ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Turkey said on Monday it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce fellow Kurds in the Syrian town of Kobani on Turkey’s border, and the United States air-dropped arms to help the Kurds there resist an Islamic State assault.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was facilitating the passage of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, themselves fighting Islamic State in Iraq. He stopped short of saying whether Ankara backed the U.S. air-drop of weapons.
Turkey’s refusal to intervene in the fight with Islamic State has frustrated the United States and sparked lethal riots in southeastern Turkey by Kurds furious at Ankara’s failure to help Kobani or at least open a land corridor for volunteer fighters and reinforcements to go there.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington had asked Ankara to help “get the peshmerga or other groups” into Kobani so they could help defend the town, adding he hoped the Kurds would “take this fight on”. The European Union also urged Turkey on Monday to open its border to allow supplies to get through to residents of Kobani.
If the reinforcements come through, it may mark a turning point in the battle for Kobani, a town where Syrian Kurds have struggled for weeks against better-armed Islamic State fighters trying to reshape the Middle East.
Speaking in Indonesia, Kerry acknowledged Turkish concerns about support for the Kurds, and said the air drop of supplies provided by the Kurdish authorities in Iraq did not amount to a change of U.S. policy.
The battle against Islamic State, a group also known by the acronym ISIL that has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, was an overriding consideration, Kerry indicated.
“We understand fully the fundamentals of (Ankara‘s) opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group, and particularly, obviously, the challenges they face with respect to the PKK,” he told reporters.
But he added: “We cannot take our eye off the prize here. It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting ISIL.”
Ankara views the Syrian Kurds with deep suspicion because of their ties to the PKK, a group that waged a decades-long militant campaign for Kurdish rights in Turkey and which Washington regards as a terrorist organisation.
‘A CRISIS MOMENT’
Kerry said both he and President Barack Obama had spoken to Turkish authorities before the air drops “to make it very, very clear this is not a shift of policy by the United States”.
“It is a crisis moment, an emergency where we clearly do not want to see Kobani become a horrible example of the unwillingness of people to be able to help those who are fighting ISIL,” he added.
Iraqi Kurdish official Hemin Hawrami wrote on his Twitter feed that 21 tonnes of weapons and ammunition supplied by the Iraqi Kurds had been dropped in the small hours of Monday.
U.S. Central Command said U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft had dropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to allow the Kurdish fighters to keep up their resistance in the town, which is called Kobani in Kurdish and Ayn al-Arab in Arabic.
The U.S. military said on Monday that among the six U.S. military air strikes conducted against Islamic State militants near Kobani on Sunday and Monday was one that destroyed a stray bundle of supplies from a U.S. air drop in order to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.
The main Syrian Kurdish armed group, the YPG, said it had received “a large quantity” of ammunition and weapons.
A ‘POSITIVE IMPACT’
Redur Xelil, a YPG spokesman, said the arms dropped would have a “positive impact” on the battle and the morale of fighters. But he added: “Certainly it will not be enough to decide the battle.”
“We do not think the battle of Kobani will end that quickly. The forces of (Islamic State) are still heavily present and determined to occupy Kobani. In addition, there is resolve (from the YPG) to repel this attack,” he told Reuters in an interview conducted via Skype.
Welat Omer, one of five doctors in Kobani, told Reuters by telephone that he and his colleagues had received medicine and were distributing it to patients. That included drugs for children and the elderly and materials for operations.
“This medicine will only be enough for five days. We want them to send more, because we have many patients,” he said.
The United States began carrying out air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq in August and about a month later started bombing the militant group in neighbouring Syria.
But the resupply of Kurdish fighters points to the growing coordination between the U.S. military and a Syrian Kurdish group that had been kept at arm’s length by the West due partly to the concerns of NATO member Turkey.
The Turkish presidency said Obama and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had discussed Syria, including measures that could be taken to stop Islamic State’s advances, and Kobani.
The spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) peshmerga fighters said the Iraqi Kurdish region was ready to send backup forces to Kobani and planning was under way. “There are efforts and we are prepared to send some backup forces either by land or air,” said KRG peshmerga ministry spokesman Jabar Yawar. He said the forces were not en route.
But one Kurdish official in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed doubt any fighters would be deployed to Kobani as they battle Islamic State at home.
Washington has pressed Ankara to let it use bases in Turkey to stage air strikes, and a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said the country’s airspace had not been used during the drops on Kobani.
Kobani is one of three areas near the border with Turkey where Syrian Kurds have established their own government since the country descended into civil war in 2011.
Reporting by Mohammad Zargham, Arshad Mohammed and Warren Strobel in Washington, Tom Perry in Beirut, Seda Sezer in Turkey, David Brunnstrom in Indonesia and Dasha Afanasieva in Suruc, Turkey, Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir, Isabel Coles and Ned Parker in Iraq, and Adrian Croft in Luxembourg; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Anna Willard, Peter Cooney and Howard Goller