Middle East

Kurds thwart new ISIS bid to isolate Syria’s Ain al-Arab

Kurdish refugees watch from a hilltop as thick smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani during heavy fighting between Islamic State and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, seen from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 26, 2014. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

MURSITPINAR, Turkey: Kurdish forces thwarted a new attempt Sunday by ISIS fighters to cut off the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab from the border with Turkey as Syrian government airstrikes killed 13 children.

The predawn assault marked the fourth straight day the jihadists had attacked the Syrian side of the border crossing, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Kurdish forces, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, have been holding out for weeks against an ISIS offensive around Ain al-Arab, known in Kurdish as Kobani, which has become a high-profile symbol of efforts to stop the jihadist advance.

The U.S. military said in its latest update that American warplanes carried out five airstrikes near Ain al-Arab Saturday and Sunday, destroying seven ISIS vehicles and an ISIS-held building.

Ground fighting for Ain al-Arab has killed more than 800 people since the ISIS offensive began on Sept. 16, with the jihadists losing 481 fighters and the Kurds 313, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria for its information.

Among the dead are 21 civilians, however the figures exclude ISIS losses to U.S.-led airstrikes, which the Pentagon has said run to “several hundred.”

The jihadist assault prompted nearly all of the enclave’s population to flee, with some 200,000 refugees streaming over the border into neighboring Turkey.

Last week, under heavy U.S. pressure, Turkey unexpectedly announced it would allow the peshmerga fighters to cross its territory to join the fight for Ain al-Arab.

The main Syrian Kurdish fighting force in the town has close links with the outlawed rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey and Ankara had previously resisted calls to allow in reinforcements.

The Kurdish region’s parliament voted last week to deploy some of its peshmerga forces, which have been fighting their own battle against ISIS in northern Iraq, to Syria.

“Primarily, it will be a backup support with artillery and other weapons,” Kurdistan Regional Government spokesman Safeen Dizayee told Reuters.

“It will not be combat troops as such, at this point anyway.”

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) which dominates Ain al-Arab agreed to the offer of the peshmerga troops.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan charged in comments published Sunday that the “terror” group did not really want the peshmerga forces to deploy to Ain al-Arab for fear of seeing its influence diminished.

“The PYD does not want the peshmerga to come,” Erdogan said. “They don’t want the peshmerga to come to Ain al-Arab and dominate it.

Syrian government airstrikes on two besieged, rebel-held areas of the central province of Homs killed at least 31 people, 13 of them children, an anti-regime monitoring group said Sunday.

Sixteen members of the same family were among 24 people killed in raids late Saturday and Sunday on the town of Talbisseh, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, updating an earlier toll.

They included 12 children and three women, said the Britain-based monitoring group which has a wide network of sources inside Syria. Talbisseh was one of Syria’s first areas to fall under rebel government control, following the 2011 outbreak of a revolt against President Bashar Assad. The town has been under total army siege for two years, and near-daily bombardment.

In the Waer district on the outskirts of Homs – the only area of Syria’s third city still in rebel hands – airstrikes Sunday killed seven people, including a child, the Observatory said.

Activists say army bombing of densely populated Waer has escalated, marring hopes of a truce similar to those reached in other parts of the country.

The escalation came after 47 children were killed in an Oct. 1 suicide attack at a school in a government-held area of Homs city.

“The head of the military security branch was changed” after the school attack, said Hasan Abul Zein, an activist in Waer who spoke to AFP via the Internet. “The new head of the branch has launched a barbaric campaign against the neighborhood ... where the humanitarian situation is deplorable,” he said.

Elsewhere in the war-ravaged country, 12 civilians from the same family, including two women, were killed in government barrel bomb strikes on the rebel town of Busra al-Sham in southern Syria’s Deraa province.

Also Sunday, rebel fire on a school in the northern city of Aleppo killed a child and a man, and wounded 26 other people.

The city of Aleppo has been divided into government and rebel areas ever since a major offensive by insurgents in July 2012.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 27, 2014, on page 1.

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