Up to 200 Iraqi Kurdish fighters are expected to cross the Turkish border within the next several days, barring new roadblocks, to join Kurdish Syrian forces defending the town of Kobane against the Islamic State.
“We are all agreed there is no problem” Saleh Muslim, the political leader of the Syrian Kurdish fighters, said Friday. The Iraqis also will carry additional supplies for the besieged Syrians, who last Sunday received a stop-gap U.S. airdrop of weapons and ammunition.
Although Turkish agreement to allow the Iraqi Kurdish forces, called pesh merga, to enter Kobane across the closed border came last week, negotiations among all the parties that were needed to make that happen have been fraught with tension.
Highlighting the difficulties, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that the Syrian Kurds — who have been fighting against escalating militant attacks for nearly a month, recently with the help of U.S. airstrikes — had also agreed to accept 1,300 fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the loose coalition of opposition forces battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian Kurds, whose political party is known as the PYD, quickly denied any such agreement. “There is talk of between 100 and 300 Free Syrian Army fighters,” but those negotiations are separate and ongoing, Muslim said.
Another senior PYD official, Shirzad Yazidi, said the Kobane defenders do not need any more fighters. “We need heavy weapons and military equipment, such as anti-armor missiles” to fight against Islamic State tanks and armored vehicles, Yazidi told the London-based Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. “We call on the Iraqi Kurdistan region to focus their support on weapons and equipment.”
By allowing the pesh merga forces to transit the border, Turkey will also presumably establish a corridor for further equipment resupply into Kobane.
At the Pentagon, Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the press secretary, said that Islamic State forces had withdrawn from some areas in Kobane. But while “we still assess today that the Kurdish militia maintain possession of the vast majority of the town . . . nobody’s doing a touchdown dance right now,” Kirby said.
The U.S. military does not consider Kobane, which lies along the Turkish border, to be a strategic objective. But the town has come to symbolize extensive Islamic State advances in Syria, and preventing its fall has become the most immediate tactical U.S. goal there.
American bombers struck militant targets near Kobane six times Thursday, according to the U.S. Central Command, bringing the total number of airstrikes to nearly 150 in the past two weeks.
The plight of Kobane reflects the convoluted politics of the region, particularly those of the Kurds, whose homeland spreads across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
When the militant siege of Kobane began last month, nearly 200,000 residents of the town and the surrounding region fled into Turkey.
As Islamic State forces advanced, surrounding the town on three sides, Erdogan’s government closed the border and resisted entreaties to allow reinforcements and supplies to enter Kobane.
The predominantly Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, has been branded a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States on the grounds that it is trying to overthrow the Turkish government. It is allied with Syria’s PYD, and both have been supportive of Assad. Erdogan’s government has been in sporadic peace negotiations with the PKK and believes that the group would be strengthened if allowed to come to the aid of the Syrian Kurds.
Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government, has forged a friendly relationship with Turkey. Its leader, regional President Massoud Barzani, would like to extend his influence over the broader Kurdish region.
Turkey, concerned that the United States has been distracted from the fight against Assad by its focus on the Islamic State, would like the Free Syrian Army to help defend Kobane.
Speaking during a visit to Latvia on Friday, Erdogan indicated that he was unhappy when President Obama told him last weekend about the intended airdrop of supplies into Kobane.
“Did Turkey view this business positively? No, it didn’t,” he said. “America did this in spite of Turkey, and I told [Obama] that Kobane is not currently a strategic place for you; if anything, it is strategic for us,” Erdogan said, according to Turkish media accounts of his remarks in a news conference in Riga, the Latvian capital.
Meanwhile, the PYD has charged that the proposed commander of Free Syrian Army forces is sympathetic to the Islamic State. On Friday, PYD spokesman Rodi Khalil posted on Twitter a November 2013 media interview in which the commander said his relationship with the militants was good and called them his “brothers.”
“All news about FSA wants to go to Kobane to fight IS is not true,” he said in a separate Twitter statement, referring to the Islamic State by an acronym. “It’s just Facebook talks.”
Loveday Morris in Baghdad and Liz Sly in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.