WASHINGTON - The Kurdish recapture of Kobani in northern Syria appears to have provided a blueprint for defeating the Islamic State group, bringing together U.S. air power with an effective ground force and protected routes for the movement of fighters and weaponry. But taking back the key Iraqi city of Mosul may be an entirely different matter.
As Kurdish fighters, buoyed by their success after months of fighting near Syria’s Turkish border, expanded their offensive Tuesday, American officials were able to point at long last to a victory in the battle against the militant group. The takeover of Kobani, which the U.S. says is now 90 percent complete, has put the extremists on the defensive.
American airstrikes killed more than 1,000 Islamic State members in and around Kobani, including major figures in the militia’s command structure and many of its most battle-hardened foreign fighters from Chechnya, Canada, Australia and Belgium, a senior U.S. State Department official said Tuesday.
Holding Kobani means keeping a long stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border out of the Islamic State’s hands.
Perhaps just as importantly, the Obama administration sees the defeat as challenging one of the group’s main draws for would-be foreign fighters: its self-projection as a triumphal movement rolling from victory to victory.
Two critical actions in late September appear to have prevented Kobani from falling completely: a U.S. airdrop of arms to the Kurdish defenders and an agreement by Turkey to let Iraqi Kurdish reinforcements cross the border. “Had we not done those two things, Kobani would’ve been gone, and you would’ve seen another massacre,” the official said.
The official said the biggest battlefield advances came once a land corridor opened from Turkey to Kobani, letting Kurdish peshmerga forces and Syrian rebels reverse momentum on the ground, backed by U.S. airstrikes.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Tuesday: “I think the airstrikes helped a lot. It helped when we had . . . a reliable partner on the ground in there who could help us fine-tune those strikes.”
Over the past six weeks, Western foreign fighters stationed at Raqqa, the movement’s stronghold in Syria, had refused to fight in Kobani after many of their colleagues were killed, the State Department official said.
Similar efforts are occurring now in Iraq, said the official. He cited operations in the western Iraqi town of Haditha, where tribes and Iraqi forces have slowed the Islamic State’s advances across a Sunni-dominated area of the country.
But the official suggested that a coordinated offensive in Mosul, a city of a million people and the scene of the militant group’s greatest military triumph, may not happen imminently despite widespread speculation to the contrary.
The Islamic State “wants to draw security forces into a prolonged, urban, street-by-street combat,” the official said. “We’re not going to fall for that.”
Instead, the official described a more methodical effort to “squeeze” the insurgency in Mosul, pointing to recent Iraqi successes along the main supply route between the city and the Islamic State’s power base in northern Syria.
The battle “will be on our timeline; it will be on the Iraqi timeline,” the official said. He said the U.S. is helping to train local police who were chased out of Mosul last year so that they could serve as a stabilization force once it is retaken.