Kurds are crossing it in both directions. Tens of thousands have fled to Turkey in the past 10 days as the militants seized their villages in northern Syria. Others are heading the opposite way to join the fight, and clashes broke out this week when the Turkish security forces tried to stop some of them.
The latest twist in Syria’s civil war is straining an alliance that had shown the potential to transform Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken steps shunned by past leaders to engage with Kurdish demands for wider rights, and pledged to end a three-decade guerrilla war. In turn, he’s received broad support in the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey, where fighting has subsided during his decade in power.
Now, the jihadist onslaught has united the region’s Kurds - - there are minorities in Iraq and Iran as well as Syria and Turkey -- in condemnation and support, and some say Turkey’s efforts to feed and shelter the refugees aren’t enough. They accuse the government of favoring Islamic State over the Kurdish fighters battling it, for example by allowing the jihadists to come and go across the border while stopping Kurds from doing so, charges that Turkey denies.
‘Trying to Suffocate’
Turkey is “trying to suffocate” the autonomous Kurdish region that emerged in Syria during the civil war, said Sebahat Tuncel, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, in a phone interview. The policy “also jeopardizes the process to find a solution with Kurds in Turkey,” she said.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York this week, Erdogan said media reports suggesting Turkey supports Islamic State are “very unjust and ill-intentioned.” He told the United Nations General Assembly that Turkey “isn’t a country that supports or turns a blind eye to terrorism.” Erdogan and President Barack Obama spoke yesterday about the Islamic State threat, according to the White House. Turkey is a NATO member and the U.S. is seeking allies in the region as it leads airstrikes against the militants in Iraq and Syria.
In the town of Suruc, near the border, Turkish efforts to ease the plight of Syrian Kurdish refugees are evident. Across the road from Mayor Mustafa Denktas’s office, dozens of refugees line up to get lentil soup from a state-run kitchen, as hundreds more sit in the shade of a park.
Yet Turkey has been wary of the Syrian Kurds too. In an interview with Cumhuriyet newspaper this week, deputy premier Yalcin Akdogan said the Kurds must denounce President Bashar al-Assad if they want a rapprochement with Turkey, which seeks Assad’s ouster.
The Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the Middle East without their own state, have made gains across the region in recent years. They extended their control over energy-rich northern Iraq after the Baghdad army was routed by Islamic State
The Syrian Kurds took advantage of the power vacuum created by civil war to declare self-rule in November last year. Their effective autonomy has been tolerated by Assad, whose reach no longer extends to that region. In Suruc and elsewhere, fueling the anger against Erdogan is a concern that Islamic State’s onslaught is threatening to take away Kurdish gains.
The Turkish government is working in alliance with Islamic State and seeking “a pretext to create a militarized buffer zone,” Denktas said in an interview at his office. Erdogan called today for the creation of a “safe zone” inside Syrian territory, without giving details.
Sitting at a nearby open-air cafe, Ruhat Sidar, a 23-year-old Syrian Kurd, said he was returning home to fight Islamic State after six months working at a textile plant in Istanbul.
“I’m planning to cross the border with three friends in a few days,” he said as he sipped tea. “I’ll show my Syrian ID to Turkish soldiers and just go. They can’t stop me.”
The onslaught has spurred solidarity among Kurds in the region.
Nachirvan Barzani, premier of Iraqi Kurdistan, said his government may send fighters to help. From his Turkish jail, Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, called for “all-out resistance.” The PKK, which has close ties with Syria’s armed Kurdish groups, is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.
Turkish forces at Mursitpinar were seen yesterday allowing Syrians in civilian clothes to cross, while sending Turks back. Earlier this week, they used teargas to disperse hundreds of Turkish Kurds seeking to join the forces defending the Kurdish town of Kobani across the border in Syria.
“We fought them with stones several times this week when they gassed us and refused to allow volunteers for Kobani to cross,” said a young Turkish Kurd who only identified himself as Ilyas out of fear for reprisals. Still, about 1,000 volunteers from Turkey including 200 from Suruc, managed to join the Kurdish forces in Kobani, he said.
Some Kurdish and other opposition politicians say that Turkey hasn’t been so strict when it came to Islamists crossing the border to fight against the Assad government. Semra Demir, a member of the Kurdish party’s executive board, said in an interview in the mayor’s office in Suruc that she’d come to the town with about a dozen colleagues to “monitor crossings by Islamist fighters into Syria.”
The Turkey-Syria frontier, marked in places only by waist-high barbed wire and empty watch towers, has for almost three years been a key conduit for weapons and foreign fighters seeking to oust Assad. As international condemnation of Islamic State grew, Turkey has stepped up patrols, added highway checkpoints and erected new fencing.
PKK military leader Cemil Bayik warned that the group may resume its war in Turkey if the government doesn’t stop backing Islamic State against the Syrian Kurds, in an interview with Al-Monitor published this week.
Turkey may have “turned a blind eye” to the activities of jihadist groups “whom many in the government believed could most effectively counter Assad,” Paul Andrew Williams, a political analyst at Bilkent University in Ankara, said by e-mail. “Maybe these groups appeared indistinguishable from the so-called ‘moderate opposition’ at first,” he said. The distinction became clearer after the seizure of hostages at the Turkish consulate in Mosul in June, Williams said.
Those captives were freed this week after what Turkish authorities described as an intelligence operation. No details have been revealed, fueling speculation that concessions were offered to Islamic State, which Turkey has denied.
As they battle Islamic State, Kurdish groups such as the PKK have “scored a number of key public relations and/or propaganda coups,” Williams said.
He pointed to the role of the Kurdish fighters in helping to rescue members of Iraq’s Yezidi minority who were stranded after an Islamic State assault. The result is that the Kurds are “slightly better poised to obtain a wider geographical autonomy or semi-sovereignty,” he said.
Sidar, preparing to battle for that cause, said his mother is crying for him. “But she understands that I should go and fight to defend our land.”