By Dasha Afanasieva and Alexander Dziadosz
A convoy of Iraqi peshmerga fighters and weaponry made its way across southeastern Turkey on Wednesday en route for the Syrian town of Kobani to try to help fellow Kurds break an Islamic State siege which has defied US-led air strikes.
Kobani, on the border with Turkey, has been under assault from Islamic State militants for more than a month and its fate has become a test of the US-led coalition’s ability to combat the Sunni insurgents.
Weeks of air strikes on Islamic State positions around Kobani and the deaths of hundreds of their fighters have failed to break the siege. The Kurds and their international allies hope the arrival of the peshmerga, along with heavier weapons, can turn the tide.
Thousands of people took to the streets of the Turkish border town of Suruc, descending on its tree-lined main square and spilling into side streets, some with faces painted in the colours of the Kurdish flag, waiting to cheer on the convoy.
“All the Kurds are together. We want them to go and fight in Kobani and liberate it,” said Issa Ahamd, an 18-year-old high school student among the almost 200,000 Syrian Kurds who have fled to Turkey since the assault on Kobani began.
An initial group of between 90 and 100 peshmerga fighters arrived by plane amid tight security in the southeastern Turkish city of Sanliurfa overnight, according to Adham Basho, a member of the Syrian Kurdish National Council from Kobani.
A Kurdish television channel meanwhile showed footage of what it said was the convoy of peshmerga vehicles laden with weapons. The trucks have been snaking their way through southern Turkey towards Kobani after crossing from northern Iraq.
Saleh Moslem, co-chair of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said the peshmerga were expected to bring heavy arms to Kobani — known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic.
“It’s mainly artillery, or anti-armour, anti-tank weapons,” he said. The lightly armed Syrian Kurds have said such weaponry is crucial to driving back Islamic State insurgents, who have used armoured vehicles and tanks in their assault.
Kurdistan’s Minister of Peshmerga, Mustafa Sayyid Qader, told local media on Tuesday that no limits had been set to how long the forces would remain in Kobani. The Kurdistan Regional Government has said the fighters would not engage in direct combat in Kobani but rather provide artillery support.
Islamic State has caused international alarm by capturing large expanses of Iraq and Syria, declaring an Islamic “caliphate” erasing borders between the two, and slaughtering or driving away Shi’ite Muslims, Christians and other communities who do not share their ultra-radical brand of Sunni Islam.
Fighters from the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in the Syrian civil war, have meanwhile seized territory from moderate rebels in recent days, expanding their control into one of the few areas of northern Syria not already held by hardline Islamists.
Nearly 10 million people have been displaced by Syria’s war and close to 200,000 killed, according to the United Nations. A Syrian army helicopter dropped two barrel bombs on a displaced persons camp in the northern province of Idlib on Wednesday, killing many, camp residents said.
In Iraq, security forces said they had advanced to within 2 km of the city of Baiji on Wednesday in a new offensive to retake the country’s biggest oil refinery that has been besieged since June by Islamic State.
Islamic State has threatened to massacre Kobani’s defenders, triggering a call to arms from Kurds across the region.
The US military conducted 14 air strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, according to a statement from US Central Command, which said eight of the raids destroyed Islamic State targets near Kobani.
At least a dozen shells fired by Islamic State fighters fell on the town overnight as clashes with the main Syrian Kurdish armed group, the YPG, continued, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It said preparations were being made at a border gate which Islamic State fighters have repeatedly tried to capture for the arrival of the peshmerga, while YPG and Islamic State forces exchanged fire in gun battles on the southern edge of the town.
The Observatory also said 50 Syrian fighters had entered Kobani from Turkey with their weapons, though it was unclear which group they belonged to. Turkey has pushed for moderate Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad to join the battle against Islamic State in Kobani.
Rebel commander Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi said he had led 200 Free Syrian Army fighters into Kobani but there was no independent confirmation of this. The FSA describes dozens of armed groups fighting Assad but with little or no central command and widely outgunned by Islamist insurgents.
The Iraqi Kurdish region’s parliament voted last week to deploy some peshmerga to Syria and, under pressure from Western allies, Turkey agreed to let peshmerga forces from Iraq traverse its territory to reach Kobani.
“We’ve advocated and been discussing the importance of allowing the peshmerga across the border … (it’s) important to have a partner on the ground to work with,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington on Tuesday.
The United States and its allies in the coalition have made clear they do not plan to send troops to fight Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, but they need fighters on the ground to capitalise on their air strikes.
“What does Kobani show? That determined resistance on the ground with American air power can push ISIS back,” Henri Barkey, a former State Department official who now teaches at Lehigh University, told Reuters.
“They want to carry this to Iraq so that the peshmerga and Iraqi army get their act together. They really need to win … They realised this was an opportunity for them because you have a real fighting force on the ground … That’s the model.”
Syrian Kurds have called for the international community to provide them with heavier weapons and munitions and they have received an air drop from the United States.
But Turkey accuses Kurdish groups in Kobani of links to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state and is seen as a terrorist group by Ankara, Washington and the European Union.
That has complicated efforts to provide aid.
A Syrian Kurdish official in Paris said on Wednesday that France, which has taken part in air strikes in Iraq and given Iraqi peshmerga fighters weapons and training, had yet to fulfil a pledge to give support to Kurds in Syria.
“France has said it was ready to help the Kurds, but we haven’t been received by the French authorities. There has been no direct or indirect contact,” Khaled Eissa, representative in France of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said.
French officials confirmed there had been no meetings in large part due to concern about historic links to the PKK.
Ankara fears Syria’s Kurds will exploit the chaos by following their brethren in Iraq and seeking to carve out an independent state in northern Syria, emboldening PKK militants in Turkey and derailing a fragile peace process.
The stance has enraged Turkey’s own Kurdish minority — about a fifth of the population and half of all Kurds across the region. Kurds suspect Ankara, which has refused to send in its forces to relieve Kobani, would rather see Islamic State jihadists extend their territorial gains than allow Kurdish insurgents to consolidate local power.