Isis advance sends Kurdish refugees to Turkey ahead of key vote on crisis

Islamic State fighters threaten Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani as Turkish MPs debate deployment of troops in Iraq and Syria

Islamic State (Isis) militants have advanced to within a few miles of the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani, triggering a renewed stream of refugees seeking to cross the border into Turkey.

Local Kurdish fighters said that the city was “preparing for urban warfare” and that “Kobani was prepared for the worst”. Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), warned that if there was a massacre of Kurds in Kobani the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government would halt.

The renewed Isis onslaught comes only hours before a vote in the Turkish parliament on a motion that would authorise Turkish forces to be deployed both in Iraq and Syria and permits foreign troops to use Turkish soil.

Until now, Ankara has rejected all military action against Isis in either Syria or Iraq, but in a surprise volte-face last week, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, pledged “full support” for the US-led military coalition and their fight against Isis, but tied his promise to certain conditions . Addressing parliament on Wednesday, Erdoğan insisted that airstrikes alone would not succeed in defeating Isis, and that Turkey would not stage ground operations without an internationally enforced security and no-fly zone.

“Airstrikes will only delay the threat and danger. This has been the case in Iraq so far,” Erdoğan said. “It is inevitable that temporary solutions will cause Iraq to face such interventions every 10 years. Similarly, ignoring Syria will also delay a proper solution.”

He also underlined that one of Turkey’s top priorities in the region remained the removal of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad – an aim currently not shared by the US-led military coalition.

The motion brought before parliament in Thursday’s vote allows for the establishment of a so-called “security zone” on Syrian soil which, Turkey argues, would enable the creation of a “safe haven” for the 1.5 million Syrian refugees currently residing in the country. Human rights groups criticised the idea of a security zone as misleading.

“A security zone only creates the illusion of security for refugees”, said Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International, said. “The border regions are the most embattled zones in the war in Syria and nobody can guarantee the safety for refugees there.”

In the past two weeks, Isis insurgents in northern Syria have advanced to within a few miles of the Turkish border, where they have been clashing with Kurdish fighters, forcing tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to seek refuge in Turkey. US airstrikes have only been partly able to deter the militants’ advance.

Under two existing mandates, Turkish troops are already authorised to be deployed across the borders with Iraq and Syria to defend Turkey against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), active in Northern Iraq, and against the forces of Bashar al-Assad.

Both authorisations, due to expire in this month, would be extended in the combined mandate MPs are voting for on Thursday. The main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy party (HDP) both vowed to vote against the motion.

The CHP criticised the proposed bill as “too vague”, but others argue that the volatile and fast-changing security situation in the Syrian conflict rendered an “adjustable” phrasing necessary. “We are dealing with state actors, non-state actors and a conflict that is not contained within national borders”, said security expert Nihat Ali Özcan.

Kurdish groups on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border who have repeatedly accused Turkey of supporting Isis against Kurdish fighters, argue that the authorisation of troop deployment and a buffer zone across the border serves only as a pretext to establish a military presence in quasi-autonomous Kurdish regions that have emerged as a result of the war in Syria. The Kurdish political umbrella organisation KCK, of which the PKK is a part, warned that the establishment of a buffer zone on Syrian soil would spell an end to the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK that has been under way since 2012. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the HDP, called the motion a “mandate for war.”

Analysts underlined that the extended legislation did not mean that Turkey would actively enter the conflict in Syria. “The fact that the mandate has been approved in parliament does not mean that Turkey will act on it. But it allows the government more operational space when it comes to future military action in Iraq or Syria,” said Özcan.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, the prime minister, harshly criticised all opposition to the legislation: “The AKP government proposes a motion that enables action against all terrorist groups in Syria. Anyone who says ‘no’ to that is the real Isis supporter.”


Constanze Letsch

The GuardianTramp

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