Beirut: Turkey’s government has opened its border to thousands of Syrian Kurds fearing a massacre at the hands of the Islamic State as a US-backed opposition group called for air strikes to halt the militants’ advance in northern Syria.
In the latest twist on a complex battlefield, Syrian Arab rebels say they are sending forces to support Kurdish militiamen close to the border area in what appears to be a new alliance against the extremists.
The Kurdish civilians are fleeing a major militant offensive in northern Syria aimed at expanding the Islamic State’s strategic reach along the Turkish frontier.
Fighters of the extremist faction, which US President Barack Obama vowed last week to “degrade and ultimately destroy”, are reported to be closing in on the Syrian border town of Ayn-al-Arab, which has long been in the hands of Kurdish militiamen.
The Free Syrian Army rebel group is dispatching “a large number” of fighters from the northern city of Aleppo to assist Kurdish forces, said Oubai Shahbandar, Washington-based spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition.
The coalition, the US-backed umbrella group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, called for aerial bombardment to halt the latest militant advances.
“Air strikes are needed to help opposition forces protect vulnerable civilians from ISIS’s barbarity,” Najib Ghadbian, US special representative for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said in a statement, using a common acronym for the Islamic State group. “Defeating ISIS everywhere must begin in Syria today.”
US war planes have struck militant positions in Iraq but have yet to hit the Islamic State in Syria, where the group has its base.
Kurdish militiamen and Syrian Arab rebels have long had a fraught relationship and have occasionally fought each other. But the two groups now seem united, at least temporarily, against the latest Islamic State thrust.
Syrian Kurdish representatives said they fear mass casualties as militants using tanks and heavy artillery closed in on Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobani in Kurdish. The Islamist forces have reportedly overrun more than 20 mostly Kurdish villages, prompting thousands of civilians to flee to the Turkish border.
Kurdish officials raised the spectre of another Sinjar, referring to the harrowing escape last month of tens of thousands of Kurdish-speaking members of the Yazidi religious sect. They fled after extremists overran the Sinjar district of north-western Iraq. Many of the Yazidi took tenuous refuge on the rugged slopes of Mount Sinjar, their plight focusing global attention on the extremist threat.
“If we really don’t want a second Sinjar, we must defend Kobani,” Salih Muslim, co-president of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, a major political faction, told local television.
Syrian Kurds have called on their brethren in Turkey to join the fight in Syria against the Islamic State. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party has been waging a three-decade war against the Turkish government, which labels it a terrorist group. The two sides have recently been negotiating a peace plan.
An alliance of Arab rebels and Syrian Kurdish fighters known as the Popular Protection Units – or YPG, after its Kurdish acronym – would signal a significant shift in the Syrian battlefield. The two groups are often seen as having divergent interests.
Many Syrian Arab insurgents fighting to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad view the main Kurdish armed faction in Syria as stealth supporters of Mr al-Assad, an allegation denied by the Kurds. Meanwhile, the largely secular Kurdish fighters often criticise the Syrian rebels and their patrons in Ankara as too close to al-Qaeda-style Islamic extremists. Kurds are seeking greater autonomy in Syria, a demand rejected by many Syrian Arabs.
The Turkish decision to allow entry to the fleeing Syrian Kurds came a day after Ankara had refused them passage, blocking them at the border fence. That policy sparked clashes between Turkish forces and protesters on the Turkish side demanding that fellow Kurds be allowed entry. On Friday, Turkish officials relented.