At least 130,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the brutal advance of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have reached Turkey in the past four days, authorities said Monday — signaling a dramatic increase in the ongoing exodus from the civil war-torn country.
Asylum seekers, most of them Kurds, are responding to what Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus described as a “man-made disaster” in Syria’s north. Refugees report that dozens of Kurdish villages have been seized by ISIL fighters, with civilian populations subjected to widespread and extreme persecution.
Kurtulmus warned that the numbers coming across the border could rise further, but he insisted that Turkey was ready to react to "the worst case scenario."
"I hope that we are not faced with a more populous refugee wave, but if we are, we have taken our precautions," Kurtulmus said. "A refugee wave that can be expressed by hundreds of thousands is a possibility."
The conflict in Syria has pushed more than a million people over the Turkish border in the past three years, and another 2 million into other neighboring nations, mainly Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
ISIL, which controls a large expanse of Iraq and Syria that abuts Syrian Kurdish land, has in recent days advanced into regions that also border Turkey. Refugees fleeing the Kobani region on Sunday reported atrocities that included stonings, beheadings and the torching of homes.
"This is not a natural disaster... What we are faced with is a man-made disaster," Kurtulmus said. "We don't know how many more villages may be raided, how many more people may be forced to seek refuge. We don't know."
As refugee numbers swelled, Turkey on Sunday closed the crossing at the border village Kucuk Kendirciler in a move aimed at preventing Kurds joining the fight in Syria. A day earlier, hundreds of Kurdish fighters had poured into Syria through the small Turkish village, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
There were also delays in letting refugees into Turkey at the crossing, with reports that Turkey did not initially allow fleeing Syrians to enter. Some questioned whether that delay was based on the sheer number of people, which could overwhelm existing refugee camps, or because the Turkish government has a tense relationship with its own Kurdish population.
The Syrian government largely abandoned Kurdish lands, in the north and northeast, over two years ago to concentrate its efforts elsewhere. As a result, Syria’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority has begun to take steps towards autonomy from the central government under the protections of the Popular Protection Units, which have successfully defended the region throughout the war. Ignored by the Syrian army and nominally allied with most other rebel factions, the Kurds have enjoyed a much higher level of stability than other parts of the country.
But as ISIL fighters surged across Iraq and mounted a concerted campaign to expand their home base in Syria, the country’s Kurds — whose territory borders on ISIL’s self-declared caliphate — have been on the defensive. The mainly Arab insurgents of ISIL have emerged as the foremost threat to Syria’s Kurds, whose armed forces abide by a secular, leftist ideology that diametrically opposes the radical interpretation of Islamic law espoused by ISIL.
“We can’t say yet, but this could be a kind of ethnic cleansing in Kobani,” said Bassam al-Ahmed, the Istanbul-based spokesman for the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, an opposition-aligned monitoring group.
Though the flow of refugees slowed by Monday, the situation at the Turkish side of the border continued to be tense, with clashes breaking out between Kurds wanting to cross from Turkey to take aid to the Kobani region and police preventing them from reaching the area.
Meanwhile, fighting between Kurdish fighters and ISIL continued to rage near the northern city of Kobani, which is also known as Ayn al-Arab, the Observatory said. The Observatory said ISIL lost at least 21 fighters since Sunday night, most of them on the southern outskirts of Kobani.
Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, said that the situation on the ground "is better than before,” and added that the People's Protection Units, armed Kurdish militias who protect the semi-autonomous Syrian Kurdish region, had pushed ISIL fighters about 6 miles away from their previous positions east of Kobani.
"We will fight until the last gunman in Kobani," Khalil said.
With wire services. Michael Pizzi contributed reporting.