall, it could very well still fall,” Kirby added.
“We ought to be prepared for the eventuality that other towns and other villages, other pieces of ground will either fall to ISIL or we may not be able to dislodge them for quite some time. This is going to take a while,” he said, using another acronym for the group.
Members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, were making progress against Sunni militants, hours after the U.S.-led coalition stepped up airstrikes in and around the town, said Asya Abdullah, a Syrian Kurdish leader.
The Pentagon said Tuesday that 21 airstrikes against ISIS targets near Ain al-Arab overnight Monday marked the largest number there in a 24-hour period since the air campaign in Syria began last month.
Abdullah, the co-president of Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, told the Associated Press that Kurdish fighters have advanced near the hill of Tel Shair that overlooks part of the town, taking advantage of the air raids that slowed the push by the militants. Abdullah spoke by phone from Ain al-Arab.
In Iraq, ISIS militants were closing on the town of Amriyat al-Fallujah, one of the last still controlled by the government in the troubled Anbar province and only 35 kilometers from Baghdad.
It was clear ISIS “has made substantial gains in Iraq” and that it would take time to build up local forces that could defeat them in Syria and Iraq, John Allen, a retired four-star U.S. general, told reporters.
Although Iraqi government and Kurdish forces had succeeded in halting or pushing back ISIS militants in some key battles including around Mosul Dam, the group had “tactical momentum” in other areas, Allen said. He acknowledged the United States and its allies were concerned with the situation in Iraq, where ISIS extremists had seized much of the western Anbar province.
“The emergency in Iraq right now in Iraq is foremost in our thinking.” Speaking after a tour of the Middle East in which Allen spoke to coalition partners and Iraqi leaders, Allen emphasized that military power alone would not be sufficient to defeat ISIS – a point often made by the White House.
He said “the key and the main takeaway from this trip was that we all agree that while the military side is important to the outcome, it is not sufficient in and of itself.”
At the moment the plan was “to take those steps that are necessary, with the forces that we have available and the air power that we have at our fingertips” to buy time to train and arm Iraqi security forces.
On Ain al-Arab, Allen said U.S. airstrikes around the town are designed to relieve defenders and to buy time to try to build up forces in Syria to combat ISIS. “We are striking the targets around Kobani for humanitarian purposes. I’d be very reluctant to attempt to assign something, a term like ‘a strategic target,’ or ‘a strategic outcome,’” Allen said.
“Clearly ... given the circumstances associated with the defense of that town, there was a need for additional fire support to go in to try to relieve the defenders and to buy some white space, ultimately, for the reorganization on the ground,” he added. “We have picked up the tempo and the intensity of the airstrikes in order to provide that white space.”
In remarks underscoring the region’s layered crises, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc mocked the Kurdish fighters defending Ain al-Arab, comparing their struggle against ISIS to the guerrilla war of the affiliated Kurdish PKK rebels, who have fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey, largely in mountainous regions in Turkey’s east.
“They are not able to put up a serious fight there,” Arinc told reporters in the southeastern city of Adiyaman.
“It is easy to fight on the mountain against the military, police, the teacher and the judge. It is easy to kidnap people but they are not able to fight in Ain al-Arab,” he said. “I could say a lot more but let me leave it at that so that they are not embarrassed.”
The harsh comments also reflected Turkey’s delicate position on the fighting in Ain al-Arab. Turkey launched airstrikes Tuesday against Kurdish rebels inside its borders, defying please from the U.S. to instead focus on ISIS.
ISIS launched its offensive on Kobani in mid-September, capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages, as well as about a third of the town. The fighting in and around Ain al-Arab has killed more than 500 people and forced more than 200,000 people to flee across the border into Turkey.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group, said Wednesday’s clashes were taking place in Ain al-Arab’s eastern neighborhoods as well as the southern edge of the town.
Also Wednesday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Turkey’s calls for a no-fly zone on the Syrian territories as a “flagrant violation” of the U.N. charter and international law.
“Syria categorically rejects the establishment of no-fly zones on any part of the Syrian territories under any pretext,” the ministry said.
Turkey has said it won’t join the fight against ISIS in Syria unless the U.S.-led coalition also goes after the Assad’s government, including establishing a no-fly zone and a buffer zone along the Turkish border.