Fleeing Islamic State fighters, Syrian refugees stream into Turkey

At least 60,000 mostly Kurdish refugees have entered Turkey since Thursday after Islamic State militants surrounded a Kurdish stronghold in northern Syria. Some are calling for US airstrikes to stop the group's advance. 

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
A Turkish soldier throws a pack of water towards Syrian refugees waiting at the border in Suruc, Turkey, on Sept. 21, 2014. Turkey opened its border Saturday to allow in up to 60,000 people who massed on the Turkey-Syria border, fleeing an Islamic State advance.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have crossed into Turkey in recent days, fleeing an Islamic State offensive that has opened up another front in Syria's civil war as the US weighs a bombing campaign there.

The exodus is expected to grow amid fierce clashes around Kobane, a Kurdish stronghold in northern Syria. The UN's refugee agency said more than 60,000 Syrians, mostly Kurds, had already arrived in a 48-hour period. Fighting between Kurdish militia and IS forces is now within earshot of the Turkish border. 

The fall of Kobane would give IS militants uninterrupted control over a solid stretch in northern Syria and put it closer to Turkey's doorstep. Turkey, a NATO ally that has demurred at joining the US-led military coalition against IS, is under pressure to interrupt the flow of foreign fighters over its porous borders.

Some refugees interviewed Sunday at the border asked why neither Turkey nor the US and its Western allies had so far bombed IS positions in Syria. After the West’s humanitarian intervention in Iraq on behalf of persecuted Yazidis, Syrian refugees say they expect no less. 

“They’ve been talking about hitting the Islamic State in Syria since before the offensive against Kobane. You mean to tell me that in the last 48 hours they still have done nothing?” asked Fadila, who crossed into Turkey on Saturday and still wore a frazzled expression. 

The US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers said Sunday that the US had support from other countries for airstrikes in Syria, but refused to name them. "We will not do the airstrikes alone if the president decides to do the airstrikes," she told ABC's "This Week" program.

In a lightning attack that begun Friday, IS fighters captured 60 Kurdish villages and set their sights on Kobane, or Ayn Arab. The town is a bastion of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that has fought Sunni jihadists both in Syria and neighboring Iraq. While Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims, they are seen as apostates by IS because of their secular culture. 

In the context of the Syrian conflict, now into its fourth year, Kobane was an oasis of relative peace, sheltering as many as 200,000 internally displaced persons, according to the UN's refugee agency. At least 45,000 people are still stranded there, according to a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer working in the area.

Tear gas and prayers

The bulk of those displaced by the IS offensive have ended up here in Suruc. The border gate between Suruc and Korbane was formally shut on Sunday after clashes broke out between Turkish security forces and Kurdish men seeking to join the fight in Syria.

“The scene was surreal: lots of tear gas and stones flying, you could hear bombs across the border, women wailing and the call to prayer,” says Omer Baram, a law student from Diyarbaker who had volunteered to help in Suruc. By dusk, the Turkish army had reinforced its presence on the border with dozens of armored vehicles.

In the cover of night, a trickle of families came across from Kobane, lugging their belongings in improvised sacks. Somber-looking Turkish Kurds – mostly relatives of the displaced – awaited under the stars, lighting the path with their mobile phones.

“Families are braving minefields to get here,” said Mahmoud Mostafa who works for the Syrian Red Crescent in Kobane and has been arranging safe passage for those wounded in battle. About 22 individuals in need of medical attention in Turkey crossed Sunday, he said.  

Turkish escape route

A newly arrived Kurdish woman sporting a tartan hijab kept a wary eye on her two children. “The situation is very bad. The Islamic State has surrounded Kobane from the south, east and west. Turkey is our only way out,” she says.

“The war between the Islamic State and Kurds has shifted to Syria but the whole world is watching with their arms crossed as this new massacre unfolds,” her husband says angrily.

Another new arrival, who gave his name as Mozlem, directed his anger at Turkey: “Turkey has bombed the PKK in Qandil, Iraq. Why can’t they get their act together and hit the Islamic State in Syria?”

Kurdish fighters from Iraq and Turkey – including members of the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist group by EU, Turkey and the United States– are said to have stepped into the fight in Syria. Turkey has for decades tried to repress Kurdish groups that seek to break away from Ankara's rule. 

“The PKK and YPG don’t have heavy weapons – how can they put a stop to [IS]?” asks Osman, a villager living in the outskirts of Suruc who like many others in this town has kinfolk in Kobane. “Children are now having to fight.”

Across this town of around 100,000 residents, refugees are sleeping on the streets, mosques, warehouses, wedding halls, and even gas stations. “Residents have been beyond generous but this crisis is beyond their means,” says Khalil Assad, another Kobani native.

“We don’t care where we sleep as long as the Islamic State is finished,” adds his mustachioed friend, Mostafa Al-Ali.

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