Turkey will allow Kurdish peshmerga forces from northern Iraq across its territory to defend Kurds in the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani, in a move that fighters say could tip a month-long battle against Islamic State (Isis) insurgents in their favour.
The announcement marked an abrupt shift from Ankara’s position of refusing to militarily help the Kurds of Kobani and came hours after the US military dropped 24 tonnes of weapons and medicines in the first supply run it had made to the besieged town in nearly five weeks of fighting.
Both developments followed a substantial increase in the number of air strikes against Isis forces, which Kurdish militia members inside Syria and exiled residents of Kobani say are steadily turning the tide of the battle.
Guided in by special forces and by Kurdish spotters operating deep inside the war-ravaged town just south of the Turkish border, the air strikes are believed to have decimated the Isis command in recent days, forcing it to use an increasing number of untested cadres who are struggling to hold ground.
The jihadi group has paid an increasingly heavy price in the fight for Kobani, losing an estimated 400 men and many of the heavy weapons it had brought to the battle from a stockpile it had looted in northern Iraq.
“It is being much more difficult for them,” said a western diplomat based in the region. “If what has been delivered can make a measurable difference then they can’t win. They will need to recalibrate their commitment.”
The state of the battlefield is now markedly different than late last week, before the increase in strikes, when Isis forces were advancing despite the presence of US and coalition jets and seemed poised to overrun Kobani, the fourth-largest Kurdish town in Syria.
Such a victory would have been a significant boost for Isis, proving it could prevail over the US and its Arab partners as it continued on its rampage through the centre of the region.
The jihadis’ gains had been made while Turkey refused to support the fighters inside Kobani, because of their links to the PKK, which has been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish government for nearly 40 years.
“The weapons aren’t enough to change the game in one night,” said Sores Hassan, a spokesman for the YPG militia, which is fighting in Kobani. “But if the aid is continued, it will help us a lot. This support is helping us morally and lifting our spirits more than really helping us on the ground. We are talking to the coalition through different channels to continue the support and we hope it will happen more often.”
Another fighter, who identified himself as Ameen, said: “The game has changed now. After the Americans provided us with weapons, we turned from defending the city to attacking Isis. Now we are no longer playing the defensive in this war. I believe the next couple of days will bring us victory.
“In the first week of the air strikes, the Americans were bombing empty Isis headquarters. Now, it is different. They are more accurate and they know the right places to bomb.”
Mahmoud Haji Omar, a member of the peshmerga committee in the Kurdistan parliament, confirmed that peshmerga troops were preparing to deploy to Kobani: “We are planning to send a number of peshmerga forces to go and fight in Kobani against (Isis). We are currently selecting the fighters that will be going to Kobani. Turkey has agreed to give passage as long as the peshmerga fighters bring back the weapons that they take in to Kobani.”
Earlier, US secretary of state John Kerry said the Obama administration decided to airdrop weapons and ammunitions to “valiant” Kurds because it would be “irresponsible” and “morally very difficult” not to support them.
Kerry told reporters in the Indonesian capital Jakarta that the US administration understood Turkey’s concerns about supplying the Kurds, but said the situation is such in Kobani that the resupplies were deemed absolutely necessary in a “crisis moment”.
“Let me say very respectfully to our allies the Turks that we understand fully the fundamentals of their opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group and particularly obviously the challenges they face with respect [to] the PKK,” Kerry said. “But we have undertaken a coalition effort to degrade and destroy Isil [Isis], and it is presenting itself in major numbers in this place called Kobani.”
Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavusoğlu said that the decision to allow the peshmerga to pass through its territory was in line with a wider regional effort to fend off Isis.
“We want the region to be cleared of all threats. We assess the military and medical materials aid provided by our Iraqi Kurdish brothers and airdropped by the United States to all forces defending Kobani in this framework,” he said. “There are seven or eight groups that are fighting together with the PYD [the Democratic Union party] [in Syria].”
Some observers pointed out that the perceived policy shift in Ankara was no surprise and pointed to a string of violent protests that shook Turkey two weeks ago in response to the government’s perceived inaction over the crisis in Kobani.
Nevertheless, it underscores a bewildering array of allegiances: Turkey last week bombed PKK positions inside its borders, and is days later preparing to aid the PYD, which it says is a direct PKK ally.
Mesut Yegen, a historian of the Kurdish issue, said that Turkey could not risk the fall of Kobani: “The events from two weeks ago clearly showed that if Kobani should fall, the peace process would end. The Turkish government wanted to test how people would react, and they saw what would have happened. Turkey can no longer be seen as watching the drama in Kobani unfold without doing anything.”