MURSITPINAR, Turkey/BEIRUT: ISIS fighters seized more than a third of the Syrian border town of Kobani, activists said Thursday, as U.S.-led air strikes failed to halt their advance and Turkish forces nearby looked on without intervening.
With Washington ruling out a ground operation in Syria, Turkey described as unrealistic any expectation that it would conduct a cross-border operation unilaterally to relieve the mainly Kurdish town.
The commander of Kobani's heavily outgunned Kurdish defenders said ISIS controlled slightly less than a third of the town that lies within sight of Turkish territory.
However, he acknowledged that the militants had made major gains in a three-week battle that has also led to the worst streets clashes in years between police and Kurdish protesters across the frontier in southeast Turkey.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIS had pushed forward Thursday.
"ISIS control more than a third of Kobani. All eastern areas, a small part of the northeast and an area in the southeast," said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Observatory, which monitors the Syrian civil war.
Esmat al-Sheikh, leader of the militia forces in Kobani, said ISIS had seized about a quarter of the town in the east. "The clashes are ongoing - street battles," he told Reuters by telephone from the town.
Explosions rocked the town throughout Thursday, with black smoke visible from the Turkish border a few kilometers (miles) away. ISIS hoisted its black flag in Kobani overnight and a stray projectile landed 3 km (2 miles) inside Turkey. The U.S.-led coalition carried out several airstrikes Thursday and sporadic gunfire from the besieged town was audible.
The United Nations says only a few hundred inhabitants remain in Kobani but the town's defenders say the battle will end in a massacre if ISIS prevails, giving it a strategic garrison on the Turkish border.
They complain that the United States is giving only token support through the air strikes, while Turkish tanks sent to the frontier are looking on but doing nothing to defend the town.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu played down the likelihood of those forces going to the aid of Kobani.
"It is not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct a ground operation on its own," he told a joint news conference with visiting NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. However, he added: "We are holding talks.... Once there is a common decision, Turkey will not hold back from playing its part."
Ankara resents any suggestion from Washington that it is not pulling its weight, but wants broader joint action that also targets the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "We strongly reject allegations of Turkish responsibility for the ISIS advance," said a senior Ankara government source.
"Our allies, especially the U.S. administration, dragged their feet for a very long time before deciding to take action against the catastrophic events happening in Syria," he added.
Turkey has long advocated action against Assad during the civil war, which grew out of a popular uprising in 2011. However, the United States called off air strikes on Damascus government forces at the last minute last year when Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons.
President Tayyip Erdogan says he wants the U.S.-led alliance to enforce a "no-fly zone" to prevent Assad's air force flying over Syrian territory near the Turkish border and create a safe area for an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return.
But Stoltenberg said that establishing a no-fly zone or a safe zone inside Syria has not been discussed by NATO.
At least 21 people died in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey on Wednesday during clashes between security forces and Kurds demanding that the government do more to help Kobani. There were also clashes in Istanbul and Ankara.
In Washington, the Pentagon cautioned on Wednesday that there are limits to what the air strikes can do in Syria before Western-backed, moderate Syrian opposition forces are strong enough to repel ISIS.
ISIS has also seized large areas of territory in neighboring Iraq, where the United States has focused its air attacks on the militants.
President Barack Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground forces on a combat mission, and Secretary of State John Kerry offered little hope to Kobani's defenders on Wednesday. "As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani ... you have to step back and understand the strategic objective," he said.
In Turkey, the fallout from the war in Syria and Iraq has threatened to unravel the NATO member's delicate peace process with its Kurdish community. Ankara has long been suspicious of any Kurdish assertiveness which puts itself in a tough position as it tries to end its own 30-year war with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Following Wednesday's violence in Turkey, streets have been calmer since curfews were imposed in five southeastern provinces, restrictions unseen since the 1990s when PKK forces were fighting the Turkish military in the southeast.
Erdogan said that protesters had exploited the events in Kobani as an excuse to sabotage the Kurdish peace process. "Carrying out violent acts in Turkey by hiding behind the terror attacks on Kobani shows that the real intention and target is entirely different," he said in a statement.
Kurdish leaders in Syria have asked Ankara to help establish a corridor that will allow aid and possibly arms and fighters to cross the border and reach Kobani, but Ankara has so far been reluctant to respond positively.
Saleh Muslim, co-chairman of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, met Turkish officials last week, Kurdish sources said, but the meeting was not fruitful.
The PYD annoyed Turkey last year by setting up an interim administration in northeast Syria after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control of the region. Ankara wants Kurdish leaders to abandon their self-declared autonomy.
Turkey has also been unhappy with the Kurds' reluctance to join the wider opposition to Assad.
On the Turkish side of the frontier near Kobani, 21-year-old student Ferdi from the eastern Turkish province of Tunceli said if Kobani fell, the conflict would spread to Turkey.
"In fact it already has spread here," he said, standing with a group of several dozen people in fields watching the smoke rising from west Kobani.
Turkish police fired tear gas against protesters in the town of Suruç near the border overnight. A petrol bomb set fire to a house and the shutters on most shops in the town were kept shut in a traditional form of protest against state authorities.