East of Kobani, Turkish town appreciates 'peace' brought by Islamic State

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 23, 2014 5:46 AM

By Humeyra Pamuk

AKCAKALE Turkey (Reuters) - Residents of a Turkish border town, an hour's drive from where Islamic State is battling for control of Kobani, appreciate the quiet they say the Sunni militants brought when they swiftly seized neighboring Syrian territory.

Months of infighting last year between Islamist groups and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group aiming to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, kept Akcakale residents on their toes with daily explosions and mortar shells.

But life has got easier in the southeastern Turkish town since Islamic State took charge over the border in Tel Abyad in January. Residents say they make better neighbors even though they have no sympathy for the militants' cause.

"No more gun fire, no more chaos. I know it will sound bizarre but I'd rather have Islamic State on the border than the Free Syrian Army (FSA)," Mustafa Kaymaz, 35, a shopkeeper in said as he pointed toward the border gate.

Sixty-five kilometers west across Turkey's Syrian border, U.S. planes are pounding Islamic State positions around Kobani, helping Kurds to defend the town from the offensive that started over a month ago. Stray bullets and shells land on Turkish soil.

Having lived with the fear and noise of clashes across the border last year, Akcakale's inhabitants are glad that Islamic State's victory put an end to the fighting.

But inhabitants of the predominantly Sunni Muslim town say they do not agree with Islamic State's severe interpretation of Sunni Islam, which has become known for mass killings and brutality.

"Perhaps the people of this town had some sympathy for Islamic State before as they seemed to be fighting against Assad but now that they are trying to kill Kurds, we have no sympathy left for them," said 28-year-old Ismail Balakan, sitting in the leafy garden of an empty teahouse in the center of Akcakale.

Nevertheless, they say they are not worried by their proximity -- only half a kilometer of no man's land, an old railway line and a barbed wire fence separate the Sunni insurgents and Turkey -- to the group.

"Since (Islamic State) took over the other side of the border we have peace," said Ismail's 42-year-old brother Yasin.

POROUS BORDERS

Cross border illegal activity has also dried up since Islamic State took over, according to locals.

"The FSA people used to seize the aid trucks and then sell back the goods to Turkish traders. Big-time frauds," said Yasin Balakan.

But despite tighter Turkish border controls, those with Syrian papers are still able to cross legally into Islamic State territory, and the illicit movement of people also continues amidst the olive groves and farmland that stretch on either side of the town.

Turkey has come under mounting pressure from western partners to better control its 900km border with Syria, which has been a major access point for Europeans heading to join radical groups fighting in the Middle East.

The Turkish government acknowledges the challenges of monitoring traffic along the frontier.

Some Akcakale residents with Syrian papers still visit their relatives on the other side. Meanwhile Akcakale offers a direct route into Islamic State territory, and there are fears that this proximity is worsening security inside NATO member Turkey, as it struggles to control its porous borders.

Last week suspected Islamic State militants crossed into Turkey near Akcakale as part of an audacious failed bid to kidnap a high level Kurdish commander, The Washington Post reported.

Turkey's critics also say that as refugees have flowed out of Syria, weapons and fighters have flowed in with Ankara's blessing, some swelling the ranks of radical groups.

Turkish officials strongly deny that their desire to see Syria's Assad toppled has led them to back extremists.

Turkey's reluctance to intervene militarily to help the Kurdish defenders of Kobani has led to renewed international criticism but its reluctance to get sucked into the conflict raging across its Syria border is welcomed in Akcakale.

"I don't understand why there is so much fuss about one particular town," Yasin Balakan said, referring to Kobani.

He has sympathy for the Kurds at Kobani, but for him the real enemy is Assad and not Islamic State.

"Assad used chemical weapons, killed hundreds of thousands of people and no one lifted a finger," he said.

'LET US TRADE'

The blurry photograph of an Islamic State flag raised on a hill overlooking Kobani caught the attention of world media earlier this month, sending shockwaves to people in the neighboring Kurdish town of Suruc inside Turkey.

U.S.-led air strikes have helped stem the Islamists' advance, and Turkey has agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to join the fight, but the fate of the town still hangs in the balance, and fear is palpable throughout the streets of Suruc.

But in Akcakale, residents are not fearful, instead they are concerned about getting the border gate open for trade rather than just people, so they can sell their goods to their new neighbors in Syria.

"Trade through the borders is our bread-winner. The shutdown of this gate is a major blow for us. I would urge the authorities to reopen it," said Mustafa Turan, 32, owner of a local teahouse.

Another local shopowner, who did not want to give his name, said he would not object to doing business with Islamic State.

"We haven't seen any harm from them, so why not? I have to make a living, I have to feed my family. Plus I have friends in Raqqa and in Tel Abyad and they tell me that life under their rule is just fine, as long as you abide by their rules," he said.

Not everyone in Akcakale agrees. Mehmet Denli owns a grocery shop, and is one of the town's Kurdish residents.

"I prefer neither the FSA nor ISIL. There is no lesser evil here, and I have no interest in getting any closer to those militants over there," he said.

(Editing by Jonny Hogg and Anna Willard)