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Militants capture Kurdish areas in Syria in setback that illustrates plight of Syrian Kurds

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BEIRUT — Islamic State militiamen backed by tanks defiantly advanced Thursday in Syria, capturing more than 20 Kurdish villages as the international community strains to assemble a coalition that might destroy them.

The gains highlighted the plight of Syria's Kurds, who have been some of the most successful against the Islamic extremists. But unlike U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurds, they seem largely on their own in a devastated country where the enemy's enemy is not necessarily a friend.

The main Kurdish force in Syria, known as the People's Protection Units or YPK, is viewed with suspicion by mainstream Syrian rebels and their Western supporters because of perceived links to President Bashar Assad's government.

NATO member Turkey is also wary of the group, which it believes is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement that waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey.

"This is a complicating factor in the equation," said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.

The U.S. and its allies think the Kurdish alliance is fighting alongside the Assad government, he said. And the Americans don't want to upset Turkey.

So while the U.S. and its allies accelerate weapons deliveries to Iraqi Kurds, Syrian Kurds complain they have been largely dismissed and ignored as a fighting force.

"We are ready to join any coalition to face Daesh," said Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria's powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, which dominates the Kurdish fighters. He used an Arabic name to refer to the Islamic State group.

The YPK has been fighting the group since July 2013. Over the past year, it has cleared many Kurdish areas of jihadi fighters.

But since June, when Islamic State fighters captured weapons and vehicles from Iraqi army bases and brought them into Syria, the militants have retaken some Kurdish areas, mostly in the northern region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab.

Over the span of two days, they took 21 villages in the area, activists said Thursday.

Beyond building the coalition, Washington is also making plans to train up to 5,000 Syrian rebels. Kurdish officials in Syria say the YPK should be the group to spearhead the mission against jihadis. The group denies any links to Assad's government or the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.

"There are double standards. They are looking for allies who serve them. They are not looking for real allies," said Nasser Haj Mansour, an official at the defense office in Syria's Kurdish region about the planned U.S.-led coalition.

The U.S. has been conducting airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq since August, when the militants tried to push toward the northern city of Irbil in Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region. President Barack Obama last week authorized strikes against the group in Syria as well, and the U.S. is already flying reconnaissance missions over Syria.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Sunday, March. 3, 2013 file photo, Kurdish female members, foreground and background, of the Popular Protection Units stand guard at a check point near the northeastern city of Qamishli, Syria.  Islamic State militiamen backed by tanks defiantly marched on in Syria, capturing 21 Kurdish villages even as the international community strains to assemble a coalition that might destroy them. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, March. 3, 2013 file photo, Kurdish female members, foreground and background, of the Popular Protection Units stand guard at a check point near the northeastern city of Qamishli, Syria. Islamic State militiamen backed by tanks defiantly marched on in Syria, capturing 21 Kurdish villages even as the international community strains to assemble a coalition that might destroy them. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved a plan for the military to train and equip Syrian rebels, clearing the measure for the president's signature.

The U.S. and other Western countries have sent weapons to Iraqi Kurds, who have strong relations with Washington.

Marking a possible shift, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Associated Press on Thursday that arming the Syrian Kurds was under consideration.

"We haven't reached out to the Syrian Kurdish forces yet. But I do think that as we look at how to squeeze ISIL from all directions, they will certainly be considered," Dempsey, the top American military official, said in an interview in Paris.

He acknowledged the Syrian Kurds' military capability.

"The question is whether they should be part of a coalition," he said, citing the concerns related to Turkey.

Earlier this week, YPK fighters captured 14 villages from the militants around the jihadi group's stronghold of Tel Hamis in northeastern Syria near the border with Iraq.

The jihadis retaliated by attacking the predominantly Kurdish region of Kobani near the Turkish border on Wednesday. They used tanks and artillery to capture the 21 villages and force some 3,000 people to flee toward the Turkish border. The area would link the Islamic State group's strongholds in Aleppo with those in Raqqa and all the way to Iraq.

Last month, the YPK crossed the border into Iraq and opened a safe passage for members of the ancient Kurdish-speaking Yazidi minority who were attacked by Islamic State fighters.

Obama's new plan to train rebel forces in Saudi Arabia to be used in conjunction with potential U.S. airstrikes in Syria appears to have angered the Kurds.

"There are tens of thousands of experienced fighters who are well trained and have a long history in guerrilla warfare and have achieved victories," Khalil said, referring to earlier advances by the YPK against Muslim militants. He said the U.S. has refused to give a visa to PYD leader Saleh Muslim to meet with U.S. officials.

If the international coalition does not fight the Islamic State group in Syria, "they will have to fight it in the streets of Britain, or the streets of Turkey or the streets of America," Haj Mansour said, referring to possible future attacks by the group outside the Middle East.


Associated Press Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report from Paris.


Follow Bassem Mroue on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmroue .

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PHOTO: FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 file photo, Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga fighters stand guard while displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community make their way to cross the Syria-Iraq border in Derike, Syria. Islamic State militiamen backed by tanks defiantly marched on in Syria, capturing 21 Kurdish villages even as the international community strains to assemble a coalition that might destroy them. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed, File)
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