By Jonny Hogg and Raheem Salman
Islamic State fighters tightened their siege on a town on Syria’s border with Turkey on Friday despite US led air strikes aimed at defeating the militants in both Syria and Iraq.
Washington’s closest ally in the wars of the last decade joined the coalition at last on Friday after weeks of weighing its options: Britain’s parliament voted 542 to 43 to back Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to join air strikes on Iraq.
“This is not a threat on the far side of the world. Left unchecked, we will face a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member, with a declared and proven intention to attack our country and our people,” Cameron told lawmakers.
Until this week France was the only Western country to answer President Barack Obama’s call to join the US-led campaign. But Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands have all joined since Monday and Denmark announced on Friday that it too would send planes.
Obama has sought to rally international support for a military coalition against Islamic State, a powerful force in Syria which swept through much of northern Iraq in June, slaughtering prisoners and ordering Shi’ites and non-Muslims to convert or die.
The campaign has brought Washington back to the battlefield in Iraq that it left in 2011, and into Syria for the first time after avoiding involvement during a civil war that began the same year.
The coalition also includes several Arab states, all led by Sunni Muslims alarmed at the rise of Islamic State.
Islamic State has emerged as the most powerful Sunni militant group battling the Shi’ite-backed governments in Iraq and Syria. Its fighters are also battling against rival Sunni rebel groups in Syria and against Kurds in both Syria and Iraq, countries facing complex, multi-sided civil wars in which nearly every state in the Middle East has a stake.
French public support for the mission has surged this week after the beheading of a French tourist in Algeria by captors who said it was retaliation for French participation in strikes in Iraq.
Paris said it might also join US strikes in Syria although there was no plan yet to do so. European countries have so far only agreed to strike targets in Iraq, where the government has asked for help, and not in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has not given permission, although he has not objected.
More than a month since Washington began striking Islamic State targets in Iraq, and four days since it extended the campaign into Syria, there are signs the fighters are lowering their profile in areas they control to become a harder target.
But the air campaign has yet to halt their advance in Syria, where they have laid siege to a Kurdish town on the Turkish border, sending 140,000 refugees across the frontier since last week in the fastest flight of the three-and-a-half-year-old civil war.
Some Kurdish commanders have said the air campaign has made the militants’ advance even stronger, by prompting the militants to move armour out of positions in cities and send it to the front lines, where Western planes have yet to strike.
The main battle in northern Syria has been visible from across the frontier in Turkey. The boom of artillery and bursts of machinegun fire echoed across the border, and at least two shells hit a vineyard on the Turkish side, though there were no immediate reports of casualties inside Turkey.
“We’re afraid. We’re taking the car and leaving today,” said vineyard owner Huseyin Turkmen, 60, as small arms fire rang out in the Syrian hills just to the south.
Islamic State fighters appeared to have taken control of a hill 10 km west of Kobani from where the YPG, the main Kurdish armed group in northern Syria, had been attacking them in recent days.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said Islamic State fighters had also taken control of a village around 7 km to the east of Kobani.
Kurdish forces said on Thursday they had pushed back the advance on Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, but appealed for US-led air strikes on the insurgents’ tanks and heavy weapons.
“The clashes are moving between east, west and south of Kobani … The three sides are active,” Idris Nassan, deputy foreign minister in area’s Kurdish administration, said by phone from the centre of the town.
“They are trying hard to reach Kobani. There is resistance here by YPG, by Kobani and some volunteers from north Kurdistan Turkish Kurds,” he said. “Every girl, every young man, every man who is able to fight, to carry a gun, they are armed and they are ready to defend and fight.”
NATO member Turkey has been conspicuously absent from the coalition against Islamic State, angering its Kurdish residents.
SYRIAN AIR STRIKES
The US military said its planes blew up four Islamic State tanks in eastern Syria and hit a number of targets in Iraq.
Assad’s Syrian government has not objected to the US-led campaign against some of his most powerful foes. Washington says it wants to defeat Islamic State without helping Assad remain in power, and hopes other anti-Assad groups can fill the vacuum.
But while US planes have been striking Islamic State in eastern Syria, Assad’s air force has been bombing other rebel groups in the west of the country, and his troops and allied Lebanese Shi’ite militia have advanced.
Syrian warplanes dropped projectiles including “barrel bombs” – oil drums filled with explosive – in Hama, Idlib, Homs and Aleppo provinces and around Damascus, the Observatory said.
Five people were killed when barrel bombs were dropped on al-Rastan city in the Homs province and nine died in a barrel bomb attack east of Aleppo city, it said.
In Iraq, where the US strikes have gone on for far longer and Washington is supporting government efforts to advance, Islamic State militants are changing tactics, ditching conspicuous convoys in favour of motorcycles and planting their black flags on civilian homes to confuse target spotters.
Witnesses and tribal sources in Islamic State-controlled areas report fewer militant checkpoints to weed out “apostates” and less cell phone use.
Islamic State elements “abandoned one of their biggest headquarters in the village” when they heard the air strike campaign was likely to target their area, a tribal sheikh from a village south of Kirkuk said.
“They took all their furniture, vehicles and weapons. Then they planted roadside bombs and destroyed the headquarters,” said the sheikh who declined to be identified. “They don’t move in military convoys like before. Instead they use motorcycles, bicycles, and if necessary, they use camouflaged cars.”
Tribal and local intelligence sources said an air strike on Thursday near Bashir town, 20 km south of Kirkuk, had killed two local senior Islamic State leaders while they were receiving a group of militants from Syria and Mosul. Ongoing fighting makes it impossible to verify the reports.
Sheikh Anwar al-Assy al-Obeidi, the head of a large tribe in Kirkuk and across Iraq, told Reuters there were now fewer killings because fighters could not operate as openly.
“They were executing people like drinking water … Now the air strikes are very active and have decreased the (militants’) ability,” said Obeidi, who fled to Iraqi Kurdish-held territory this summer after Islamic State blew up his home.