Dispatch

Welcoming the Flood

Thousands of Kurdish refugees have fled the besieged Syrian city of Kobani across the border into Turkey. But the warm reception may not last long.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

SURUC, Turkey — In the early afternoon, Turkish and Syrian Kurds gather on the streets for what is becoming a daily ritual — welcoming the packed buses and vans that stream into this ragged town on the Turkish-Syrian border. Their chants are in both Arabic and Kurdish as they urge the newcomers on: "Come, come!" "Thank you, brothers of Kobani!"

While the scene looks like a victory parade — some of the newcomers even flash a victory sign — the reality is much more grim. Suruc has been one of the main destinations for the roughly 150,000 Syrian Kurds who have flooded into Turkey over the past week, to escape an offensive by the Islamic State (IS) that threatened the Syrian city of Kobani. U.N. officials said that they have not seen such a large number of refugees in such a short period during the entire Syrian conflict.

The residents in this Turkish village unanimously welcomed the U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State, seeing in them a chance to retake the dozens of villages that they had lost to the jihadists in recent weeks. Airstrikes targeted Islamic State positions near Kobani earlier this week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"Thank you to America, thank you," said Abdulsittar, a refugee from Kobani. "Many young people, when the United States started attacking daesh [an Arabic term for the Islamic State], went back to Syria and started to fight. They’re resisting, they’re resisting."

But civilians like Abdulsittar could quickly become disillusioned — and officials in Washington could become very embarrassed — if the direct U.S. military intervention does not stop the jihadist advance on Kobani. The town of roughly 200,000 has become the central prize in the Islamic State’s offensive into Syria’s Kurdish region: The jihadist group is reportedly sending reinforcements to this front, and continues to push back Kurdish fighters. Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 IS fighters were involved in the offensive, armed with heavy weaponry that their Kurdish opponents cannot match.

"The strikes so far do not seem to have had much or any effect on this part of the war," White said. "To have a real and immediate effect, the strikes would have to be concentrated on this front and focus on ISIS forces, weapons, and logistics."

Despite the massive numbers who have fled, many young men from Kobani have stayed behind to fight IS or watch over the houses and belongings of relatives. The youth who have joined the fight have largely joined the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia armed mainly with light weapons. But Abdulsittar worries that it won’t be enough to stop the Islamic State.

"They’re closing in on Kobani from the south," he said. "If they control the mountain [to the south of the town] they will shell Kobani with any weapon they want."

Suruc itself — which had a prewar population of 55,000 that has more than doubled with the influx of refugees — is still seized by the animosities between Turks and Kurds. The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency against Ankara and has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and Turkey. Consequently, the Turkish government does not allow YPG commanders to organize on Turkish territory — denying them the sort of rear base that other Syrian rebel groups have benefited from during the course of the conflict. Turkey also eventually closed the border crossing near Kobani, prompting clashes with some Kurds looking to cross. 

On this day in Suruc, cordons of police in riot gear watch the Kurdish demonstrations welcoming new refugees to Kobani warily from a distance. The Kurdish civilians, meanwhile, are no less suspicious of the government’s actions.

"The Turkish government didn’t give us any help; only the Kurds in Turkey have helped us," said a Syrian refugee named Rashad, in a crowded wedding hall that had been converted into a place for 500 refugees to sleep. "Turkey helped daesh."

Rashad and other refugees credit Turkey’s official Kurdish party, the BDP, for organizing humanitarian assistance for them. Kurdish charitable groups active throughout southeastern Turkey have also offered food and medical support to the refugees in Suruc.

Most refugees, however, were less interested in untangling the complex web of alliances and rivalries that the Syrian war has created, and more concerned with the daily struggle of survival. In a local municipality building, Abdullah, a 64-year-old day laborer, has made a makeshift bedroom on the hard cement floor for his wife and children. He described how they have been twice displaced by the conflict — first from his home city of Hama, after the violence became too great and work opportunities dried up, and then from his adopted city of Kobani. 

"I don’t want anything; I just need to eat and drink — just to stay alive," he says, breaking down into tears. "I have four children, they are with me — I just need to feed them, so they can stay alive. But I can’t go outside, I start crying all the time."

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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