MURSITPINAR, Turkey: Islamic State (IS) fighters seized control of a third of the key Syrian border town of Kobane on Thursday, as Turkey rejected sending in troops on its own against the jihadists.
IS militants advanced in the strategic town overnight despite intensified US air strikes, as calls grew for ground action to support Kobane’s beleaguered Kurdish defenders.
But after talks with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) chief Jens Stoltenberg, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara could not be expected to act alone.
“It’s not realistic to expect that Turkey will lead a ground operation on its own,” he said.
Kobane, whose Kurdish defenders have been holding out against a three-week siege by the jihadists, has become a crucial battleground and symbol of resistance to IS.
The coalition carried out two fresh strikes early Thursday, an Agence France-Presse reporter across the border in Turkey said, as it continued a flurry of bombing raids on IS positions in and around the town.
Nearly 20 coalition bombing raids have hit near Kobane since Tuesday, but Washington has said air strikes alone would not be enough to save it.
Turkey has come under fire for its inaction as the jihadists advance on its doorstep, with protests in Kurdish areas sparking clashes that claimed at least 22 lives and forced authorities to declare a curfew in six provinces.
Fierce street battles have been raging in Kobane since the jihadists breached its defenses earlier this week.
IS fighters pulled out of some areas on Wednesday but have since renewed their offensive and seized more ground, a monitoring group said.
‘Fierce resistance’ from Kurds
“Despite fierce resistance from the Kurdish forces, IS advanced during the night and controls more than a third of Kobane,” Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
US and coalition aircraft targeted IS fighters near the town on Wednesday, launching 14 attacks, the US military said.
The strikes destroyed five armed vehicles, an IS supply depot, a command center, a logistics compound, and eight occupied barracks, Central Command said.
Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, would be a major prize for the jihadists, giving them unbroken control of a long stretch of Syria’s border with Turkey.
The extremist group has seized large parts of Iraq and Syria, declaring an Islamic “caliphate” and committing widespread atrocities.
Washington launched its air campaign against IS in Iraq in August and last month expanded it to Syria with the participation of five Arab allies.
After meeting defense chiefs on Wednesday, US President Barack Obama admitted the fight against IS would not be easy or short.
“Our strikes continue, alongside our partners. It remains a difficult mission,” Obama, flanked by the country’s most senior military officers, told reporters.
“As I’ve indicated from the start, this is not something that is going to be solved overnight,” he added.
Air strikes not enough
US-led aircraft were hitting the IS group at every opportunity but without a competent force on the ground to work with, there were limits to what could be accomplished by bombing from the air, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters.
“Air strikes alone are not going to do this, not going to fix this, not going to save the town of Kobane,” Kirby said.
“We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now. It’s just a fact,” he said.
Obama has dispatched retired US general John Allen, and the US pointman on Iraq, Brett McGurk, to Ankara to squeeze commitments from Turkey on what role it can play in the coalition.
Ankara’s response has been complicated by concerns over emboldening Kurdish separatists, who have waged a deadly insurgency in Turkey for the past three decades.
Pro-Kurdish protesters angered by the Turkish government’s lack of action have clashed with police for three nights running, defying a curfew imposed by the army.
Hundreds of protesters took the streets again late Wednesday in cities of the mainly Kurdish southeast and were dispersed by police using water cannon and tear gas, television said.
Turkey has suggested creating a buffer zone in Syria and won backing from some Western countries, but the White House has denied the plan is under consideration and NATO’s Stoltenberg said the idea has “not been on the table” in talks.
More than 180,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in 2011 and evolved into a multi-front civil war that has drawn thousands of jihadists from overseas.