Tension mounted along Turkey’s border with Syria today as shells landed on Turkish soil, marking the first tangible sign that the battle for Kobane in Syria had spilled northwards.
At least two shells landed in a Turkish vineyard as gunfire and the crashing of artillery could be heard from the border for a second day as Isis fighters continued to push towards Kobane, known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic.
The major Kurdish city on the Turkish border shelters a population of at least 200,000 and has been the scene of some of the fiercest battles between Isis and fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), bolstered by hundreds of Turkish Kurdish fighters and Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions.
After another night of US bombing on Isis positions – hitting tanks during overnight raids – militants continued to push towards Kobane and were less than five miles from the city on the western front, according to numerous sources from within the Kurdish YPG command.
“They’re getting closer and closer, they’re just a few miles away now,” Ismat Hassan, chief of defence for Kobane, told The Independent. “We’ve just got light machine guns. At least 14 civilians died today including a 12-year-old boy.”
The fighting was visible from Turkey, where some protesters stormed a border fence to go to defend Kobane. Turkish police fired tear gas to break up the protests. Several hundred unarmed protesters who had gathered on the Turkish side in solidarity with Syrian Kurds broke through a barbed wire fence and rushed towards the city.
“Most people fled up to Suruç and away from the border – there was tear gas everywhere,” said Lami Cicek, whose village of Caykara is half a mile from the border.
The border gate into Kobane at Mursitpinar has been opened by Turkish border guards periodically to let Kurdish refugees back to Syria. “A lot of my friends have just crossed this way,” said Erhan, a 30-year-old Turkish man from Suruç as he waited at the border. “They don’t ask for your passport and they just cross with the other Syrian Kurds.”
The Turkish military has in the past fired back when shells from Syria’s civil war strayed into Turkish territory, and the intensifying battle for Kobane is heightening pressure on Ankara to take a more robust stance against the insurgents.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has requested the United Nations set up a buffer zone to separate his country from the spiralling violence in Syria since 2012. But US officials are reluctant, questioning how the zone could be enforced.
President Erdogan has urged international governments to help Turkey stem the tide of foreign fighters joining Isis, who mainly cross into Syria from Turkish borders. There are estimated to be more than 3,000 foreign fighters operating for Isis in Iraq and Syria.
According to Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, who has attended a meeting with Turkish officials in Washington DC this week, Turkey includes fighters with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) going to Kobane to fight against Isis, in its definition of foreign fighters.
“They didn’t distinguish between Isis and the PKK and want the Europeans to help stop people at the border,” he said. “Ankara would be extremely nervous at the idea of YPG and PKK fighters falling back into southern Turkey in a tactical retreat and they are very concerned about PKK fighters moving across the border with refugee flows.”
The buffer, which would create a demilitarised zone sponsored by the US, is also unpopular with Kurdish groups. They fear the plan would achieve the result Isis seeks – the conquest of Kurdish land.
“The buffer zone is not a useful solution,” said Mehmet Karayilan, co-chair of the Gaziantep branch of pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party.
“Erdogan wants to remove all the people from this land and wants to make it depopulated and Isis wants to kill all the people on the same land. Both parties want the same thing: one wants to kill the people and the other wants to remove them.
“There’s no border anymore. There is no safe place in this area. Today Isis bombed us by accident perhaps, but if they wanted to they could attack Turkey without a doubt.”