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Kurds try to capitalize on US airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Kobane (+video)

The battle for the Syrian border town of Kobane has pitted Turkey against its NATO allies, which want to see a more robust response to Islamic State's offensive. US-led airstrikes appear to be checking the militants' advance into the town. 

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Fighting around the embattled Syrian town of Kobane on Wednesday appeared to tip in favor of Kurdish fighters trying to stave off capture by Islamic State militants, who have besieged the city for weeks. 

“The shelling and bombardment was very effective,” the deputy foreign minister of Kobane's Kurdish administration told Reuters by phone. “This is their biggest retreat since their entry into the city,” he said, referring to IS fighters.

Mounting US-led airstrikes on IS targets around Kobane have enabled Kurdish fighters to “reverse the advance of Islamic State militants for the first time since the extremists launched their assault about three weeks ago,” The Washington Post reports. 

The battle for Kobane – a Sryian Kurdish town on the border with Turkey – has highlighted major questions about the US-led fight against IS, including whether US allies like Turkey can be rallied to take a bigger role, and if US ground troops are necessary.

If Kobane were to fall, IS would control a larger section of the Syrian-Turkey border, which has been a route for foreign fighters entering Syria and for IS to sell oil from oilfields it has taken over, BBC reports. 

Seven Syrian human rights groups appealed late Tuesday night for the international community to save Kobane from the “inhuman practices and measures” of IS that “have taken a clear form of persecution and ethnic cleansing.”

Nearly 200,000 people have fled Kobane in recent weeks in fear of a massacre, should IS capture the town. Most are ethnic Kurds fleeing to Turkey – where clashes Tuesday night between police and demonstrators calling for Turkey to intervene killed 12, the Financial Times reports.

The US Central Command on Tuesday reported five strikes around Kobane on Tuesday, doubling the number of strikes carried out since the IS offensive against the town began last month, according to The Washington Post.

The strikes destroyed three Islamic State vehicles and an antiaircraft artillery piece, damaged a tank and took out a “unit,” a Central Command statement said.

The air attacks came just as the Islamic State launched a push into the center of the town, an advance that at first appeared to succeed, said Kurdish activist Mustafa Abdi, speaking from the adjoining Turkish town of Suruc. Islamic State fighters had reached the center of Kobane by mid-morning, he said, but one of the airstrikes hit a convoy of re­inforcements. It was forced to turn back, and the advancing fighters lost momentum.

By nightfall, a Kurdish force known as the People’s Protection Units had pushed the militants almost back to the position from which they had begun their attack. “Today is the first day the strikes were effective,” Abdi said. “These airstrikes are neutralizing their heavy weapons.”

The Associated Press reports seeing warplanes, apparently from the US-led coalition, bombing IS positions near Kobane around noon local time on Wednesday:

One airstrike, visible from the border, hit a hill and an open space near the town.

Meanwhile, heavy gunfire was heard from inside the town in a sign of fresh clashes. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of the fighting as in the town's Kani Arban neighborhood.

Turkey has forces on the border with Syria, but has so far resisted pressure to intervene directly. Its hesitation is partly down to Turkey’s relationship with its own Kurdish separatists and concern over unilateral action, Alex Christie-Miller, The Christian Science Monitor’s correspondent in Istanbul, explains:

...any unilateral action against IS involving Turkish troops in Syria could leave the country badly exposed if it was not done without explicit NATO backing, says Hugh Pope, International Crisis Group’s deputy program director for Europe and the Central Asia.

“Turkey has to be extremely careful. If it engages in something that could be seen as an unprovoked attack then Nato’s response could be very ambivalent.”

In recent weeks, Turkish and international media have reported on the presence of a substantial Islamic State recruiting network in Turkey, also raising the fear of possible blowback.

...

Equally, Turkey remains as wary of the Kurdish-nationalist militias defending the besieged town as it is of IS itself.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), an armed organization that has run northeastern Syria’s Kurdish populated region as an autonomous enclave since the Assad regime withdrew in 2012, has close links to the PKK, the Kurdish rebel group that has fought a 30-year-long insurgency for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey and is regarded by Ankara as a terrorist group.

“Turkey is more than happy that the semi-autonomy declared by Syria’s Kurds is being demolished by the so-called Islamic State,” says Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University.

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