BEIRUT – More than two months into its assault on Kobani, the Islamic State group is still pouring fighters and resources into trying to capture the besieged Syrian Kurdish town, but the drive has been blunted.
Helped by more than 270 airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition, the border town's unwavering Kurdish defenders are gaining momentum — a potentially bruising reversal for the extremists who only a few weeks ago appeared to be unstoppable.
The setback in Kobani is "a statement of IS group's vulnerability," said David L. Phillips, an expert on Kurdish issues.
Retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. envoy for the international coalition fighting the Islamic State militants, said the group continues to mass around Kobani, creating more targets for the U.S. and its allies.
"ISIL has, in so many ways, impaled itself on Kobani," he said in an interview Wednesday in Ankara with the Turkish daily Milliyet, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
An early focus of the U.S. operation against the Islamic State group, the dusty and remote town in northern Syria has emerged as a major test in the propaganda war.
Kobani has been under attack since mid-September, when the Sunni Muslim extremists seized a series of villages and much of the town. Most of Kobani's 60,000 residents fled to neighboring Turkey in the first few days of the offensive, amid expectations that it would fall quickly.
But the fate of Kobani soon became tied to the success of the coalition campaign against the Islamic State group. A combination of concentrated airstrikes and the arrival late last month of a group of 150 Iraqi peshmerga forces with advanced weapons blunted the edge of the IS offensive.
The U.S. has also dropped weapons and other supplies to the Kurdish fighters, the first time it has done so in Syria in the course of the country's four-year conflict.
Kobani-based activists say Kurdish fighters have made small but steady advances in the past two weeks following the arrival of the peshmerga forces. Last week, Kurdish fighters known as the YPG seized a hill that overlooks part of the town. On Tuesday, they captured six IS-controlled buildings and confiscated a large amount of weapons and ammunition.
"The front lines are more defined now. We have a more organized and coherent defense strategy, and Daesh advances have been halted — but the danger remains," said Kurdish activist Mustafa Bali, referring to the Islamic State group by an Arabic acronym. IS, however, still controls about a quarter of the heavily damaged town, and the balance of power is still tenuous.
Kurdish officials have said the YPG was giving coordinates to the peshmerga forces who provide cover to their fighters by shelling IS positions.
In a joint news conference Friday with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani said the peshmerga would consider sending reinforcements to Kobani if needed, but he noted the YPG fighters are making strides on the battlefield as it is.
The more than 270 airstrikes in and around Kobani by the U.S. and its allies since Sept. 23 are far more than have been carried out on any other target in Syria or Iraq, according to the U.S. Central Command. The area around the Mosul Dam in Iraq is a distant second, with 156 airstrikes since Aug. 8.
Allen said the air attacks have killed "well over 600" IS fighters — a casualty figure believed to be the group's biggest losses in Syria or Iraq.
"At what point do they decide that it has cost them too much? If they pull out, this is going to be a real indicator that the march to victory of ISIL has finally hit its high watermark," Allen said in the interview.
The group's losses in Kobani coincide with other military setbacks in Iraq, where IS is fighting government forces, peshmerga and Shiite militias aided by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group.
"The aura of invincibility that built up with its advances over the summer has been shattered. Kobani is a small city and the IS placed great stock in winning, and now it's been forced to turn tail," said Phillips, who also is director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights.
Bali, the activist, predicted a prolonged battle, saying it can take days to free a house from Islamic State fighters because their snipers are everywhere. Moreover, he said areas that were previously occupied by the militants have been heavily booby-trapped. But he said he had no doubt that IS would be defeated eventually.
"The city (Kobani) is leveled but it may prove to be the Islamic State's Waterloo," Phillips said.