- - Sunday, November 2, 2014

ISTANBUL — About 150 Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters have crossed over from Turkey to reinforce Kurds defending the northern Syria city of Kobani in a weekslong siege by Islamic State militants — an operation an Iraqi Kurdish leader called a temporary measure in the effort to defeat the extremists.

The movement of the peshmerga — professional soldiers from northern Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region — across the Turkish border marks the first time that Ankara has allowed a military assault against the Islamic State from its territory.

“The peshmerga forces that joined the resistance in Kobani and our forces launched a coordinated attack,” Kurdish officials in Kobani said in a statement, claiming that 43 Islamic State militants had been killed over the weekend.

In the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, Nechervan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, said the peshmerga forces will stay in Syria only “temporarily” to help reinforce fellow Kurds in Kobani, adding that U.S.-led airstrikes alone will not defeat the Islamic militants, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Barzani said the peshmerga’s involvement in Syria isn’t intended to achieve any political goals, but rather is geared at the short-term goal of aiding fellow Kurds in the embattled city along the Syrian-Turkish border.

“Our role is to back up the people who are struggling on the ground in Kobani,” he said in an interview with the AP. “I don’t expect major changes in the political equation of the region as a whole.”

Kurdish officials in Kobani said a coordinated attack on the Islamic State over the weekend included the use of Russian-made Katyusha rockets and other anti-tank weapons by peshmerga forces bolstering the besieged city’s lightly armed People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.

Turkey has balked at allowing heavy weapons or volunteer fighters cross from its territories to reach the YPG because of its links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting a decadeslong guerrilla war for autonomy for Turkey’s own ethnic Kurds.

Turkey’s government points out that it already is hosting more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees — including 200,000 recent arrivals from around Kobani — and argues that combating Islamic State alone won’t bring stability to war-wracked Syria.

That stance has strained relations among allies — especially the United States, which has been leading an air war against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. If Kobani falls, it would hand the extremists a strategic and symbolic victory.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said Turkey’s insistence that the anti-Islamic State coalition be broadened to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad is straining relations between Turkey and the U.S.

“The U.S.-Turkey relationship can now be described as a transactional relationship in which they cooperate on issues that they agree on but don’t have a shared strategic vision,” Mr. Unluhisarcikli said Sunday. “Turkey’s approach to give strong priority to removing al-Assad — which is turning into an obsession — is not shared by the U.S. and is the main source of tension between the two allies.”

But allowing heavily armed peshmerga fighters to cross into Syria appears to be the product of a compromise between Turkey and its allies, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

“The decision to allow peshmerga fighters to join the battle against [the Islamic State] in Kobani helped Ankara to accomplish a number of different objectives at the same time,” Mr. Ulgen said. “It relieved the international pressure and criticism over Turkey’s inaction. It allowed a new balance of forces on the ground with the more pro-Turkey peshmerga.”

Turkey had been criticized not only abroad for its unwillingness to strike against the Islamic State. Turkey’s restive Kurdish minority — an estimated 20 million people — have been protesting in cities across the country. Last month, the protests turned violent, and more than 40 people were killed in armed clashes between rival groups or at the hands of security forces.

Pro-Kurdish political parties called for mass action Saturday but urged demonstrations to remain peaceful. Tens of thousands marched in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. Thousands also protested in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

At a Saturday rally along one of Istanbul’s most famous pedestrian streets, Omer Agin, a columnist for the pro-Kurdish Ozgur Gundem newspaper, said the arrival of Iraqi Kurds in Kobani is a major step in uniting Kurds — divided by national boundaries — finding common cause in Syria.

“Now the fact that the peshmerga are going there means a form of solidarity among the Kurdish people,” Mr. Agin said. “It has to be seen that way. The whole world welcomes this.”

In central Istanbul, more than 2,000 people chanted pro-PKK slogans and waved banners of the group’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan — both illegal under Turkish law — but security forces broke long-standing precedent and did not intervene.

“What we are witnessing with Kobani is a new phenomenon for the Kurdish people,” Mr. Agin said. “It is a people that says either we live as a people or we die. Death or freedom.”

Protester Dilek Ozer, 40, said the world cannot allow Kurds in Kobani to fall into the hands of the Islamic State.

“It’s really important that Kurds as people and as human beings stop the massacre in Kobani,” Ms. Ozer said. “There’s a human crime going on, and the whole world is silent about this.”

In an international show of support for Kobani, smaller rallies also took place in European cities in Germany, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Negotiations are continuing between Turkey and the PKK over prolonging an 18-month cease-fire and finding a long-term peace settlement over minority rights and autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds.

But Mr. Ulgen warns that a long-term settlement that satisfies Kurdish demands for language rights and autonomy will not be an easy sell for many Turks considering that more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict with the PKK since the 1980s.

“The complexity of these negotiations cannot be overemphasized,” Mr. Ulgen said. “Ankara is squeezed between the demands of the Kurds and a domestic public opinion that is not ready to acquiesce to these demands. The government fears a nationalist backlash at the end of the process.”

Over the past year, the Islamic State has carved out a proto-state on the territory it holds between Syria and Iraq, ruling with its own harsh interpretation of Shariah law. It has captured weapons and found means for making money along the way, helping fuel their intense offensive.

The group’s offensive on Kobani and nearby Syrian villages has killed more than 800 people, activists say.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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