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World & Nation

Residents of Turkey-Syria border area see danger while hoping for calm

Turkey US Syria
People run to take cover after mortars fired from Syria, in Akcakale, Turkey, Thursday.
(Ismail Coskun/HA via AP )

Schools in the Turkish city of Akcakale, on the border with Syria, sat empty Thursday because it was too risky for students to gather in one place.

Shelling in the area since Turkey’s incursion into Syria a week ago to push back Kurdish forces had disrupted a basic understanding for Akcakale schools: Turkish students attend classes in the morning and Syrian children go in the evening. But now no one was there out of fear.

A few days earlier, a mortar shell fired from Syria had smashed through a window in an Akcakale apartment building, killing an 8-month-old child and leaving three other people in critical condition.

A Syrian family that fled the eight years of war in their home country between forces for and against the government of President Bashar Assad had been renting the apartment that suffered the most damage, said Ahmet Toran, a Turkish construction contractor who owns the building.

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“What possible crime could that baby have committed?” Toran said. “They were just trying to build a life somewhere, and in a single moment their lives were destroyed.”

A cease-fire announced Thursday by the United States and Turkey, an ally, offered at least some hope of calm for residents along the Turkey-Syria border who have seen their communities suffer as a result of nearby fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces. Officials said a five-day cease-fire would give the Kurdish militias, who had been U.S. allies until President Trump decided to step aside to allow the Turkey incursion, time to move clear of a 20-mile buffer from the border.

In recent days, Turkish troops, tanks and other hardware have flowed into Syria, along with tens of thousands of Syrian rebel fighters under Turkey’s command. Turkish officials in Ankara say they want to protect their citizens and start settling Syrian refugees back in their own country.

At a border wall separating Akcakale from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, a pickup truck pulled up this week beneath a guard tower manned by Turkish soldiers in battle gear. Half a dozen young Syrian men jostled for a seat, some inside the cabin, others in the bed hugging the mounted machine gun. They patted one another on the back before heading west, following the wall to a gap where they could cross into Syria. A steady stream of Syrian teenagers posed for pictures before the wall holding up the rebel flag.

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Ubaid Hassun, 57, said he normally works in construction, but that had come to a halt with the fighting during the last week. He had left his village in 2014 near Suluk in Syria, some 12 miles from from Akcakale, after Islamist fighters took control.

“There was no wall back then, we just walked across. All of us came thinking we would be going back soon,” he said.

Hassun welcomed word that Turkish forces had taken control of Tal Abyad, and hoped they would push farther and take his village as well.

“There is no good way to earn a living here [in Akcakale] for me,” he said. “Back home I had fields. I could work those again.”

At the Akcakale city hall, Mayor Mustafa Yalcinkaya did not flinch this week at the sound of another mortar blast. He said northeast Syria is not a foreign land for him. Like much of the population in Akcakale, he has extended family on the other side.

More than 3.5 million Syrians live in Turkey, many along the border in towns like Akcakale, where the population has gone from 115,000 before the war to 250,000. Ankara has partly justified its incursion on the premise that Syrian Arabs should be resettled in the places they lived before the emergence of Kurdish militias.

For many Kurds, the Kurdish militias and their statelet in northeastern Syria have been an inspiration.

Cotton fields flank the border road leading west from Akcakale to Suruc. Villagers pack the cotton into giant trucks to be sold in markets in nearby Sanliurfa, even as a war rages around them.

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Five years ago along the road, Kurds living in Turkey crossed into Kobani, a largely Kurdish city, to fight Islamic State militants, in a battle that was won with the help of U.S. air power.

Turkish forces watched from hills as Kurds fought Islamic State. Ankara had allowed Kurdish peshmerga fighters to transit through Turkey and outflank Islamic State in Kobani, but Turkey never took part in the battle.

For many Kurds, Kobani was a sign that Turkey viewed Kurdish nationalism as a greater threat than Islamic State. The victory in Kobani helped rekindle an insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a separatist guerrilla group that has waged a decades-long insurgency war against the government in Ankara. It also brought the wrath of the state upon a pro-Kurdish political wave that was once touted as an antidote to the PKK’s armed insurgency.

“The U.S. helped the Kurds during the revolution in Kobani, but now they have abandoned them,” said Suruc co-Mayor Abdullah Polat, who is an ethnic Kurd. “People have lost trust in the U.S., because they keep changing their minds with each tweet.”

One hundred miles east along the front line of this war, the mayor of another frontier town was firmly behind the Turkish incursion.

“Of course we stand beside our soldiers and our people,” said Abdullah Aksak, the mayor of Ceylanpinar, which abuts the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn.

Standing atop a hill overlooking Ceylanpinar on Tuesday, Aksak was thronged by Turkish news cameras, which have enthusiastically broadcast the fighting. Two children, Aksak said, were killed by a mortar blast in a nearby village that day, and 80 mortar shells fell in the area the day before.

“They are not aiming for armed forces; they are aiming directly for civilians,” Aksak said. “We are not fighting a state; we are fighting a terrorist group. This is not a war; this is an operation against a terrorist group.”

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Farooq is a special correspondent.


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