ISIS mission: Western-backed rebels, Iraqi peshmerga troops, join fight
About 150 fighters in the Iraqi group, 50 in the Syrian group
Iraqi peshmerga troops were cheered Wednesday by fellow Kurds in southeastern Turkey as the fighters slowly made their way toward the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani to try to break a siege there by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants.
But the ability of the small force to turn the tide of battle will depend on the effectiveness of their weapons and on continued U.S.-led airstrikes against the extremists.
"We are waiting for the peshmerga. We want to see what weapons they have," said 30-year-old Nidal Attur, who arrived in Suruc two weeks ago from a small village near Kobani.
He and other euphoric Kurds waited for hours along streets in Suruc to catch a glimpse of the peshmerga troops they consider to be heroes. Most were seeing them for the first time.
FSA, peshmerga forces join battle for Kobani
After a rousing send-off from thousands of cheering supporters a day earlier in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil, the peshmerga forces landed early Wednesday at the Sanliurfa airport in southeastern Turkey.
They left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces and were expected to travel to Kobani later Wednesday. Others travelled to Turkey in trucks and vehicles loaded with cannons and heavy machine-guns. They crossed into Turkey through the Habur border gate before daybreak Wednesday and were driving about 400 kilometres to Suruc.
The peshmerga troops — about 150 in all — were expected to join up along the road to the Mursitpinar border crossing, where they were to enter Kobani.
Separately, a small group of Syrian rebels entered Kobani from Turkey on Wednesday in a push to help Kurdish fighters there against the militants, activists and Kurdish officials said.
The group of about 50 armed men is from the Free Syrian Army and is separate from Iraqi peshmerga fighters. The FSA is an umbrella group of mainstream rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The political leadership of the Western-backed FSA is based in Turkey, where fighters often seek respite from battle.
Kurdish fighters in Syria, known as the People's Protection Units or YPG, have been struggling to defend Kobani against ISIS since mid-September, despite dozens of coalition airstrikes against the extremists.
It is not clear what impact this small but battle-hardened combined force of FSA and peshmerga fighters — and their combined weaponry — will have in the battle for Kobani. Kurdish fighters are already sharing information with the coalition to co-ordinate strikes against ISIS militants there, but the new force may help improve efforts and offer additional battlefield support.
Nawaf Khalil, Europe-based spokesman for Syria's leading Kurdish Democratic Union Party, said the peshmerga force was "symbolic in number" but their weapons will play a positive role in Kobani.
Syrian Kurds have begged the international community for heavy weapons — like the ones delivered by the U.S. and its allies to Iraq's Kurds — to bolster the outgunned defenders of Kobani.
Earlier this month, the U.S. dropped weapons, ammunition and other supplies for the first time following concern that Kobani was about to fall. That, along with daily U.S. airstrikes and a fierce determination by the Kurdish fighters, has stalled the ISIS advance.
"Kurds will remember this moment in history. They will speak of 'before and after Kobani' from now on," Khalil said of the peshmerga force's participation.
Dozens of airstrikes by U.S.-led coalition
Emotions were high among residents of Suruc, a predominantly Kurdish border town, as people waited for the peshmerga in a square and along a main street, where police patrolled with loudspeakers.
"We are expecting them to go there and throw out [ISIS] from Kobani so we can go back to our homes," said Ahmed Boza, 68, from Kobani.
Another Kobani resident, 57-year-old Mohammed Osman, said: "We are waiting for the peshmerga because we (Kurds) are all brothers. We are all part of one whole. If one side hurts, we are all in pain."
ISIS's offensive on Kobani and nearby Syrian villages has killed more than 800 people, activists say. The Sunni extremists captured dozens of Kurdish villages and control parts of Kobani. More than 200,000 people have fled into Turkey.
The coalition has carried out dozens of airstrikes against the militants in and around Kobani, helping stall their advance. The U.S. Central Command said eight airstrikes struck near Kobani on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The fighting in Kobani has deadlocked recently, with neither side getting the upper hand.
Under pressure to take greater action against the ISIS militants — from the West as well as from Kurds in Turkey and Syria — the Turkish government agreed to let the fighters cross through its territory. But it only is allowing the peshmerga forces from Iraq, with whom it has a good relationship, and not those from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
Ankara views the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani as loyal to what it regards as an extension of the PKK. That group has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.
Kurdish fighters in Syria have repeatedly said they did not need more fighters, only weapons. Kurds in Syria distrust Turkey's intentions, accusing it of blocking assistance to the Kobani defenders for weeks before giving in to pressure and shifting its stance. Many suspect Ankara is trying to dilute YPG influence in Kobani by sending in the peshmerga and the Turkey-backed FSA.
The battle for Kobani is a small part in a larger war in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people since 2011, according to activists. The conflict began with largely peaceful protests calling for reform. It eventually spiralled into a civil war as people took up arms following a brutal crackdown by Assad on the protest movement.