February 2, 2015 / 5:33 PM / in 3 years

Syrian Kurds push back Islamic State around Kobani: monitor, Kurds

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Kurdish militia backed by U.S.-led air strikes are making rapid advances against Islamic State forces in rural areas around Kobani after driving the group from the Syrian border town last week, the Kurdish militia and a monitoring group said on Monday.

A spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said Islamic State forces were collapsing around Kobani. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the monitoring organization, said Islamic State fighters were putting up little resistance in the face of the Kurdish advance and may be pushed back even further.

“The fighting organization of Daesh ... is in a state of complete collapse at present and cannot hold ground,” Redur Xelil, spokesman for the YPG, told Reuters by telephone, using a pejorative Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

The battle for Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish town known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic, became a focal point for the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State in Syria. The Syrian Kurds, who also received military support from Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, drove Islamic State from the town last week.

Islamic State controls wide areas of northern and eastern Syria, including a strip of territory across the northern Aleppo countryside and a corridor stretching southeast from Raqqa province to the border with Iraq.

Although the town has little strategic value, the battle for Kobani marked the first example of direct U.S. support for ground forces fighting Islamic State in Syria.

As part of its strategy to roll back Islamic State in Syria, the United States is also planning to train and equip non-jihadist rebels, who account for only a modest part of the fighters battling President Bashar al-Assad.

Active recruitment of Syrian trainees has yet to start. The United States has ruled out the idea of cooperating with Assad in the fight against Islamic State, describing him as part of the problem.

The YPG says it has 50,000 fighters deployed in three predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria. It has said it is willing to be a partner in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State.

Nine of 27 air strikes by the United States and its allies on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a 24-hour period were concentrated near Kobani, the Combined Joint Task Force said in a statement on Monday.

Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, said Islamic State fighters who were some 4 to 5 km (around 3 miles) from the town on Sunday, were now at least 10 km (6 miles) away. “There is no large-scale resistance,” he said.

He said the Kurds were advancing with help from Syrian Arab armed groups from Raqqa. Xelil said Islamic State had withdrawn 10 km in the last day alone and was more than 25 km from Kobani.

He said U.S.-led air strikes continued, as did support from the Iraqi peshmerga who entered the town via Turkey. But he warned Islamic State could open new fronts in Kurdish areas in northeast Syria.

“There are daily clashes and perhaps these battles and clashes will increase, particularly in the Jazeera region, because Daesh will turn to other areas to recover what is left of its standing,” he said. The Jazeera region is the Kurdish name for northeastern Syria.

Abdulrahman said that Islamic State, having lost 2,000 fighters battling for Kobani, was unable to open new fronts. “I expect a continued retreat in the Kobani rural area, after that there might be clashes in the outskirts of Raqqa,” he said.

Additional reporting by Bill Trott in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans/Hugh Lawson

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