This story is over 5 years old.


Kobane on the Brink as US and UK Warn Airstrikes Won't Save It from Islamic State

The Islamist fighters pushed further into the Syrian Kurdish border city overnight, reportedly bringing in reinforcements from their stronghold in Raqqa.
Image via Anadolu Agency/Getty

The US and the UK have both issued warnings that airstrikes alone will not be enough to prevent the fall of Kobane to Islamic State fighters, as the militants renewed their push into the Syrian Kurdish city just miles from the Turkish border.

Both the Pentagon and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond dampened expectations that the US-led coalition bombarding IS from the air would save the strategic city, which has been under an intensifying siege from the Islamist group for the past three weeks, forcing an exodus of 160,000 refugees from the area.


However neither raised the possibility of a ground offensive by foreign forces, laying responsibility for halting the IS advance firmly at the feet of local rebel and Kurdish fighters.

"Air strikes alone are not going to save the town of Kobane," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm John Kirby said. "We know that and we've been saying that over and over again."

He said that the international alliance was doing everything it could, but that in the end, IS would have to be defeated by local forces in both Iraq and Syria — a feat which he acknowledged would not be quickly achieved. The situation might worsen before it improved, he cautioned, saying other towns might fall to the group.

"We don't have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now," Kirby said.

Hammond adopted a particularly defeatist tone, effectively acknowledging that the Kurdish YPG fighters defending Kobane were on their own in the battle against IS.

"I don't want to suggest that there is anything readily that the coalition can do that will make a fundamental difference… in the tactical situation that's faced around Kobane," he said.

It had never been anticipated that air strikes "would turn the tide in the short term," the foreign secretary added. Britain is involved in the aerial attacks in Iraq but has so far refrained from operations over Syria.

Clouds of black smoke rose over Kobane from regular large explosions on Thursday, predominantly from Mistenur hill to the south and from lower ground to the west. Regular gunfire was audible and mortar strikes visible in central parts of the city, as Kurdish leaders reported that IS fighters had entered two more districts overnight, bringing with them heavy weaponry. The UK-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the Islamist forces had pushed a further 320ft into the center late on Wednesday, reporting that the group was bringing in reinforcements from Raqqa, the heart of its self-declared caliphate.


Jets circled overhead as Turkish and Syrian Kurds camped out close to the border, watching the battle unfold. They told VICE News there had been a number of air raids at around 5am local time, over a 20 minute period, focused on Mistenur. US Central Command later confirmed it had carried out five strikes in the area.

Serdar Karan, a Syrian Kurd, told VICE News that further airstrikes would be needed to save the city and appealed for European countries, particularly France and the UK, to hit IS targets around Kobane.

"There are hundreds of French and British people in IS, their governments have to help, it's their responsibility," he said.

Stung by their failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither London or Washington has the appetite for another ground intervention in the Middle East, though opinion polls suggest that a majority of the public in both countries would support such a move.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday called for boots on the ground, warning in a televised speech in the border city of Gaziantep that Kobane was "about to fall."

"The terror will not be over… unless we cooperate for a ground operation," he said, adding that "no results have been achieved" by the aerial operation so far.

However, Ankara has drawn criticism for its own inaction against the IS fighters now attempting to push the borders of its Islamic caliphate right onto Turkey's — and Europe's — doorstep. Despite sabre-rattling and a new parliamentary mandate for military intervention, Turkish tanks and troops have remained at the Turkish border, looking on as explosions rock the city and the black flag of the jihadis flies from its hills.


On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the country would not send troops in unless as part of an international effort.  "It is not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct a ground operation on its own," he told a news conference after meeting with US envoys and new NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg to discuss the situation.

"We are holding talks. Once there is a common decision, Turkey will not hold back from playing its part," he added.

Kurds have accused Turkey, which has long struggled with an internal Kurdish insurgency pushing for self-determination, of allowing IS to do its dirty work and bring Kobane to its knees. The city is governed by a group closely allied to the PKK, the banned Kurdish group driving the decades-long rebellion in Turkish Kurdistan.

However the fall of Kobane to IS would represent a major strategic victory for the militants, allowing them to connect territories they hold in northern Syria and giving them control over a large section of the Turkish border.

Kurdish rage at Ankara's perceived complicity in the assault has spilled over into open violence between protesters and Turkish security forces, with up to 18 reported killed during demonstrations in cities across Turkey on Tuesday. The atmosphere at the border remains febrile and Turkish troops have repeatedly used tear gas to push back refugees trying to cross into the country, as well as Kurds attempting to enter Syria to join the battle against IS or supply fighters with sorely needed ammunition and other provisions.


Turkish security forces restricted all access to the border on Thursday, but crowds of Syrian and Turkish Kurds waited in the fields as close to Kobane as it was possible to get with food, water, tea urns and blankets watching the fighting through binoculars and telescopes. Most told VICE News that they would not leave until Kobane was saved from IS.

Fawzi Roscan, a Syrian Kurd watching the battle, told VICE News that Turkish authorities were blocking he and others from crossing into Kobane and accused them of supporting IS.

"I'm not a fighter but I want to go to Kobane… Turkey sold us out for IS, it favors them over the YPG," he said. "Now, we will not leave this spot until Kobane is freed."

Follow Hannah Strange on Twitter: @hannahkstrange

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck