By Humeyra Pamuk and Sylvia Westall
A senior Syrian Kurdish official on Friday rejected a report from Turkey’s president that Syrian Kurds had agreed to let Free Syrian Army fighters enter the border town of Kobani to help them push back besieging Islamic State insurgents.
The Free Syrian Army is a term used to describe dozens of armed groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad but with little or no central command. They have been widely outgunned by Islamist insurgents such as Islamic State.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is a leading opponent of Assad and has allowed his more secular, Western-backed opponents such as FSA fighters to use Turkey as a base and sanctuary.
Erdogan said on Friday said 1,300 FSA fighters would enter Kobani after the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) agreed on their passage, but his comments were swiftly denied by Saleh Moslem, co-chair of the PYD.
“We have already established a connection with FSA but no such agreement has been reached yet as Mr. Erdogan has mentioned,” Moslem told Reuters by telephone from Brussels.
Turkey’s unwillingness to send its powerful army across the Syrian border to break the siege of Kobani has angered Kurds, and seems rooted in a concern not to strengthen Kurds who seek autonomy in adjoining regions of Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
Ankara’s stance has also upset Western allies, as Islamic State’s capture of wide swathes of Syria and Iraq has caused international shock and U.S.-led air strikes began in August to try to halt and eventually reverse the jihadist advance.
Erdogan told a news conference on a visit to Estonia that Ankara was working on details of the route of passage for the FSA fighters, indicating they would access Kobani via Turkey.
But Moslem said talks between FSA commander Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi and the armed wing of the Kurdish PYD were continuing about the possible role of FSA rebels. “There are already groups with links to the FSA in Kobani helping us,” he said.
The FSA, however, is little more than an acronym used to describe dozens of tenuously affiliated rebel groups who complain of a lack of arms and resources leaving them unable to effectively confront Assad and better-armed Islamist rebels.
Moslem said the FSA would be more helpful if it opened a second front against Islamic State elsewhere in Syria. “Politically we have no objections to FSA….But in my opinion, if they really would like to help, then their forces should open another front, such as from Tel Abyad or Jarablus,” he said.
He was referring to two nearby Syrian border towns captured by Islamic State as part of its lightning military campaign in which it has beheaded or crucified prisoners, massacred non-Sunni Muslim civilians in its path and declared a mediaeval-style caliphate spanning eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.
FSA commander Al-Oqaidi, speaking to Reuters in Suruc, a Turkish border town across from Kobani, said there had been an agreement to begin establishing a united defence force and initially 1,350 FSA fighters were to go to Kobani for help.
“These fighters will come in two or three days,” he said. “The fighters will come from the northern Syrian countryside. These fighters are not coming from the fighting fronts against the Assad regime. These are reserve fighters.”
US officials said on Thursday that Kobani, nestled in a valley overlooked by Turkish territory, seemed in less danger of falling to Islamic State after coalition air strikes and limited arms drops, but the threat remained.
Turkey has been loath to join the US-led coalition against Islamic State but, after mounting pressure from its Western allies, Erdogan said on Wednesday that some Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Iraq would be allowed to transit Turkey to Kobani.
Although Turkish and US officials acknowledge Kobani itself is not especially strategically important, the fate of the town has become a credibility test of the international coalition’s response to Islamic State.
Over the weekend, US warplanes air-dropped small arms to Kobani’s defenders, against the wishes of Turkish authorities who have described them as terrorists because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long separatist insurgency in Turkey.
The PYD’s Moslem said he was disappointed with Turkey’s response so far. “When I conducted my meetings in Turkey, I was hoping the help would come in 24 hours. It’s been more than a month and we’re still waiting,” he said.
In a separate interview published in a pan-Arab newspaper, Moslem said that the battle for Kobani would turn into a war of attrition unless Kurds obtained arms that can repel tanks and armoured vehicles.
He told Asharq al-Awsat that Kurds had recently received information that Islamic State wanted to fire chemical weapons into Kobani using mortars, after having surrounded it with around 40 tanks.
“If we were to receive qualitative (stronger) weapons, we would be able to hit the tanks and armoured vehicles that they use – we may be able to bring a qualitative change in the battle,” Moslem said.
The FSA’s al-Oqaidi echoed Moslem’s call for better weapons, saying that FSA fighters had only light arms. “Our main problem is not numbers of the fighters but the quality of weapons…The fighters in Kobani need good quality weapons too.”
Elsewhere in Syria’s civil war, government forces retook a town on the highway linking Hama and Aleppo cities in the west of the country after months of battles with insurgents, Damascus state television and a monitoring group said.
The recapture of Morek, 30 km north of Hama, is part of Assad’s campaign to shore up control of territory in the west stretching north from Damascus while U.S.-led forces bomb Islamist militants in the north and east.