ISTANBUL — A small group of Free Syrian Army fighters moved across the Turkish border Wednesday into the embattled Syrian town of Kobane to reinforce a Kurdish militia struggling against an Islamic State offensive, ahead of an expected convoy of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces.
The two-track movement of weapons and fighters marked a long-awaited boost for Kobane’s Syrian Kurdish defenders, who remain outgunned by Islamic State militants despite being aided by intensified U.S. airstrikes.
The deployment also highlights a complicated struggle for influence over the Kurdish population of northeastern Syria that has long plagued efforts to unite against the threat posed by the extremists.
The Kurds in Kobane had initially balked at accepting reinforcements from rival Iraqi Kurds but relented, said Idris Naasan, a spokesman for the self-styled Kurdish government in Kobane.
“This will give legality to the fighters in Kobane, and also the peshmerga will bring us heavy weapons,” said Naasan, speaking from the nearby Turkish border town of Suruc.
Turkey would prefer that Syrian rebels and Iraqi Kurds control Kobane in the event that the Islamic State advance is thwarted. The force of 52 Syrian rebels was allowed to cross from Turkey ahead of a contingent of about 150 Kurdish fighters dispatched by road and plane from northern Iraq, said Barzan Iso, a Kurdish activist speaking from the Turkish side of the border.
Cheering Turkish Kurds lined the route taken by the Iraqi ground convoy as it crossed into Turkey, but they also threw stones at Turkish police. The scenes were a reminder of the symbolic importance of the reinforcements for the region’s Kurds, who have long aspired to have an independent nation.
NATO member Turkey is wary about encouraging further collaboration among the region’s Kurds — whose ethnic homeland stretches across four nations — as part of the wider fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Turkey has faced an insurgency by its Kurdish population since the 1980s, and the group battling the Islamic State in Kobane is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is behind the unrest in Turkey.
Turkey is also a main backer of rebel factions that have been trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011, and the Iraqi peshmerga fighters are affiliated with a Kurdish faction that supports the revolt and is at odds with the Kurds fighting in Kobane. Iraq’s Kurds and the United States back the effort to unite the Kurdish factions under one umbrella.
The multilayered political calculations are among the regional tensions and rivalries complicating the U.S.-led alliance opposing the Islamic State.
While the militant group is being targeted on more crucial fronts — including in battles close to Baghdad — the struggle for Kobane has become an important symbol of the wider war, for the United States as well as for the Islamic State.
The remote farming town lacks strategic significance, but gaining control of Kobane could provide a vital propaganda platform for the extremist group, which would have demonstrated that it could stand up to a concerted U.S. air campaign. The United States initially ignored the jihadist advance on Kobane, handing the Islamic State a key psychological boost, until it became clear that the town would fall without significant outside help.
Intensified U.S.-led airstrikes have helped the Kurds hold the town, but a stalemate appears to have settled over the battlefield after the United States recently airdropped weapons to the Kurds. The U.S. Central Command said it carried out eight strikes Tuesday and Wednesday, targeting Islamic State positions, vehicles and a “command and control node.”
The limited infusion of fresh forces is unlikely to tip the scales against the Islamic State, and it remains unclear whether the Syrian rebels and the Kurdish fighters will coordinate or fight separately.
The Free Syrian Army is an umbrella group that comprises Western-leaning factions engaged in Syria’s civil war. Several hundred FSA members had already been fighting alongside the Kurds in Kobane.
The Iraqi Kurdish fighters reached Turkey on Wednesday. Some arrived by plane under tight security, landing in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa. Others are traveling by road in a convoy that left northern Iraq on Tuesday.
Elsewhere in Syria, Islamic State militants killed at least 30 government and allied fighters in an offensive against Assad forces that targeted the al-Shaar gas field in the far east of Homs province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain. The fighting marked a rare confrontation between the Islamic State and Assad forces, and it suggests that the militants aim to gain control of a bigger slice of the region’s energy infrastructure.
Murphy reported from Washington. Daniela Deane in London contributed to this report.