Turkish security forces clashed with local Kurds trying to cross into Syria and defend a border town from Islamic State (IS) militants Monday, as the number of refugees displaced by fighting in the area reached 130,000.
Police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who had gathered to protest the decision by authorities to block Turkish Kurds from accessing the Syrian city of Kobane — also known by its Arabic name Ayn al-Arab — directly across the border. IS launched a concerted offensive on Kobane last week and seized scores of villages in the surrounding area. Local residents who fled to Turkey told VICE News that IS jihadis massacred anyone left behind, although it was not possible to independently confirm these reports.
Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Monday that more than 130,000 Kurds had crossed from Syria into Turkey to escape IS in just four days, and warned that Turkey was facing "a refugee wave that can be expressed by hundreds of thousands," the Associated Press reported. Reports from Kobane today suggest that the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) defending the city may have temporarily stopped the IS offensive, but fighting still raged.
The crisis has exacerbated an already tense relationship between Turkish Kurds and local authorities. On Monday, clashes took place for hours close to the border crossing just south of the town of Suruç. In Misenter village, riot cops reacted to people throwing stones by raining down tear gas canisters, then advancing through a farmstead as protesters and residents ran to escape and unhappy livestock were engulfed in clouds of stinging smoke.
Later, baton-wielding police and armored vehicles chased the crowd across dusty fields within sight of the border.
Most of those involved in the demonstration were from Turkey's southeastern Kurdish regions, including Mardin and Diyarbakir. Sarkat Oulolu, 34, who is affiliated with the local Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (BDP), told VICE News that the protesters were there to provide "moral support" for the YPG, but if needed would join the fight. He added that a number of Turkish Kurds had already crossed illegally to do just that.
Hoyriye Felis, a 47-year-old mother of five from Diyarbakir, stressed the affinity between Turkish and Syrian Kurds. "Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan] and North Kurdistan [Turkish Kurdistan] are the same, we're not different people," she told VICE News.
Nearby, a large, mostly male group of Syrian Kurds had gathered at the main crossing to Kobane. Unlike the 130,000, however, they wanted to go in, not out. Many said they had seen their family safely to Turkey and now wanted to return to the city. Some simply didn't want to live as refugees. One man, a teacher in Kobane who did not give his name, told VICE News that there was nothing for him in Turkey. "Where can I go? What can I do? I look for work in the fields, but there is nothing and I have no money. I'd prefer to die in my home."
A majority seemed to be planning to help fight IS, though they were not battle-hardened soldiers. Bakri, who said he was 23 but looked much younger, told VICE News that he had never fought before, although he had received "some" military training. He didn't know if there was even a gun waiting for him in Kobane. "If there are no weapons," he said. "I will fight with my bare hands."
Even if there are weapons, however, they are no match for those used by their foes. IS is equipped with heavy ordnance and armored vehicles looted from the US-trained and equipped Iraqi army, as well as the Syrian government and even Syrian rebel groups. The YPG are armed almost exclusively with small arms and light weapons, mostly old Kalashnikovs and RPGs.
But help from the international community — as has already been provided to Iraq's Kurds — is unlikely to be forthcoming. Turkey's leadership has condemned IS, but has said it will not join members of an anti-IS coalition announced last week in taking part in military action against the militants. Its hesitance is likely a result of strengthening Kurdish factions battling IS in Iraq and Syria, some of which are affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which Turkey, along with the US and others, classifies as a terrorist organization.
Kurdish activists, meanwhile, have called for the US program of airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq to be expanded to Syria, but despite listing it as an option, Washington has yet to show any indication of taking action.
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