By Daren Butler and Oliver Holmes
Islamic State fighters seized more than a third of the Syrian border town of Kobani, a monitoring group said on 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 US military said Kurdish forces appeared to be holding out in the town that lies within sight of Turkish territory, following fresh airstrikes in the area against a militant training camp and fighters.
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State, which is still widely known by its former acronym of ISIS, had pushed forward on 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.
The commander of Kobani’s heavily outgunned Kurdish defenders confirmed 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.
Militia chief Esmat al-Sheikh put the area controlled by Islamic State, which has already seized large amounts of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, at about a quarter of the town. “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 kilometres away. Islamic State hoisted its black flag in Kobani overnight and a stray projectile landed 3 km inside Turkey.
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 Islamic State 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.
However, the US Central Command said it conducted five air strikes near Kobani on Wednesday and Thursday, and that the Kurdish fighters in the area appeared to “control most of the city and are holding out against” the militants.
The strikes had damaged an Islamic State training camp and destroyed one of its support buildings as well as two vehicles, CENTCOM said in a statement. They also hit one small unit and one large unit of militant fighters.
Despite Kurdish appeals for help, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu played down the likelihood of its 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.
Retired U.S. General John Allen, tasked by President Barack Obama to oversee the creation and work of the anti-Islamic State coalition, was in Ankara on Thursday and Friday for talks with the Turkish leadership.
President Tayyip Erdogan says he wants the US-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.
The fallout from the war in Syria and Iraq has threatened to unravel Turkey’s peace process with its Kurdish community. Ankara has long been suspicious of any Kurdish assertiveness 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 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.
Selahattin Demirtas, the head of Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) which called on Turkish Kurds to take to the streets earlier this week, rejected accusations that this call had provoked the violence. Appealing for calm, he also said jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan had called for talks with the government to be stepped up.
Kurdish leaders in Syria have asked Ankara to help establish a corridor which 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.
Syrian Kurds annoyed Ankara last year by setting up an interim administration in the northeast after Assad lost control of the region. Turkey wants Kurdish leaders to abandon their self-declared autonomy and has also been unhappy with their 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.