- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The White House claimed credit Tuesday for a victory by Kurdish fighters over the Islamic State in northern Syria, saying the battlefield success is a direct result of military decisions by President Obama late last year.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the triumph by Syrian Kurds in the town of Tal Abyad “is actually a direct consequence of an earlier military operation that President Obama ordered” to break the siege of the Syrian city of Kobani last fall.

“Because of the president’s decision to order the air drop of significant resources and equipments and reinforcements, and because we were able to work with Turkey to allow for additional forces to enter that city, we saw that coalition … backed by coalition airstrikes, of course … drive [the Islamic State] out of Khobani,” he said. “And over the last several months, those forces have steadily driven east across northern Syria.”

Kurdish fighters took control on Tuesday of Tal Abyad near the Turkish border, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State by cutting off a key supply line to its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

Mr. Earnest said the Kurdish victory is “an indication that when the 62-member coalition that President Obama has built against ISIL can back up the efforts of local forces fighting ISIL on the ground, that that is a recipe for success.”

The loss of the town to the Kurds on Tuesday is a huge setback directly affecting the extremist group’s operational structure and its ability to wage war, making it more difficult to attract volunteers and potentially turning the tide against the militants in Syria and Iraq, analysts said.

It marked a significant reversal of fortunes for the group that only last month generated alarm through its lightning capture of the provincial capital of Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province and the historic town of Palmyra in central Syria.

“It shows that the Islamic State group is weaker than it seems despite their earlier victories,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a political analyst who writes for The Jamestown Foundation, a U.S.-based research center.

Meanwhile, the Senate stalemated Tuesday on the best strategy to fight the Islamic State, failing to approve an amendment that would allow the administration to go around the central Iraqi government and directly arm Kurdish forces.

The amendment to the annual defense policy bill from Sen. Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican and a combat veteran of Iraq, would have allowed the U.S. to provide equipment ranging from anti-tank weaponry to body armor and communications equipment to the Kurdish Peshmerga, one of the more capable fighting forces currently taking on the Islamic State, also know as ISIS and ISIL.

The Obama administration has emphasized that U.S. arms to Iraq be sent to the central government in Baghdad. Mr. Earnest didn’t answer a question Tuesday whether the administration will consider sending arms to the Kurds directly.

Mr. Earnest said the Kurds’ victory “is an indication that when our coalition can back capable, effective local fighters on the ground, that we can make important progress against” the Islamic State.

Analysts said the fall of Tal Abyad is potentially the most damaging loss for the Islamic State group since it declared its self-styled caliphate stretching across areas in northern Syria and a third of Iraq a year ago.

Many had predicted a long, drawn-out war before the militants would relinquish their hold on Tal Abyad — if at all. Only 50 miles north of Raqqa, the town was a major commercial avenue for the group, a smuggling hub for everything from foreign fighters to food and other supplies.

It took less than a month of fighting in the province and only two days for Tal Abyad to fall, with the militants melting away. Some fled to Raqqa, while others went over the border to Turkey, blending in with a flood of refugees.

Aided by U.S. air cover, Kurdish units marching west from Kobani and others moving east from the Kurdish town of Ras al-Ayn linked up, encircling Tal Abyad from three sides.

With that, the Kurds connected two of their self-administered cantons along the border with Turkey, putting even more pressure on Raqqa.

“What happened in Tal Abyad attests to the beginning of a large-scale decline process for IS,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

While the Islamic State could still bring forces across the border in Syria’s Aleppo province where it holds territory, it would be a roundabout route that could expose the extremists to other fighting amid the long Syrian civil war against President Bashar Assad.

“The American policy in Syria and Iraq is to encircle IS and choke them off. When they can no longer sell oil and get reinforcements, they will eventually hit them at intervals,” Mr. Khashan said.

Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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