The United States has airdropped small arms, ammunition and medical supplies to Kurdish militia forces in the besieged city of Kobani who have been fighting back an ISIS assault for weeks. The airdrops will likely stir controversy with the Turkish government, which has opposed support for Kurdish military groups in Syria that it believes are affiliated with a Kurdish group that has conducted terrorist attacks inside Turkey for decades.
Senior administration officials said that on Sunday night three American C-130 aircraft dropped 27 pallets of materials for the Kurdish fighters in the city, the first such support mission for the Kurdish fighters. The materials carried aboard the aircraft were provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq. The mission is believed to have been successful and the American planes encountered no resistance from the ground.
On a conference call with reporters Sunday night after the mission’s completion, the officials said it is possible that further support for the Kurdish fighters is likely, though it may occur in different forms. One official characterized the aid provided to the Kurdish fighters as “the type of material that would help them sustain this fight.”
The airdrops will likely be controversial in Turkey, where for decades the Turkish military has been fighting the PKK militant Kurdish group – which has conducted terrorist attacks inside Turkey in support of an independent Kurkish state. The United States also considers the PKK to be a terrorist group. The Kurdish forces fighting in Kobani belong to a larger Kurdish umbrella group known as the YPG, but which Turkey sees as an affiliate of the PKK.
In an indication of how delicate the airdrops would be to Turkish-American relations, a senior administration official said President Obama spoke with Turkish President Recep Erdogan on Saturday to advise him of the intent to conduct the airdrops “and the importance that we put on it.” Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke with his Turkish counterpart on Friday about the decision to support the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
The official would not characterize Turkey’s response to the notification but broadly acknowledged Turkish concerns with helping the Kurds, “Clearly we understand the longstanding Turkish concern with their range of groups, including Kurdish groups, that they’ve been engaged with in conflict at times.”
A senior administration official said the airdrops had a humanitarian aspect, as the Kurdish militias could face a slaughter if they are defeated. “We’ve seen the slaughter of forces who have found themselves in ISIL’s way…and particularly when those forces have put up a tenacious battle the way these forces in Kobani have done,” said the official who used an alternate name to describe the Islamic extremist group.
The officials said the airdrops had been discussed by U.S. officials “for a number of days” after it came to their attention that the Kurdish fighters were running low on supplies.
American military officials have said that ISIS has decided to make seizing the border town of Kobani a focal point of their operations in Syria. They say the influx of ISIS fighters to take the city has led to an increase in the number of airstrikes in the city, presenting them with an opportunity to strike a major blow at ISIS.
U.S. Central Command said in a statement Sunday that more than have 135 airstrikes have been conducted in Kobani, the vast majority of them in the past two weeks as ISIS pressed to capture the city.
“Combined with continued resistance to ISIL on the ground, indications are that these strikes have slowed ISIL advances into the city, killed hundreds of their fighters and destroyed or damaged scores of pieces of ISIL combat equipment and fighting positions,” U.S. Central Command said in the statement.
But one official reiterated that ISIS could still take over the city, describing the U.S. assessment of the situation on the ground there as “uncertain and tenuous.”
The officials declined to directly address reports that the Kurdish fighters have been providing targeting information to U.S. and coalition aircraft. Instead they pointed to vague “decisions made” when the U.S. first got involved in the fight against ISIS, alluding to the Joint Operations Center in Erbil, iraq and American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the region.