Elena Becatoros and Zeina Karam
MURSITPINAR, TURKEY: For the first time since the Islamic State group launched an offensive on the Syrian border town of Kobani last month, a small group of Syrian rebels on Wednesday entered the embattled town from Turkey in a push to help Kurdish fighters there battle the militants, activists and Kurdish officials said.
The group of around 50 armed men is from the Free Syrian Army, and it’s separate from Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters who were also en route Wednesday to Kobani, along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Idriss Nassan, a Kurdish official from Kobani, said the FSA group entered Kobani through the Mursitpinar border crossing in Turkey. Nassan, who spoke from the border region in Turkey, said they travelled in cars but did not have more details.
The FSA is an umbrella group of mainstream rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. The political leadership of the Western-backed FSA is based in Turkey, where fighters often seek respite from the fighting.
The 150 Iraqi peshmerga troops, along with cannons and heavy machine guns, arrived in Turkey from Iraq early Wednesday and were expected to cross into Syria later in the day. Their deployment came after Ankara agreed to allow the peshmerga troops to cross into Syria via Turkey.
Kurdish fighters in Syria, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, have been struggling to defend Kobani — also known as Ayn Arab — against the Islamic State group since mid-September, despite dozens of coalition airstrikes against the extremists.
It is not clear what impact this small but battle-hardened combined force of FSA and peshmerga fighters — and their combined weaponry and added arsenal — will have in the battle for Kobani. Kurdish fighters are already sharing information with the coalition to coordinate strikes against Islamic State militants there but the new force may help improve efforts and offer additional battlefield support.
Hundreds of people gathered in a square and along a main street in the Turkish town of Suruc, near the border with Syria, waiting for the peshmerga.
“We are waiting for the peshmerga. We want to see what weapons they have,” said Nidal Attur, 30, from a small village near Kobani who arrived in Suruc two weeks ago. “I am very happy. We are hoping the peshmerga will do good things for us. ... We cannot win without the peshmerga because ISIS have big weapons, big guns and rockets.”
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the BBC that sending the peshmerga and the FSA was “the only way to help Kobani, since other countries don’t want to use ground troops.”
A Kurdish journalist in Kobani and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that a group of about 50 FSA fighters entered Kobani on Wednesday.
After a rousing send-off from thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil, the peshmerga forces landed early Wednesday at the Sanliurfa airport in southeastern Turkey. They left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces and were expected to travel to Kobani also through Mursitpinar crossing.
Nassan said the peshmerga force should be in Kobani “within hours.” He said he was confident that the troops, although symbolic in number, would help change the balance of power in Kobani because of their advanced weapons.
The Islamic State group launched its offensive on Kobani and nearby Syrian villages in mid-September, killing more than 800 people, activists say. The Sunni extremists captured dozens of Kurdish villages around Kobani and control parts of the town. More than 200,000 people have fled across the border into Turkey.
The U.S. is leading a coalition that has carried out dozens of airstrikes targeting the militants in and around Kobani, helping stall their advances. U.S. Central Command said eight American-led airstrikes struck near Kobani on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The fighting in Kobani has deadlocked in recent days, with neither side able to get the upper hand in the battle.
Under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — from the West as well as from Kurds inside Turkey and Syria — the Turkish government agreed to let the fighters cross through its territory. But it only is allowing the peshmerga forces from Iraq, with whom it has a good relationship, and not those from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Turkey’s government views the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani as loyal to what Ankara regards as an extension of the PKK. That group has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.
Kurdish fighters in Syria have repeatedly said they did not need more fighters, only weapons. Kurds in Syria are mistrustful of Turkey’s intentions, accusing it of blocking assistance to the Kobani defenders for weeks before shifting its stance, apparently under pressure. Many suspect Ankara is trying to dilute YPG influence in the town by sending in the peshmerga and the Turkey-backed FSA.
The battle for Kobani is a small part in a larger war in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people since March 2011, according to activists. The conflict began with largely peaceful protests calling for reform. It eventually spiraled into a civil war as people took up arms following a brutal military crackdown on the protest movement.
Fighting continued Wednesday across many parts of Syria.
The Observatory said in a statement that more than 30 Syrian soldiers and allied militiamen and guards were killed in clashes with Islamic State militants who attacked the government-controlled Shaer gas field in the central Homs province. State-run news media reported “fierce clashes” in the area, saying troops killed and wounded dozens of “terrorists.”
Both reports could not be independently confirmed.
Also Wednesday, a car bomb exploded in a government-held district of Homs city, killing at least one person and wounding 25 others, an official in the Homs governorate said.