Kurds welcome air strikes on Islamic State, curse Turkey’s absence

By Daren Butler MURSITPINAR Turkey (Reuters) - Kurds fleeing an onslaught by Islamic State fighters in northern Syria welcomed U.S.-led air strikes on Tuesday but cursed Turkey's absence from the campaign, accusing it of supporting the Sunni Musl...

By Daren Butler

MURSITPINAR Turkey (Reuters) - Kurds fleeing an onslaught by Islamic State fighters in northern Syria welcomed U.S.-led air strikes on Tuesday but cursed Turkey’s absence from the campaign, accusing it of supporting the Sunni Muslim insurgents.

Turkey, a NATO member with a major U.S. airbase, was conspicuously absent from the strikes launched by the United States and Arab allies against Islamic State, which has carved a self-proclaimed caliphate out of swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Ankara has been struggling to manage an influx of more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing the insurgents' advance on the strategic Syrian border town of Kobani but has shied away from a frontline role in military action.

"Air strikes are only one dimension," President Tayyip Erdogan said on U.S. television. "We have to look at this as a whole," he told PBS talk show host Charlie Rose in an interview recorded on Monday before the strikes began.


"If we do not have this kind of a comprehensive approach, then the job will be half done because you bomb a place, and that's where you leave it. What about the social ramifications? What about the political ramifications?," he said, according to a transcript.

Turkey has been slow to join calls for a coalition to fight Islamic State in Syria, worried in part about links between Syrian Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group which waged a three-decade campaign against the Turkish state for greater Kurdish rights.

The PKK has called on Turkey's Kurds to join the fight to defend Kobani, and local residents say hundreds of youths have done so, although Turkish security forces have been trying to keep them from crossing the frontier.

The PYD, the dominant Kurdish political group in Syria, also welcomed the U.S.-led strikes and said it wanted to coordinate on confronting Islamic State.

Security forces near the Turkish town of Suruc, 10 km (6 miles) from the border, fired tear gas overnight at Kurdish protesters who accuse Ankara of favoring Islamic State - which is still commonly known by its former acronym ISIL - against the Kurds.

"We have been saying all along that Turkey has been supporting ISIL since the day it started these attacks," said Suruc mayor Zuhal Ekmez, adding that she expected Kurds from the Turkish side of the border to continue to join the fight.

She expressed fears about Rojava, the Kurdish region in northern Syria. "They are aware that if Rojava falls, if Kobani falls, the gains of the struggle of the last 40 years will be lost. Kobani is very important for us and we have to defend it to the end."

Turkey strongly denies it has given any form of support to the Islamist militants, but Western countries say its open borders during Syria's 3-year civil war allowed Islamic State and other radical groups to grow in power.


Kurdish suspicions about Ankara's relationship with Islamic State deepened after 46 Turkish hostages held for more than three months by the group were released on Saturday, with no shots fired and no ransom paid.

"We have no hesitation whatsoever with respect to fighting against terrorism," Erdogan told a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Monday, defending his country's record on combating extremist groups.

But he did not deny suggestions that the hostages - including diplomats, soldiers and children - had been released by Islamic State as the result of a prisoner swap.

"Such things may be possible ... Operations are political sometimes, or diplomatic, or civilian. And they involve discussions, contacts," Erdogan said.


The main Kurdish armed group in northern Syria, the YPG, said on Monday its fighters had halted the Islamic State advance east of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, but fierce fighting continued on other fronts.

Kobani FM radio, which reaches the Turkish side of the border, said YPG forces had ambushed Islamic State vehicles and killed 23 fighters around a cluster of settlements called Siftek, about 15 km (9 miles) west of Kobani.

"Long live America!" said Mustafa Juma, a 48-year-old car mechanic sitting in a Kurdish cultural center in Suruc. Juma, who fled to Turkey with other villagers, praised the airstrikes on Raqqa, Islamic State's stronghold in Syria, but wanted more.


"They have hit Raqqa but we want them to hit ISIL around Kobani too. We must get rid of them all ... If America continues to strike and it is safe, we will go back," he said.

The U.N. refugee agency said it was making contingency plans for all 400,000 inhabitants of Kobani to flee into Turkey. It said 138,000 had already crossed in an exodus that began last week, with just two border crossings still open.

In dry, dusty fields near the village of Yumurtalik, Syrian Kurds, mostly women and children, continued to cross the border after being registered at makeshift crossing.

Security forces fired several rounds of tear gas into the wide no-man's land that separates the two borders when some Syrian Kurds tried to throw possessions over the metal fence.

Tensions have been high partly because Turkish authorities have refused to allow the Syrian Kurds to bring in their vehicles. Hundreds of cars and trucks have been left in the no-man's land that is lined with metal fences.

Gusts of wind stirred whirlwinds of dust across the area as refugees continued to cross, the women carrying sacks on their heads and small children clasping bottles of water and biscuits.

At least 105 villages around Kobani have been captured by Islamic State forces since Sept. 15, including at least 85 over the weekend, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said. He said he had reports that an additional 100 villages had been abandoned or evacuated for fear of being captured.

"We are very happy that this has happened, but they should have intervened before," said Zuheyr Ali, 34, an engineer from Kobani who came to Suruc with a group of 22 people two days ago.


"They must dig up ISIL by its roots and not leave any behind. They are enemies of humanity," he added, holding a plastic cup of tea in his hand.

Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Beirut.


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