This weekend some 130,000 Syrian refugees flooded across the border into Turkey, according to the Turkish Vice-Premier Numan Kurtulmus. The refugees, mostly Kurds, are fleeing Sunni extremist fighters from the ISIS who launched an offensive against Kurdish communities in northern Syria.
Thousands more civilians remain trapped in Syrian territory close to Turkish borders protected by barbed wire. On Friday, the Turkish government had opened its border crossings to the Kurds fleeing from the region of Kobani. The borders, however, were closed again on Sunday, after which clashes ensued between police and Turks of Kurdish origin.
The only crossing open at this point is at Mursitpinar, in the southeast of the Sanliurfa province, purportedly “to better organize the continuing transit,” according to an official of the Directorate for the management of the crisis in Ankara.
The border city of Kobani had been living in relative safety, and in fact served as a safe harbor for as many as 200,000 refugees from other parts of the country. But last week’s ISIS siege of the city displaced approximately 150,000 people, and forced tens of thousands to abandon their homes and seek protection across the border in Turkey’s Sanliurfa province.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, commended Turkey’s welcoming response to receive the Syrian refugees. “This massive influx,” he said, “shows how important it is to offer and preserve asylum space for Syrians as well as the need to mobilize international support to the neighboring countries so generously hosting them.”
Meanwhile, this morning Syria handed over to Western governments the last 8% of the chemical weapons stockpile that it has acknowledged having, as confirmed by the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ahmet Uzumcu. The 1,300-ton stockpile included mustard gas and raw materials for making sarin nerve gas.
Last fall the Syrian government had agreed to surrender its arsenal after the U.S. threatened punitive missile strikes following a chemical attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.
Thousands more refugees will likely try to cross the border in the coming days, according to international aid groups and Turkish officials. Even before the most recent exodus, Turkey was already home to some 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
“Turkish government authorities and UNHCR are preparing for the possibility of hundreds of thousands more refugees arriving over the coming days, as the battle for the northern Syrian city of Kobani forces more people to flee,” read a statement released by the U.N. refugee agency over the weekend.
On Sunday, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group classified as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington, called on co-nationals to take up arms to repel ISIS. Reuters recently revealed that Germany has agreed to send weapons to the PKK this month.
Earlier this month, Turkey refrained from joining the U.S.-led coalition aiming to take the fight to the jihadist organization. As reported in The Economist this week, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “wants to replace Ataturk’s republic with Islamist rule.”