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Kurds say U.S.-led airstrikes halting Islamic State advance on Kobani

Each day, Mohammed Jemmo ventures to a barren, wind-swept hilltop overlooking his embattled hometown, where two of his sons and a daughter are fighting with the Kurdish militia resisting an offensive by Islamist extremists.

“I thought that if they must be martyred, then that would be God’s will,” Jemmo said as he peered southward from Turkish territory toward the Syrian city of Kobani, plumes of smoke rising skyward and the rumble of an unseen fighter jet cutting through the thick overcast. “But now I’m more confident that they will survive. It seems this may be nearing an end.”

Less than two weeks ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Kobani “was about to fall” to Islamist State. Images beamed worldwide from satellite trucks on the Turkish side showed the militants’ signature black banner rising from buildings and atop Tel Shair, a hill overlooking the city.

But an abrupt reversal in fortune, aided by U.S.-led airstrikes, appears to have blunted the prospect of a speedy conquest by the militants. No more black flags can been seen fluttering on the skyline of Kobani.

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The battle, freighted with symbolic if not strategic significance, has taken an unexpected turn since Turkey’s president predicted the city’s downfall.

Kurds on both sides of the border say the extremist advance has been halted in large part by the airstrikes, now numbering at least 130 in the area, more than in any other part of Syria or Iraq since the air campaign against Islamic State kicked off in August. Warplanes have delivered punishing blows to the militants’ artillery, armored vehicles, communications gear and fighting units.

After a sluggish start, Kurdish fighters and Kobani residents say, the aerial assault has stopped Islamic State in its tracks and contributed to retreats along the southern and western flanks of the city.

Islamic State remains formidable to the east, controlling a strategic mesa. The current battlefield tableau, Kurdish leaders warn, is more akin to a stalemate than an impending victory for either side.

Although the situation is dynamic, the Kurds of Kobani are in a much better position now than just a week or so ago.

“The situation is stable now,” said Ismat Sheik, a Kurdish political representative in Kobani, reached via cellphone.

“The [Kurdish] fighters have managed to stop Daesh from advancing, but the tide hasn’t turned in our favor,” he said, using the common Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “Kobani is still in danger.”

Islamic State forces have suffered heavy losses, but their ranks are being bolstered with reinforcements brought in from other militant-controlled areas. Artillery rounds still hit the city with regularity — and again on Saturday — kicking up columns of smoke and debris. The extremists have sent explosives-laden suicide vehicles careening toward the front lines.

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Still, the aerial bombardment has largely neutralized the militants’ most fearsome assets: tanks and other armored vehicles, mobile artillery and Soviet-era heavy machine guns known as Dushkas, mounted on pickup trucks. With U.S. and allied aircraft prowling above, moving the arsenal toward Kobani entails considerable risk.

The Kurds say coordination with U.S. forces has improved the strikes’ effectiveness. U.S. officials have declined to confirm any such cooperation publicly.

“Daesh has lost its main advantage,” said Simko Qaramo, 36, a Kurdish fighter interviewed on the Turkish side of the border. “They are paralyzed, not able to move.”

Urban combat tends to favor the Kurds, who are familiar with the streets, alleys and buildings of Kobani, known in Arabic as Ayn al-Arab, once a densely populated city of gray apartment blocks and commercial structures. Kurdish snipers are posted on rooftops along major approaches to the now largely deserted city center, thwarting militant forays.

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“It’s our home, so we know the area better,” said another Kurdish fighter, Hassan Ahmed, 28, speaking in front of a clinic in Suruc, an overwhelmingly ethnic Kurdish city in Turkey that is housing many wounded fighters and displaced residents.

The Kurds say they have captured many prisoners, including minors.

“Some of these kids were too young to have beards,” Qaramo said.

The militants, ever resilient, have adapted. Combatants are ferrying in equipment on motorcycles in the hope of avoiding detection from the air, fighters and residents say.

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On Friday, U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who heads the Pentagon’s Central Command, confirmed in a news briefing in Washington that the militants no longer travel in large convoys and are “afraid to talk on their networks.” But he conceded that it was still “highly possible” that Kobani could fall.

Many here share that fear, despite the recent turn in the battle.

Kurds worry about a militant resurgence should the airstrikes diminish. And they say weapons and ammunition are running low in the Kurdish enclave, cut off from supplies from Kurdish-controlled zones in Syria to the east and west.

On the north side of the border, Turkish tanks patrol to ensure that war materiel does not reach the city’s defenders, though some may be smuggled in.

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“Give us weapons and we will defeat Daesh all over the region,” pleaded Mohamed Jamal, 30, a wiry Kurdish fighter with curly hair who was mingling with fellow Kobani exiles in the central square of Suruc. “We don’t run from them like the Iraqi or the Syrian armies. We can defeat them if we have the means.”

Although the Kurds express disdain for Islamic State, much of their ire is directed at the Turkish government, a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led coalition arrayed against the militant network. The cornerstone of Turkish regional policy is toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, not defeating Islamic State, and the government in Ankara helps numerous Syrian rebel groups to that end.

The same support has not been accorded to the Kurds. Turkish authorities are loath to aid the Syrian Kurdish militia because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a 30-year war against the Turkish state.

Last week, as U.S. warplanes were bombing militant positions near Kobani, the Turkish air force attacked PKK strongholds along the Iraqi border to the east.

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To many Kurds, it is an article of faith that Islamic State is Ankara’s ally, an assertion vigorously rejected by Turkish officials. Turkey’s policy of denying military aid to the Kurds of Kobani sparked violent protests across Turkey this month, leaving more than 30 dead.

“The government wants Kobani to fall,” said Zuhal Ekmez, co-mayor of Suruc, which is controlled by a Kurdish nationalist party.

Few Kurds here seem especially thankful that Turkey has allowed about 180,000 displaced people, mostly Kurds from the Kobani area, to enter Turkey as the battle surged across the border. The Turks have also facilitated the entry of ambulances carrying wounded from Kobani.

For the U.S.-led aerial assault, however, the Kurds express high praise, and hope that the barrage will not soon diminish.

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“Without the airstrikes, Kobani would be completely under the control of Daesh now,” said Mustafa Mohammed, 50, a father of 10 from a village south of the city who fled a month ago. “We would have lost everything. Now, at least, maybe we can think about going home someday.”

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Mursitpinar and Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.

Twitter: @mcdneville


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