Turkey grants passage for Iraqi Kurds to fight Islamic State in Syria

Announcement marks a significant policy shift by Ankara -a government that has long been hostile to Kurdish nationalists

October 21, 2014 01:30
2 minute read.

A Turkish soldier atop a tank watches as Islamic State jihadis advance on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, October 10.. (photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – Turkey will allow safe passage to militia fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan through its territory into Kobani, a Kurdish border city in Syria under siege by Islamic State, Ankara said on Monday.

The announcement was a significant policy shift by a government that has long been hostile to Kurdish nationalists. Turkey, a member of NATO, has not contributed military force to the US-led coalition against Islamic State, an extreme Islamist organization that controls much of eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

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In a news conference, Turkey’s foreign minister said his government is now prepared to “help the peshmerga cross over” into the city, where the battle for control that began a month ago has cost both sides dear.

“There are efforts, and we are prepared to send some back-up forces either by land or air,” said Jabar Yawar, a spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq’s Peshmerga Ministry.

The Turkish move came hours after US C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft dropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies on Kobani to aid the embattled Kurdish fighters. The aircraft flew in without any fighter escort, or resistance from Islamic State. The Pentagon has determined the group has no anti-aircraft capability.

Weapons were included in the delivery in order to “help them sustain the fight,” one official said.

From Jakarta, US Secretary of State John Kerry called the operation a “momentary effort” addressing an emergency in the city.

Before the drop, US President Barack Obama told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by phone that the operation did not represent a shift in policy, Kerry said.

Kobani has served as refuge for minorities across Syria throughout the three-year civil war there. US-led coalition forces, including the air forces of five Arab states, have conducted 147 strikes against Islamic State targets around Kobani alone.

But Islamic State’s decision to “surge its resources toward Kobani” has presented an “opportunity” to the coalition to weaken its power elsewhere throughout eastern Syria and northern Iraq, senior administration officials told journalists in a background briefing on Sunday night.

“As ISIL has finite resources, we look for any opportunity to take out those resources and to degrade the organization,” one official said. “As we’ve seen ISIL commit those significant resources to try to overrun the majority Kurdish- Syrian city of Kobani, we have been able to come to the support of those fighting on the ground while also achieving some significant results in degrading ISIL.

“We are going to be opportunistic in this campaign,” the official added.

Thousands of Islamic State troops have swarmed into the divided city.

One spokesman for the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia group, Redur Xelil, said the weapons dropped overnight would have a “positive impact” on the battle and on the morale of fighters who have been outgunned.

But it “will not be enough to decide the battle,” Xelil said.

US officials fear Islamic State will massacre the remaining civilians in Kobani, and the Kurdish forces defending them, if the city falls.

US warplanes conducted 12 strikes against Islamic State targets on Sunday and Monday, including six near Kobani and – with help from Britain and France – six near Fallujah and Bayji in Iraq, the US military’s Central Command said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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