U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Saturday that the embattled Syrian city of Kobane was a very difficult problem but added that air strikes had made some progress in driving back Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.
Kurdish forces defending Kobane urged a U.S.-led coalition to escalate air strikes on ISIS fighters who tightened their grip on the Syrian town at the border with Turkey on Saturday.
“We are doing what we can do through our air strikes to help drive back ISIL. In fact there has been some progress made in that area,” Hagel told a news conference in Santiago, the Chilean capital.
“It is a very difficult problem,” Hagel said, referring to Kobane.
Hagel is on a six-day, three-nation trip to South America.
The U.S.-led coalition escalated air strikes on ISIS in and around Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, some four days ago.
Hagel underscored that the battle against the militants, who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria, was a long-term fight.
“It is a long-term effort. This is difficult, it is complicated. It’s going to require many factors. And we are working now (with) coalition partners,” he said.
Asked about the situation in Iraq, Hagel said Iraqi security forces were in full control of Baghdad and continue to strengthen their positions there.
“We continue to help them with air strikes, with our assistance and advisors.”
Calls for more air strikes
The U.S.-led coalition escalated air strikes on ISIS in and around Kobane some four days ago. The main Kurdish armed group, the YPG, said in a statement the air strikes had inflicted heavy losses on ISIS, but had been less effective in the last two days.
A group that monitors the Syrian civil war said the Kurdish forces faced inevitable defeat in Kobane if Turkey did not open its border to let through arms – something Ankara has so far appeared reluctant to do.
A Kurdish military official, speaking to Reuters from Kobane, said street-to-street fighting was making it harder for the warplanes to target ISIS positions.
“We have a problem, which is the war between houses,” said Esmat Al-Sheikh, head of the Kobane defense council.
“The air strikes are benefiting us, but ISIS is bringing tanks and artillery from the east. We didn’t see them with tanks, but yesterday we saw T-57 tanks,” he added.
While ISIS has been able to reinforce its fighters, the Kurds have not. ISIS has besieged the town to the east, south and west, meaning the Kurds’ only possible supply route is the Turkish border to the north.
The U.N. envoy to Syria on Friday called on Turkey to help prevent a slaughter in Kobane, asking it to let “volunteers” cross the frontier so they can reinforce the Kurdish forces defending the town that lies within sight of Turkish territory.
Turkey has yet to respond to the remarks by Staffan de Mistura, who said he feared a repeat of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia when thousands died. Kurdish leaders in Syria have asked Ankara to establish a corridor through Turkey to allow aid and military supplies to reach Kobane.
A senior Kurdish militant has threatened Turkey with a new Kurdish revolt if it sticks with its current policy of non-intervention in the battle for the Syrian town of Kobane.
“(ISIS) is getting supplies and men, while Turkey is preventing Kobane from getting ammunition. Even with the resistance, if things stay like this, the Kurdish forces will be like a car without fuel,” said Rami Abdelrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that monitors the conflict in Syria through sources on the ground.
Plumes of smoke
Turkey has been reluctant to help the Kurds defending Kobane, one of three areas of northern Syria where Kurds have established self-rule since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. The main Syrian Kurdish group has close ties to the PKK – which waged a militant campaign for Kurdish rights in Turkey and is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies.
Tall plumes of smoke were seen rising from Kobane on Saturday and the sound of gunfire was close to constant as battles raged into the afternoon, a Reuters journalist observing from the Turkish side of the frontier said.
After sunset, the sounds of gunfire and shelling continued. Red tracer gunfire lit up the sky in the eastern sector of the town, much of which has fallen to ISIS. Battles also raged at the southern and western edges of the town.
A Kurdish military official in the Syrian city of Qamishli, another area under Kurdish control, said thousands of fighters stood ready to go to Kobane were Turkey to open a corridor.
But Ghaliya Naamat, the official, said the fighters in Kobane were mainly in need of better weaponry. “Medium-range weapons is what is lacking,” she told Reuters by telephone.
“According to the news and the information in Kobane, there is no shortage in numbers. The shortage is in ammunition.”The symbolism of U.S.-led air strikes failing to stop ISIS militants from overrunning Kobane could provide an early setback to U.S. President Barack Obama’s three-week-old air campaign against the group in Syria.
The campaign is part of a U.S. strategy to degrade and destroy the group that has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, threatening to redraw the borders of the modern Middle East according to its ultra-strict vision of Islam.
If ISIS seizes full control of the town – which U.S. officials acknowledge is possible in coming days – it would be able to boast that it has withstood American air power. The U.S.-led coalition has launched 50 strikes against militant positions around the town, most of those in the last four days.
The U.S. military conducted six airstrikes against ISIS militants near the besieged Syrian city of Kobane on Friday and Saturday, U.S. Central Command said.