With Islamic State militants moving into the outskirts of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, an odd two-way traffic developed Tuesday across the Turkey-Syria border.
Thousands of Syrian Kurds flooded into Turkey, abandoning their homes and farms, carrying what they could – blankets, cushions and whatever staple foods they could lug, big bags of flour, tins of olive oil, homemade cheese, tomato paste, as well as plates, glasses and silverware.
Many brought television sets as they streamed across a special crossing Turkey has set up in the town of Yumurtalik. Crying babies and shouting children added to the cacophony.
Just a few miles to the east, in Mursitpinar, people headed on foot in the opposite direction, into Kobane, but only to pick up their cars, their winter clothes and whatever food they could carry back to Turkey.
Ahmed Melah, 48, a businessman, hoped to fetch his car, clothes and other goods. “Hopefully, I’ll stay in Turkey only one or two months, with the help of God and America,” he said.
Another man, who would only give his name as Abu Aziz, or Aziz’s father, walked to the border gate with his wife in hopes of picking up their winter clothes. “We can’t afford to buy them in Turkey,” he said.
Everyone seemed to have abandoned hope of returning to Kobane anytime soon.
Even those who’d at one time thought the Islamic State would be held off appeared to have given up. Mohamad Ahmed, 24, a laborer, had driven his family to the border 10 days ago, when the Islamic State captured his village, but he stayed with his car on the Syrian side while his family went to stay with relatives in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. On Tuesday, he abandoned the car and crossed into Turkey, bringing an enormous pile of blankets and a television. But he plans to stay only briefly.
“I want to go to Iraq,” he told McClatchy, referring to the autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
The Turkish government says 160,000 Kurds have crossed from northern Syria in the past week, and there were at least 10,000 more on Monday, according to Sanliurfa.Com, a local news portal.
On Tuesday, a McClatchy reporter witnessed Kurds arriving at a rate of about 500 an hour. Turkish authorities processed them in an orderly and efficient manner, with children offered rubella vaccinations in a medical tent, and everyone required to register at a mobile immigration office before being transported by a fleet of minibuses to nearby towns.
The regional Kobane government, controlled by a Kurdish group that Turkey, the United States and the European Union have labeled as a terrorist organization, said the U.S.-led coalition staged two airstrikes on Islamic State positions Monday night about six miles west of Kobane, but the Islamic State advance seemed to be undeterred.
Idriss Nassan, the deputy foreign minister of the Kobane canton, reached by phone, told McClatchy that Islamic State fighters were within three miles of the city on the south and east and six miles on the west. Other estimates put the Islamic State as close as two miles outside the town, which is also known in Arabic as Ayn al Arab.
If the U.S. and its Arab allies appeared reluctant to save Kobane from the Islamic State, there was no sign that Turkey would intervene, either. The Turkish military brought more than 30 tanks and armored vehicles to the border Monday and menacingly pointed their turrets into Syria. But one day later, they were parked in a lot close to the border with no sign of crews.
The tragedy of the Kobane region is that its leadership had been able to secure peace and calm for the past two years, a period in which internally displaced Kurds and other groups migrated there by the tens of thousands. When the Islamic State began pressuring last spring, the local Kurdish militia, known by its Kurdish initials as the YPG, seemed to be able to hold them off. But in recent days, the Islamic State has been advancing, and the U.S. coalition, no doubt spurred on by Turkey’s fears that the YPG is allied with its own Kurdish separatist insurgents, hasn’t come to the rescue. When Turkish Kurds tried to send in fighters, the Turkish government stopped them, using tear gas.
On Tuesday there was no sign of more volunteers, and none of the two dozen or so returning Kobane residents said they intended to join the militia, and a sense of hopelessness swept those who’d fled.
Ahmed Mustafa, 31, a Kobane resident, offered a grim assessment of the YPG’s chance of holding out much longer. “If all they have is rifles, we are going to die,” he said.