SURUC, Turkey — In the dust of a Kurdish refugee camp, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today that the Syrian city of Kobani—a Kurdish city—is about to fall to the savage fighters of the so-called Islamic State, and he sought to spread the blame as far from him as possible.
Erdogan suggested during his carefully managed visit to the camp in Gaziantep, about 45 minutes from the border, that there was nothing much to be done without an international ground force going in. Turkey, which has the third largest army in NATO and one of the ten most powerful armies in the world couldn’t do it alone, apparently. There hasn’t been enough Western “cooperation with those who are fighting on the ground,” according to Erdogan.
The belated U.S. airstrikes close to Kobani that started last week—there had been half-a-dozen in all—just aren’t enough, Erdogan argued, to save the embattled town, where fighting in the streets in three central districts in the south and east erupted on Tuesday.
In fact, coalition airstrikes picked up momentum during the day and by evening 10 had been delivered and appeared this time to be better targeted. They seemed to slow the jihadiist progress, and by early nighttime there was an eerie quiet. But the Turkish tanks near the front lines sat quiet. Unnervingly, several Turkish tanks in a 30-strong formation on the side of an incline have their guns pointing into Turkey.
Erdogan’s explanations certainly aren’t convincing Kurdish refugees or Turkey’s Kurds who are watching the battle unfold from hills overlooking the town to the west or in more low-lying Turkish border villages to the east. With every earth-thudding bang of tank and artillery ordnance and whoosh of mortar fire—and with every tweet from inside relaying the grimness of the desperate final stand and every online photograph of a jihadist holding up the head of a decapitated Kurdish fighter—their anger is deepening.
“There will be consequences for this,” an activist with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, tells me. “We aren’t going to forget,” the curly-haired woman, who declines to give a name, says sitting cross-legged on a blanket pulled up under Pistachio trees. PKK activists and defenders in Kobani claim the course of battle could have been changed with just some modest assistance: if they could have gotten anti-tank missiles the Americans have been handing out to rebel battalions in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, and if Turkey had allowed Kurdish reinforcements to cross the border.
In a dilapidated one-story schoolhouse in the hamlet of Boydi—hens scurry in the dusty yard—women refugees in traditional colorful dress don’t pause for breath to vent their frustration. I disturb their efforts to get their children and the few clothes they have with them clean using hoses and battered buckets. But the washing is put aside and the women talk over themselves in bursts of rage with crescendos and ebbs before gathering full force again.
“Why aren’t the Turks doing anything?” demands Nawi, a rotund woman who looks more than her 42 years and has a brood of five children. The women don’t only complain at the lack of Turkish military action—and about the belated U.S. airstrikes—but also with the difficulty they faced crossing into Turkey. They waited on the border for 15 days before entering because the Turkish border guards wouldn’t let them in with their livestock or cars. They only abandoned them when fighters from the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, got terrifyingly close.
Parts of the 12-mile border stretch opposite Kobani look like a scrap-yard with abandoned cars and trucks.
A local Kurdish farmer later took me to a border spot near his farmhouse. Using the disdainful Arab acronym for the Islamic State, Da’esh, he said jihadist fighters have been right up to the edge of his farmland. The low border fence here has many holes and before the Kobani fight erupted smugglers and farmers would cross with ease when the guards changed their shifts in nearby watchtowers. At the weekend a few panicked refugees from Kobani villages came here with their cars hoping to find a way through but Turkish border guards intercepted them.
“They beat them, woman and men,” he says. “They ordered people to leave their cars to send them round to the main border crossing at Suruc, even though Da’esh was within sight. The Turks set fire to a car,” he says, pointing to the burnt-out metal carcass just the other side of the fence. He then wanders off to join other locals to observe the smoke rising over Kobani and to try to make sense of the course of battle.
Other Turkish Kurds farther along the border are trawling the web on their cell phones for footage of the fighting. One video posted Saturday by the YPG, the Syrian Kurds’ self-defense forces, whose ranks are dominated by the Syrian offshoot of Turkey’s PKK, catches their eyes. In the video the tanks are all around YPG fighters crouched for cover behind a white-washed single story house on Kobani’s outskirts. As a tank trundles through a Pistachio orchard a young Kurdish fighter risks sniper rounds and scurries forward to a mound of red-earth and debris.
His companions—one a woman—urge him to let loose with a rocket-propelled grenade and he fires. There is a crash and gray smoke billows from the rear of the tank. It heads off one way only to change direction and to retreat the way it came trailing smoke. Rounds sound off—it isn’t clear if fired by the tank or jihadist snipers—towards the Kurd fighter. He, too, beats a hasty retreat.
The four-minute video and others posted by the YPG and Da’esh fighters illustrate the desperation of the fight for Kobani. With Da’esh successfully seizing a strategic hill on the east of the town on Monday— the jihadists signaled their achievement by hoisting a black flag—what looks like a final assault is unfolding, and for the Kurds it doesn’t look good with smoke rising in center.
Few here believe Kobani can hold out much longer and Tuesday the Kurdish defenders ordered remaining civilians to flee. No doubt the final stages will see even more desperation to match the attack mounted at the weekend by a female Kurdish fighter—a mother of two—who assaulted a group of jihadists on the east side of Kobani. She hurled grenades at them before blowing herself up, according to Kurdish sources, who claimed 27 jihadists died in the lone attack. But that number can’t be verified.
“I knew her by sight,” my translator tells me. “She lived in a neighboring village and seemed an ordinary woman.” But then this extraordinary war has turned ordinary people into heroes and villains capable of heroism—and savagery—few imagined before.