Although Turkey has already absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees since the start of the civil war in 2011, one of the government’s big fears has been that the situation directly adjacent to the border, in northern Syria and northern Iraq, will deteriorate significantly and overwhelm the stability and crisis capacity of the lengthy southern border.
This fear has been so powerful in recent months that Turkey recently suspended its longstanding (albeit already somewhat relaxed by improved relations) policy of trying to keep Kurdish militant groups weak and contained, because they decided it would be better to allow Kurdish fighters from Turkey to go to Iraq and fight ISIS than to allow the refugee safe-haven of the Kurdish Regional Government to collapse and flood Turkey with up to a million more refugees.
Although the situation in northern Iraq, after the start of US airstrikes in early August, seems to be stabilizing somewhat in comparison to the earlier months of continuous advances by ISIS across the north, things in northern Syria have been getting worse. Earlier this week, I wrote about an ISIS unit supported by tanks that began attacking villages in an isolated, historically-Kurdish area right along the Turkish-Syrian border:
An armor-supported ISIS division in northern, central Syria has launched an offensive to seize territory from one of the three major Kurdish enclaves in Syria, which have been largely separate from the primary civil war for the past couple years.
[…] the north-central Kurdish enclave where Kobani/Ayn Arab is located is surrounded by ISIS and “moderate rebel” positions on three sides and a largely unsympathetic Turkey with border controls on the fourth. They are mostly cut off from other Syrian Kurds, unless they can cross through Turkey or manage to get through areas now held by ISIS.
Over a span of just three days, this nearly encircled area shrank considerably, as 16 captured villages became 60 and thousands of Syrian Kurdish villagers raced out of the countryside toward the border town of Kobani, ahead of advancing ISIS tanks and heavy artillery. YPK defenders were forced to fall back very quickly as well. Now, the only way out for the civilians (and possibly the fighters) is through Turkey.
Although it’s a relatively small number of people in this situation compared to the vast northern Iraq crisis, this is precisely what Turkey’s government was afraid might happen. A chaotic border crisis and humanitarian emergency played out live on national television in Turkey, as CNN reported:
An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Kurds fleeing the violence walked right up to the wire border fence with Turkey, where they initially were not allowed in. They just sat at the border as Turkish Kurds on the other side of the fence tried to persuade the Turkish guards to let them in. The situation on the border could be observed on a live feed from the border and from video footage aired on Turkish news outlets. The refugees also tried to force their way into Turkey, creating chaos as one woman stepped on a landmine. Turkey finally opened the border, relieving some of the mounting pressure in Kobani and allowing refugees to enter Sanliurfa province.
Edit: Overnight and into Saturday this number rose from 4,000 to 60,000 refugees as Turkey continued to allow Syrian civilians into the country. Several hundred Kurdish PKK fighters from Turkey were also reported to have crossed from Turkey into the besieged Syrian area to help relieve local resistance.
In a small mercy, Turkey’s newly inaugurated Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, had not only served as Turkey’s Foreign Minister for more than five years immediately prior to his promotion, but in that role he was instrumental in improving relations significantly with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, as well as with numerous other once-feared factions across the Turkish Near Abroad (or former Ottoman Empire). That fact, combined with the existing Turkish assistance to refugees coming from Syria’s civil war, probably made the decision to open the border to these desperate Kurdish refugees much less politically shocking and risky than it might otherwise have been.
“Four thousand of our siblings will be hosted in our country,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told state media. “Opening our arms to our Syrian brothers is our historic humanitarian responsibility.”
Even so, this can of worms has now officially been opened, and this fear of the war arriving at the border is now becoming the nightly news. Turkey’s government and ruling AK Party under Prime Minister Davutoglu and President Erdogan (who also helped engineer the Kurdish rapprochement) are going to have to act fast to develop a broader strategy for how to deal with the potential humanitarian collapse of northern Syria, as well as exactly how friendly the country will be toward its Kurdish neighbors (and by extension, its Kurdish residents), going forward.
The AKP may have developed a ceasefire and a working political alliance with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the recent elections, but the overall warming of relations and promises of Kurdish cultural protection have not been popular in all quarters of Turkish society. Moreover, refugee acceptance is going to become more and more politically challenging as the scale grows. With the possibility of the defeat, some time in the coming months, of the Turkish-backed western Syrian Arab rebellion in the Aleppo area (an event which would be a much bigger emergency), the nightmare scenario — merely previewed in the ISIS assault on Kobani — could become very real.
The Syrian civil war is now on Turkey’s doorstep and, with ISIS tanks and artillery rolling toward the border, it could be knocking very soon.