MURSITPINAR, Turkey — Iraqi Kurdish fighters bound for the embattled Syrian town of Kobani crossed into Turkey on Wednesday, poised to provide much needed reinforcement for fellow Kurds trying to fight off Islamic State militants.
Kobani’s defenders are backed by a campaign of U.S.-led airstrikes, lending the city heavy symbolic weight in the West’s confrontation with the Islamic State, which holds sway over large swaths of Iraq and Syria and has enforced its rule with atrocities including beheadings, crucifixions and sexual slavery.
In addition to the peshmerga fighters who flew in from Iraqi Kurdistan, a 40-vehicle convoy carrying fighters and weaponry traveled overland via the Habur border crossing in southeast Turkey. Local Kurdish news outlets showed video of hundreds of Kurds cheering the convoy as it passed through Kurdish-majority towns between Iraq and Turkey.
Halgurd Hekmat, spokesman for the Iraqi Kurdish ministry responsible for the peshmerga fighters, told the French news agency Agence France-Presse that the fighters would serve as support forces. They were armed with automatic weapons, mortars and rocket launchers, Hekmat said.
The battle for Kobani has posed a quandary for the Turkish government. Turkey, a NATO ally, has frustrated Western officials with seemingly halfhearted support for the coalition confronting the Islamic State. Many Kurds also accuse Ankara of giving tacit if not active support to the extremist group — a charge that Turkey has forcefully denied.
“There is no evidence that Turkey has any link, any cooperation, any support to this type of group,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday.
Turkey has demanded that international action in Syria be directed at toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which it describes as a greater threat than the Islamic State. The Obama administration has insisted that the main threat lies with the Islamic State.
Turkey is also reluctant to offer military aid to the YPG in Kobani. It views the group as little more than a Syrian proxy for its longtime nemesis, the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party. Both Washington and Ankara consider the PKK a terrorist group.