Fighters from Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), backed by tanks and artillery, advanced into the southwest of the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane overnight, a monitoring group said Tuesday, as street-to-street fighting raged and the town's Kurdish defenders ordered all civilians to flee.
Two black ISIL flags were seen flying on Kobane's eastern side on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad monitoring group with a network of activists across Syria. Hours after the insurgents raised the flags they punctured the Kurdish front lines and advanced into the town itself.
But later Monday night, Kurdish forces rebounded and were able to push ISIL back slightly on the eastern front, the Observatory said.
"They're fighting inside the city. Hundreds of civilians have left," said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman. The center of the town was still in Kurdish hands, Abdurrahman said, but Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, told Agence France-Presse that all civilians were told to leave immediately. "Military officials asked civilians to evacuate. They declared Kobane a military area," he said.
The U.S. Central Command said Tuesday that it had launched five air strikes aimed at ISIL targets around Kobane over the course of Monday and Tuesday.
But in a dire warning, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that Kobane “is about to fall.”
Speaking to Syrian refguees in Turkish town of Gazianstep, near the border, Erdogan said that the coalition air campaign launched last month would not be enough to halt ISIL’s advance. He called for greater cooperation with the Syrian opposition, which is fighting both the extremists and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"We asked for three things: one, for a no-fly zone to be created; two, for a secure zone parallel to the region to be declared; and for the moderate opposition in Syria and Iraq to be trained and equipped,” he said.
Turkish tanks and other ground forces have been stationed along the border within a few hundred yards of the fighting in Kobane but have not intervened. Just days ago, Turkey said it wouldn't let Kobane fall.
ISIL, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, has been battling for more than two weeks to seize the predominantly Kurdish town, driving 180,000 residents into neighboring Turkey. A reported 400 lives have been lost and forced thousands to flee their homes.
Airstrikes by U.S. and Gulf Arab states have failed to halt ISIL’s advance, with the group making gains on the outskirts of the town over the weekend and battling to secure a strategic hilltop in the face of fierce resistance.
Kurdish sources over the weekend said the town’s defenders were running low on ammunition and pleaded for help from Turkish forces, who have thus far been hesitant to get involved.
ISIL’s release last month of almost 50 Turkish hostages and a parliamentary motion last week renewing a mandate allowing Turkish troops to cross into Syria and Iraq have raised expectations that Ankara may be planning a more active role.
But Turkey's calculations are complex. For three decades, Ankara has fought an armed insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Turkish sister party of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls semiautonomous Syrian Kurdistan.
Analysts say Ankara is wary of helping Syrian Kurdish forces near Kobane because they have strong links with the PKK and have maintained ambiguous relations with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whom Turkey implacably opposes.
Leaders of Turkey's Kurds have warned that allowing Syria's Kurds to be driven from Kobane would spell the end of Erdogan's delicately poised drive to negotiate an end to his Kurdish insurgency and permanently disarm the PKK.
If ISIL enters Kobane, "it will be a graveyard for us and for them. We will not let them enter Kobane as long as we live. We either win or die. We will resist to the end," Esmat al-Sheikh, head of the Kobane Defense Authority, told Reuters by telephone Monday.
Capturing Kobane would give ISIL, which already rules a huge stretch of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border, a direct link between its positions in the Syrian province of Aleppo and its stronghold of Raqqa, to the east. It would also crush a lingering pocket of resistance and give the group full control of a large stretch of the Turkey-Syria border.
ISIL has begun to govern its territory by its radical interpretation of Islamic law. Beheadings, mass killings and torture have spread fear of the group across the region, with villages emptying at the approach of pickup trucks flying ISIL’s flag.
Ismail Eskin, reporting from Kobane, said morale was still high "because the people are protecting their own soil."
"They will not allow [ISIL] to occupy Kobane," he said.
But the Kurds’ desperation was made evident when one female Kurdish fighter near Kobane blew herself up on Sunday to avoid being captured by ISIL after running out of ammunition, a monitoring group and local sources said.
"They have ammunition, but it is so little," said Pawer Mohammed Ali, an interpreter in Kobane for the PYD. "The PYD are just appealing to foreign forces for ammunition because [ISIL] is using heavy weapons, tanks and mortars."
Turkish hospitals have been treating a steady stream of wounded Kurdish fighters being taken across the frontier. Witnesses who fled Kobane said that women with no fighting experience were armed, given grenades and sent into battle.
Kobane's Kurds have so far received little help from the international community. Turkey has given shelter to the bulk of the area's refugees, and its doctors have treated the wounded, but it has given no suggestion that it would join the fight against ISIL beyond gestures of self-defense.
Al Jazeera and wire services