Kurdish refugees desperate to flee advances by the Islamic State into the encircled Kurdish stronghold of Kobane began clashing with Turkish police Sunday as the siege that began last week became increasingly dire.
Kobane is surrounded on three sides by the Islamic State and to the north faces a Turkish government generally hostile to the Kurds, complicating the challenge of refugees trying to flee, and of pro-Kurdish fighters trying to rush in to help defend the beseiged town. Turkish authorities only agreed to open the border on Friday and since have been struggling to control an estimate 70,000 refugees who have flooded into Turkey.
The clashes come after the Islamic State began a rapid advance on Kobane in the last week, launching a sustained attack on the armed wing of the local ruling party, the People’s Protection Units or YPG. YPG officials said the advance has pushed their men to the brink of collapse even as Turkey has been reluctant to allow supplies and reinforcements into the besieged pocket.
“We have been able to send a few hundred men from Irbil – men living here with families in Kobane – to fight to protect their homes but they have not been allowed to take weapons and units of the PKK have not been allowed by the Turks to reinforce the area,” said Dr Ali, an organizer in Irbil for the Kurdish Workers Party, known as the PKK, a militant group considered a terrorist organization in the United States and Turkey. PKK members commonly use only one name as a nom de guerre.
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Inside Kobane itself, a YPG member who asked not to be identified criticizing the Turkish authorities as his wife and three children had crossed the border to safety on Friday said that the town had begun to empty into Turkey after the authorities finally allowed the border to open, but that the attempts to control the flow were causing major tensions.
“The Turks have begun allowing refugees out but they took so long that the pressure of people needing to flee had built up like water behind a gate and now it’s a flood,” said the YPG activist. “And they are allowing unarmed men to enter to fight but they must show a Syrian ID card that says they’re from Kobane. There are many brothers and sisters from Turkey with training and equipment who want to fight but the Turkish government considers them terrorists and will not let them come to our aid. This is causing big problems between the Kurds in both Syria and Turkey with the Turkish authorities. It could get violent.”
Witnesses said that refugees coming out and fighters demanding to cross into Kobane clashed with Turkish police and border guards on Sunday, leading to the destruction of vehicles and sustained bouts of rock throwing as police used water canons and tear gas on the angry population.
Widely thought to control the YPG at least militarily, the PKK has strongly supported the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan despite decades of political tensions over Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s good relationship with Turkey, the PKK’s mortal foe. The tensions were set aside in this summer as an Islamic State offensive threatened to take Irbil and other key parts of Kurdistan and PKK fighters rushed to support their fellow Kurds, leading to a general thaw. YPG fighters also played a critical role in pushing back the Islamic State advance after the militants captured the city of Sinjar and sent tens of thousands of refugees out of their homes, sparking a humanitarian crisis that drew the world’s attention.
A demonstration in Irbil on Saturday calling for more support from the Irbil authorities for the fighters trapped inside Kobane drew thousands of people under the watchful eye of the peshmerga, as the local security forces are known. Statements by both political and peshmerga military officials have been inconclusive about whether direct military aid could or would be sent to Kobane in support of the Syrian Kurds.
“Yes there is a lot of popular support for sending the peshmerga to help our Syrian brothers after many of them helped us against” the Islamic State, said one peshmerga official who didn’t want to be quoted by name on the subject. “But you can look at a map and see why this is difficult. We can help the YPG in western Syria because we share a border with them but we can’t send peshmerga to Kobane. There’s no way to get them there.”