SURUC, Turkey — High in the blue sky above I think I can make out a dart of silver—or maybe it is a trick of sunlight and puffy white clouds and my imagination trying to match the sound of warplanes zooming back and forth with an actual glimpse of them. All day there has been the distant roar of U.S. fighters over the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani, and for much of Wednesday night, too. One local farmer muttered to me it was like living next door to an airport—but one with a difference. Every now and then—in the afternoon about every 30 minutes—the noise of a passing warplane would be obscured for a moment by the thundering bang of a missile or precision-guided bomb striking a target.
In midafternoon we actually felt the detonation of two bombs a couple of miles away. And, along with some farmers and Kurdish refugees from the battered town below, I rushed up to the flat roof of a farmhouse, past a snarling dog, to see two huge pillars of black smoke rising to the West of the town in a rural district. My young female translator and her mother had looks of horror on their faces. “I can’t explain my feelings,” my 17-year-old translator said in faltering English. “My home is gone and I am afraid and sad and hopeless.” The pillar rose from near a small farm her family owns.
The past 24 hours have seen the most intense airstrikes so far by the U.S.-led coalition. Late Thursday morning the pillars of dark smoke over Kobani could be seen 20 miles away, the result of punishing airstrikes that appear to being having an effect on the militants of the Islamic State—although whether they are enough to save Kobani remains in doubt.
U.S. officials say they expect the mainly Kurdish town to fall, insisting it is not of strategic importance in the coalition’s war against the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL. This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Kobani’s fall was imminent, saying that U.S. airstrikes weren’t enough to save it and ground troops would be needed to stop the town falling into jihadist hands.
But despite the formations of modern armor that Turkey has sitting on the border overlooking Kobani, Erdogan will only order an advance, it seems, if he gets a quid pro quo from the Americans: namely that they send in grounds troops, too, and agree to enforcing a no-fly-zone over northern Syria and establish safe havens in Syrian rebel-held and Kurdish-held territory. That presumably would undermine the Syrian Kurds’ efforts to form an autonomous state. At least, that is what the Kurds think. And the Americans are currently ruling out boots on the ground in Syria or buffer zones.
Turkish officials say it is unrealistic to expect them to act on the ground unilaterally—in spite of the fact that Turkey has the third largest army in NATO and the tenth largest military in the World. “It is not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct a ground operation on its own,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a joint news conference with visiting NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. But he added: “We are holding talks. Once there is a common decision, Turkey will not hold back from playing its part.”
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that relies on a network of activists inside Syria for its information, jihadist fighters captured a police station in the east of Kobani over the last day. “ISIS control more than a third of Kobani—all eastern areas, a small part of the northeast and an area in the southeast,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Observatory.
It is hard to see how the encircled town can hold out. It is already surprising that the defenders from the YPG, an offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have managed to fend off their better-armed foes for more than three weeks. But some of the Kurds maintain a disconcerting confidence—one now strengthened by the U.S. airstrikes. YPG officials say they did indeed lose a police station overnight Wednesday but say it was struck later by U.S. warplanes and destroyed. Kurdish sources also say a schoolhouse occupied by ISIS fighters was hit with many jihadists killed.
The precision of some of the strikes—especially in the built-up inner and center districts of the town—suggests that the YPG is now in direct communication with American air commanders—something neither Kurdish nor American officials will confirm. Idriss Nassan, an official with the town’s Kurdish government, says YPG fighters managed to regain Thursday lost territory.
YPG chief Esmat al-Sheikh told Reuters that ISIS controls only about a quarter of the town. “The clashes are ongoing—street battles,” he said in a telephone interview. A group of 10 Iraqi Kurdish parliamentarians who spent several hours inside Kobani told The Daily Beast that though the fighting was fierce, the Kurdish defenders were holding their own with the help of the airstrikes, but said more are needed. As the parliamentarians explained what they had seen, explosions rocked the nearby town, accompanied by more plumes of smoke.
What is noticeable is that ISIS is bombarding the town with tank shells and mortars less than it was before. Again it isn’t clear if that is because its fighters are in such close proximity to the defenders that shelling risks killing its own men, or whether the fear of being targeted by U.S. warplanes is silencing the jihadists’ tanks. The Americans are certainly targeting ISIS armor, with most of the airstrikes focusing on the outskirts to the West where there are some ISIS tanks, and on the strategic Meshta Nour hill. On Sunday, ISIS fighters overpowered Kurdish forces to take the top and the eastern side of Meshta Nour, giving the jihadists a vantage point for artillery.
The pressure of the airstrikes appears to be telling on individual ISIS fighters. On Wednesday night a group of jihadists for the first time in days appeared in a field close to Boydi and some distance from where airstrikes have been focused. “They slaughtered a sheep and cooked it,” a farmer told me. Later they started shooting at a group of Kurdish refugees making their way to the border. “To my surprise some Turkish gendarmes intervened and started shooting at the jihadists,” the farmer said. “That’s the first time I have seen them doing that.”