On Turkey's border, US airstrikes and Kurdish troops blunt Islamic State advance

The battle for Kobane, a Syrian border town, may have tipped in favor of Kurdish militia seeking to fend off militants from the self-styled Islamic State. US-led airstrikes have played a role. 

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Smoke rises from Kobane as seen from the Turkish side of the border on Thursday. The US-led coalition ramped up its airstrikes on Islamic State fighters inside the town earlier this week.

US-led airstrikes and Kurdish ground forces have apparently reversed the advance of Islamic State fighters into Kobane, a Kurdish town near Syria's border with Turkey that many observers expected to fall last week.

The Pentagon said Wednesday that the airstrikes have killed several hundred IS fighters in Kobane, Reuters reports, allowing Kurdish militia to retake some territory. But US military officials warned that the town, which has evacuated most of its civilians, could still fall to the Sunni militant group.

The US-led coalition has intensified its focus on Kobane in recent days in the hopes of denying the group a potential propaganda victory, The Washington Post reports. The coalition carried out nearly 40 airstrikes in and around Kobane over the last two days, hitting massed IS forces. This represents the heaviest barrage since the aerial campaign in Syria began on Sept 22.

"Part of the dynamic we want to show is that these guys aren't ten feet tall," an unnamed White House official told the Post. "A lot of their edge has been psychological."

"They're like a shark; if they're not swimming, they're sinking. That's how they recruit foreign fighters and establish themselves as the vanguard of global jihad," the official said.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said bad weather in Iraq had allowed the coalition to shift more firepower to Kobane, Reuters reports. He added that the fighting there provided an opportunity to hit large groups of IS fighters.

As coalition airstrikes ramped up, Kurdish fighters on the ground in Kobane pushed back several IS positions on Wednesday. Idriss Nassan, a Kurdish official, told the BBC that IS had started to retreat. He said the group now controlled less than 20 percent of the town, after having captured 40 percent of it just days ago.

The resilience of the Kurdish defenders has defied expectations. Many international observers expected Kobane to fall last week after IS captured strategic points within the town. But the Kurdish fighters, despite being outgunned and a standoff with Turkey over allowing reinforcements to travel to the front, have held their ground. 

"People underestimate the power of determination," Farhad Shami, a Kurdish activist in Kobane, told The Associated Press. "The Kurds have a cause and are prepared to die fighting for it."

The AP reports that some Turkish officials are not impressed by the Kurdish defenders:

In remarks underscoring the region's layered crises, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc mocked the Kurdish fighters defending Kobani, comparing their struggle against ISIS to the guerrilla war of the affiliated Kurdish PKK rebels, who have fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey, largely in mountainous regions in Turkey's east.

"They are not able to put up a serious fight there," Arinc told reporters in the southeastern city of Adiyaman.

"It is easy to fight on the mountain against the military, police, the teacher and the judge. It is easy to kidnap people, but they are not able to fight in Kobani," he said. "I could say a lot more but let me leave it at that so that they are not embarrassed."

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that the fighting in and around Kobane over the last month has killed more than 550 people. Most of them have been IS fighters. 

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