The US-led coalition intensified its aerial bombardment of Islamic State positions on Thursday in the Syrian border town of Kobane as the extremist group fought street battles with Kurdish forces and reportedly rushed in reinforcements.
The battle for the town near the frontier with Turkey has emerged as a major early test for the air campaign aimed at rolling back and eventually destroying the extremist group.
It has also strained ties between Washington and Ankara over the long-term US strategy in Syria.
The US special envoy for the coalition, retired Marine general John Allen, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg were in Turkey to press the country to join military operations.
Turkish officials have said that while they do not want Kobane to fall, they will not take on a greater role until the coalition outlines a broader strategy that also includes attacking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is best positioned to benefit from any rollback of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Attacking al-Assad’s regime “is not the focus of our international coalition and not the focus of our efforts by the United States,” US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Psaki said Allen and Turkish officials discussed ways to advance the effort against the Islamic State and said a joint military planning team will visit Ankara early next week.
“Both sides also agreed that we will continue a dynamic and deepening bilateral consultation process across the multiple lines of effort against ISIL, including military support, countering foreign fighters, counterfinance, humanitarian assistance, and delegitimizing ISIL’s messaging and rhetoric,” she said.
Turkey also has called for the creation of a buffer zone inside Syria to secure the border, but the White House and Pentagon said on Wednesday that the US is not considering that option. Such a zone would be costly and complex to enforce.
US officials said on Thursday that the US is largely talking to Turkey about other things it could do besides inserting ground forces into the fight: allowing US and coalition aircraft to fly over Turkish territory; allowing its air base in Incirlik — about 160km from the Syrian border — to be used by US or coalition planes or for logistics and training; and equipping moderate Syrian opposition forces fighting to topple al-Assad.
The officials were not authorized to discuss meetings under way between US and Turkish officials in Ankara and requested anonymity.
The fight for Kobane has brought Syria’s civil war yet again to Turkey’s doorstep, and for weeks the US and its allies have pressed Ankara to take a more robust role in the coalition. In addition, Kurds have held massive demonstrations across Turkey in which they accuse the government, which has deployed its tanks just across the frontier, of doing nothing to save the town.
Ankara is suspicious of the Syrian Kurdish forces fighting in Kobane, seeing them as an extension of the Kurdish PKK, which waged a long and bloody insurgency against Turkey.
Responding to the criticism, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it was unrealistic to expect Turkey to launch a ground war against the Islamic State group on its own.
Cavusoglu spoke at a news conference in Ankara with NATO’s Stoltenberg, who said there was no easy solution for Kobane.
“ISIL poses a grave threat to the Iraqi people, to the Syrian people, to the wider region, and to NATO nations,” Stoltenberg said. “So it is important that the whole international community stays united in this long-term effort.”
Cavusoglu said Turkey is prepared to play a bigger part once a deal is reached with the coalition.
“Turkey will not hold back from carrying out its role,” he said.
In Kobane, columns of smoke rose as warplanes buzzed overhead on Thursday. Two strong explosions — apparently from an airstrike — echoed from the edge of the town, a cluster of low-slung concrete buildings nestled in rolling hills.
Gunfire and blasts could be heard on the Turkish side, where people watched the fighting unfold from a stretch of farmland.
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