The American military airdropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies Sunday to Kurds fighting the Islamic State group in the flashpoint Syrian town of Kobane, in a move that could anger ally Turkey.
It is the first time the US has made airdrops to Kurdish fighters defending Kobane and it represents an escalation in Washington’s efforts to support Syrian opposition forces against both IS rebels and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Kurdish forces have been under IS assault for more than a month in Kobane, which is being battled over under the gaze of the world’s media massed just across the border in Turkey. The Kurds there were in “specific” and “urgent” need of resupply, a senior US administration official said.
Three C-130 cargo aircraft carried out what US military Central Command (CENTCOM) called “multiple” successful airdrops of supplies in the vicinity of Kobane, including small-arms weapons, provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq.
The aircraft faced no resistance from the air or the ground. They were not accompanied by fighter jets and exited the area safely, a senior Obama administration official said. The official did to rule out a repeat operation if needed, possibly in the near future.
The supplies were “intended to enable continued resistance against ISIL’s attempts to overtake Kobane,” CENTCOM said in a statement, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group which has overrun large areas of Iraq and Syria in a brutal and effective campaign.
The airdrops, which officials said were made in 27 bundles, came after Islamic State fighters reportedly took heavy losses on Sunday from continued air strikes conducted by US-led coalition forces.
One senior US administration official said that Kurdish fighters had put up an “impressive” effort in the face of the emboldened IS organization, but cautioned that Kobane could still fall to the militants and the security situation was “fluid.”
Nevertheless, “hundreds” of IS fighters had been killed in the campaign for Kobane and “scores” of pieces of equipment and positions destroyed, the official said.
Washington and its Western allies have been pressing Turkey to take a more direct role in confronting the IS group in Kobane. But Ankara is reluctant to intervene militarily or to arm the Kurds, who have been historic foes demanding a separate state including parts of southeastern Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday again rejected calls for his country to arm the main Kurdish party in Syria, describing the group as a radical organization.
Asked whether the Turkish government was informed beforehand of the resupply drop, a senior administration official in Washington said President Barack Obama spoke to Erdogan on Saturday “and was able to notify him of our intent to do this and importance we put on it.”
The official added: “We understand the longstanding Turkish concern with the range of groups, including Kurdish groups, they have been engaged in conflict with and in peace talks with.”
However, the official said, the Islamic State organization was “a common enemy” for the United States and Turkey.
Washington had been in contact with Ankara in recent days to stress the urgency of the need to resupply Kurdish fighters in Kobane.
The airdrops were the fastest way to get supplies to them, one senior administration official said, “and an opportunity to strike a blow against ISIL. When we see opportunities to target ISIL we will take them.”
The IS group has poured resources into Kobane, giving the US-led coalition numerous targets to hit, an administration official said.
Separately, American-led warplanes launched 11 air strikes near Kobane on Saturday and Sunday, CENTCOM said, helping Kurdish fighters repulse a new IS attempt to cut their supply lines from Turkey.
So far, US forces have conducted more than 135 air strikes against IS in Kobane alone.
While the resupply of Kurds in Kobane was “urgent,” a senior administration official in Washington said, “of course the best way we are supporting them is with air strikes.
“We have seen our air strikes have an effect on ISIL. We’ve seen those air strikes have an effect on the battlefield. But ultimately, we want to see those fighting bravely on the ground have the support they need.”
The US military says that the air strikes have slowed the IS advance in Kobane and from Saturday into Sunday morning, 31 IS rebels died in the battle, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group. SAPA