WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military on Wednesday said air power alone may not save the Syrian town of Kobani from Islamic State militants as U.S. officials appeared to brace for the town’s fall.
Although the U.S. military carried out six air strikes to try to keep the town from IS hands, it also acknowledged that Kobani and other towns may be overrun by the group, which has seized swathes of Iraq and Syria this year.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, echoed by other officials, made the case in public on Wednesday that the loss of the town would not be a strategic defeat in the two-month-old U.S. air campaign to “degrade and defeat” the group.
However, the defeat of the Kurdish fighters trying to fend off IS militants within sight of Turkish forces on their side of the border could call into question the U.S. strategy of relying on local forces to fight the militants.
Television images from the fighting at the town and of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing into Turkey have been screened around the world, and the town has become the international focus of the conflict.
Despite U.S. pressure, Turkey has so far refused to play a more active role. Turkish leaders have repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of any Middle Eastern strategy that does not have the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at its heart.
Turkey has also demanded the creation of a no-fly zone as well as buffer zones inside Syria. U.S. officials sent mixed messages on the latter idea, with Kerry saying it was worthy of close study but the Pentagon and White House decidedly cooler.
Without Turkish or other troops on the ground, which seems unlikely for the now, matters remain in the hands of Syrian Kurd fighters and the U.S. air strikes.
“Air strikes alone are not going to do this. They’re not going to fix this. They’re not going to save the town of Kobani. We know that,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told a news briefing.
The ability to take and hold ground requires ground forces capable of building on gains from air strikes. The Pentagon has said training Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia may not begin for up to five months because of the need to recruit and vet them.
Asked if he was preparing the U.S. public for the fact that not just Kobani, but other Syrian towns may fall until competent Syrian forces can be trained, Kirby replied: “I think we all should be steeling ourselves for that eventuality, yes.”
The United States has launched air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq since August 8 and in Syria since Sept. 23, sometimes with partners in an international coalition that President Barack Obama has sought to build against the group.
The six air strikes on Kobani were part of nine overall strikes in Syria over the last two days with the United Arab Emirates, using bomber, fighter, and remotely piloted aircraft, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
The strikes near Kobani stalled the militant group, which had appeared set to seize the town after a three-week assault.
At a news conference with British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond, the U.S. secretary of state on Wednesday argued that the loss of the town would not be a strategic defeat.
“As horrific as it is to watch in real time what is happening in Kobani ... you have to step back and understand the strategic objective,” Kerry said.
“Notwithstanding the crisis in Kobani, the original targets of our efforts have been the command and control centers, the infrastructure,” he said.
A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Obama administration was bracing for a public relations hit if and when the town falls.
“It’s going to be embarrassing,” said the official. “We can’t bomb ISIL into submission everywhere. It seems clear that it’s going to be a humanitarian and military disaster.”
Kerry also said that he expected Turkey to decide “over the next hours, days” what role it may play against the Islamic State group, which the U.S. government refers to as ISIL.
Retired General John Allen, the U.S. envoy charged by Obama with building the coalition against Islamic State, and his deputy Brett McGurk will be in Turkey on Thursday and Friday for talks that Kerry suggested may be decisive.
Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Phil Stewart and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Storey and Cynthia Osterman