MURSITPINAR, Turkey (AFP) – Islamic State fighters were at the gates Thursday of a key Kurdish town on the Syrian border with Turkey, whose parliament was set to vote on authorising military intervention against the militants.
Kurdish militiamen backed by US-led air strikes were locked in fierce fighting to prevent the besieged border town of Kobane from falling to IS group fighters.
Heavy mortar fire around the town was heard across the Turkish border, an AFP correspondent reported.
“There are real fears that the IS may be able to advance into the town of Kobane itself very soon,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights warned.
The Britain-based watchdog reported fresh US-led air strikes on the advancing militants overnight after the heavily outgunned Kurdish fighters were forced to fall back west and southeast of the town, also known as Ain al-Arab.
The strikes in Syria by the United States and Arab allies, now in their 10th day, come as European allies step up their support for the air campaign Washington launched against IS in neighbouring Iraq on August 8.
The US-led coalition had already carried out at least seven strikes on IS targets around Kobane over the five days to Wednesday, US Central Command said.
A Kurdish official inside Kobane acknowledged that the better armed IS fighters had advanced during the night.
“They are closer, two to three kilometres in some places,” Idris Nahsen told AFP by telephone.
“Compared to IS, our weaponry is simple. They have cannons, long-range rockets and tanks.”
IS seized large stocks of heavy weaponry from fleeing troops when they captured Iraq’s second city of Mosul in June.
They took more when they overran the Syrian garrison at Tabqa air base south of Kobane in late August.
As the militants neared the outskirts of Kobane, there was a quickening of the exodus of civilians which had already seen tens of thousands take refuge across the border in Turkey.
“Kobane is practically empty of its residents now,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Kobane would be a major prize for IS, giving it unbroken control of a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border.
But its fall would be a big blow to Kurdish dreams of self-rule and jailed Turkish Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan warned that it would have implications across the border.
In a message to supporters, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader said it could spell the collapse of the peace process under way since last year to end the group’s three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
After months of caution, the Turkish government has decided to harden its policy towards IS, with parliament due to vote later Thursday on a request for authorisation for military action against the militants in both Iraq and Syria.
Ankara has not yet indicated what form its assistance could take.
But according to the Hurriyet newspaper, the government is requesting permission from parliament for the presence and transit of foreign soldiers in Turkish territory as well as the deployment of Turkish military forces to Iraq or Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed the West on Wednesday to find a long-term solution to the crises in Syria and Iraq, saying dropping “tons of bombs” on IS would provide only temporary respite.
US officials kept up their warnings that such a solution would take time.
Retired US general John Allen, who is leading the international effort against IS, told CNN “it could take years” to train a Syrian rebel force to take on the militants.
Based on rough outlines offered by US officials, the war strategy is counting on defeating IS fighters first in Iraq through a combination of Kurdish forces, Iraqi army troops, Shiite volunteers and a militia or “national guard” of Sunni Arab tribes – which does not yet exist.
In Syria, Washington is pinning its hopes on training and arming a new rebel army composed of vetted “moderate” recruits, at a rate of about 5,000 fighters a year.
Even in Iraq, the fightback is proving slow, despite coalition air support.
Kurdish forces have recaptured the crossing town of Rabia on Iraq’s border with Syria and made advances north of IS-held Mosul and south of key oil hub Kirkuk.
Iraqi troops have fought off IS forces southwest of the capital.
But there has been no let-up in the daily violence in either Iraq or Syria.
On Wednesday, deadly bombings hit both the Iraqi capital and Syria’s third-largest city Homs, with 41 children among the dead in Homs, which has been devastated by the three-year civil war but is under government control.
IS has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq, declaring an Islamic “caliphate” and committing widespread atrocities.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said on Thursday the “array of violations and abuses” carried out by the Islamic State militants was “staggering” and included attacks on civilians, executions of captured soldiers, abductions, rapes and the desecration of religious and cultural sites.