MURSITPINAR, Turkey – Iraqi peshmerga fighters prepared Saturday to battle Islamic State group militants in the Syrian border town of Kobani, just hours after they arrived in a town that’s become a focal point in the battle against the extremists.
The force brought in badly needed heavy weapons including artillery, heavy machine-guns and anti-tank missiles, material that could tip the balance of power in favour of the embattled Kurds fighting there.
The deployment came as Syria’s al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front scored a major victory against a moderate rebel faction, capturing their headquarters as well as the mountainous strategic region of Jabal al-Zawiya in the northwestern province of Idlib. Jabal al-Zawiya was one of the first areas to fall out of President Bashar Assad’s control after the uprising against his government began in March 2011.
The push in Idlib against the moderate rebel faction could be a blow to the U.S. as it plans to work with moderate rebel factions in the future to fight jihadis and Assad’s forces.
“This is a blow to the Syrian moderate opposition in general,” said Asad Kanjo, an activist based in Idlib via Skype.
Shorsh Hassan, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, said the peshmerga and the YPG are preparing a role for Iraqi Kurdish troops. Hassan’s comments came after some 150 peshmerga fighters on Friday night entered Kobani to fight the extremist group that controls parts of the town.
“The priority will be to recapture Kobani neighbourhoods that were taken by Daesh and then the goal is to liberate all villages in the countryside of Kobani,” Hassan said by telephone from Kobani, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State group.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that the peshmerga force had yet to take part in any battles in Kobani.
Since mid-September, Islamic State group fighters have captured dozens of predominantly Kurdish villages near Kobani and entered the town they have been trying to capture for weeks. More than 200,000 people have fled to Turkey and more than 800 people have died, activists say.
Islamic State group positions in Kobani also have been targeted by more than 150 airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition over the past weeks.
The Observatory said the Islamic State group launched another offensive Friday night on YPG-held areas in Kobani but failed to advance. The group, which relies on reports from activists on the ground in Syria, said that more than 100 jihadi fighters have been killed over the past three days in the clashes, as well as the U.S.-led airstrikes.
An Associated Press reporter on the Turkish side of the border facing Kobani said it sounded like several explosions struck the town early Saturday, though no more information about them was immediately available.
The U.S. Central Command said Friday that American warplanes conducted four airstrikes near Kobani, damaging four Islamic State fighting positions and one building occupied by the group.
In Idlib, the Nusra Front captured wide areas in Jabal al-Zawiya after five days of clashes with the moderate rebel Syrian Revolutionaries Front, the Observatory and Idlib-based Kanjo said. Among the areas capture was the village of Deir Sinbul that is home to the rebel faction headquarters, they said.
The Observatory said “tens” of fighters with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front have defected and joined the Nusra Front.
Jamal Maarouf, the leader of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, said in a video released Saturday that his rebels withdrew from Jabal al-Zawiya “for the safety of civilians because this faction (Nusra Front) does not hesitate in killing civilians. We withdrew from Deir Sinbul to preserve the blood of civilians.”
“You (Nusra Front) killed more people than those the regime killed,,” Maarouf said.
Kanjo said that since the Nusra Front captured the Jabal al-Zawiya region they can now shell villages inhabited by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect in the nearby province of Latakia. The country’s Sunni majority dominates opposition groups.