Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images
Even by the standards of Syria’s nearly four-year-long civil war, it is a refugee exodus of extraordinary, if not unprecedented proportions. In less than 72 hours, an estimated 130,000 Syrian Kurds have poured across the border into neighboring Turkey, fleeing an onslaught by Islamist militants near the town of Kobani in northern Syria.
"We are preparing for the potential of the whole population fleeing into Turkey," Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva on Tuesday. "Anything could happen and that population of Kobani is 400,000."
Also on Tuesday, the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia defending Kobani, called for the U.S. and its Arab allies to expand their air strikes to target positions being held around the city by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Turkey, which already hosts upwards of 1.3 million Syrians — about 220,000 of them living in tent and container camps near the border — has done a much better job of accommodating the refugees than any of its neighbors. But the burden of providing for those displaced by the most recent fighting has proved too large to bear.
Since Friday, some of the refugees have found a place in newly assembled tent cities, Turkish officials said. Some have stayed with family members. Others have not been so lucky. In Suruc, a Turkish town about 8 miles north of the border gate at Kobani, and all along the road connecting the two, thousands of Syrians sought shelter in public squares, mosques, and in dry, barren fields.
At the crossing itself, a group of perhaps a hundred or more men, most of them from villages around Kobani, pleaded with Turkish soldiers to let them back into Syria. They seemed surprised that anyone should ask why they thought of returning. “To fight Islamic State,” one of them said, using the name ISIS recently gave itself.
At a nearby village, police and riot vehicles squared off against dozens of Kurdish activists from Turkey. The Kurds were protesting the Turkish authorities’ decision, temporary as it turned out, to close the border. They were greeted with a barrage of tear gas and several arrests.
The fighting around Kobani, combined with the massive refugee influx and reports of new atrocities perpetrated by ISIS against Syria’s Kurds, has put Turkey under further pressure, both international and domestic, to review its policy options. Until last weekend, Ankara had insisted it could not play a bigger role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS for fear that doing so would put at risk the lives of 46 Turkish hostages captured by the jihadists in in June. But on Sept. 20, in an operation that likely included a prisoner swap, the hostages were set free.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since suggested his government’s position towards ISIS might be ripe for a rethink. “What happens from now on is a separate issue,” he said Sunday. “We need to decide what kind of attitude to take.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear he now expects Turkey to make a tangible contribution to the alliance. The Turks “first needed to deal with their hostage situation,” he said Monday. “Now the proof will be in the pudding.”
Anyone who thinks Turkey is about to take part in armed operations against ISIS, however, should think again, says Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and former State Department official.
In practice, there are three areas where Ankara might be in a position to help the U.S., Barkey says. It could allow the Americans to use the Incirlik Air Base, in Turkey’s south, to stage strikes against ISIS; it could provide more intelligence cooperation; and it could start dismantling the jihadist-support network in Turkey, stopping people, arms and supplies from entering Syria, and stopping smuggled fuel, arguably the biggest source of ISIS’s wealth, from coming out. Anything beyond that appears to be out of the question. “I don’t think Erdogan can move militarily against ISIS,” Barkey says. “That would open up a huge scenario for him that he is not ready for.”
As it positions itself diplomatically, Turkey is also beginning to face the domestic fallout from the drama unfolding on its doorstep.
Although few of them are able to provide hard evidence, many Kurds on both sides of the border firmly believe that Turkey backs ISIS — and that it is using the jihadists as a proxy against the YPG, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turks’ longtime enemy.
The longer the misery in Kobani lasts, Kurdish politicians now warn, the higher the chance that the political atmosphere inside Turkey will turn toxic, derailing a nascent peace process between the PKK and the government.
“They give us an olive branch in one hand, they support ISIS with the other, and they say nothing about the killing in Kobani,” said Mehmet Karayilan, a Kurdish politician from Gaziantep. “That’s putting the whole peace process at risk.”