Islamic State fighters are poised to capture a strategic Syrian border town, Turkey’s president has warned, even as Kurdish forces battled to expel the extremists from their footholds on the outskirts.
The outgunned Kurdish fighters struggling to defend Kobani got a small boost from a series of US-led air strikes against the militants that sent huge columns of black smoke into the sky.
Limited coalition strikes have done little to blunt the Islamic State (IS) group’s three-week offensive and its fighters have relentlessly shelled the town in preparation for a final assault.
Warning that the aerial campaign alone was not enough to halt the IS advance, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for greater co-operation with the Syrian opposition, which is fighting both the extremists and forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad.
“Kobani is about to fall,” Mr Erdogan told Syrian refugees in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, near the border.
“We asked for three things: One, for a no-fly zone to be created; Two, for a secure zone parallel to the region to be declared; and for the moderate opposition in Syria and Iraq to be trained and equipped.”
Mr Erdogan’s comments did not signal a shift in Turkey’s position. He has said repeatedly that Ankara wants to see a more comprehensive strategy for Syria before it commits to military involvement in the US-led coalition.
Turkish tanks and other ground forces have been stationed along the border within a few hundred yards of the fighting in Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, but have not intervened. And while Turkey said just days ago that it would not let Kobani fall, there is no indication the government is prepared to make a major move to save it.
Since mid-September, the militant onslaught has forced around 200,000 people to flee Kobani and surrounding villages and activists say more than 400 people have been killed in the fighting. It has also brought the violence of Syria’s civil war to Turkey’s doorstep.
Capturing Kobani would give IS, which already rules a huge stretch of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border, a direct link between its positions in the Syrian province of Aleppo and its stronghold of Raqqa, to the east. It would also give the group full control of a large stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border.
But Syrian Kurds scoffed at the rhetoric from Ankara, saying that not only were the Turks not helping, they were actively hindering the defence of Kobani by preventing Kurdish militiamen in Turkey from crossing the border into the town to help in the fight.
“We are besieged by Turkey, it is not something new,” said Ismet Sheikh Hassan, the Kurdish defence chief for the Kobani region.
Relations between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds have long been strained, in large part because Ankara believes the Kurdish Democratic Union, or PYD – the leading Syrian Kurdish political party – is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged a long and bloody insurgency in south-east Turkey.
In towns across Turkey, Kurdish protesters clashed with police, while Kurdish demonstrators forced their way into the European Parliament in Brussels – part of Europe-wide demonstrations demanding more help for the besieged Kurdish militiamen struggling to defend Kobani.
Turkish news agencies say least at 14 people have died and scores were injured in clashes between Turkish police and Kurdish protesters.
Despite Mr Erdogan’s dire assessment of the battle for Kobani, the front lines were largely stable despite heavy clashes.
Kurdish forces managed to push back IS militants from some neighbourhoods on the eastern edges of town, hours after the extremists stormed into the areas, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Still, two black jihadi flags fluttered from a building and a small hill on the eastern outskirts.
Fighting also raged at the south-western entrance to town, where the militants have seized control of a few buildings, including a hospital, said observatory director Rami Abdurrahman.
From the Turkish side of the border, plumes of smoke from IS shelling could be seen rising above the rooftops, while long bursts of heavy gunfire frequently erupted followed by brief lulls.
Syria’s Kurds have struggled to gain the sort of Western backing that their brethren in Iraq enjoy and the aerial campaign around Kobani has been far more limited than the air strikes against Islamic State fighters attacking Iraqi Kurdish areas. The US and its allies also have not agreed to arm Syrian Kurds like they have Iraqi Kurds.
The new United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for an urgent international response to the IS assault on Kobani, saying the global community could not sustain another city falling to the extremist group.
“The world, all of us, will regret deeply if ISIS is able to take over a city which has defended itself with courage but is close to not being able to do so. We need to act now,” Mr Mistura said, using an alternate name for IS.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said US secretary of state John Kerry has spoken to Turkey’s prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu twice since Monday to discuss the situation in Kobani and Turkey’s broader role in the coalition.
The United States and five Arab allies launched an aerial campaign against IS in Syria on September 23 with the aim of rolling back and ultimately crushing the extremist group. The US has been bombing IS targets in neighbouring Iraq since August.