Nation & World

Islamic State opens major push to seize Kurdish-held town in northern Syria

Islamic State forces have mounted a major offensive against Kurds in northern Syria, occupying more than a dozen villages in an apparent attempt to capture another border crossing with Turkey, the local government said Thursday.

The villages are near the town of Kobani, known in Arabic as Ayn al Arab, one of the last major crossing points to Turkey not in Islamic State hands. The Islamists have been trying to seize the town for months and are now attacking from three directions, with tanks, machine-gun mounted Humvees and Grad rockets against nearby villages, said Idris Nassan, who holds the title of deputy foreign minister for the Kobani canton, the administrative district that includes not just the town but the villages that surround it.

Kobani’s Kurdish defenders had been expecting the assault after intercepting Islamic State radio communications. They evacuated at least 15 villages of all but their military-age male inhabitants before the offensive began Wednesday, he said.

Many of those villages are now under Islamic State control, he said.

Nassan, however, said that the Kurdish fighters, members of the People’s Protection Unit, which is known by the Kurdish initials YPG, may be setting a trap for the Islamic State militants. “Their morale is high,” he said of the YPG. “They have a new strategy. I think in the coming days, they will do something.”

Of all the battlefronts in Syria, the fight for Kobani may be politically the most complex. Both the Islamic State attackers and the defenders from the YPG, an offshoot for the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, are listed as terrorist organizations by the United States and other nations.

Nassan appealed for international military support, but that seems unlikely. Turkey does not want international aid to go to a force that in the past has mounted major guerrilla operations against Turkish military and civilian targets, and it reportedly has warned American officials not to take actions in Syria that would strengthen the YPG.

At the same time, Turkey, the United States and other countries have suspected that the YPG is working hand-in-glove with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces abandoned the region in the summer of 2012.

For their part, the Kurds say Turkey is working with the Islamic State, something Turkish officials have denied repeatedly. Nassan repeated the charge Thursday, accusing Turkey of providing logistical support to the extremists.

Whatever label is currently applied to the PKK and its Syrian offshoot, it has become at most a relatively minor threat to Turkey. Since March 2013, the two sides have been engaged in a peace process to end the 3-decade-long guerrilla war.

The maneuvering near Kobani appears to be part of a general positioning of Islamic State forces in recent days, perhaps in response to the stepped-up pace of American airstrikes in Iraq and the threat of eventual strikes in Syria.

On Thursday, so-called moderate rebel forces reported that the Islamic State appeared to have drawn down their forces north of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and suspended a push to capture Bab al Salama, a critical border crossing point for supplies destined for rebels and millions of displaced Syrian civilians.

Turkish officials said the Islamic State has been transferring fighters from Syria to Iraq, possibly to reinforce forces under increasing aerial attack.

On Thursday, the U.S. Central Command reported that its aircraft had struck an Islamic State training camp southeast of Mosul, destroying a large ground unit, two buildings the group was occupying and an armed vehicle, and had bombed an ammunition dump southeast of Baghdad.

The most recent strikes brought to 14 the number of attacks since Monday, when Central Command said it began operating under new, more aggressive rules of engagement authorized by President Barack Obama that allow offensive strikes against targets that do not directly threaten U.S. personnel. U.S. aircraft have launched 176 strikes since Aug. 7, when Obama first ordered renewed U.S. operations inside Syria.

Alhamadee is a McClatcy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington.