Baghdad (CNN) — International airstrikes are not stopping ISIS militants as they advance on northern and western fronts, threatening slaughter in the holdout Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani and securing their grip on Iraq’s Anbar province next to Baghdad.
The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned at a Geneva news conference Friday that if Kobani falls, the civilians trapped inside “will most likely be massacred” by ISIS.
De Mistura said that Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, used to have a population of 400,000. The latest figures indicate that 10,000-13,000 are in the border area between Syria and Turkey that lies just outside the city and 500-700, mostly elderly people and civilians, are still inside the city center.
Despite the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to deter ISIS militants from advancing and Turkish authorities meeting “with generosity and efficiency” the more than 200,000 refugees into their country, “all this may not be enough in order to avert a clear humanitarian tragedy or catastrophe,” he said.
“You remember Srebrenica? We do. We never forgot. And probably we never forgave ourselves for that,” de Mistura said, referring to the 1995 massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian war after Dutch U.N. peacekeepers failed to protect them.
Turkey has been under increasing internal and international pressure to launch a ground operation in support of the Kurdish fighters defending Kobani, only a stone’s throw from its border.
Emotional and, at times, violent protests have broken out in Turkey among people calling for ground forces to intervene — something Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday won’t happen, so long as Turkey has to go it alone.
Turkey’s Parliament has authorized military action against ISIS but the country’s longrunning conflict with Kurdish separatists, viewed as terrorists, makes supporting the Kurdish fighters militarily an unpalatable option.
U.N. envoy: Let Kurdish defenders enter city
De Mistura appealed to Turkish authorities at least to allow Kurdish volunteer fighters to cross the border from Turkey into the city with “sufficient equipment” to contribute to a self-defense operation against ISIS.
“I know Turkey has been going through very difficult times … and they are under enormous pressure because of the Syrian crisis … and I understand they have important preconditions which need to be analyzed … but this may require time and Kobani, in our own opinion, does not have enough time,” he said.
While the U.S.-led coalition has been hitting ISIS positions from the air in 20 or more locations, he said, “they themselves recently have admitted that this may not be enough to save the city.”
ISIS fighters controlled about half of the Syrian city on Friday, significantly more than even a day earlier, after taking over Kurdish administration buildings in what had been a security zone, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports.
The group said Saturday that 21 ISIS militants were killed in fighting in Kobani the previous day, while two others died after carrying out car-bomb suicide attacks against Kurdish fighters. At least eight Kurdish fighters were also killed in the clashes with ISIS attackers, it said.
Threat to Baghdad?
ISIS has been making gains in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, for the past several weeks. But Iraqi officials tell CNN the situation there is becoming increasingly urgent.
The situation in Anbar Province is “very bad,” Sabah Al-Karhout, the president of the Anbar Provincial Council, told CNN by phone Saturday.
Al-Karhout says they have intelligence that ISIS has dispatched as many as 10,000 fighters to Anbar from Syria and Mosul.
The deputy head of the Anbar provincial council, Falleh al-Issawi, told CNN that it had asked the central government for immediate intervention to save the province from imminent collapse — and to request the deployment of U.S. ground forces there.
It’s a significant shift, since the Iraqi government has until now been adamant that it does not want U.S. forces on the ground.
ISIS are now in control of 80% of Anbar province and if its fighters seize the rest of the province, their territory will extend from Raqqa in Syria to the perimeters of Baghdad in Iraq, al-Issawi said.
Iraqi army forces and Anbar tribesmen fighting alongside them against ISIS have threatened to abandon their weapons if the U.S. military does not intervene to help them, he said, because they are starting to give way before the ISIS onslaught.
The army soldiers are not capable of defending themselves against the ISIS militants because of a lack of training and equipment, he said. And already, some 1,800 tribesmen in the province have been killed and injured in the struggle.
Schools have closed, keeping more than 300,000 students from class and fueling concerns that they may instead be recruited by ISIS, he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Friday that Anbar province was in trouble amid an onslaught from ISIS forces.
A senior U.S. defense official also told CNN that Iraqi forces are “up against the wall” in Anbar. Some units are in danger of being cut off by the advancing militants, who say they are members of ISIS, also known as ISIL. The group calls itself the “Islamic State.”
The Iraqis’ ultimate goal is to take back some of the vast areas, in both Iraq and Syria, that ISIS controls.
But right now, Iraqi forces appear to be mostly trying to survive — taking defensive positions and using Apache helicopters again, even after two were shot down in the area this week, according to the U.S. official.