ISIL attack on Syrian border town Kobane stalls amid US air assault
MÜRŞİTPINAR - Agence France-Presse
Smoke and flames rise over a hill near the Syrian town of Kobane after an airstrike, as seen from the Murşitpınar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruç. REUTERS Photo / Kai PfaffenbachA bid by Islamic State fighters to seize the flashpoint Syrian border town of Kobane has stalled, American officials said, with the help of air strikes reported to have killed over 500 jihadists.
U.S. and allied aircraft have flown nearly 6,600 sorties in the air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group and dropped more than 1,700 bombs, the American military said Oct. 23.
The latest tally was released one month since the U.S.-led coalition extended its air campaign from Iraq into Syria in a bid to counter the advance of the jihadists.
The effect of the open-ended air campaign remains the subject of debate, with the White House saying the militants have been damaged by the strikes but critics pointing to the group's battlefield successes despite the raids.
In Washington, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel acknowledged "mixed" results in the war effort but said: "We believe that our strategy is working."
ISIL, which declared in June a "caliphate" over territory it seized in Iraq and Syria, was meanwhile described as the world's wealthiest "terror" group, earning $1 million a day from black market oil sales alone.
The Kurds in Kobane, which has become a crucial battlefield for both the ISIL jihadists and their opponents, have been holding out for more than a month, buoyed by a promise of Iraqi Kurd reinforcements and by U.S. air drops of weapons.
"I think the Kurdish defenders... are going to be able to hold," a defense official at U.S. Central Command said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Kurds say their fighters are exhausted and anxious for promised reinforcements from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
Lawmakers there agreed Wednesday to send their Peshmerga fighters after Turkey said it would allow 200 of them to travel through its territory to Kobane, where ISIL has an estimated 1,000 militants.
On the ground, the jihadists made fresh advances in and around Kobane, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The ISIL group had also taken control of a string of villages west of Kobane, after days of trading territory with the Kurds.
U.S. military officials delivered sobering news from Iraq, saying the Iraqi army is still months away from staging a major offensive to retake ground lost to the ISIL jihadists and is regrouping after suffering battlefield defeats this year.
Iraqi security forces are currently able to stage small-scale attacks against the ISIL group, but needed time to plan and train for a larger operation, even with the aid of U.S.-led air strikes, one military official told reporters.
"It's well within their capability to do that (counter-attack), on the order of months, not years," said the official. But he added: "It's not imminent."
The Iraqi capital Baghdad has also seen a wave of bomb attacks against Shiite targets in recent days, with ISIL militants claiming responsibility for some.
The month-old U.S.-led aerial campaign on Syria has killed 553 people, all but 32 of them jihadists mostly drawn from overseas, the Observatory said.
The jihadist toll included 464 ISIL militants and 57 fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a wide network of sources inside Syria.
David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that ISIL group's "primary funding tactics enable it today to generate tens of millions of dollars per month."
Oil has also been sold to Kurds in Iraq, and then resold to Turkey, as the group has "tapped into a long-standing and deeply rooted black market connecting traders in and around the area", said Cohen.
Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has "made an arrangement to purchase oil" from the jihadist group, he said.
Marwan Muasher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the ISIL group was now "considered the world's wealthiest and most financially sophisticated terrorist organization."
In Iraq, ISIL fighters killed a Yazidi commander after surrounding Mount Sinjar in the country's north, where they had trapped thousands of civilians this summer - a key moment in the conflict which helped prompt Washington to begin air strikes against the jihadists.
The civilians, mostly members of the Yazidi religious minority, eventually escaped via Syria with the help of Kurdish fighters from Iraq's neighbor to the west, but that route has now been cut.
The renewed assault began Oct. 20 when some 300 militants seized nearby villages and then turned their sights on the mountain itself.
ISIL jihadists gained more ground west of Baghdad, further reducing the government's shaky hold on Anbar province, a day after car bombs in the capital killed at least 28 people.