SURUC, Turkey – In a significant shift, Turkey's top diplomat announced on Monday that his country is helping Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross into Syria to "give support" to fellow Kurds defending the border town of Kobani from Islamic State militants.
The remarks by Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu came hours after the U.S. military announced it for the first time had airdropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies provided by Iraqi Kurdish authorities to Kurdish forces in Kobani.
Sunday's airdrops followed weeks of U.S. and coalition airstrikes in and near Kobani, along the Syrian-Turkish border. A U.S. military official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name, said the airdrops included small arms.
Turkey previously has said it would oppose any U.S. arms transfers to the Kurdish rebels in Syria. It views the main Kurdish group in Syria as an extension of the Turkish Kurd group known as the PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and by NATO.
Although a significant departure from previous positions, Turkey's decision to allow fighters to cross its territory is not a complete change of policy, since it involves Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces rather than the PKK.
It remains uncertain, however, whether Ankara would allow large numbers of heavily armed Iraqi Kurdish fighters to make the journey and if significant numbers are likely to do so given the threat IS still poses to Kurdish areas in Iraq.
"Iraq's Kurdish regional government announced that they are in cooperation with Turkey and the U.S.," Cavusoglu said at a press conference in the Turkish capital, Ankara.
"Actually, we are helping peshmerga forces to enter into Kobani to give support," he added, speaking at a joint news conference with visiting Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi.
Cavusoglu did not provide details, and it was not immediately clear where and how Turkey was allowing Kurdish fighters into Syria, after blocking them so long. Also unclear was whether this had already happened or was still to take place.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it would be "irresponsible" and "morally very difficult" not to support the Kurds in their fight against ISIS.
"Let me say very respectfully to our allies the Turks that we understand fully the fundamentals of their opposition and ours to any kind of terrorist group and particularly obviously the challenges they face with respect the PKK," Kerry said.
"But we have undertaken a coalition effort to degrade and destroy ISIL, and ISIL is presenting itself in major numbers in this place called Kobani," he told reporters in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.
In Iraq, meanwhile, the local Kurdish government confirmed the weapons deliveries and expressed its gratitude to Washington.
"Weapons and military aid were delivered to Kobani today from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq by American cargo jets," a statement issued Monday said.
Kobani-based Kurdish journalist Barzan Isso said no peshmerga fighters have arrived in Kobani. He added that the statements by the Turkish foreign minister were "a Turkish political maneuver that has nothing to do with reality."
Isso, who said he saw the airdrop, said the bundles included "modern weapons" such as anti-tank missiles, sniper rifles and large amounts of artillery shells in addition to medicines.
He said the Americans dropped the bundles amid heavy wind and that two bundles landed in areas held by the Islamic State group. Kurdish fighters were able to retrieve one of them while the other was blown up by the Americans from the air, Isso said.
The U.S. Central Command said the coalition conducted six airstrikes near Kobani in the past 24 hours that destroyed IS fighting and mortar positions and a vehicle. It confirmed that one airstrike targeted a stray resupply bundle that prevented the supplies from falling into enemy hands.
It previously said U.S. C-130 cargo planes made multiple drops of arms and supplies provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq, saying they were intended to enable continued resistance to the Islamic State group's efforts to take full control of Kobani.
Idriss Naasan, a senior Kurdish official in the Turkish town of Mursitpinar, confirmed that the Kurdish fighters received the air drop and asked for more weapons.
"We are not in need of fighters, we are able to defeat the terrorists of ISIS if we have weaponry -- enough weaponry and enough ammunition," he told The Associated Press.
President Barack Obama called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday to discuss the situation in Syria and notify him of the plan to make airdrops on Sunday, one U.S. administration official told reporters. He would not describe Erdogan's reaction but said U.S. officials are clear about Turkey's opposition to any moves that help Kurdish forces, whom Turkey views as an enemy.
Turkey has not allowed the U.S. and its allies to use its airspace or air bases to strike inside Syria. The C-130s, which would have taken off from the largely autonomous Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, would have had to fly for some time over Syria. President Bashar Assad's forces have made no attempt to challenge coalition jets as they bombed Islamic State group targets in northern and eastern Syria for the past weeks.
U.S. officials say they informed Damascus before launching the first U.S. airstrike on ISIS targets in Syria on Sept. 23. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf would not comment last week on whether they were ongoing discussions with Syria over the airstrikes.
In recent days, much of the coalition strikes have focused around Kobani, which Islamic State group militants have been trying to seize since mid-September. Turkey has so far provided sanctuary to an estimated 200,000 Syrians fleeing from Kobani and dozens of nearby villages that were captured by the ISIS group.