U.S. airstrikes, Kurds hold their own against militants

Lefteris Pitarakis; and Zeina Karam
Associated Press

Mursitpinar, Turkey — Intensified U.S.-led airstrikes and a determined Kurdish military force on the ground appear to have had some success in halting advances by Islamic State fighters on a strategic Kurdish town near Syria’s border with Turkey — at least for now.

On Wednesday, the Kurdish militiamen were fighting ferocious street battles with the Sunni extremists in Kobani and making advances on some fronts, hours after the U.S.-led coalition stepped up its aerial campaign.

In a surprising display of resilience, the Kurdish fighters have held out against the more experienced jihadists a month into the militants’ offensive on the frontier town, hanging on to their territory against all expectations.

“People underestimate the power of determination,” said Farhad Shami, a Kurdish activist in Kobani. “The Kurds have a cause and are prepared to die fighting for it.”

They also have the advantage of fighting on familiar ground.

“Islamic State fighters have far more superior weapons, but they lack knowledge of the terrain,” said Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Kurdish fighters, on the other hand, know “every street, building and corner” of Kobani and have the powerful “will of resistance,” he said.

Some of them are experienced fighters who have fought alongside rebels of the affiliated PKK in Turkey as they battled for autonomy for Kurds during a three-decade insurgency.

The Islamic State group launched its offensive on Kobani in mid-September, capturing dozens of nearby Kurdish villages and a third of the town in lightning advances that sent massive waves of civilians fleeing across the border into Turkey.

Days later, the U.S. and its allies began bombing Islamic State targets in Syria, but the strikes were slow to take off in Kobani and appeared largely ineffective. Expectations were that the town would fall to the militants within days.

The Kurdish fighters, however, have put up a formidable fight, despite feeling a deep sense of abandonment by an international community they believe has failed to come to their rescue as it did with their brethren and other minorities in Iraq threatened by Islamic State militants.

The fighting in and around Kobani has killed more than 550 people, the majority of them Islamic State fighter, according to the Observatory.

Abdurrahman and other Syria observers say the Kurds have shown much more tenacity and resilience than other Syrian rebel factions who ended up making “tactical retreats” or simply fled jihadi onslaughts in other areas of Syria.

Equally important in the past few days has been more concentrated airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition in and around Kobani targeting Islamic State infrastructure and positions.

The U.S. military says it launched 39 airstrikes near Kobani in the past 48 hours, designed to disrupt Islamic State reinforcements and resupply, and to prevent the extremist group’s fighters from massing combat power on the Kurdish-held sections of Kobani.