Western and Arab allied that are have deployed air strikes to prevent the Syrian town of Kobani falling to ISIS must be ready to help another Kurdish enclave that is also surrounded by fighters, the local leader said on Friday.
Kobani has been besieged by ISIS for more than a month, and only air strikes by a U.S.-led coalition and the deployment of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters have kept the hardline Sunni group at bay.
Two-hundred km (120 miles) to the west lies Afrin, which, like Kobani, is one of three Kurdish regions that declared itself autonomous from the Syrian government earlier this year.
It could face a fate similar to Kobani’s at the hands of the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, according to the woman who runs Afrin’s local government as its prime minister.
Afrin is surrounded by Nusra, we’re ready to defend ourselves,” Hevi Mustefa said during a visit to the Turkish capital Ankara to raise awareness of Afrin’s plight.
“We’re grateful for the international community’s efforts at Kobani, but it was late. We want support from them so that the situation in Kobani doesn’t repeat itself,” she told Reuters in an interview.
Nusra Front is al Qaeda’s Syrian wing and one of the groups fighting in Syria. It is similar in ideology to ISIS, a group that broke away from al Qaeda and now is its rival for territory in Syria and for global recognition as the leading brand of militant “jihadism”.
Nusra Front struck a blow against what the West call “moderate Syrian rebels” a week ago when its fighters over-ran Western-backed forces in Idlib province, to the west of Afrin.
Meanwhile, the Britain-based Observatory said two separate coalition strikes targeted al-Nusra Front in the northern province of Idlib.
The attacks are the first on al-Nusra Front since its facilities were hit on September 23, the first day of US airstrikes in Syria.
READYING FOR ATTACK
The unrests in Syria provided Kurds with an opportunity to set up local governments in three areas. Their decision not to directly confront Syrian government forces had, until recently, allowed them to remain islands of relative calm.
ISIS’s offensive against Kobani changed all that, however, and Afrin, home to more than 1 million people, including 200,000 refugees, may be next, said Mustefa. ISIS attacked Afrin last year but was repulsed.
The Nusra Front has held positions close by for many months without launching a major offensive. Nusra recently struck a deal with other armed groups in the area and advanced to within 25 km of Afrin town. The Kurdish administration believes they are gathering forces to attack.
Mustefa wants coalition forces to co-ordinate with Kurdish troops and to quickly launch a bombing campaign if that attack happens. She is also calling on neighbouring Turkey to open a border crossing to allow aid and trade to flow to the region.
Although her delegation has had some contact with Western diplomats, calls to meet Turkish officials have so far gone unanswered. Ankara is strongly opposed to the autonomy of Syria’s Kurds, fearing it could stir up separatist feelings within Turkey’s own 15 million-strong Kurdish population and saying it threatens the unity of Syria.
Turkey also accuses the autonomous regions of colluding with Syrian government, a one-time Ankara ally, turned implacable foe. Mustefa acknowledges they have avoided direct confrontation with Damascus, but denies having relations with Syrian government, calling the allegation a smear to discredit the Kurds.
Kurdish fighters from Afrin are members of the outgunned YPG and YPJ militias that have doggedly defended Kobani against ISIS. Those remaining in Afrin are now gearing up for what they fear may be a similarly tough fight.
“We don’t want war,” Mustefa said. “Yes, we’re afraid, but we trust in our security forces and our population to defend themselves.”
In Kobani Iraqi Kurdish forces have blunted but not broken the siege of the Syrian border town, a week after arriving to great fanfare with heavy weapons and fighters in a bid to save it from ISIS.
The arrival of the Iraqi Kurd peshmerga, or “those who face death,” with armoured vehicles and artillery, has enabled them to shell Islamic State positions around Kobani and take back some villages. But the front lines in the town itself are little changed, its eastern part still controlled by the insurgents, and the west still largely held by the main Syrian Kurdish armed group, the YPG, and allied fighters.
“There is no change at all in Kobani as a result of the peshmerga. Maybe one or two streets are gained then lost, back and forth,” said Rami Abdulrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.
“ISIS (Islamic State) posts are well entrenched in Kobani city, and the Kurds say they need more heavy weaponry to make a dent … There also needs to be better co-ordination between the Kurdish units and coalition air forces,” he said, adding that Islamic State suicide attacks were also proving effective.
On Friday, a coalition jet bombed a site southwest of the town. No gunfire or shelling could be heard across the border.
The advance of ISIS (IS) terrorist on Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, in mid-September has forced some 200,000 refugees to flee across the border to Turkey, where many live in camps.