Syrian Kurds thwart new jihadist bid to cut off border with Turkey
MÜRŞİTPINAR, Turkey - Agence France-Presse
Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters walk on a hill at the western outskirts of the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on Oct. 17, after placing YPG flags. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINISKurdish forces in the Syrian town of Kobane repulsed a new attempt by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants to cut off the border with Turkey Oct. 18 as troops battled the jihadists in neighbouring Iraq.
A Kurdish official reported five new U.S.-led strikes around Kobane overnight as the coalition kept up its air support for the town’s defenders.
But the U.S. military said that while it saw some "encouraging" signs, the strikes might not prevent Kobane’s fall and its priority remained the campaign against ISIL in Iraq.
Heavy ISIL mortar fire hit the Syrian side of the border crossing with Turkey which is the Kurdish fighters’ sole avenue for resupply and the only escape route for remaining civilians, Kurdish official Idris Nassen told AFP.
The jihadists launched a fierce attack from the east towards the border gate before being pushed back, he added.
Nassen said that ISIL had taken casualties in the fighting, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the jihadists had sent in reinforcements.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura earlier this month warned that about 12,000 civilians remain in and around Kobane and risk "massacre" if the jihadists cut off the border.
Kobane district chief Anwar Muslim said Oct. 17 that ISIL sniper and mortar fire was preventing authorities from evacuating civilians caught up in the battle.
"Their situation is difficult," he added.
An AFP correspondent on the Turkish side reported sporadic exchanges of fire in eastern Kobane later in the morning but said the crossing area was calm.
The U.S. commander overseeing the air war hailed "encouraging" signs in the defence of Kobane, but said the town could still fall and that Iraq remained the coalition’s priority.
"Iraq is our main effort and it has to be, and the things that we’re doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq," said General Lloyd Austin.
Iraqi government troops are battling ISIL on two fronts -- in the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and near Tikrit, hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Ramadi is in a shrinking patch of territory in the predominantly Sunni Arab province where forces loyal to the Shiite-led government still hold ground, and its loss would be a major blow for Baghdad.
Iraqi troops have been struggling to retake and hold ground, despite coalition air support.
Security in the capital also remains a problem with bombings killing nearly 50 people in the past two days alone.
But the Pentagon insisted Baghdad faced no "imminent threat" from the jihadists.
"There are not masses of formations of (ISIL) forces outside of Baghdad about to come in," spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.
The US-led coalition has prioritised the campaign against ISIL in Iraq because it can work with both government and Kurdish forces on the ground.
The UN Security Council on Oct. 17 unanimously called for increased support for the Baghdad government in the face of the "vicious string of suicide, vehicle-borne and other attacks" in the capital.
But in Syria, the coalition refuses to work with the government of President Bashar al-Assad, having sided with the opposition in the country’s devastating civil war.
Even the Kurdish defenders of Kobane had no direct contact with US official until last weekend, and Washington only revealed that on Thursday.
Previous contacts with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) had all been handled through intermediaries, as the group has close ties with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey -- which is on the U.S. terror blacklist.
The PYD confirmed on Oct. 18 that its leader Saleh Muslim had met in Paris Oct. 12 with the US special envoy for Syria Daniel Rubinstein.
It said ISIL attacks on Kobane and Kurdish resistance had been among the topics discussed but made no specific reference to its repeated appeals for weapons for its beleaguered ground forces.
The jihadists are well entrenched in a swathe of Iraq and Syria where they declared an Islamic caliphate in June and have unleashed a wave of atrocities.
They have included massacres of ethnic minority civilians and captured soldiers, and beheadings of Western aid workers and journalists.
Relatives of two Britons murdered by ISIL urged people of all faiths to come together to fight the hatred espoused by the group, ahead of a memorial service for one of the men on Oct. 18.