REYHANLI, Turkey – The middle-aged Turkish men gathered around the coffeehouse for a round of Okey, a Turkish game played around a table, are keen to talk politics. It’s a Friday gathering for them, the day that pious men attend mosque, and the weekend begins. But news in Turkey is hyping war in Syria, particularly an intervention against the Kurdish-based YPG (People’s Protection Units), a left-wing movement that has been fighting Islamic State in eastern Turkey. For the West, and particularly the United States, the YPG and its political wing the PYD (Democratic Union Party), have been key allies against Islamic State. For Turkey the PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdish communist PKK in Turkey, which is accused of waging a violent terrorist campaign against the government. On February 18, seven Turkish soldiers and police were killed in roadside attacks by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).
The game changer for Turkey has been two events in recent weeks. First was the gains the YPG was making in Syria against Syrian rebel groups near Aleppo. The defeat of these rebels could mean more than 600,000 further refugees will be forced to flee via the narrow corridor between YPG forces and Islamic State into Turkey.
Turkey has tended to side with the various rebel groups arrayed against Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime. The Kurdish YPG controls two areas in Syria, one in the northeast and a pocket shaped like a square in the northwest around Afrin. Between these two areas is a corridor of Syrian rebels that runs from the Turkish border next to Kilis to Aleppo. Beyond that corridor is another 60 km. of area controlled by Islamic State.
On February 17 a bombing in Ankara targeted Turkish soldiers, killing 28 people and wounding more than 60.
On Friday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “we have no doubt” that the YPG was behind the terrorist attack. Since then the government has pressed the EU, the UN and the US to condemn the bombing and has encouraged Western powers not to differentiate between the PKK, which is seen as a terrorist group by the US, and the YPG. On February 19 Erdogan spoke with US President Barack Obama for more than an hour, according to local reports. The media here says that Obama agreed that the PYD-YPG was “unreliable” and sought to assure Turkey that the US was sympathetic.
In the café at Reyhanli, a Turkish border town near Syria, the men were not convinced. Speaking to his friends, one stands up.
“Is this really a Turkish run government we have?” he shouts at his friends, wondering why his country will not intervene and punish the YPG.
These men have lived in a town of 90,000 that has been at the forefront of the conflict in Syria. Since the 2011 uprising the area opposite the town in Syria has been controlled by rebel factions. However in May 2015, two car bombs ripped apart a building near the municipality, killing 51. The perpetrators were never caught, and various conspiracies and explanations circulated. Syrians who had fled to this town for safety from the war, fled again.
Today things are quiet. Syrian families walk on the streets, some of the men sporting the beards typical of more pious supporters of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most effective Syrian rebel groups that has been fighting Assad’s forces on the other side of the border. Trucks with aid ply the border crossing. But for both Syrians and foreigners the transit to Syria has become increasingly difficult as Turkey worries about security threats and spillover from the conflict.
We saw people turned away from the crossing, or asked to go through circuitous bureaucracy.
North of Reyhanli the border runs along an area controlled by the YPG. Here the border area is heavily patrolled by Turkish forces and work is ongoing on a security fences that will eventually cut down on any smuggling between Turkey and the Kurdish-controlled area. The military presence is heavy here. Young Turkish conscripts in trucks drive back and forth on the road. There are bases for border guards and convoys with Cobra Light Armored Vehicles that transit the main roads. The feeling that there is a very heightened state of alert and military preparedness is palpable.
The story of Turkey’s interest in this war in Syria can be boiled down to the border crossing in Reyhanli, the Bab al-Hawa gate, and the Bab al-Salam border crossing 100-km. northeast on the other side of the YPG pocket.
When the YPG in this area were contained by the Syrian rebels Turkey did not feel threatened. But the fear that the YPG in Afrin would link up with the YPG to the east near Kobani, presenting Turkey with one long border with the Kurdish forces, is a prospect Ankara will not accept. What Turkey has proposed to the international community is instead to carve out a no-fly zone and safe area for Syrian rebel groups along the border from Kilis to the east, while keeping the YPG hemmed in at Afrin. But the rebel groups have proven incapable to standing in the face of the Syrian army backed by Russian warplanes and Iranian and Hezbollah linked militias. According to media reports, last week Turkey allowed around 500 of the anti-Assad rebels to traverse the border from an area in Idlib near Bab al-Hawa to Bab al-Salam to support the Syrian rebels in the besieged corridor to Aleppo.
This has been paired with Turkish shelling of YPG positions near the town of Azaz where the rebels have recently suffered loses. Kurdish sources have said two civilians were killed in some of the shelling that hit border areas near Afrin. From Kilis the loud booms of outgoing artillery could be heard over the last few nights. Turkish university students at a woman’s dormitory said they were frightened.
“Will war break out? Will the enemy attack us here?” they asked.
Kilis, the Turkish border community, was once a town of around 90,000, now it hosts some 100,000 Syrians.
Some of these live in a refugee camp by the border, but others have moved to new neighborhoods in the town.
These Syrians don’t seem optimistic that things on the other side of the border will get better. The Syrian rebel flag is no where in evidence, in Kilis or Reyhanli. A Syrian activist said he felt that there was little confidence that the Free Syrian Army could achieve any success. Instead those who do support the groups fighting on the other side have gravitated toward groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham.
Just supplying the hundreds of thousands of Syrians on the other side of the border caught in this corridor between Islamic State, YPG and the Syrian regime is a tough task for local NGOs. One NGO that asked not to be named is supplying more than 20,000 hot meals a day. But that is merely a stop-gab measure. In the refugee camps that are mostly dominated by women and children, the men are absent, often staying in Syria to fight or going to find work. After four years of war however these people are exhausted. They are angry that the West has abandoned them. Like Turkey they argue that the US misunderstands Syria and has allowed Russia to intervene and kill civilians.
“America failed the Syria test,” one man explained.
The question everyone is asking is whether Turkey can mobilize enough international support, including Saudi Arabia, to support an intervention along the border and give the rebels breathing space. Saudi Arabia announced via an interview with Der Spiegel on Friday that the Syrian rebels should receive antiaircraft missiles, conjuring up images of the Saudi and American support for the Mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s against Russia. But there seems little stomach for that kind of commitment. If Turkey were to intervene in Syria against the YPG, it would open up a huge front-line not just against the PKK, but also along the Syrian border. Turkey crossed a verbal bridge after the Ankara attack, asking the international community to see the YPG as a terrorist organization.
The bridge to the Syria conflict remains still ahead.