In a dramatic policy shift, Turkey agreed Monday to allow fighters from Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region to cross its territory to help save the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Kobani from Islamist radicals, the Turkish foreign minister said.
“We are helping peshmerga forces to cross into Kobani,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.
He spoke just hours after the United States, over the express objections of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, started dropping arms, ammunition and medical supplies to the Kurdish militia defending the town.
It wasn’t clear from Cavusoglu‘s statement when the movement of forces would take place. A Turkish foreign ministry spokesman said he had no “operational details” of when Iraqi Kurdish forces would cross Turkish territory to reach Kobani.
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A spokesman for Kobani’s administration said he had received no official notification that reinforcements would be arriving from Iraq.
“We have no information about the peshmerga beside the announcement of the Turkish government,” Idriss Nassan told McClatchy.
Cavusoglu said Turkey is working “in complete cooperation” with the U.S.-led international coalition to fight Islamic State extremists -- an assertion that seemed hardly to have been true only hours earlier.
The decision was a breakthrough for the United States in its dealing with Erdogan as it works to assemble a coalition to combat the Islamic State. Only Sunday, Erdogan had said Turkey could never agree to arms shipments to the Kobani defenders, who Turkey believes are linked to insurgents who’ve waged a 30-year war for Kurdish rights inside Turkey.
The decision to allowed militia from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government to come to Kobani’s aid, however, was a compromise that the Turks could agree to. The KRG’s president, Massoud Barzani, has a close relationship with Edogan.
Cavusoglu combined his disclosure with harsh criticism of the political party to which the Kobani defenders belong, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD by its Kurdish initials, and said that Turkey will provide it no direct assistance until it changes its goals.
The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, the group that has battled Turkey for three decades.
Cavusoglu, as Erdogan had earlier in the month, equated the PYD with the Islamic State, which also is known as ISIS or ISIL.
“The PYD’s only aim is to control a certain part of Syria, just like ISIS,” he said. “Therefore we believe it is a threat to Syria’s future, to Syria’s territorial integrity and its democratic structuring.”
U.S. officials, briefing reporters late Sunday night about the airdrops, had said additional drops were possible and it was unknown if Turkey would allow the peshmerga to bring weapons and supplies to the PYD forces.
The Obama administration has made Kobani the major battle of its anti-Islamic State campaign, targeting Islamic State positions there with more than 135 airstrikes in the past few weeks. But the airdrops of weapons, ammunition and supplies were the first of their kind since President Barack Obama declared the anti-Islamic State campaign in early August.
U.S. officials warned that Kobani might still fall.
“The president was determined to take this action now,” said a senior administration official with knowledge of the operation who briefed reporters late Sunday night under the condition of anonymity. “Kobani is important because ISIL has made it one of its main focal points. . . . This was the quickest way to get the job done.”
The official said that the administration had been pressing Turkey to allow weapons to reach the Kurdish forces by land through Turkey, but had moved without Turkey’s agreement because the fighters were running low on supplies.
Obama told Erdogan of the U.S. resupply plans in a phone call that the White House said had been placed to discuss the situation in Kobani, officials said.
Anita Kumar contributed to this story from Washington.