Turkey approves use of air bases for IS fight

Published October 13th, 2014 - 06:02 GMT

Turkey will let a U.S.-led coalition use its bases to battle IS militants in Syria and Iraq, American defense officials said Sunday, as Syrian Kurdish defenders in the border town of Ain al-Arab held off the jihadists following days of advances.

The Obama administration had pressed Turkey for a larger role against the extremists and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has been traveling in South America, has said Washington wanted access to the Turkish air bases, including one at Incirlik in southern Turkey, from which to launch strikes against the Islamist militants.

The defense officials, who were not authorized to discuss private talks between the Americans and Turks, said Incirlik is part of the agreement.

Hagel spoke by telephone with Turkey’s defense minister, Ismet Yilmaz, and thanked him for his country’s willingness to assist in the fight against IS militants.

A senior U.S. official confirmed Saturday that Ankara had agreed to train and moderate Syrian rebels on Turkish soil.

A Turkish government official put the number at 4,000 opposition fighters and said they would be screened by Turkish intelligence.

Beyond the training and bases, there are other items the U.S. hopes Turkey will agree to. U.S. officials have not said what all of those would be because discussions are continuing. The militants have taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria and driven tens of thousands of refugees into Turkey.

Turkey and other American allies are pressing the U.S. to create a no-fly zone inside Syrian territory, and seeking creation of a secure buffer on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. A “safe zone” would require Americans and their partners to protect ground territory and patrol the sky, meaning enforcement of a no-fly area.

Hagel has said that American leaders are open to discussing a safe zone, but creating one isn’t “actively being considered.”

In Ain al-Arab, known widely by its Kurdish name Kobani, Kurdish defenders held off IS militants who have laid siege to the town for nearly four weeks and fought their way into it in recent days, taking control of nearly half of it. A U.N. envoy has said thousands of people could be massacred if Ain al-Arab falls. As night fell Sunday, the town center was under heavy artillery and mortar fire, Ocalan Iso, deputy head of the Kobani defense council, said by Skype from inside the town. Heavy clashes were underway in the east and southeast, he said, with neither side gaining ground.

Idris Nassan, deputy foreign minister in the Kurdish administration for the Kobani district, said heavy fighting had begun around nightfall in the streets. Kurdish fighters had caught attackers in an ambush, he said from the town.

After days of IS advances, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Kurdish defenders had managed to hold their ground. The Observatory said 36 ISIS fighters, all foreigners, were killed the previous day, while eight Kurdish fighters had died. The figures could not be independently verified.

Gunbattles were taking place Sunday near administrative buildings the jihadists had seized two days before, it said.

The fighting has taken place within view of Turkish tanks at the frontier, but Turkey has refused to intervene to help defend the city, infuriating its own 15 million-strong Kurdish minority, which rose up in the past week in days of rioting in which 38 people were killed.

Turkish Kurdish leaders have said their government’s failure to aid the defense of Kobani could destroy Turkey’s own peace process to end decades of insurgency which killed 40,000 people.

The heavily outgunned Kurdish defenders say they want Turkey to let them bring in reinforcements and weapons to fend off IS, who seized heavy artillery and tanks seized from the fleeing Iraqi army in June.

“We want them to open the corridor so that our people can come and help us. We need many things,” Esmat Al-Sheikh, head of the Kobani defense authority, told Reuters by telephone.

“We are in need of fighters, in need of everything.”

But Turkey’s foreign minister said a corridor allowing weapons and volunteer fighters from Turkey to reach Ain al-Arab was unrealistic.

The Kurdish YPG militia, which is fighting in Ain al-Arab, is allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which fought the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy for over 30 years and which Turkey and its Western allies designate a terrorist group.

“Turkey cannot actually give weapons and the civilians and ask to go back to fight with terrorist groups,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said in the interview, posted Saturday on the France 24 website.

“This [corridor] is not realistic. Who is going to supply the weapons today? First of all sending civilians to the war is a crime,” he added.

In Iraq, where the U.S.-led coalition has launched weeks of airstrikes against ISIS positions, American officials suggested that U.S. troops would likely need to play a bigger role.

The highest ranking U.S. military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said in an interview broadcast Sunday that “Mosul will likely be the decisive battle in the ground campaign at some point in the future.”

“My instinct at this point is that that will require a different kind of advising and assisting, because of the complexity of that fight,” Dempsey said.

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