Syrian Kurds feel abandoned as Kobani battle rages
Oct. 14, 2014
SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Kneeling over his brother's fresh grave, Ali Mehmud gathered clumps of dirt in his hands, raised them to his lips to kiss them, then softly placed them back on the small mound.
His brother, Seydo, a truck driver and father of four from the Syrian Kurdish village of Ayn Bat, had been killed four days earlier in Kobani, where he was fighting with fellow Kurds against the Islamic State militants trying to seize the town.
"It's all fire inside my heart," Mehmud said at the small cemetery in Suruc as the wind whipped dust and the faint, sour smell of death into the air. "Only Kurdish people are helping us, nobody else. No one in the international community."
In the crowded refugee camps, public squares and tea halls of this hardscrabble Kurdish town in Turkey near the Syrian border, such words are a frequent refrain among thousands of Syrian Kurds who have fled the Islamic State group's onslaught since mid-September.
No one contests that the U.S.-led coalition has conducted more than 40 airstrikes against the militants besieging Kobani, nor that Turkey has granted refuge to more than 200,000 people who have flooded across the frontier to escape the militants' offensive in Syria.
But both Turkish and Syrian Kurds say the United States and Turkey — and the international community in general — should be doing more to help save Kobani from the fanatical Islamic State militants who have massacred and beheaded their enemies across Syria and Iraq.
"Why isn't the world helping Kobani? If there is a fish without water, you run to help it. Are the people of Kobani not human?" asked Mohammed, a member of Kobani's local council who now helps administer a refugee camp in Suruc. He declined to give his last name, fearing trouble with Turkish authorities. "America should do something."
Syria's Kurds, led by the Kurdish Democratic Party and its armed wing, popularly known as the YPG, have been battling the Islamic State group for more than a year, long before the United States. And yet they remain essentially left to their own devices, largely shunned by both the mainstream Syrian opposition as well as the U.S.-led coalition — despite their common enemy.
But the sense of abandonment also has been nourished by more recent events.
The Kurds of Kobani can rattle off a list of other communities in neighboring Iraq threatened with annihilation by Islamic State militants who were ultimately rescued by the Americans — their own Kurdish brethren, the Yazidis and the Shiite Turkmen of Amerli.
The threat to Kobani is no less dire, according to U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who warned last week that if Kobani falls the civilians left there "will most likely be massacred."
To forestall such a fate, Syrian Kurdish leaders have called for Turkey to open the border to allow fighters from the YPG in northeastern Syria to travel through Turkish territory to reinforce Kobani. They also have begged the international community for heavy weapons — like the ones delivered by the U.S. and its allies to Iraq's Kurds — to bolster the outgunned defenders of Kobani.
So far, both requests have gone unanswered. Syrian Kurds are quick to point out who, in their eyes, is to blame: Turkey.
Ankara is wary of the Syrian Kurds and their YPG militia, which it believes is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement in southeast Turkey that has waged a long and bloody insurgency against the Turkish state.
The U.S., anxious to have Ankara's help in the anti-Islamic State group fight, has deferred to the Turks.
"This is something between America and Turkey," said Fatma Youssef, sitting cross-legged in a refugee tent in central Suruc with two dozen other refugees who fled to Turkey from the village of Hamamik, east of Kobani. "This is why we're not being helped."
Ankara has shown no sense of urgency to tip the scales of the battle for Kobani in the Kurds' favor, in large part because of its distrust of the YPG fighters defending the town. In recent days, Turkish officials have even gone so far as to emphasize that they view both the Islamic State group and the PKK as terrorist groups.
Turkey's perceived obstructionism over Kobani has infuriated Syrian Kurds, as well as those in Turkey. YPG fighters and civilians accuse the Turks of not only hindering their battle against the Islamic State group, but also of actively aiding the militants with tanks, other weapons and supplies.
"Turkey was shelling us. I saw Grad rockets being shot at us from Turkey," said Hanif Dedeli, a YPG guerilla who fought east of Kobani.
Such accusations have persisted despite Turkey's declared participation in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group, including its offer to train up to 4,000 mainstream Syrian rebels on Turkish soil.
Syria's Kurds have charted a tricky course through the rough waters of their country's civil war. They have carved out an autonomous zone in predominantly Kurdish areas since President Bashar Assad's force largely withdrew from them in 2012.
But some small government garrisons have remained in those Kurdish-controlled areas, leading many in the Syrian opposition to accuse the Kurds of working with Damascus — charges the Kurds deny.
"In Syria, you have two options: the Free Syrian Army or the government. We chose the third path —being neutral," said Mohammed, the Kobani local council member.
On a deeper level, the Syrian Kurds' frustration with the international community is interwoven with the community's troubled history in Syria, where they have been treated as second-class citizens by rulers for decades, as well as the broader struggle of a Kurdish people spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran for a homeland of their own.
For now, most of the estimated 200,000 people who have fled Kobani have found a refuge in Suruc and the surrounding villages, crowding into four refugee camps as well as wedding halls, public buildings and mosques.
In Suruc itself, three camps with row upon row of gray tents have been set up, and a fourth is set to open Thursday. Volunteers pass hand out bread from plastic bags, and on a recent evening a food truck doled out bowls of cooked rice and beans for dinner.
The relief is funded in large part by the People's Democratic Party, Turkey's leading Kurdish party, as well as donations from Suruc, which is predominantly Kurdish.
Back at the Suruc cemetery, where his brother's body was brought from Syria and buried, Mehmud said that such help has earned the gratitude of the people of Kobani, who remain in limbo for now, unsure how long their exile will last as the fighting rages on.
"These people of Suruc are helping us. The Kurds of Suruc are beside us," he said.
Mohammed Rasool contributed to this report.
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