IS at gates of Syria border town as Turkey mulls action

AFP , Thursday 2 Oct 2014

Turkish soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint as Syrian refugees from Kobani arrive at the Turkey-Syria border crossing of Mursitpinar near Suruc, Turkey, late Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Islamic State fighters were at the gates of a key Kurdish town on the Syrian border with Turkey on Thursday as its parliament prepared to vote on authorising military intervention against the jihadists.

Kurdish militiamen backed by US-led air strikes were locked in fierce fighting to prevent the besieged border town of Kobane from falling to IS group fighters.

"There are real fears that the IS may be able to advance into the town of Kobane itself very soon," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights warned.

The Britain-based watchdog reported fresh US-led air strikes on the advancing jihadists overnight after the heavily outgunned Kurdish fighters were forced to fall back west and southeast of the town, also known as Ain al-Arab.

The fighting came as deadly bombings hit both the Iraqi capital and Syria's third-largest city Homs, with 41 children among the dead in Homs, which has been devastated by the three-year civil war but is under government control.

The US-led coalition had already carried out at least seven strikes on IS targets around Kobane over the five days to Wednesday, US Central Command said.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said there were concerns over "the Kurds' capacity to resist, as the IS are using tanks and other heavy weaponry in their attack."

IS seized large stocks of heavy weaponry from fleeing troops when they captured Iraq's second city of Mosul in June. They took more when they overran the Syrian garrison at Tabqa air base south of Kobane in late August.

Kobane would be a major prize for IS, giving it unbroken control of a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border.

NATO member Turkey, after months of caution, has decided to harden its policy, with parliament due to vote later Thursday on a government request to authorise military action against IS in both Iraq and Syria.

Ankara has not yet indicated what form its assistance could take although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly called for a buffer zone on the Turkish border inside Syria to ensure security.

According to the Hurriyet newspaper, the request seeks permission from parliament for the presence and transit of foreign soldiers in Turkish territory as well as the deployment of Turkish military forces to Iraq or Syria.

Washington has a large air base at Incirlik, outside the Turkish city of Adana, although its strikes in Iraq and Syria so far have all been from warships or bases in Arab countries.

Ankara has previously justified its low-key role in the fight against IS by saying its hands were tied by concerns over the fate of dozens of Turkish hostages abducted by IS in Iraq.

But those hostages were freed on September 20, prompting what Erdogan has acknowledged as a major change in Turkish policy.

However, the Turkish president pressed the West on Wednesday to find a long-term solution to the crises in Syria and Iraq, saying dropping "tons of bombs" on IS would provide only temporary respite.

US officials kept up their warnings that such a long-term solution would take time.

Retired US general John Allen, who is leading the international effort against IS, said "it could take years" to train a Syrian rebel force to take on the jihadists.

"We have to manage our expectations," he said in an interview with CNN.

Based on rough outlines offered by US officials, the war strategy is counting on defeating IS fighters first in Iraq through a combination of Kurdish forces, Iraqi army troops, Shiite volunteers and a militia or "national guard" of Sunni Arab tribes -- which does not yet exist.

In Syria, Washington is pinning its hopes on training and arming a new rebel army composed of vetted "moderate" recruits, at a rate of about 5,000 fighters a year.

Even in Iraq, the fightback is proving slow, despite the air support Washington has been providing since August 8, now boosted by combat missions by European allies.

Kurdish forces have recaptured the crossing town of Rabia on Iraq's border with Syria and made advances north of IS-held Mosul and south of key oil hub Kirkuk.

Iraqi troops have fought off IS forces southwest of the capital.

But there has been no let-up in the daily violence in either Iraq or Syria.

In Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew up a vehicle in a busy commercial street on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people, police and medical sources said.

In Homs, twin car bombs killed 41 children and seven adults in a neighbourhood inhabited mainly by the Alawite community of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has been repeatedly targeted by rebels and jihadists.

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