Middle East

Kurdish official denies deal on FSA help in Kobani

Smoke rises during fighting in Kobani, seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT: A senior Syrian Kurdish official on Friday denied a report from Turkey's president that Syrian Kurds had agreed to let 1,300 Free Syrian Army fighters enter the border town of Kobani to help defend it against besieging ISIS insurgents.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long championed the relatively secular Free Syrian Army in the complicated, faction-ridden insurgency against Syrian President Bashar Assad and has repeatedly advocated FSA intervention in Kobani.

Turkey's unwillingness to send its powerful army across the border to help secure Kobani has angered Kurds, but appears rooted in a concern not to strengthen Kurds seeking autonomy in adjoining regions of Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

Erdogan said Friday said 1,300 FSA fighters would enter Kobani after the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) agreed on their passage, but his comments were swiftly denied by Saleh Moslem, co-chair of the PYD.

"We have already established a connection with FSA but no such agreement has been reached yet as Mr. Erdogan has mentioned," Moslem told Reuters by telephone from Brussels.

Speaking at a news conference during a visit to Estonia, Erdogan said his side was working on details of the route of passage for the FSA fighters, indicating that they would access Kobani via Turkey.

But Moslem said talks between Abdul Jabbar al-Aqidi, top commander of the FSA, and the armed wing of the Kurdish PYD were continuing about the potential role of FSA rebels.

"There are already groups with links to the FSA in Kobani helping us," he said.

It would be far preferable, Moslem said, for the FSA to open a second front against ISIS in Syria. "Politically we have no objections to FSA....But in my opinion, if they really would like to help, then their forces should open another front; such as from Tel Abyad or Jarablus," he said.

He was referring to two nearby Syrian border towns captured by ISIS as it overran vast swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq over the past year, executing prisoners, massacring non-Sunni Muslim civilians in their path and declaring a caliphate overlapping Syrian-Iraqi borders.

ISIS' rise has sent shock waves through Middle East and Western capitals, galvanizing U.S.-led air strikes to try to "degrade and destroy" the insurgents, as U.S. President Barack Obama has put it.

U.S. officials said on Thursday that Kobani, nestled in a valley overlooked by Turkish territory, seemed in less danger of falling to ISIS after coalition air strikes and limited arms drops, but the threat remained.

Turkey has been loath to join the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS but, after mounting pressure from its Western allies, Erdogan said on Wednesday that some Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Iraq would be allowed to transit Turkey to Kobani.

Although Turkish and U.S. officials acknowledge Kobani itself is not especially strategically important, the fate of the town has become a credibility test of the international coalition's response to ISIS.

Over the weekend, U.S. warplanes air-dropped small arms to Kobani's defenders, against the wishes of Turkish authorities who have described them as terrorists because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long separatist insurgency in Turkey.

Ankara's suspicions of Kurdish forces are matched by its strong support of the Free Syrian Army, which it sees as an important instrument in the campaign to topple Assad, Erdogan's one-time ally and now implacable adversary.

But the FSA is little more than a term used to describe dozens of loosely affiliated rebel factions with little or no centralized command. Many groups describing themselves as FSA complain of a lack of arms and resources leaving them unable to confront Assad and the better-armed Islamist insurgents.

The PYD's Moslem said he was disappointed with Turkey's response so far. "When I conducted my meetings in Turkey, I was hoping the help would come in 24 hours. It's been more than a month and we're still waiting," he said.

In a separate interview published in a pan-Arab newspaper, Moslem said that the battle for Kobani would turn into a war of attrition unless Kurds obtained arms that can repel tanks and armored vehicles.

He told Ash-Sharq al-Awsat that Kurds had recently received information that ISIS wanted to fire chemical weapons into Kobani using mortars, after having surrounded it with around 40 tanks.

"If we were to receive qualitative (stronger) weapons, we would be able to hit the tanks and armored vehicles that they use - we may be able to bring a qualitative change in the battle," Moslem said.

Elsewhere in Syria's civil war, government forces retook a town on the highway linking Hama and Aleppo cities in the west of the country after months of battles with insurgents, Damascus state television and a monitoring group said.

The recapture of Morek, 30 km (19 miles) north of Hama, is part of Assad's campaign to shore up control of territory in the west stretching north from Damascus while U.S.-led forces bomb Islamist militants in the north and east.

 

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