By Mariam Karouny and Jonny Hogg
The head of Syria’s al Qaeda branch said militants will attack the West in retaliation for US-led air strikes in Syria and Iraq, and President Barack Obama acknowledged US intelligence had underestimated the rise of Islamic State fighters.
US-led air strikes hit a natural gas plant controlled by Islamic State fighters in eastern Syria, a monitoring body reported, part of an apparent campaign to disrupt one of the fighters’ main sources of income.
The monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said planes also struck a grain silo in northern Syria killing civilians. This could not be immediately confirmed.
US-led strikes have so far failed to halt an advance by fighters in northern Syria on a Kurdish town: fighting raged between Islamic State militants and Kurdish forces near Kobani on the border with Turkey, where the past week’s battle caused the fastest refugee flight of Syria’s three-year civil war. Turkey returned fire after shells hit its side of the frontier.
The United States has been bombing Islamic State and other groups in Syria for nearly a week with the help of Arab allies, and hitting targets in neighbouring Iraq since last month.
European countries have joined the campaign in Iraq, where the government has asked for help, but so far not in Syria.
Islamic State, a Sunni militant group which broke off from al Qaeda, alarmed the West and the Middle East by sweeping through northern Iraq in June, slaughtering prisoners and ordering Shi’ites and non-Muslims to convert or die.
It is battling Shi’ite backed governments in both Iraq and Syria, as well as other Sunni groups in Syria and Kurdish groups in both countries, part of complex multi-sided civil wars in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake.
The head of Syria’s al Qaeda branch, the Nusra Front, a Sunni militant group which is a rival of Islamic State and has also been targeted by US strikes, said Islamists would carry out attacks on the West in retaliation for the campaign.
“Muslims will not watch while their sons are bombed. Your leaders will not be the only ones who would pay the price of the war. You will pay the heaviest price,” Abu Mohamad al-Golani said in an audio message posted on pro-Nusra forums.
The US strikes have created pressure on Nusra to reconcile with Islamic State, a move that would potentially create a single Sunni Islamist force in Syria and widen territory under its control.
Obama has worked since August to build an international coalition to combat the fighters, describing them last week in an address to the United Nations as a “network of death”.
His acknowledgment in an interview broadcast on Sunday that U.S. intelligence had underestimated Islamic State offered an explanation for why Washington appeared to have been taken by surprise when the fighters surged through northern Iraq in June.
The militants had gone underground when US forces quashed al Qaeda in Iraq with the aid of local tribes during the US war there which ended in 2011, Obama told CBS’s “60 Minutes”.
“But over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swathes of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.”
Some of the U.S. president’s opponents at home have seized on a remark he made in January using a sports metaphor to dismiss Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, comparing them to a low-level school basketball team posing as professionals.
“If a JV (junior varsity) team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama told the New Yorker magazine in January.
BATTLE ON BORDER
Islamic State’s advance has not been halted in Syria, where it is fighting Kurdish forces near the border city of Kobani, where 140,000 refugees fled a week ago.
Gunfire rang out from across the border and a plume of smoke rose over Kobani as periodic shelling by Islamic State fighters continued. Kurds watching the fighting from the Turkish side of the border said the Syrian Kurdish group, the YPG, were putting up a strong defence.
“Many Islamic State fighters have been killed. They’re not taking the bodies with them,” said Ayhan, a Turkish Kurd who had spoken by phone with one of his friends fighting with the YPG. He said Kurdish forces had picked up 8 Islamic State bodies.
At Mursitpinar, the nearby border crossing, scores of young men were returning to Syria, many saying they would join the fight. Other returning refugees hoped fighting would soon end.
“If there’s no fighting we’ll stay, but if the fighting starts in Kobani we’ll come back. Of course we’re afraid,” said one man, Khalil, crossing with his young daughter.
Turkey has not permitted its own Kurds to cross to join the battle: “If they’ve got Syrian identity or passports, they can go. But only Syrians, not Turks,” said one Turkish official at the border where security has been tightened.
The Turkish general staff said on its website two mortar shells fired from Syria had strayed across the border on Sunday afternoon. The Turkish military “responded with fire in line with its rules of engagement”.
A NATO ally with the most powerful army in the area, Turkey has so far kept out of the U.S.-led coalition, angering many of its own Kurds who say the policy has abandoned their cousins in Syria to the wrath of Islamic State fighters.
OBAMA STILL SEEKS DOWNFALL OF ASSAD
The US-led coalition includes Sunni Arab states who oppose Syria’s Assad, but does not include Assad or his main ally Iran, even though Islamic State’s sway in Syria grew from the revolt against Assad’s government .
Obama, who nearly ordered air strikes against Assad’s government a year ago only to cancel them at the last minute, said he recognised the apparent contradiction in opposing Assad while bombing his enemies. He still wants Assad to leave power, but considers Islamic State the more urgent threat.
“For Syria to remain unified, it is not possible that Assad presides over that entire process,” he said in his interview.
“On the other hand, in terms of immediate threats to the United States, ISIL, Khorasan group, those folks could kill Americans,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State and the name of a separate cell of al Qaeda figures targeted last week.
Saudi Arabia, the regional Sunni power which has joined the US-led strikes, blamed other countries for supporting Islamic State, although it did not name them. Riyadh has in the past criticised Qatar for supporting Islamist movements.
Islamic State was formed not in a “haphazard fashion but under the auspices of states and organisations with all their capabilities and bad intentions,” Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said. “We will firmly face this organisation and others.”
The Syrian Observatory, which monitors the conflict with a network of sources on the ground, said U.S.-led strikes had hit a Conoco gas plant controlled by Islamic State outside Deir al-Zor city in eastern Syria, wounding several fighters.
The plant feeds a power station in Homs that provides several provinces with electricity and powers oilfield generators, the Observatory said.
The observatory also said warplanes had hit mills and grain storage areas in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, killing civilian workers. It was not immediately possible to verify the information and there was no immediate comment from Washington.
US-led warplanes also hit areas of Hasaka city in Syria’s north east and the outskirts of Raqqa city in the north, which is Islamic State’s stronghold. Syria’s state news agency also said US-led forces had carried out strikes in Raqqa province.
Some of Assad’s opponents worry that the U.S.-led bombing will help the Syrian leader stay in power by hurting his most powerful Sunni foes. Syria’s military has intensified its own bombing campaign in the country’s west, even as Washington has struck in the east. Overnight, Damascus carried out air raids in Aleppo province and in Hama, the Observatory said.