The key Syrian border town of Kobane, the main focus of U.S. airstrikes in Syria for the past four months, has been retaken from the Islamic State by Kurdish forces, according to the U.S. Central Command and Kurdish activists.
“Anti-ISIL forces now control approximately 90 percent” of Kobane, the Central Command said in a Monday evening statement. It thanked Kurdish forces for what it called an Islamic State “failure” that had denied the militants “one of their strategic objectives.” ISIL is an acronym for the Islamic State.
Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union announced on Twitter that “the city of Kobane is fully liberated.”
Kurds across the border in the Turkish town of Suruc, many of them among the more than 100,000 refugees forced to flee the Islamic State onslaught that began in September, celebrated with fireworks and dancing in the streets.
The victory, if it holds, is important for both sides in the Syria conflict. Late last year, the Islamic State had claimed total control over Kobane, posting Internet videos showing its flags flying across the town. Defeat deprives the militants of a key border crossing into Turkey, as well as an anticipated symbolic triumph over U.S. air power.
The Obama administration had declared Kobane both a military target and a “moral” imperative after Islamic State forces overran the Kurdish-populated region, executing many civilians who did not flee for their lives.
As militants continued to pour into the area, the Pentagon described it as the most target-rich environment in Syria. Nearly 75 percent of 954 strikes in Syria by U.S. and Arab warplanes since September — the vast majority of them by the United States — have targeted the area in and around Kobane.
Late Monday, Islamic State fighters appeared to maintain a presence on the eastern edges of the town and in a swath of small rural villages that were snatched in their lightening advance before the air attacks began.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Kurdish fighters were still combing buildings in the eastern suburbs of Kobane, dismantling and detonating explosives left by the militants.
The observatory said that more than 1,300 fighters had died in the months-long battle, nearly 1,000 of them from the Islamic State. “Large parts of the city have become uninhabitable due to U.S. and Arab . . . air raids, detonation of booby-trapped vehicles and mutual shelling” by the forces on the ground.
Meanwhile, in a defiant interview published Monday in Foreign Affairs magazine, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad played down expectations for a breakthrough in ending the country’s larger civil war during what have been billed as preliminary peace talks scheduled to begin Monday in Moscow.
Assad described the Russia-led gathering as mere “preparations” rather than full-fledged talks for ending a conflict that has killed an estimated 220,000 people, wounded more than a million and displaced nearly half of Syria’s population.
U.S-backed opposition forces fighting the Syrian military are “puppets,” Assad said, in comments that cast further doubt over the Russian initiative. Many opposition groups, including the Turkey-based National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, have vowed to boycott the meeting, saying that those in attendance are little more than mildly critical loyalists of the Assad government.
Even the special United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, would not be attending, his office confirmed. He has proposed his own plan for ending the conflict, which involves implementing local “freezes” in fighting between government and rebel forces.
The four-day initiative is a result of weeks of diplomacy by Russia, which has joined Iran in aiding the Assad regime with money and weaponry against an uprising that began in 2011. The initiative has received tentative backing from U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who earlier this month said he hoped the Russian efforts “could be helpful.”
The Russian initiative follows the collapse last year of two rounds of U.S.-sponsored peace talks held in Geneva. Mohammed Sabra, who represented the opposition in those talks, said in a telephone interview that the Moscow meetings are an attempt by world powers, including the United States, to conspire to keep Assad “in power longer.”
Groups like the Syrian Opposition Coalition have lost credibility among backers in the West and the Arab world, in part because they lack influence among rebels groups inside Syria.
Analysts said Kerry’s comments suggest a shift in U.S. policy away from calling on Assad to step down as part of a solution to the Syrian crisis. That shift, the analysts said, appears to be driven by rising concern in Washington over the ascendancy of radical groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which have wrested control of significant amounts of Syrian territory from moderate rebel groups.
Naylor reported from Beirut. Liz Sly in Istanbul and Sam Alrefaie in Beirut contributed to this report.