Recalling the deaths of thousands of men and boys at the Bosnian town of Srebrenica nearly two decades ago, the United Nations’ special envoy on Syria pleaded Friday for Turkey to open its border and let Kurdish fighters stream into Syria to help fight off an Islamic State advance on the Kurdish city of Kobani.
Steffan de Mistura warned that an Islamic State victory in Kobani would likely lead to the massacre of 700 mostly elderly civilians still in the city and perhaps as many as 13,000 inhabitants in villages nearby.
“You remember Srebrenica? We do. We never forgot. And probably we never forgave ourselves for that,” de Mistura said, referring to the 1995 slaughter of thousands in one of the bloodiest episodes of recent U.N. peacekeeping history. As many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys were believed slaughtered after Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent Serbian Bosnian troops from seizing Srebrenica.
“If Kobani falls, there will be close to 400 kilometers of the Turkish border basically under control of ISIL out of 900,” de Mistura said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “And what would be next? Other villages? Even Aleppo?”
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He added, “There are the images that we don’t want to see, we cannot see and I hope you will not be seeing of people beheaded, of the defenders and civilians.”
With Turkey unwilling to send troops into Syria, de Mistura said that “at least” the country should allow “Kurdish volunteer fighters to cross into Syria to defend the city.” He called self-defense an “international human right.”
“Otherwise all of us, including Turkey, will be regretting deeply that we have missed an opportunity of stopping ISIL,” he added.
There was no immediate response from the Turkish government, but there was also no likelihood that Turkey would allow armed Kurdish volunteers to cross into Syria. Almost certainly they would be members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged an independence battle for nearly four decades against the Turkish government and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States, though not by the United Nations.
The PKK, as the party is known by its Kurdish initials, already has ties to the Syrian Kurdish organization that had controlled Kobani and other nearby towns. Turkish government fears that the autonomy Kurds have enjoyed in Syria for the past two years will encourage further separatist demands from the PKK in Turkey are among the reasons analysts cite for Turkey’s reluctance to join the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.
On Friday, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the Iraq-Syria crisis, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, left Turkey after two days of talks with Turkish officials about what role they might play in the coalition, apparently without resolving differences between the two nations.
Allen and Brett McGurk, the State Department’s senior diplomat for Iraq and Iran, met with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavasoglu during their two days in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, but they did not meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is considered the real policymaker in Turkey.
Erdogan was angered last weekend after Vice President Joe Biden publicly quoted him saying in a private conversation that Turkey had allowed far too many Islamic extremists through its borders to fight the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Biden apologized after Erdogan threatened to cut all contacts with him.
U.S. officials in turn were publicly critical of Turkey earlier this week for not intervening to prevent the fall of Kobani.
The White House said a meeting Allen and McGurk had with Turkish military officials Friday morning “helped align our strategic thinking against” the Islamic State. But there were indications that the talks had resolved little, with Turkey continuing to insist on the U.S. creating a no-fly zone and U.S. officials remaining cool to the idea.
Kobani has become the flashpoint in the ongoing debate over what Turkey should do to counter the Islamic State advance.
Adrian Edwards, the spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said Friday more than 172,000 Syrian Kurds had fled into Turkey from fighting around Kobani. Many of those have then traveled on to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government area of Iraq or returned to Syria after traveling “several hundred kilometers to the east,” where Kurdish militia remain in control.
The U.S. Central Command announced that it had flown seven missions against Islamic State targets near Kobani on Friday, destroying two training facilities southeast of the city, striking two vehicles, a tank and “two small ISIL units” south of the city, and destroying another Islamic State vehicle northeast of the city.
Centcom offered no estimate of how much of the city remained under Kurdish control. On Thursday, the Islamic State appeared to be in control of one-third of Kobani, but Centcom said the Kurdish militia appeared to be “holding on.”
De Mistura said, however, that unless the Turks allow Kurdish fighters into Syria, “Kobani is likely to fall.”
“I am aware of the complicated decisions that Turkey is going through,” he said. “That’s why it is an appeal to them. But if we look at fairness, the most unfair thing would be if 500 or 700 civilians . . . the 10,000 who are just on the edge, would be massacred, as people were in Mosul and in other places. That would be ultimate unfairness.”
Roy Gutman in Istanbul contributed to this report.