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Iraqi Kurds head to Syria to confront Islamic State

The long-expected reinforcement of Kurdish forces at the besieged Syrian town of Kobani by men and equipment from Iraq began Tuesday, though it remains uncertain whether the effort will be enough to expel Islamic State militants.

A convoy of heavy weapons and ammunition set off Tuesday afternoon from Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan regional government, bound to reach Kobani on an overland route that would have the weapons pass through Turkey. Separately, about 150 members of the peshmerga militia boarded an Iraqi military aircraft in Irbil to be flown to an airfield in southern Turkey, from which they will cross into Syria.

The two events were covered extensively on Kurdish television. Broadcasts showed a convoy of more than a dozen heavy trucks and a number of armored personnel carriers departing Irbil carrying heavy machine guns, artillery and other military hardware and ammunition. The convoy was seen traveling along the main highway to the Turkish border near the Iraqi city of Dohuk, where it was guarded by dozens of peshmerga fighters, dressed in traditional Kurdish garb and not the green military uniforms they normally wear on military operations.

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani saw the troops off at the airport. Televised news reports showed the president addressing the assembled troops as they stood at attention on the tarmac, though there was no account of what Barzani said.

The dispatch of the men and weapons marked the conclusion of weeks of sometimes bitter debate about what steps, if any, would be taken to help the beleaguered defenders of Kobani, a Kurdish town near the Turkish border that has been under assault by the Islamic State for months. But it was hardly the end of the battle for the town.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had steadfastly rejected entreaties first that he allow Turkish Kurds to cross into Syria to join the town’s defenders and then that Turkish troops intervene. Erdogan said the town’s defenders were linked to a Kurdish separatist group, which has waged a three-decade-long war for Kurdish autonomy, that Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

But Erdogan reversed his position after the United States, ignoring Turkey’s objections, began a fierce air assault on Islamic State positions in coordination with the town’s defenders, then dropped weapons and ammunition in a resupply effort. The battle for Kobani has become the single biggest action of the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State. U.S. aircraft have struck the city nearly 170 times in the past month, according to news releases from the U.S. Central Command.

Still, there was no guarantee that the amount of aid and men likely to reach Kobani will prove decisive. The Islamic State controls 30 percent to 40 percent of the town. It’s unclear how many Syrian Kurdish fighters remain in the city.

A spokesman for the Kobani canton, the Kurdish administrative unit that governs the city, said local officials were expecting about 150 members of a peshmerga counterterrorism unit to arrive in Kobani. The spokesman, Idriss Nassan, said that under the terms negotiated for their arrival, they will remain under the command of the Kurdistan regional government during their time in Kobani.

The issue of who would command the troops was a principal sticking point in the negotiations between the Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known as the PYD by its Kurdish initials, which governs Kobani and much of the rest of Syrian Kurdistan. Kobani officials have said repeatedly that they did not want or need outside fighters – just more weapons and ammunition.

But few outside observers think the PYD and its armed militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, alone can regain control of the town and the surrounding villages.

Some close observers of the conflict estimate there are as few as 1,500 YPG fighters in Kobani, augmented by possibly 300 fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, the notorious PKK that both Turkey and the United States have listed as a terrorist organization.

They are both outnumbered and outgunned by the Islamic State, which is besieging the town with as many as 9,000 fighters equipped with tanks, armored U.S.-made Humvees, heavy artillery, mortars and anti-tank rocket systems that the group looted from the Iraqi military when it overran much of northern and central Iraq in June. Since then, the Islamic State has supplemented its supplies with extensive stocks of military ordnance seized when it captured Syrian military bases.

Halgord Hekmat, a peshmerga spokesman, suggested in a statement that the men deployed Tuesday would not engage in combat. He said they would be in a “support capacity” and would be delivering and overseeing the use of mortars, artillery and rocket launchers.

Idriss Nassan, spokesman for the Kurdish administration that governs Kobani, said he did not expect Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad to send fighters beyond the small number now fighting. Rebel leaders and the PYD, who the rebels say cooperate with the Assad government, have tangled for years over the al Qaida-linked fighters among the Arab rebels.