ISTANBUL (AP) — As U.S. generals and Secretary of State John Kerry warn that a strategic Syrian border town could fall to Islamic State militants, the Turkish military has deployed its tanks on its side of the frontier but only watched the slaughter.
Turkey's inaction despite its supposed participation in a coalition forged to crush the extremist group is frustrating Washington and its NATO allies, and reviving a rebellion by Turkish Kurds.
Amid fears the Kurdish town of Kobani could fall any day, U.S. and NATO officials are traveling to Turkey on Thursday to press negotiations for more robust Turkish involvement in the coalition.
But Turkey is taking a hard line, insisting that it will only consider involvement in military action as part of a broader strategy for ending the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The U.S. and its allies want to keep the focus on the Islamic State group, which they say poses a more global threat.
Emphasizing the U.S. position, Kerry said Wednesday that although the Obama administration is "deeply concerned about the people of Kobani," preventing the town's fall to Islamic State militants was not a strategic objective for the U.S.
"As horrific as it is to watch in real time what's happening in Kobani, it's also important to remember, you have to step back and understand the strategic objective," Kerry told a news conference in Washington.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, also conceded Kobani could fall because "air power alone is not going to be enough to save that city."
"We all need to prepare ourselves for the reality that other towns and villages — and perhaps Kobani — will be taken by ISIL," Kirby said, adding that the key to eventually defeating the militants is to train and enable indigenous ground forces.
Turkey is ambivalent about the fight across its border, because of its distrust of the Kurdish fighters protecting Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab. It views them as an extension of the Kurdish PKK, the rebel group that has waged a long and bloody insurgency against Ankara. In recent days, Turkish officials have emphasized that they view both the Islamic State group and the PKK as terrorist groups.
Left unsaid is which group they view as the greater threat. But, Turkey's strict neutrality as the lightly-armed Kurds face annihilation speaks volumes.
While Turkey maintains it does not want Kobani to fall, Turkish officials say they will not enter combat until they are assured that the U.S.-led coalition has a long-term strategy in Syria. They see Assad as a greater nemesis on their border than even the Islamic State. Taking out the militants without a plan to fill the inevitable vacuum, they say, will lead to further chaos that will only strengthen Assad. They want the U.S. to set up a no-fly zone and a humanitarian corridor, as well as ramp up assistance to Syrian rebels battling to overthrow Assad.
With its ambitious demands, Turkey may be betting that its geography makes it an indispensable partner and that it can leverage that position to force the U.S. and its allies to expand the coalition mission — an assumption that is causing frustration in Washington and strains within NATO, a senior U.S. administration official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
On Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, as well as President Barack Obama's two envoys to the anti-Islamic State coalition, retired Gen. John Allen and Ambassador Brett McGurk, arrive for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to push for greater Turkish action.
Adding to the pressure on Ankara, Kurds in Kobani and in Turkey accuse the Turkish government of standing idly by while their people are being slaughtered and even impeding their own efforts to save Kobani. The anger boiled into violence Tuesday, amid widespread protests that threatened to derail promising talks to end three decades of insurgency by the PKK militant group. Nineteen people were killed as Kurdish activists clashed with police and members of an Islamist group in Kurdish areas across the country. The jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has warned that the peace process will end if Kobani falls.
While two days of U.S.-led airstrikes seem to be slowing the advance of thousands of Islamic State fighters armed with heavy weapons, Kurdish officials warn they have failed to turn the tide.
"The airstrikes have helped. They were good strikes, but not as effective as we want them to be," said Idriss Nassan, deputy head of Kobani's foreign relations committee. "Kobani is still in danger and the airstrikes should intensify in order to remove the danger."
Around noon Wednesday, warplanes believed to be from the U.S.-led coalition bombed Islamic State positions near Kobani. One airstrike, visible from the border, struck a hill and an open space near the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday's strikes targeted Islamic State fighters east of Kobani.
The U.S. Central Command said in a statement that coalition forces had launched airstrikes on six locations around Kobani since Tuesday. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said there were mixed reports about how many Islamic State militants pulled back from the town under pressure from the air.
"We don't have a force inside Syria that we can cooperate with and work with," Kirby said, adding that the U.S. administration is planning to train and arm 5,000 moderate opposition Syrian fighters at sites elsewhere in the Middle East and then insert them back into Syria to take on Islamic State forces.
Since Monday night, the strikes have killed 45 Islamic State fighters in and around Kobani, targeting 20 separate locations and destroying at least five of their vehicles, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria.
Associated Press writers Lefteris Pitarakis in Mursitpinar, Turkey, and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
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