BEIRUT — Turkey’s president sharpened criticism of U.S. airdrops to aid Syrian Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State, but he promised on Thursday that Kurdish reinforcements would soon arrive in the embattled border town of Kobane.
The dual messages from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reflect the complicated political calculations for Turkey as part of a U.S.-led coalition seeking to cripple the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey is wary of the Syrian Kurds defending Kobane — just miles from the Turkish border — because of their ties to a Kurdish faction in Turkey that has waged a three-decade insurgency for greater rights. The U.S. airdrops of weapons and ammunition to Kobane are seen by Turkey as indirectly empowering the Turkish Kurdish rebels.
But NATO-member Turkey also is nervous that Kobane could fall to the Islamic State, an al-Qaeda offshoot also known as ISIS or ISIL, which would gain another foothold along the Turkish border and possibly expand attacks on Turkish forces and targets.
The Turkish Kurdish rebels, meanwhile, have threatened to tear up a peace accord with Turkey if the Islamic State seizes Kobane — which has become a rallying point for Kurds across their ethnic homeland that spans parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
In a concession reached last week, Turkey agreed to allow Kurdish militiamen from northern Iraq, known as pesh merga, to cross Turkish territory and join the battle for Kobane — also a target of escalating U.S.-led airstrikes in attempts to drive back the Islamic State militants.
Erdogan said up to 200 pesh merga would soon head to Kobane via Turkey after lawmakers in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region approved the force. But Erdogan gave no further details on a possible timetable or whether additional Kurdish fighters could follow.
“I have learned that they finally reached agreement on a figure of 200 [fighters],” Erdogan told a news conference in the Latvian capital Riga, according to the Reuters news agency.
Erdogan also amplified his criticism of U.S. airdrops to help the Syrian Kurdish fighters, claiming it was blatant interference in Turkish affairs.
“Did Turkey view this business positively? No, it didn’t. America did this in spite of Turkey,’’ Erdogan said. He added that he told President Obama that Kobane is “not a strategic place for you.”
“If anything, it is strategic for us,” he said.
Turkey, however, has held back sending its powerful military over the border to confront the Islamic State in Kobane. Turkey has pressed several demands, including creation of an internationally protected buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey and greater help for rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A Syrian monitoring group said Islamic State fighters have launched fresh offensives in Kobane and control about half the town.
U.S. warplanes carried out at least four airstrikes near Kobane since Wednesday, hitting targets that included a “command and control center,” the U.S. Central Command said.
Other airstrikes hit oil holding tanks near the eastern Syrian town of Deir al-Zour, a key part of the Islamic State’s oil smuggling networks, and several sites in Iraq, the U.S. military said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that airstrikes by U.S.-led forces had killed 553 militants and 32 civilians since the attacks began last month. The reported militant death toll including Islamic State fighters and at least 57 members of an al-Qaeda-linked faction known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is seeking to topple Assad’s government.
It was unclear how the group compiled the numbers. The Pentagon provides a tally of airstrikes but does not give estimates on casualties.
Murphy reported from Washington.