MURSITPINAR, Turkey — For the first time since the Islamic State group launched an offensive on the Syrian border town of Kobani last month, a small group of Syrian rebels on Wednesday entered the embattled town from Turkey in a push to help Kurdish fighters there battle the militants, activists and Kurdish officials said.
The group of around 50 armed men is from the Free Syrian Army, and it's separate from Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters who were also en route Wednesday to Kobani, along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Idriss Nassan, a Kurdish official from Kobani, said the FSA group entered Kobani through the Mursitpinar border crossing in Turkey. Nassan, who spoke from the border region in Turkey, said they travelled in cars but did not have more details.
The FSA is an umbrella group of mainstream rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. The political leadership of the Western-backed FSA is based in Turkey, where fighters often seek respite from the fighting.
The 150 Iraqi peshmerga troops, along with cannons and heavy machineguns, arrived in Turkey from Iraq early on Wednesday and were expected to cross into Syria later in the day. Their deployment came after Ankara agreed to allow the peshmerga troops to cross into Syria via Turkey.
Kurdish fighters in Syria, known as the People's Protection Units or YPG, have been struggling to defend Kobani — also known as Ayn Arab — against the Islamic State group since mid-September, despite dozens of coalition airstrikes against the extremists.
It is not clear what impact this small but battle-hardened combined force of FSA and peshmerga fighters — and their combined weaponry and added arsenal — will have in the battle for Kobani. Kurdish fighters are already sharing information with the coalition to coordinate strikes against IS militants there but the new force may help improve efforts and offer additional battlefield support.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the BBC that sending the peshmerga and the Free Syrian Army was "the only way to help Kobani, since other countries don't want to use ground troops."
A Kurdish journalist in Kobani and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that a group of about 50 FSA fighters entered Kobani Wednesday.
After a rousing send-off from thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil, the peshmerga forces landed early Wednesday at the Sanliurfa airport in southeastern Turkey. They left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces and were expected to travel to Kobani also through Mursitpinar crossing.
Nassan said the peshmerga force should be in Kobani "within hours." He said he was confident that the troops, although symbolic in number, would help change the balance of power in Kobani because of their advanced weapons.
The Islamic State group launched its offensive on Kobani and nearby Syrian villages in mid-September, killing more than 800 people, according to activists. The Sunni extremists captured dozens of Kurdish villages around Kobani and control parts of the town. More than 200,000 people have fled across the border into Turkey.
The U.S. is leading a coalition that has carried out dozens of airstrikes targeting the militants in and around Kobani, helping stall their advances. The fighting has deadlocked in recent days, with neither side able to get the upper hand in the battle.
The deployment of the 150 peshmerga fighters, who were authorized by the Iraqi Kurdish government to go to Kobani, underscores the sensitive political tensions in the region.
Turkey's government views the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani as loyal to what Ankara regards as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. That group has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.
Under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — from the West as well as from Kurds inside Turkey and Syria — the Turkish government agreed to let the fighters cross through its territory. But it only is allowing the peshmerga forces from Iraq, with whom it has a good relationship, and not those from the PKK.
Kurdish fighters in Syria have repeatedly said they did not need more fighters, only weapons. Kurds in Syria are mistrustful of Turkey's intentions, accusing it of blocking assistance to the Kobani defenders for weeks before shifting its stance, apparently under pressure. Many suspect Ankara is trying to dilute YPG influence in the town by sending in the peshmerga and the Turkey-backed FSA.
A Kurdish activist in Kobani, Farhad Shami, said Turkey was playing a "malicious" role in Syria. "They have and still are blocking aid from entering Kobani, how is it that they are now letting in peshmerga and Free Syrian Army? One has to wonder," he said.
The battle for Kobani is a small part in a larger war in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people since March 2011, according to activists. The conflict began with largely peaceful protests calling for reform. It eventually spiraled into a civil war as people took up arms following a brutal military crackdown on the protest movement.
Karam reported from Beirut.