(CNN) — Turkey’s foreign minister insisted Thursday that it’s not “realistic” for the world to expect it to go it alone in launching a ground operation against ISIS, even as a monitoring group said the extremists had seized a chunk of a key battleground town near its border.
Speaking alongside visiting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Mevlut Cavusoglu also said that airstrikes alone cannot change the balance of power or “clean the whole region of ISIS and other terrorists.”
The remarks will dismay many in Turkey who have demanded military intervention in Syria.
Turkey has taken in more than 1.5 million people from Syria and Iraq, Cavusoglu said, including some 200,000 Syrians from the Kobani region in recent days.
A resolution passed the Turkish parliament last week authorizing action against ISIS, which is also known as ISIL and calls itself the “Islamic State.”
And ISIS is inching closer to overtaking Kobani, a Kurdish enclave in Syria that’s a stone’s throw from the Turkish border.
The town, also known as Ayn al-Arab, has been the scene of intense fighting and a string of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS fighters in recent days.
Despite the desperate efforts of Kurdish fighters, ISIS militants have managed to wrest control of a third of Kobani, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, said Thursday.
It said 19 ISIS militants and 15 Kurdish fighters were killed in battles in the city Wednesday, while 23 ISIS members were killed in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
Protesters in Turkey, many of them Kurds, are calling on the government to take tough action and to allow fighters to go across the border to fight ISIS.
In some cases, the protests have turned violent, leaving at least 24 people dead and more than 100 injured, the country’s semiofficial news agency, Anadolu, said Thursday. Some demonstrators died in clashes between rival groups, authorities said. Others were killed during clashes with police. Hundreds have been arrested.
In a statement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “Turkey will pursue — in the most effective, democratic and lawful manner — these acts of violence, vandalism and looting. Turkey will never tolerate any traps against our peace, stability or sense of brotherhood,” Anadolu reported.
The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, said it will back a motion passed by the parliament to authorize the army’s ground operations as long as it is limited to rescuing Kobani and repelling ISIS, according to Anadolu.
ISIS got reinforcements, witness says
Witnesses inside Kobani told CNN that airstrikes Wednesday had been welcome but that the situation was worsening Thursday.
One fighter said that the situation was “very bad” and that ISIS had received reinforcements overnight.
A “large” number of ISIS fighters and vehicles arrived in the early hours from the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, nearly 100 miles south, to support the assault on Kobani, he said.
The fighter said ISIS troops have re-entered the eastern side of the city and called for the U.S.-led coalition to launch airstrikes there, where the onslaught is greatest. He said there had been only two strikes Thursday morning.
A media activist also in the town described intense street-to-street fighting around the Kurdish security forces’ headquarters, near the center of Kobani, as well as in the south of the town.
He also called for more airstrikes against ISIS, saying the two so far Thursday were not enough.
Kurdish forces are reportedly telling the few remaining civilians to leave their homes and cross into Turkey for safety, he said. But the small, mostly male population say they don’t know how to handle weapons, but want to stay and contribute to the fight by feeding the defenders of Kobani and providing whatever support they can.
U.S. Central Command said it had carried out five airstrikes south of Kobani on Wednesday and Thursday, destroying a building and vehicles used by ISIS, and hitting two groups of ISIS fighters.
It continues to monitor the situation closely, a statement said. “Indications are that Kurdish militia there continue to control most of the city and are holding out against ISIL.”
Pentagon: Airstrikes won’t save Kobani
Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters that U.S. airstrikes “are not going to save” Kobani.
“I think we all should be steeling ourselves for that eventuality,” he said. “We’ve been very honest about the limits of air power here. The ground forces that matter the most are indigenous ground forces, and we don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now — it’s just a fact.”
The greater U.S. strategy, Kirby said, is to degrade ISIS’ ability to sustain itself.
Several senior U.S. administration officials said Kobani would soon fall to ISIS. They downplayed the importance of it, saying the city is not a major U.S. concern.
But a look at a map shows why it would mark an important strategic victory for the militants. ISIS would control a complete swath of land between its self-declared capital of Raqqa, Syria, and Turkey — a stretch of more than 100 kilometers (62 miles).
The United States wants Turkey to do more, U.S. administration officials said, and is urging Turkey to at least fire artillery at ISIS targets across the border.
But the Turkish reluctance, the officials say, is wrapped up in the complex relationship with its own Kurds and the idea that the government doesn’t want to help any of the Kurds in any way.
Rejecting discrimination claims
In his remarks, Cavusoglu rejected the suggestion that Turkey had hung back, saying it has “never acted reluctantly on this issue.”
He also denied that any “discrimination on a sectarian basis” was in play in Turkey’s decisions.
But he urged the protesters who’ve clashed with Turkish security forces “to evaluate who’s actually siding with the people of Kobani.”
Turkey will continue to provide humanitarian aid, he said, but he warned that pushing for more action “would not be a good approach.”
Stoltenberg praised Turkey for its humanitarian commitment and said NATO would stand behind it as a member state. He said the Patriot missiles stationed by NATO on Turkey’s border to protect against missile attacks were a concrete sign of that backing.
Stoltenberg also said that while Turkey has called for a no-fly zone and buffer zone along the border, this has “not been on the table of any NATO discussions yet.”