TURKEY was inching closer towards becoming embroiled in the battle for the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani last night.
A group of Kurdish peshmerga were allowed to cross the border from Turkey to help villagers fend off attacks from Islamic State (IS) fighters who have encirled the town for more than 40 days.
But that sparked a furious reaction from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad who accused Turkey of committing “aggression” against his country by allowing rebels to cross into Kobani.
His aide, Bouthaina Shaaban, said Ankara was trying to expand its influence in Syria by sending in anti-Assad fighters after weeks of US-led air strikes have failed to break their stranglehold. Kurds are hoping the arrival of the peshmerga will turn the tide.
A first contingent of about ten peshmerga fighters crossed into Kobani from Turkey, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Kurdish and Turkish officials said a larger deployment was expected to follow within hours, potentially marking a sea-change in the conflict.
Meryem Kobane, a commander with the YPG, the main Syrian Kurdish armed group in the town, said: “That initial group, I was told, is here to carry out the planning for our strategy going forward.
“They need to make preparations so the peshmerga will be positioned according to our needs.”
Around 100 peshmerga fighters are believed to have arrived by plane in south-east Turkey on Wednesday, joined later that night by a land convoy of vehicles carrying heavy weapons including a cannon and truck-mounted high-calibre machine guns.
In a compound protected by Turkish security forces near the border town of Suruc, the fighters were donning combat fatigues and preparing their weapons, according to local journalists.
Syria condemned Turkey for allowing foreign fighters and “terrorists” to enter Syria in a violation of its sovereignty.
Its foreign ministry described the move as a “disgraceful act”.
Iraqi Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani also said his region was prepared to deploy more forces to Kobani if asked.
“Whenever the situation on the ground necessitates and more forces are requested from us and there is passage for them, we will send more forces to protect Kobani and defeat terrorists in Western Kurdistan,” he said.
IS has caused international alarm by capturing large expanses of Iraq and Syria, declaring a “caliphate” that has erased borders between the two.
Its fighters have slaughtered or driven away Shiite Muslims, Christians and other communities who do not share their ultra-radical brand of Sunni Islam.
In Iraq, the bodies of 150 members of a Sunni tribe which fought IS have been found in a mass grave, security officials said yesterday.
IS militants took the men from their villages to the city of Ramadi and killed them on Wednesday night.
The United States and its allies in the coalition have made clear they do not plan to send troops to fight IS in Syria or Iraq, but they need fighters on the ground to capitalise on their air strikes.
Syrian Kurds have called on the international community to provide them with heavier weapons and munitions and they have received an air drop from the US.
But Turkey accuses Kurdish groups in Kobani of links to the militant PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which has fought a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state and is regarded as a terrorist group by Ankara, Washington and the European Union.
Ankara fears Syria’s Kurds will exploit the chaos by following their brethren in Iraq and seeking to carve out an independent state in northern Syria, emboldening PKK militants in Turkey and derailing a fragile peace process.