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Battlefronts In Kobani Don't Break Cleanly Along Ethic Or Sectarian Lines

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The battle against ISIS is also raging in Syria. There, the likely armed defenders of the town of Kobani appear to have kept ISIS fighters away from the border crossing with Turkey. Turkey has declined to intervene, in part because Kobani's defense is being led by Syrian Kurds. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from southeastern Turkey, the battle lines don't break down cleanly along ethnic or sectarian lines.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: From the Turkish side of the border, the sounds of the battle for Kobani begin to take on patterns.

The more familiar sounds are the thud of ISIS artillery shells followed by heavy machine gun fire as the Islamist fighters try to force their way to the border crossing. And sometimes there are louder sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KENYON: That's the boom of coalition airstrikes and then the sound of fighter aircraft exiting the airspace as the U.S. military puts it. Those latest airstrikes, clearly visible from the Turkish side of the border, appeared to strike quite close to the defenders' stronghold near the border crossing that ISIS has as its main goal.

The airstrikes may have slowed the advance of the ISIS forces, but Kurds on this side of the border say Kobani's defenders are slowly succumbing to the greater numbers and firepower arrayed against them. Journalist and activist Mustafa Abdi fled Kobani along with most of the town's population as ISIS advanced. In an outdoor cafe in the border town of Suruc, the 35-year-old says ISIS is using artillery and tanks from Raqqah and Mosul, American Humvees stolen in Iraq, and now they're using vehicle bombs to break the Kurdish fighters' lines.

MUSTAFA ABDI: (Through translator) In order to break the last lines of defense, they started using car bombs. Today they used four car bombs and broke through a bit closer to the center.

KENYON: Abdi says as a matter of convenience the world's media are framing this battle as Kurdish defenders versus radical Sunni Arab attackers. But, in fact, it's nothing as simple as that. Four units of the Free Syrian Army, mainly Sunni Arabs, have joined the Kurdish defenders inside Kobani - the only ground forces to do so. And on the ISIS side are radical Kurds in relatively small numbers. They mainly come from Iraq, but there are also some from Syria who believe in ISIS's brutal ideology.

Abdi says this conflict should not be relentlessly cast in ethnic or sectarian terms because it's an old-fashioned land and power grab by a group hiding behind a murderous version of radical Islam.

ABDI: (Through translator) There is religion and there's ethnicity. This is neither. This is a group that wants to occupy us. We are defending Kobani. We aren't attacking anybody. ISIS is attacking. They include Americans, Russians, French, Afghans - they killed old men, women and children. Even Sunnis don't like ISIS. They fight them too.

KENYON: Unfortunately for the Kurds scrambling for shelter in Turkey, they're convinced that the Turks do see the conflict in ethnic terms. Thirty-five-year-old Kobani resident Abu Diyar says Turkey is leaving the Kurdish fighters to their own defenses because they're linked to militants among Turkey's own Kurdish population.

ABU DIYAR: (Through translator) Yes, it's true. They're closing the borders so no support gets through to the Kurdish fighters. Before there were Sunni fighters crossing all the time with food, supplies, even weapons. Now it's all closed.

KENYON: Turkey is also disputing reports from U.S. officials that it has agreed to allow coalition aircraft to take off from Turkey's Incirlik Airbase, only a hundred miles from Syria. Turkish officials say talks on that subject are still continuing. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, southeastern Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.