Turkey orders troops to border but refuses to intervene to repel brutal jihadist advance as refugees report atrocities
Catherine James in Mursitpinar
As Islamic State militants closed in on the besieged Syrian city of Kobani on Saturday, Turkey lined up its soldiers near the border but continued to refuse to intervene to repel the extremist advance.
On a day that should have been one of the happiest in the Muslim calendar, the festival of Eid al-Adha, hundreds of Turks and refugee Kurds spent the morning at the border with Syria, watching helplessly as shells rained down on a city many once called home.Turkish police appeared uneasy at the size of the crowd gathered near a fragile border fence and fired teargas grenades to disperse them, adding the crack of smaller explosions to the rumbling of the Isis advance.
When the crowd formed again, armoured personnel carriers and water cannon arrived, and riot police set to again. It was a mournfully surreal scene, with the battle for Kobani as the backdrop for the standoff with police.
Mostafa Kader was one of the restive crowd, grieving for an uncle who had been beheaded by militants, and a young mother and her daughter both brutally raped and murdered.
Kader fled 10 days ago, leaving his village, which lies 16km from Kobani centre, in the small hours of the morning. He and his wife took their five-year-old, their toddler and what little else they could carry.
His uncle planned to join them but at the last minute changed his mind, unable to leave a village that had been his home for more than eight decades. The militants beheaded him, refugees arriving later told Kader.
“He was 85 – he could not even lift a weapon,” said the young father, baffled by the brutality. Even more haunting were stories from his wife’s village, where the fleeing family found the bodies of her sister and an eight-year-old niece lying in pools of blood.
“They had been raped, and their hearts were cut out of their chests and left on top of the bodies,” he said, struggling to hold back tears. “I buried them with my own hands.”
Four years of civil war, and the extreme brutality of Isis have left him despairing for his country and family. “If I had known this was what the future held, I would never have married. It would be better to have died [fighting] in Kobani,” he said.
After US air strikes on Isis positions overnight, the barrage of shells seemed to have slowed slightly. Kurdish forces said they had repelled an assault on the city’s heart. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group, said the coalition hit at least four areas late on Friday on the southern and south-eastern fronts outside Kobani, which is also known as Ain al-Arab.
The group said the strikes had destroyed some military material belonging to Isis, which fired dozens of mortar rounds into the city on Friday after advancing to its outskirts.
“We have been fighting for 20 days now. Isis swore they would celebrate this Eid in the Kobani mosque, but we have prevented them,” said Ismat Sheik Hasan, a commander of YPG, the Kurdish militia defending Kobani. “One of the US air strikes yesterday damaged their machine gun and another took out a cannon. We don’t know if they hit their tanks or not.”
Despite the success of their overnight defence and the limited relief provided by US air strikes, Hasan warned that the city’s fate still hung in the balance. His fighters were running low on supplies, and promised aid had not arrived.
“We called the Turkish government for weapons and help. They said they will not allow Isis to control Kobani, but until now we have not seen them do anything.”
Turkey has so far taken a back seat in efforts to tackle Isis in Syria, in part because dozens of diplomats captured in Mosul were being held hostage by the group. Their recent release potentially frees Istanbul to take a more active role in the US-led coalition against Islamic State, but the government has not unveiled any formal plans.
On Thursday, Turkey’s parliament voted to allow the deployment of forces in Syria and Iraq to fight Isis. Ankara also warned it would not hesitate to strike Isis jihadists if they attacked Turkish troops in Syria, stationed at an enclave holding the tomb of Suleyman Shah.
Kurdish forces have long said that their most urgent need is more munitions so they can press any advantage won by air strikes, and these have been slow to arrive.
“We don’t have heavy weapons and we don’t have enough ammunition,” said a spokesman. “I cannot say how many weapons we have – that is a secret– but I can say that we don’t have enough. Maybe they will enter Kobani, and if they do, there will be a massacre.”
Rami Abdelrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the Reuters news agency that several hundred people had been killed on both sides since the assault on Kobani started two weeks ago.
But there are many more who would be at risk if Isis takes the city. “In Kobani there are maybe 200,000 people, but I don’t know exactly. Some leave at night and go to the border then return later,” YPG commander Hasan said.
Thousands of Syrians who fled to the border have waited for days up against the fence, determined to delay their official transition to refugee status for as long as possible. More of them are now trickling over.
Among those who finally decided that Kobani was on the brink was Mukdad Bozan, travelling with his wife, a wailing baby and three bedraggled older children. They fled their village more than two weeks ago, shortly after the Isis assault on Kobani began and with little time to spare.
“I saw some soldiers in their cars on the road, but we escaped before they came to my village,” Bozan said.
Still, they hoped the militants might yet be pushed back, and spent days camped out in their car at the border hoping they would soon be able to go home. They have no idea what the future holds now.
The last foreign journalist to leave Kobani on Saturday, the Swede Joakim Medin, said Isis troops were within a few minutes’ drive of the centre, and that those who had chosen to stay, both men and women, were preparing any weapons they had.
“When I was evacuated, around lunchtime today, I saw several civilians armed with Kalashnikovs and any light weapons they could find,” Medin told the BBC. “They were guarding their homes, their neighbourhoods.
“People didn’t really know what to expect. We were sitting just a few hours ago having coffee with a family … and we could see Isis vehicles only two kilometres away. And obviously that means that they are really, really close to Kobani.”