WASHINGTON — With the Syrian city of Kobane surrounded by ISIS fighters and Turkey wary to jump into the fight on its southern border, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee warned that the limited airstrike campaign launched by the Obama administration has not kept the Islamic State from advancing to “NATO’s doorstep.”
Protests erupted in cities from Istanbul to London with Kurdish demonstrators imploring their governments to step in to prevent Kobane from falling to the terrorists. At least a dozen were killed in clashes with police in Turkey, as authorities responded to protests with tear gas and water cannons.
Kurdish fighters tried to evacuate remaining civilians from the city; ISIS has been beheading and raping in nearby towns on its advance.
State Department press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters today that Secretary of State John Kerry talked with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last night and “briefly” this morning.
“Obviously, their conversation is – was broadly about the challenges we’re all facing with the threat of ISIL, and also, certainly, the situation in Kobane,” Psaki said. “It’s horrific for everyone to watch in real time what’s happening in Kobane, and they talked about that.”
“But beyond that, I’m not going to get into other specifics, certainly about – let me add a little bit more about the role – what the United States has been undertaking, what other Arab countries have been undertaking, and certainly discussion about what role Turkey can play. But we’re not going to discuss that publicly much further than that.”
Davutoglu told CNN International that Turkey is willing to join the fight against ISIS, perhaps even with ground troops, if a no-fly zone is established along with safe havens to house refugees flooding Turkey — about 2 million have crossed thus far — and if taking down Bashar Assad is part of the game plan.
“We want to have a safe haven on our borders. Otherwise, all these burdens will continuously go on the shoulders of Turkey and other neighboring countries,” Davutoglu said. “Those who request something from us should understand our needs, as well. This is not one side of the relation. People, for example, people are asking us to receive refugees and they are praising us, OK. But at the same time, they are saying, ‘And please control your border.'”
“How can you control a border if, in three days, 180,000 people are coming?”
Speaking to a crowd largely composed of Syrian refugees in Gaziantep province, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “I am telling the West – dropping bombs from the air will not provide a solution.”
“Months have passed but no results have been achieved. Kobane is about to fall,” Erdoğan said, according to Hurriyet.
He added that “Turkey is on guard and well-equipped for any threats directed against itself.”
“We are following the attacks on Kobane and other towns where our Kurdish brothers live with great concern,” Erdoğan said.
Psaki said one airstrike last night south of Kobane “destroyed three ISIL-armed vehicles and damaged another.”
“Another strike southeast of Kobane destroyed an ISIL-armed vehicle carrying anti-aircraft artillery. Two airstrikes southwest of Kobane damaged an ISIL tank. Another airstrike south of Kobane destroyed an ISIL unit,” she added. ISIS supporters tweeted that the strikes had just blown up Kurds’ homes.
The opposition groups on the ground, Psaki said, are “working together to push back and hold back, to the degree they can, ISIL and their efforts that have been underway on the ground.”
The Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) said in an update this afternoon that, on the 22nd day of ISIS’ offensive against Kobane, they were able to kill 67 ISIS fighters while taking 12 casualties. “ISIS mercenaries are targeting the center of the city with tanks and heavy weapons,” the YPG warned.
Psaki said “it’s obviously horrific to watch what’s going on on the ground, but it’s important for the United States, for us, to also step back and remember our strategic objectives as it relates to our efforts and our engagement in Syria.”
“Certainly no one wants to see Kobane fall, but our primary objective here is preventing ISIL from gaining a safe haven,” she said.
Reporters hammered Psaki with questions about whether the U.S. is OK with Kobane falling — handing ISIS a strategic border crossing — or whether their strategy just considers the 400,000-population city collateral damage.
Psaki said they don’t want the city to fall but wanted to keep the focus on broader strategy. “I think it’s important also for people to understand what our objectives are,” she said.
But House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) stressed today that degrading and demolishing ISIS means not letting them set up shop on the Turkish border.
“For weeks, ISIL has been advancing on the strategically significant Syrian town of Kobane… for weeks, the terrorists have bombarded the town with artillery, mortars and truck-mounted heavy machine guns,” Royce said. “Now, the black flag of ISIL has been hoisted in portions of the town. A slaughter awaits those who haven’t fled across the border to Turkey.”
He noted that “the ISIL advance has evolved over a period of weeks in broad daylight.”
“While Syrian Kurds continue to sacrifice their lives in defense of the town, the Obama administration has done little to stop the assault. This is yet another situation in which the Islamic State’s personnel and heavy weapons have been readily visible and vulnerable to U.S. airstrikes,” Royce said. “Instead of decisive action, the ISIL advance was met with only a handful of airstrikes. This morning’s escalated efforts may be too late.”
“A terrorist army is now on NATO’s doorstep. It is time for Turkey and other Alliance members to more forcefully get involved in combating ISIL in Syria.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned on Fox that “there is going to be a mass slaughter” in Kobane.
“And there will be no better indication of the ineffectiveness and fecklessness of this air campaign we’re now seeing, where you warn the enemy weeks ahead of time,” said McCain, who has long called for a no-fly zone in Syria. “You know those pictures of those buildings you see being blown up with such accuracy? Most of them were empty. Any military guy will tell you is, you strike first and then tell the enemy about it, not give them a week’s warning.”
President Obama spent the evening fundraising in New York, and is scheduled to head to the Pentagon on Wednesday for a meeting on ISIS with commanders.
He then heads to the West Coast to fundraise for the rest of the week.
Aboard Air Force One en route to New York, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. “is very concerned about the safety of individuals — of citizens, of innocent civilians in the town of Kobane.”
“Once again, we are seeing this extremist organization in the name of an otherwise peaceful religion, Islam, perpetrating terrible acts of violence against religious and ethnic minorities. This is something that we remain concerned about,” Earnest said, citing the handful of ISIS vehicles hit by airstrikes.
“There is a very coordinated strategy that the president has put in place. And our military planners have been working in close concert with our broader coalition partners to capitalize on those objectives. And we’ve made important progress on them.”
Earnest defended Obama’s fundraising this week, saying Obama “will do some official business when he’s on the road.”
“In this case, travel only includes political events,” he said. “We’re in that season of the American political calendar where the President and others are spending more time than they otherwise would on the campaign trail.”